written by Agneta de Bekassy
Portugal, the first Western country to visit Thailand over 500 years ago still plays a vital role in Thai life. Early one weekday morning photographer Daniel Herron and I went to pay a visit to H .E. Mr. Francisco Vaz Patto, at his beautiful riverside residence down on Chao Phraya , next to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel.
We were greeted by a group of amazing looking peacocks and likewise a good-looking Ambassador. Francisco knows how to make you feel relaxed and comfortable; he’s a man with lots of charm and class.
As is true of many of the Ambassadors, he has a colourful background. He was born in Mozambique. His father was a surgeon and served in the military during the colonial war. Francisco lived two years in Mozambique before the family moved to Coimbra, Portugal and then later to a small village. He went to boarding school and later on to Lisbon to attend university. He studied law, graduated, but never took the bar exams, as he was not sure this was what he was meant to be.
He decided to have a look into the diplomatic world, took another exam and, at 24 years old, began his new diplomatic career with the Foreign Ministry. (A wise decision if you ask me).
I ask every Ambassador, if there is anyone else in the family working as a diplomat, but this is not the case in Francisco’s family.
He stayed and worked for a couple of years in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
In 1995 he was sent to Bonn, the capital of Germany at the time. (On 3 October 1990, the two parts of Germany were reunified as the Federal Republic of Germany and Berlin again became the official German capital. In 1991, the German Parliament, The Bundestag, voted to move the seat of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin, which was completed in 1999). Francisco stayed until 1999 in Bonn. He also worked for a year in Brussels at the NATO delegation, but went back to Germany (Berlin) and stayed there until end of 2000.
I use to ask every Ambassador, if there is anyone else in the family working as a diplomat, but this is not the case in Francisco’s family. He stayed and worked for a couple of years in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
Next the Ambassador makes the long move to Angola, a former Portuguese colony. Portugal and Angola have a strong connection we were told. Angola is an interesting country, sometimes very difficult though. You can describe the relationship as a kind of family or sibling relationship. Sometimes difficult but always together.
The civil war period was still going on and Francisco lived in a secured compound. Outside the city there was fierce fighting going on. During these years I learnt a lot he says.
After the experiences in Angola, it was time to go back to Lisbon and the Defence Ministry, where he was Diplomatic Advisor to the Secretary of State of Defense and See Affairs. One year latter he returned to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to be Chief of Staff of The Secretary Of State for European Affairs This was an intense assignment, having many departments to look after. Here you learn how to be a real diplomat he points out.
In 2009 it was time to leave Portugal for New York City. A post at the United Nation beckoned. During this time, Portugal was campaigning for a two year period to become a non-permanent member of the Security Council, that has 15 members and in 2009 Portugal was elected as a member. Francisco stayed and worked at the United Nations until 2013.
Then return to Lisbon. Francisco was named Director General of Administration for the Portuguese Foreign Ministry. That was a challenge, but interesting with lots of crises, but no easy task looking after budgets, properties, human resources and all aspects of the administration.
In 2015 Francisco arrived in Bangkok as Ambassador for 6 countries; Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. The Embassy in Bangkok is relatively small with only 7 Portuguese employees.
Angola is an interesting country, sometimes very difficult though. You can describe the relationship as a kind of family or sibling relationship. Sometimes difficult but always together. The civil war period was still going on and Francisco lived in a secured compound
It’s no wonder the Ambassador travels a lot. He visits these countries frequently. He has something good and specific to say about all of them; Laos with e.g. Luang Prabang, he finds beautiful and I fully agree. Luang Prabang is peaceful and picturesque. With Malaysia, Portugal again has a long relationship and Malacca is a sign of that . Myanmar is going through difficult times currently, but has beautiful people and will develop greatly in the future. Vietnam has flair and style and a vibrant young population, Cambodia, with Siam Reap has the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat.
He has also travelled a lot in Thailand and as many of us; he likes places up north, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Udon Thani (Isaan) as well as the many beautiful beaches and islands.
To Francisco, it is very important to promote relations between Thailand and Portugal; he wants bonds to become stronger, promote trade, investments, culture and the arts, education, languages and much more.
Today quite a few students from Thailand go to Portugal to study. Portugal offers higher education with professors also teaching in English. Here in Thailand we also find Portuguese teachers at several universities. It’s becoming popular amongst Thai (and southeast Asian) students to go to Portugal for one year and there are customised exchange programmes, but we want to work more in promoting these opportunities, he said..
Over 500 years ago in 1511, the first Portuguese arrived in Ayutthaya as traders. They intermarried with the Thai and built a large community called Baan Portuget. When the capitol was moved to Thon Buri, the Thai-Portuguese settled there.
The Catholic Church of the Holy Cross, Santa Cruz, was built in 1770 during the reign of King Taksin (1768-1782) and there is a family owned museum about this history in the Kudicheen neighborhood today. In this community people with different religions settled down and lived peacefully with each other. Santa Cruz is a legacy of Portuguese-Siamese relations and a prominent landmark on the banks of the Chao Phraya.
So what did the Portuguese traders sell? They traded many things, but were the first to bring guns and cannons to the Thai King. Portugal has never been seen as a conqueror, however. They came as friends became part of the community and many worked in service of the King as guards and officers.
After Bangkok was established as the capital on the opposite side of the river, land was given by Rama II to the Portuguese Queen in 1820. The current Portuguese residence was built there in 1860.
If we look at trading relations today, it’s not as strong as it was before Francisco points out, but it’s growing day by day. Portugal has become popular for Thai investors. Not long ago, Minor Group bought a hotel chain in Portugal named Tivoli. Thai Union is also a brand that has an important presence in Portugal, just to mention a few and not to forget tourism.
The first agreement of friendship and trade between the two countries was signed in 1518, meaning that this year, a 500 year celebration begins. In fact, Portugal was the first Western country to sign a trading agreement with Thailand. Between July and December, several big events will take place to celebrate this anniversary, an important year for both countries.
As an Ambassador you have long working days. Francisco normally starts at 7.30 am with breakfast and reading the newspapers. There are all kinds of meetings, in the Embassy and outside. Working breakfasts, lunches and dinners, not to forget all receptions, are part of daily life. Francisco is more of a night owl he admits. I ask him about his time “off duty”, he smiles a bit and says, “Well, when I’m off, I the city, I like to visit China town, travelling, go to the gym and I read a lot.
He and Kevin, his spouse, started Thai language classes and studied for 6 months, but confess to only having the very basics. When it comes to food, he admits he likes Thai food, but not too spicy. He also told us that the Piri Piri (kind of chilli) surprisingly arrived from Portugal to Thailand. At the residence a Portuguese chef is in charge, but she can also cook Thai dishes. “Portuguese food is comfort food” he says with a smile. “We need to promote our Portuguese food and wines” he says. Portugal has a wide range of delicious wines at reasonable prices, compared to wines from Italy and France. He also says that Portuguese olive oil and meats have a lot to offer too.
He told us that an authentic Portuguese restaurant will soon be opening in Bangkok. We wanted to know more, but were told to be patient. He promised to inform us soon. Many Thai desserts are originally Portuguese including thong yip and foi thong. The Thais learnt to use eggs in desserts from the Portuguese.
There will be, at least one event this year, where a Portuguese and Thai chef prepare dishes together. Francisco informs us that in the Charoenkrung neighborhood where the residence is located, there are great restaurants opening. One is called 80/20, serving new Thai cuisine with local products and another one called 100 Mahaseth.
As always, I wanted to know if there was a special moment, event, experience he always will remember, something he has been a part off. The answer came quickly; “the cremation of the HM late King Bhumibol will always be a memory; it was so sad, but still very beautiful.”
Next classic question; if you could choose your next destination to be posted, where would it be?
“Well, in my way of thinking, it’s bad luck to wish for a special destination, then you probably won’t get it but, I wouldni’t mind staying in Asia or getting back a bit closer to home. My parents are both still alive and it would be nice to see them a bit more often”.
Francisco married Dr. Kevin Colleary in Portugal in October, as marriage equalitys, is not legal in Thailand. We also had a nice Bangkok celebration here in our garden in December, he says. Kevin is a New Yorker, a university professor and author. He teaches online and works on writing and curriculum development projects. He is also an active member of SHOM (the organisation for the Ambassador’s spouses). As Kevin has publishing experience, he helped create a children’s book in English and Thai with folk stories from around the world, last year, a SHOM project. This book can now be found in Thai public schools.
Two final questions; is there anything specific you would like me to mention I asked; “Yes, I want to make clear that Portugal is not such and only a traditional country as some people might think. We have, developed into a very modern country and my wish is that more Thai people would travel to visit Portugal. We have so much to offer: an exploding culture scene with, modern museums, a vibrant tech sector, lots of new economic development and a tourist sector that’s on fire these days. Please, travel to Portugal, experience all that our beautiful country has to offer – you will not regret it!.”
Last question; if you could choose one person, anyone in the whole world, to have a private dinner with, who would it be? Now I get a big smile, “ I would love to have dinner with the very first Portuguese trader who arrived here in 1511 – 507 years ago:” Now it was my turn to smile, what a smart answer.
We thanked Ambassador Francisco for a pleasant talk in his beautiful garden and waved good bye to him and the peacocks.