By any standards, it's been quite a week for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. On Tuesday, she was given an audience by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Later this afternoon she will be greeting US President Barack Obama in Bangkok. Later this week it's the Chinese premier. In between all of that she's managed to squeeze in a natter with British PM David Cameron. It certainly sounds a bit more interesting than my week.
Like many of his predecessors President Obama enjoys a game of golf. A "lefty", he is occasionally spotted on the White House putting green practising those awkward six-footers. So it is perhaps appropriate that when he lands today at Don Mueang Airport one of the first things he will see is the Kantarat golf course, which commands a unique setting as it stretches between the two main runways.
Having a golf course in such an unusual location has come in useful on the odd occasion. In the late 1990s, a 747 overshot and ended up on the 14th fairway. Fortunately there were no injuries. The hole was later dubbed "The Qantas Approach".
For the curious, 15 of the last 18 US presidents were golfers, the most accomplished being John F Kennedy, who averaged 80 despite chronic back pain.
The 'perfect place'
I had only been in Thailand a couple of months when former president Richard Nixon came to Bangkok in July 1969. Although he was just beginning to feel a backlash from the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, he was at the height of his popularity and despite the heavy drizzle was greeted by large crowds and chants of "We Want Nixon" from the many Americans in the crowd. Four years later, back in the US, he would be hearing chants of a rather different nature.
Nixon appeared to thoroughly enjoy his trip to Thailand and described Bangkok as his favourite city, having visited three times before. He once wrote: "If there was a perfect place I would nominate Bangkok," and said much the same in his speech in the City of Angels. Remember, he was talking about the Bangkok of the '50s and '60s.
But it was the Thai people who really charmed Nixon, a man who was not easily charmed. He wrote at the time: "The Thai people have a verve and mystique... not to be found anywhere on Earth." The mystique was enough for him to laugh off the fact that many of the welcome posters festooning the city were greeting President "Nixson".
Over the moon
Nixon's visit to Bangkok came only a week after Neil Armstrong's historic moon landing which enhanced the president's popularity for a while. In one of his first messages to the astronauts Nixon observed: "For years politicians have promised the moon. I'm the first man to be able to deliver it." Now that's not a bad line for Nixon.
Apparently the advance team of US Secret Service agents were a bit suspicious of the monitor lizards ambling around Government House grounds, mistaking them for Komodo dragons. Admittedly the Thai lizards would not win any beauty competitions, but they are relatively harmless. Even so, the lizards might be advised to keep their heads down for a couple of days. Those security guys are hot shots.
One of the good points of presidential visits is that it means Bangkok gets a spring cleaning _ at least the bits of Bangkok the president will see. It will probably come as no surprise to President Obama that Bangkok is not quite the "perfect place" which Nixon enjoyed so much _ "perfect chaos" sounds more like it. So for the past week there has been noticeable activity featuring the filling in of potholes, strategically placed potted plants hiding the ugly bits and some hasty paint jobs on buildings that are looking a bit the worse for wear.
While Prime Minister Yingluck is still learning the diplomatic ropes, she might find useful the following extract from The Ambassador, by the late Australian author Morris West. These are observations of the embassy cocktail circuit through the jaundiced eyes of a (fictional) American ambassador to Vietnam in the 1960s.
"The French cultivate wit and modish dress, but they are apt to be stodgy with canape's and drinks ... The Swedes, when sober, are studiously formal and the Japanese, who drink nobly at a Geisha party, can turn a cocktail party into Kabuki drama at the flick of a fan. The Thais are pliant, good humoured and devilishly hard to corner; while the Americans are fluent, voluble and occasionally tone deaf. The South Americans are so incredibly elegant that one wonders if all our aid funds are spent on dressing their wives and mistresses. But only the English have made a fine art out of dullness and a whole literature out of the swallowed sentence and the urbane understatement."
Just a reminder that the annual Ploenchit Fair takes place next Saturday from 10am-8pm at Bangkok Patana School on Sukhumvit 105 (Soi La Salle).
The fair moved to this location last year as a result of the floods. It drew record crowds, so it is sensibly staying there. A great way to spend the day _ and it's all for charity. You might even meet some dull Englishmen _ and possibly even a few merry ones.
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About the author
- Writer: Roger Crutchley