ALTHOUGH she began her term less than a year ago, the Spanish ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand, HE Maria del Carmen Moreno Raymundo, is already regarded as one of the most vibrant members of the Bangkok diplomatic corps.
The popular 49-year-old ambassador is also one of her country’s most able diplomats, quick-witted and charm personified. Interestingly, she is one of eleven female ambassadors currently posted here.
Since the start of her career in 1991 with the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ms Moreno has held a number of important positions in the capitals of Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, India, Malaysia, Cuba, and now in Thailand.
Ambassador Moreno has wonderful views of Bangkok and Benjakiti Park from her office on the 23rd floor of Lake Rajada office complex on Ratchadapisek Road. Visitors to the office also immediately notice a replica of the FIFA World Cup Trophy that Spanish footballers won when they beat Holland 1-0 in the final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unfortunately Spain’s national team couldn’t repeat the success at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Ms Moreno is a football fan but wouldn’t reveal which Spanish team is her favourite. She pointed out that the Spanish league has a big following in Thailand.
Although Thailand and Spain established diplomatic relations in 1860, Spain did not have a consulate here until 1950, almost 100 years later. A Spanish ambassador was appointed in 1955.
“We now have a staff of around 30 people, 11 Spanish expatriates including two other diplomats, one commercial counselor and a defense attaché. The rest are Thais, most of whom speak Spanish. It is not a requirement but most of them speak Spanish very well,” said Ms Moreno.
“Most universities in Bangkok, including Chulalongkorn, have a Spanish department, and there are a lot of Thai students learning the language. Native Spaniards teach at Ramkhamhaeng and Thammasat universities, and also at Chulalongkorn.”
Ms Moreno loves the convenience and the views from her office embassy, but said “it would be lovely” to have an embassy in an old house. “We used to have an embassy on Wireless Road which we rented. It was our embassy office as well as residence. We had to move when it was sold. It was very good location.
“We were neighbours to the US embassy. Now there’s a big building there. I prefer a house because you can have a garden and greenery. It is much more peaceful. On the other hand, a house with a garden needs a lot of maintenance and work.”
Ambassador Moreno was born in 1965 in Valladolid, in the Castile-Leon region in the centre of Spain. “I have a big family, six sisters but no brothers. The only man in my family is my father.”
“Most of my foreign posts have been in Asian countries: Pakistan, India, Malaysia, China and now in Thailand, so I have a lot of experience in this part of the world.
“I came to Thailand for the first time in 1992. At that time I was serving in Pakistan and came here for a holiday. I was appointed as ambassador to Thailand in December 2012 and arrived in January 2013. My term is not fixed – it could be three or four years. The retirement age for Spanish diplomats is 70, so I have a long way to go in my career,” Ms Moreno said with a smile.
“My duty and responsibility as ambassador is to represent Spain and make it known to the Thai people, especially to officials and ministries. We are also taking a care of Spaniards who live here or are visiting Thailand. Many problems can arise with tourists, as you know, so we are doing our best to assist them.
“The most common problems for our tourists in Thailand are various scams and lost passports, problems all tourists encounter when abroad. However, there are many scams going around at this moment in Thailand,” Ambassador Moreno said, but didn’t smile this time.
How does she look after four countries, almost half of Southeast Asia, at the same time? “Very badly,” she answered candidly and somewhat surprisingly. “It is very difficult, but the good news is that we are soon going to have another diplomat, a charge d’ affaires, who will be at the embassy and this will make it easier for us.
“I don’t travel to these three countries as often as I would like because of what has been happening in Thailand. It is difficult to leave Bangkok. We rely on the Delegation of the European Union to provide us with information from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Our reference is always the EU Delegation.
“I do sometimes travel out of Bangkok. I’ve visited Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Krabi, Phuket, Koh Samui, Nakhon Ratchasima and several other places both officially and privately.
“Another part of my duties here is to assist Spanish companies. Currently there are 40 to 50 of them in Thailand. Overall, there are not so many Spanish companies in this region. Spain was never a colonial power here like, for example, in South America, but we are starting to be a presence. There are many Spanish businesses operating in China and Japan, and they are starting to come to Southeast Asia as well.
“Before the political conflict started in Thailand, a lot of companies wanted to open an office here. Now it has slowed down a little,” she said.
“Relations between Spain and Thailand are still very limited in comparison to other European countries, because as I’ve said there has never been a big Spanish presence in this part of the world, except in the Philippines. Our bilateral trade is not large, about one billion dollars both ways, but Thailand has become the second biggest buyer of Spanish exports in Southeast Asia. Singapore is number one.
“Overall, commercial relations are growing very fast and we hope that as the free trade agreement between EU and Thailand gets closer to reality there will be an increase in trade. We export to Thailand mainly auto parts, agricultural products like fruits, meat products, olive oil and petro-chemical products.
“Spain is very strong in agriculture. We are number seven in Europe in this area. We import very little from Thailand, mostly rice, but also auto parts and petrochemical products and electrical components.”
Ambassador Moreno gave some details on Spanish brands here: “We have some famous ones that produce, for example, solar panels and auto-parts. The well-known fashion chain Zara is a Spanish company, as are Massimo Dutti, Mango and other brands with shops in top shopping malls like Siam Paragon and CentralWorld. Spanish fashion is popular here, and our shoe brands are popular mainly with young Thais because they are of good quality, stylish and affordable.”
On the subject of official visits, Ms Moreno said this front has been rather quiet lately but in past years the royal couples of both countries made reciprocal visits. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit paid a visit to the naval yard in Spain where the aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebet was built for Thailand. “Actually, it is a copy of our carrier Principe de Asturias, but smaller,” noted the ambassador.
The carrier was launched in January 1996 and commissioned in August 1997. The Chakri Naruebet is the smallest aircraft carrier in the world and has been used mainly in training and disaster relief, especially after the 2004 tsunami.
“Tourism is very important for both our countries,’’ said Ambassador Moreno, adding that Spain is the number three destination in the world for foreign tourists, after the United States and France. “We get about 60 million tourists a year, while Thailand gets about 22 million. As for the revenue from tourism, Spain ranks number two in the world after the United States. We are a superpower in tourism. Our tourist industry is huge.”
However, in 2013 many more Spaniards came to Thailand than vice-versa, about 123,000 to 20,000. “There are about 1,000 Spaniards registered with our embassy but we know that many are living in Thailand but are not registered."
“I like Bangkok and I like Thailand. It is a dynamic country and changing very fast. People are willing to get out and meet other people. Thais are quite open-minded when it comes to foreigners,” Ms Moreno said.
“What I don’t like is that cities in Thailand, especially Bangkok, don’t seem to be made to serve the people. This is not a pedestrian-friendly city, and I love to walk around. When you want to cross the street, you have to fight with the cars because they won’t to let you cross. Drivers here don’t respect pedestrians.
“In Spain and other places I like to walk, but here it is impossible. Sometimes you have to walk on the road because three are stalls on the both sides of the footpath.
“There are some beautiful national parks in Thailand, like Khao Yai,” said the ambassador, who also enjoys spending her free time reading and taking photographs.
“I am very busy the whole day and every day. I meet many people, and I enjoy this very much. Of course, I also spend a lot of time at the embassy. My staff read and translate from the Thai press as we can’t rely only on English language newspapers. We have, of course, a lot of contacts. There are mechanisms to exchange information with other countries.
Like most ambassadors posted here, she loves the food. “The choice is limitless and there are so many restaurants, and always new places coming up.”
Ms Moreno can frequently be spotted on the BTS as she navigates her way to one of the many functions the job requires her to attend. At National Day receptions she is often seen chatting in a group with diplomats from other Spanish-speaking countries like Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. But her social circle extends far beyond the Spanish-speaking world and she is sure to brighten up any diplomatic gathering in the Kingdom.
“The diplomatic community in Bangkok is quite large and it has a lot of really good, professional diplomats. We have a very special relationship with Latin American diplomats, as well as those from European countries because we have a lot of working relations with them.
“We have also in Thailand a large group of female ambassadors. There are eleven of us, from Argentina, South Africa, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, the Philippines and the United States. We get along very well and we enjoy a lot of activities together. We meet socially together as well as professionally and we help each other. It is a very nice community,” Ms Moreno concluded.