Diplomatic Pouch / August 28, 2008
By Larry Luxner
From kickboxing to Klong Yao dance, Thai culture ruled last weekend as a piece of Washington's 100-year-old Union Station was converted into a mini-Thailand.
Thai Festival 2008 — sponsored by the Royal Thai Embassy — marked the 175th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Thailand. It featured a cultural parade, a colorful procession of stage performances including Thai classical music by Wong Fong Naam, a traditional wedding ceremony and dances from half a dozen regions of Thailand.
Organizers could hardly have picked a better venue for the party, since one of the first foreign dignitaries to visit Union Station shortly after its 1908 inauguration was Prajadhipok, king of Siam (as Thailand was then called).
"Bilateral relations have a long history, but it's a happy story," said Damrong Kraikruan, deputy chief of mission at the Thai Embassy. "Around 600,000 Americans visit Thailand every year. We're a country known for toleration, moderation and friendliness."
Kraikruan said 60,000 people use Union Station every day, and he expected 30 to 40 percent of them to "drop by for five or 10 minutes and see our arts and culture." He said the entire embassy staff had worked on this event for months.
While some onlookers watched the dances and kickboxing demonstrations, others enjoyed a traditional Thai massage, and children got their faces painted by traditional Thai artist Vanda Costa of Norfolk, Va. Those with a passion for history toured the exhibits, which told the story of 175 years of bilateral relations through documents and artifacts.
Among the more interesting items on display: an early 1800s circus advertisement for the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker; a copy of the 1833 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Thailand, and an 1856 letter from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce.
There was also a facsimile of The Bangkok Record published in 1865 by Rev. Daniel Bradley, who introduced Thais to the smallpox vaccine and opened the country's first printing press; a 1962 decree proclaiming Washington and Bangkok sister cities, and a replica of the monument in Cambridge, Mass., marking the birthplace of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1927.
"We have long, warm relationship with Thailand. It's our oldest relationship in Asia," said deputy assistant secretary of state Scot A. Marciel, in comments to Diplomatic Pouch. "It's a treaty alliance, but also a good commercial relationship."
Marcel, who is also ambassador for ASEAN affairs, noted that at the end of last month, Thailand took over the rotating six-month chairmanship of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, raising the country's profile even more.
"Americans love the place, the culture and the beauty of the people," said Marcel, who served as a diplomat in Bangkok in the 1990s. He noted that President Bush visited Thailand on Aug. 6-7 on his way to Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The Union Station exhibit also featured photographs of such luminaries from Johnny Damon — the first Thai-American to win the Major League World Series, playing for the New York Yankees — to King Bhumibol perfoming clarinet with jazz musician Benny Goodman.
More recent photos include the royal couple offering a gift of rice to victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, next to a Thai Airways International cargo jet unloading hurricane relief supplies in Little Rock, Ark.
Thailand continues to be a friend in time of need, said Marcel. "After the cyclone disaster earlier this year, Thailand played a very helpful role in encouraging the Burmese to allow humanitarian aid in," he said, noting that the United States flew all its C-130 rescue missions into Burma from Thai military bases.