Memories of Dr. Ammundsen

By James Eckardt

One of the perks of being a journalist
is to interview a character
so fascinating that you can’t stoP
telling your friends about him for
days.
Such a character was Dr
Einar Ammundsen. In earlY 1993,
I was writing a magazine storY
about the Danes in Thailand – entitled,
lamely enough, “Great
Danes” – and someone suggested
that I interview Dr
Ammundsen. We settled down in
the living room of his old home,
crammed with books and Photographs,
on Sukhumvit Soi 10. Dr
Ammunsen told me how he had
first arrived in Bangkok shortlY
after World War ll.
“l planned to staY for five
years,” he recalled. “lnstead, I’ve
been here for forty-six. I couldn’t
think of a good reason to go
nome. . .
“l came here by luck. A friend
returned back from a voYage to
Asia as a ship’s surgeon, and said
that he wanted to set uP a Practice
in Bangkok. I quit mY hosPi-
tal job that same day. We studied
tropical medicine in London for
four months and then flew to
Bangkok via KLM. The triP took
three days.
“At Don Muang, we asked for
a hotel and were told that there
wasn’t one. The customs officers
gave us tea and bananas. We
were finally sent to a camP for
Dutch war prisoners being rePatriated
to Indonesia. The repatriation
camp turned out to be the
Oriental Hotel. We staYed there
for two months. Afterward, we
lived on Sathorn Road with a
Danish sea captain. When we left
the hotel, we asked if we could
pay some money. We settled on
a bill of one dollar a daY! In those
days, the house where I live now
– this whole Sukhumvit area –
was nothing but rice fields.
“We began our Practice at the
British Dispensary and the
Bangkok Nursing Home. Thai
doctors were trickling back from
the war at that time, and they
found the equipment and facilities
here appalling. TheY were
also burdened with the task of
training a new generation of Thai
doctors. There were very few sPecialists.
I was doing things than
that I would be Put in jail for now.
When I look back on those times,
the medical progress in Thailand
has been un-be-lievable.
“After work, the foreign community
– British, Danes, Dutch –
would gather at the SPorts Club.
Bangkok was a village then. The
international community was so
small that everyone knew everyone
else. Jim ThomPson was a
friend. . .
“l took lessons in Thai and
had no problem whatsoever
adapting to the culture. I like the
Thai mentality. The Danes and the
Thai are both easy going, and
they have the same sense of humor-
unlike the Swedes who can
be very stiff and formal. The Thai
ambassador to Denmark and
Sweden came back from the
three-month stint in Stockholm
and told me: “You and the
Swedes live so close to each
other, but you are so different. You
and I are more alike.’ For the
Danes, Thailand is the closest faraway
country.
“Bangkok has changed radically
but l’ve had a marvelous life
here. When I first came, PeoPle
said, ‘You missed it. You should
have seen Bangkok before the
war.’ But Bangkok stayed the
same throughout the Fifties. Field
Marshal Sarit [Thanarat] reallY
kicked things off in the eadY Sixties.”
Sometime during our conversation,
I asked if I could smoke a !’ cigarette.
“Only if you give me one,” Dr
Ammundsen replied. He lit uP and
was suddenly racked bY a vicious
cough.
Six years later, on March 7,
1999, Dr Ammundsen died of
lung cancer in Denmark. ManY
obituaries have graced newspapers
and magazines here. l’d just
like to add my own small note of
admiration.

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