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  • Spencer Low

Thailand's oldest European connection

Each time that I go to Bangkok I like to visit the Kudeejeen neighbourhood on the west side of the Chao Phraya river. Not a well-known tourist destination, it is home to a centuries-old Portuguese community that has mostly assimilated into local Thai culture, with their Catholic faith being a notable exception.

The Santa Cruz Portuguese Catholic Church in Bangkok

When tourists sail along the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, observant ones will notice the cross on top of a church peeking out somewhere on the western bank amidst the many grand Buddhist temples. This is the Santa Cruz Catholic church (วัดซางตาครู้ส in Thai) first established in 1770 and later rebuilt twice, on land granted by King Taksin to the Portuguese community when he established the new capital of Thonburi (now Bangkok) in 1767 after the old capital Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese.

The Portuguese first made contact with Thailand in 1511, so clearly in the 250 years after that they had become a longstanding and valued partner of the Thai.

The interior of Santa Cruz church

Portuguese ships first arrived farther south in Malacca in 1508 or 1509, and then in 1511 Afonso de Albuquerque captured the trading port by force. Malacca was officially a protectorate of the Chinese Empire, and this fact did cause issues for the Portuguese when they later tried to establish relations with the Ming dynasty court in Beijing. At the same time, Malacca was also a vassal of Siam, as Thailand was then known. Conscious of the need to establish good relations in a potentially hostile region, the Portuguese immediately dispatched a certain Duarte Fernandez to the Siamese capital Ayutthaya to see the King of Siam, Ramathibodi II. This became the first official contact between Thailand and Europe.

As traders, the Portuguese soon established a permanent presence in Siam and made a considerable cultural impact in terms of food (as part of the Columbian Exchange). Check out: Thai words of Portuguese origin

The Portuguese Embassy in Bangkok, established in 1820, is the oldest diplomatic mission in Thailand. In contrast to other European countries, in particular the United Kingdom and France and their colonial ambitions in the 19th century, Thailand's relationship with Portugal has generally been friendly.

Today, some descendants of the Portuguese still carry family names such as Na Silawan (da Silva), Yesu (de Jesús), Renangkul (de Reina) and so on.

Baan Sakulthong, a restaurant and cookery school featuring Portuguese-Thai food including a local version of "cozido à portuguesa".

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