Learning curve starts with language
He feels 'on the surface', but this ambassador is ready to hit the deep end
'Sawasdee krub," Australian Ambassador to Thailand Allan McKinnon greeted a Bangkok Post photographer in Thai as he entered the room at the Australian embassy on Wireless Road.
For a while, he kept up small talk in Thai, the Asian language he learnt when he took an undergraduate course on Asian Studies at the Australian National University about 30 years ago.
"I asked my Chinese history lecturer which language I should study. He said, 'Why don't you do Thai because we have the best Thai scholar in the world at the ANU?' I did it for that reason, but I did not use it and come to Thailand. I have previously had little interaction with Thailand in my professional life," he said.
It was a surprise when the head of the public service congratulated him on gaining his ambassador's post in Thailand, the country whose language he studied three decades ago.
"He knew I had studied Thai and thought it was a good thing to do. Now, whenever I give a presentation, I try to do it in Thai."
The ambassador showed off a script for his speech for the Australia Day celebration, which featured a performance by indigenous artist Gawurra Gaykamangu, with his handwriting on it.
"You can see my [Thai] writing is like a child's writing," he said, adding that he reads each speech more than 10 times to make sure difficult words will not trip him up.
Now as an ambassador living in the kingdom, Mr McKinnon said his interest also extends to Thai food, especially steamed fish curry and khao soi, and Thai culture.
"Everybody loves the food, so this needs no explaining, except I have learnt a helpful expression -- mai phet mai kin [do not eat it if it's not hot and spicy]. I love Thai art and culture, such as silk, porcelain, woodwork and more traditional arts, but also exhilarating music and modern art," he said.
When his brother came to see him at Christmas last year, they went on a trip from Bangkok to Sukhothai and Chiang Mai where they joined the lantern festival and visited temples. Upon returning, Mr McKinnon said the experience inspired him to learn more about local history.
"I feel like I am on the surface and I don't understand it well enough. Thailand is a medium-sized country, but it is rich in history and culture. I have not been to Isan [Northeast] yet. This year, I will try to get out of Bangkok more," he said adding he intends to study well before visiting Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet again.
Normally for Australians, Phuket, Pattaya, Kanchanaburi and Ayutthaya are popular, he said, adding Kanchanaburi is historically important not only for the people who pay respect to the deceased Australian soldiers at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, but also to commemorate the sacrifice of those who lost their lives during the building of the 415-km railway from Thailand to Myanmar during World War II, with Chong Khaokhat Museum, Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, also there.
On the other hand, the ambassador said Thais should learn more about Australia because it is much bigger than just the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
"Only 3% of Thai students in Australia go outside those big cities," he said.
"They don't go to rural areas, which I think can be very interesting. Australia is a vast country. When you go away from those cities, you go forever. It takes four to five hours to fly across the country."
The ambassador said his hometown Canberra, though being a quiet capital, can also be a great destination for those who want to feel "the heart of the nation".
"It is a middle-sized city of about 400,000 people. The national institutions, courts, museum are there. The ANU and the Australian War Memorial are there. If you go and stay there for a while, you will start to appreciate it because its nature is beautiful," he said.
While more than 800,000 Australians visit Thailand each year, about 100,000 Thais went to Australia in 2018. Accordingly, Mr McKinnon said Australians and Thais have forged a strong, deep bond at all levels.
"It has been nurtured over decades of cooperation and exchange, ranging from His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua's military training in Australia to a thousand Australian students in Thailand under the New Colombo Plan. Also, the outpouring support from the Thai community in response to Australia's bushfires reflects this bond," he said.
Australia and Thailand's defence engagement has also gone down in history. Their forces have served together many times, including on the Western Front during WWI, and in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
Recently, they have countered terrorism and piracy by securing international waterways in the Gulf of Aden and launched peacekeeping operations around the world, including in Timor-Leste.
"All of these help us operate together when needs arise, as evidenced by Australia's ability to support Thailand's cave rescue operation in Tham Luang," he added.
He also noted the 45 years of cooperation between Australian police and counterparts in Southeast Asia in fighting transnational crimes including suppressing methamphetamine and precursor substances for drugs passing through Thailand from neighbouring countries in the North.
With Thailand's Asean chairmanship coming to an end last month, the ambassador voiced Australia's support for the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which aligns with its own foreign policy.
"The outlook reflects the grouping's ability to be front-footed in adjusting to shifting strategic realities and preserve its centrality in regional architecture," he said.
Mr McKinnon said Australia is working closely with Asean to promote an open, inclusive, and rules-based region.