By Dan Waites
It was the day after Christmas 2004 when Dr Sompoch Nipakanont first became entwined with the country of Sweden. At around 9am, the Asian tsunami slammed into the Andaman coastline, flattening buildings, inundating resort towns and killing more than 5,000 people. It was the height of the Scandinavian tourist season, and more than 540 of those who died were Swedes. The shock of the tragedy still reverberates strongly in Sweden, which lost more of its nationals than any other Western European nation.
Just a few months earlier, Dr Sompoch had taken up his job as Medical Director of Bangkok Hospital Phuket’s International Medical Center. It was a role that would put him at the forefront of the hospital’s work treating injured tsunami victims. In the four days following the tragedy, the hospital treated around 500 Swedes, just under half of the 1,035 patients treated during that time. It was Dr Sompoch’s responsibility to co-ordinate with Swedish foreign ministry officials, medical organisations and insurers during that most difficult of times.
“We only lost one patient over those four days,” he says.
“The performance of the hospital during the tsunami made its name as a medical service provider,” he says.
That performance did not go unnoticed by the Swedish government, who sent a fact-finding mission to Phuket in early 2005. Dr Sompoch and his team must have impressed the group, because later that year the Swedish Red Cross invited them to Sweden to give their ‘Tsunami Relief Response’ presentation at four major university hospitals.
It was Dr Sompoch’s first visit to Sweden, and a source of much professional pride. It was also his first chance to meet Swedes on their home turf. The doctor was struck by certain similarities between his own culture and that of Sweden.
“In my mind, Swedes and Thais have certain things in common,” he says.
“We like to negotiate. Unlike places like the US and Britain, when something goes wrong in a hospital, people aren’t as quick to sue.”
“And second, there’s something similar in the way we do business,” he continues.
Dr Sompoch was struck by the importance of social connections in making deals.
“Everywhere I went, I would meet Swedes on official business. But they’d say ‘do you play golf?’ Would you like to come for dinner?” It was a way of doing things that immediately made sense to this Bangkok-born doctor.
But most important was the royal connection.
“In Thailand, our royal family is very dear to us,” he says. When a Swede told him about the visit of King Chulalongkorn – one of Thailand’s most revered kings – to Sweden in 1897, he was fascinated. Equally fascinating was the memorial to the king’s visit built at Rogunda a century later.
“There is a Thai palace in northern Sweden,” he says.
“When I found out our beloved king had been to Sweden too, I was amazed.”
It was therefore with much pride that Dr Sompoch was chosen as King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia’s private physician during their royal visit to Phuket in 2005.
“I had the chance to treat the queen herself,” he says.
“It was a great honour and a great responsibility. I just worked to the best of my ability.”
A further honour from the Swedish royals came when the hospital opened its new conference hall .
“We decided to ask King Gustaf if the building could be named after him,” he says. Such was the king’s regard for the hospital’s work during the tsunami that permission was granted.
“We’re the only private organisation outside of Sweden in the world to use the royal name,” he says.
But it is to Dr Sompoch’s latest royal honour – as the Kingdom of Sweden’s Honorary Consul in Phuket– that we must now turn. Roughly 400,000 Swedes visit Thailand every year, and 60 percent of them visit Phuket.
“Phuket is probably better known to Swedes than Thailand itself,” he says.
“It’s their number one holiday destination.”
With such a large contingent of Swedes both on the island and in the neighbouring provinces of Phang Nga and Krabi – for which Dr Sompoch also has responsibility – he realises he has his work cut out.
The bulk of his workload will be paperwork. The Consulate of Sweden in Phuket issues various certificates and provisional passports, as well as delivering ordinary passports, driving licenses and credit cards (for a full list of services, the Embassy of Sweden’s website). But he will also assist Swedes when things go wrong: visiting citizens in jail, in police stations or in hospitals and ensuring they have access to appropriate services and understand the situation.
“Of course, everyone in Thailand, whether Thai or foreigner, has to obey Thai law,” he says.
“We can’t make a crime go from wrong to right. But, for example, if you need a translation, or confirmation of identity or you’re visa has expired or you need to contact relatives in Sweden, I can help.”
And he will also represent Sweden at local meetings in which the country’s citizens have a stake.
He will continue in his role as Assistant Hospital Director of Bangkok Hospital Phuket and Medical Director of the hospital’s International Medical Center. But he is delighted with his new position.
“It’s a great honour for me, my family, our organisation and our country. Especially for a Thai citizen. In our culture an appointment by a royal family is the greatest honour we can have in our lives.”
By Dan Waites