Special for the Armenian Weekly
Bangkok evokes a myriad of impressions. Some will envision gloriously colored temples, incredible Thai street food, or even the seedy red light districts. Surprisingly, this sizzling city also boasts an Armenian community. Bangkok, a city that bisects the river Chao Phraya, is overflowing with an estimated 9 million residents. Bangkok traces its roots to a small trading post in the 15th century, which became the capital in the later part of the 18th century.
The Kingdom of Thailand, formally known as Siam, is a Buddhist country with approximately 95 percent of its citizens recognizing the religion. Thailand is a monarchy ruled by King Rama IX. He is the longest serving monarch in the world and just happened to have been born in Cambridge, Mass. Buddhism plays an extremely important role in society, with the king coming in as a close second.
The city of Bangkok will stifle you with its searing heat and egregious traffic. But when you peel back the layers of its alien culture, you will be charmed and captivated by this city.
On Jan. 10, more than 80 Armenians gathered in Bangkok to celebrate Christmas. The day began with a Mass presided by His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Australia and New Zealand, and Pontifical Legate of All Armenians in India and the Far East. After the ceremony, the group gathered at the Grand Hyatt Erawan. The event was hosted by the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia to the Kingdom of Thailand, Arto Artinian. His Excellency Gegham Gharibjanian, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Armenia to the United Arab Emirates, was also in attendance. During the reception, time was also spent recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Artinian’s ancestors survived the Armenian Genocide, and he was born in Damascus. After schooling, he joined his father in the gem business. During the early 1990’s, he made his first trip to Thailand in search of precious gems. Realizing there were great opportunities in Thailand, he settled in Bangkok in 1997, founding Artinian Co., Ltd. The jewelry products company now boasts over 350 employees.
Armenia and Thailand established diplomatic relations in 1992. In 2011, Artinian was offered the position of honorary consul. “As honorary consul, my primary responsibility is to represent Armenia and its interests in Thailand and to build and maintain strong bilateral diplomatic, economic, cultural, agricultural, and sports ties with Thailand. The consulate organizes three or four yearly gatherings to mark important dates such as Christmas, Easter, Genocide Commemoration Day, and Armenian Independence Day,” said Artinian.
Artinian is a passionate promoter of Armenia and its culture and heritage. Most honorary consuls are business people who are appointed by their country. He finances and supports all the activities of the consulate. Both of these actions are common throughout the diplomatic community.
“Many Armenians started coming to Asia around 300 years ago. At first these were mostly traders settling in India, then moved to Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.” The community of Armenians in Thailand is “one of the relatively newer communities of the diaspora,” he says. “It is a small yet dynamic community, consisting of career professionals and their families. It is primarily centered in Bangkok, with a notable presence in Pattaya (a beachside town). Most Armenians in Thailand are in the jewelry business either as craftsmen or traders. There are few Thais living in Armenia, perhaps 20 or 30, mostly in the services sector.”
I also had the pleasure of meeting Carl Zeytoon, who is of Armenian descent, having moved to Bangkok in the early 1930’s as a toddler. He was born to his Armenian father and his Eurasian mother in Kolkata. His father moved the family to Bangkok to take part in the textiles business and also worked as a salesperson selling luxury automobiles, such as Rileys and Rovers. Zeytoon is arguably the oldest living ex-pat in Bangkok, and has witnessed history in the making. His family lost its house and business during the Japanese occupation of Bangkok. Since then, he has enjoyed a rich life, spending 20 years in Australia and returning to Bangkok in the 1960’s. He is a sportsman who still swims at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. He is also an avid traveler, having visited dozens of countries and explored some of them as a member of the Siam Society.
Another prominent figure in the Armenian community of Thailand is the late Bob Kevorkian. He arrived in Bangkok in 1989 via Cairo and London. Employing his engineering background, he founded K-Tech Construction in Thailand. Kevorkian was the driving force in the construction of the BTS, Bangkok’s metro system. He defied the critics who believed the system could not be built on Bangkok’s muddy subsoil. Today, over 650,000 people a day ride the BTS. Kevorkian was also the first honorary consul of Bangkok.
In my travels, I always seem to meet Armenians in the least likely of places. Bangkok is not an exception.