26th January 2019 – Bangkok
Harry’s round the world trip in 1966 was inspired by a Thai gentleman – his name was originally Toa Amranand and subsequently changed in 1915 to Luang Nathanbanja as he was honoured for his work by his country. He was a member of the Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club from 1921-23 while he was studying Political science and public law at Columbia.
Harry set up the Cosmopolitan club as a result of the success of the original Sunday Suppers. He wanted to be able to support newly arrived international students and also to give them somewhere to socialise, debate and connect with each other. It was seeing the success of the interactions there that led Harry to the idea that he needed a way to have the students live together to really benefit and foster the understanding, tolerance and international friendship that was his vision.
Luang was given the title and name Phya Vidura Dharmabinet by the Crown in 1929 and served his country in a variety of roles including Judge of International Court, Director-General Legal and Vice-President of the National Assembly. Harry must have engaged Phya in the I-House idea as he was a member of the Building Committee for I-House NYC and laid the corner-stone of the House.
Even when he returned to Thailand, his correspondence with Harry must have continued over the years as Harry describes Phya asking in his Christmas Card for him to come and visit Bangkok and Thailand.
Over 40 years after he left New York, Harry was still on Phya’s mind and realising that Harry must now be in his 80s he offered to pay some of Harry’s expenses if he would come and visit him. Never one to turn down a funded trip to meet alumni, Harry of course said yes and as he was going as far as Bangkok he decided to make it a world trip, the one I am re-creating.
So here I am in Bangkok. This is where my timeline and Harry’s start to diverge slightly as Harry spent two weeks staying with Phya and his family. He describes Phya living in a small palace with a lovely atmosphere and how he was a ‘connoisseur and an expert on the raising of orchids’.
Researching anyone with a Thai name has proved challenging, they can be spelt differently in english script and decedents often have very different names. However with persistence I have narrowed it down to a name and a location in the same area as the Bank of Thailand complex off Sam Sen Road and the family surname today.
I have written a letter of gratitude to the decedents of Phya, that he funded Harry’s trip which has then become the inspiration of my trip and led to the already unbelievable experiences of the last 25 days and those still to come.
I wanted to hand deliver the letter to the address that I had, not because I expected the relatives to want to see me but more so I could see where Harry had stayed. So I set off on the river boat from Sathon Pier to Thewes Pier, enjoying the riverside world of temples, shopping malls, tumbledown warehouses and homes large and small as they flashed by.
Leaving the Pier, I walked along the canal down to Sam Sen Road. The canal is lined near the main road with stalls that are like mini garden centres stuffed with beautiful plants and flowers and of course Orchids. I love Orchids anyway but these were so gorgeous, from delicate white with the palest pink edges to huge flashy purple flowers all bobbing in the breeze that was blowing in from the river.
I was drawn into the peace of Wat Noranartsoontarikaram, where a lady sat with her back to me in a loose flowered top cross legged and motionless meditating in front of the raised buddha, with the breeze rippling her hair. She looked totally at peace. I wondered if Harry had been here, I imagine as it was so close to where he was staying that he may well have been.
Going round the corner onto Sam Sen Road with my letter in my hand I was hopeful that I might find the house and either post it in or give it to a smartly uniformed guard (I know the family are still well to do). However Thai addresses are far from simple and even with the help of a lovely young man at the post office and various kind people in the vicinity, it eluded me.
Having planned for this eventuality with my friend at the post office I applied the 5 Baht stamp he had sold me to the letter and decided that I would post it in the post box nearest to where I thought Harry would have been staying.
Having done that, I walked up onto the edge of the bridge that towers over the Bank of Thailand complex and took photos of the renaissance buildings designed by the German Architect, Karl Dohring which were commissioned by King Chulalongkorn for his son Somdet Phrachao Borommawongthoe Chaofa Boriphat Sukumphan Kromphra Nakhon Sawanworaphinit (some name to learn to spell!) in 1932. I believe that the Palace Harry stayed at was in a similar style and was on this compound somewhere.
I am not expecting an answer from Phya’s relatives, but I am truly grateful for his generosity to Harry and his engagement with the I-House idea and how that lasted through his long life.
Random aside…. Bangkok is very very full of tourists possibly because of the Lunar New Year, so I took refuge from the mid-day sun and the tour bus gaggles into a long building at the edge of the park by the palace. It was cool and airy and turned out to contain an exhibition about the Thai Kings. Looking for postcards at the end of my visit I turned over the picture below to find that it was H.M. King Chulalonkorm, the Crown Prince, and his sons at Taplow Court in Maidenhead (where I live), England on 7th August 1897. My great grandmother on my mother’s side had grown up in Taplow in one of the large houses there so my mum and I were imagining her great grandparents being invited to tea to meet the Crown Prince of Siam, who would have seemed very exotic. He certainly had a lot of sons!!