IF you picture an ambassador as someone who always wears a dark suit and sees the city from the back of a black limousine, meeting His Excellency Dénes Tomaj may come as a shock. The emissary of Hungary in Thailand can often be seen strolling along Sukhumvit Road wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers.
On several times I have run into him so attired at Bei Otto bakery and restaurant inside Soi 20, and if I hadn’t also seen him dressed to the nines at various diplomatic functions I would swear he was just another laid-back, happy tourist in the Land of Smiles.
Mention of these encounters at Bei Otto elicited a broad smile from Mr Tomaj. “I like to walk on the street in my shorts and see how the locals live, how they sit on the roadside eating and taking photos,” he said. But while he comes across as an unpretentious, regular sort of fellow, his background and diplomatic credentials are truly impressive. At the end of the interview Mr Tomaj revealed that this is the last assignment in a distinguished career.
“They met in Transylvania and ended up in Budapest after my father came home from the Soviet Union, where he was a prisoner of war,” said Mr Tomaj, who speaks Russian as well as Hungarian and English fluently, along with some Dutch.
“I grew up in Budapest, and studied at the University of Economics specializing in international relations. When I finished my studies I applied for a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and since 1972 I have been working for the Foreign Service. That’s when my diplomatic career started. In our system we have alternate postings. After one posting abroad, we have one at home.
“After two years at the MFA I was posted to Bangladesh, where I spent more than four years. Then I went back to Budapest where I worked in two different departments at the ministry, and then I was posted to Nigeria. I was there for about four years and then came back to the ministry again and spent six years at home, which was quite a long time.
“In the period of the late ’80s and early ’90s we had fundamental political and economic changes in Hungary. The new government appointed me as Deputy State Secretary. I was responsible for relations between my country and non-European nations except the United States and Canada. I was in charge of Africa, Asia and Pacific, Australia and Latin America.
“In 1993 I was posted to the Netherlands as ambassador and spent five years there. It was a very exciting time because of a lot of political events involving our two countries, like the accession of Hungary to NATO and the European Union.
“I went back to Hungary to the same position as Deputy State Secretary, but the areas I was responsible for changed a little. In addition I was looking after the United States, Canada and Western Europe, so apart from the former Soviet Union and middle European countries, everything was in my portfolio.
“I completed a four-year term and was posted to Canada as ambassador. When I returned to Hungary after four years I was given the post of Director General of Development Cooperation. After four years in that position, I was posted to Thailand in December 2010. The ambassadorial term is usually four years. All in all I’ve spent almost 21 years working abroad.”
Mr Tomaj said that after the recent elections in his country, there was a reorganization of the MFA and some new activities were brought under the ministry, among them external economic relations. Therefore, it is now called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Economic Relations.
Other assignments Mr Tomaj has taken in his 42-year career include Permanent Representative to the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague.
“I arrived in Thailand for the first time in 1976. At that time I was posted to Bangladesh as attaché. We got acquainted with a representative of Thai International Airways in Dhaka. He proposed that my family and I visit Bangkok. We agreed and spent a few days here. After that we passed through Bangkok a few times. We often went shopping and made a lot of trips to various sights around the capital,” said Mr Tomaj, who married his wife Ildikó in 1974.
Their son, Balázs, was born in Bangladesh and daughter, Zsófia, was born in Hungary.
“As I was responsible for bilateral relations with Thailand, I was also in this country with our president in 1993 when he came here at the invitation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I was back here with the president for an unofficial visit in 1999, and I came here on my own as the Deputy State Secretary for foreign affairs for consultations twice.
“There is a long history of relations between Hungary and Thailand. In 1872 the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Siam started to work on a treaty on trade, navigation and amity. The treaty was signed in 1874. This can be considered in a way as the start of the bilateral relations between the two countries.
“HM King Chulalongkorn [Rama V] visited Hungary when he toured Europe. The first Austro-Hungarian delegation was opened in Bangkok in 1913 at what is now the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. If you go around the old building there’s a plaque commemorating the hundredth anniversary of this event.
“So as you see, before the First World War the Austro-Hungarian Empire had diplomatic relations with Siam, but when Thailand entered the war in July 1917 the relations were cut. I suspect that Thailand was pushed into a situation where they declared war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” ventured Mr Tomaj.
“Much later, in 1973, Hungary as an independent country established formal diplomatic relations with Thailand and for a time our ambassador in Tokyo was looking after Thailand.
“We opened an embassy in Bangkok in 1983 and a Thai embassy was opened in Budapest in 1988. After that, in a relatively short period of time, we had a lot of visits from the Thai royal family. HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn visited Hungary in 1989, HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn came in 1994, HRH Prince Chulabhorn Walailak visited Hungary in 2000, 2005 and 2006. The Thai royal family has been very kind to visit us. Our president made a state visit to Thailand in 1993,” Mr Tomaj added.
“So there’s a lot of history in our bilateral relations, especially in the past 10-15 years when there has been a very positive tendency toward cooperation. We’ve identified some issues which are important for both of our countries, like water management. Budapest is on the banks of the Danube River, and we know very well the devastation of floods and we know something about how to manage and prevent them.
“It is not by chance that Hungarian President János Áder was invited to attend the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit held in Chiang Mai last year. Earlier the Thai deputy prime minister was invited to attend the Water Summit in Budapest, but because of the floods in Thailand he couldn’t come.
“Bilateral trade between our countries was about US$500 million in 2013. Thailand exports a bit more to Hungary than vice-versa due to the character and size of the two economies.
“We are very much in favor of further development of bilateral relations as we regard Thailand as a middle power in the region and one that has a lot of influence. Both our countries have a well-developed automobile industry. Spare auto parts are a big aspect of bilateral trade. We export fully assembled cars as well, like Audi and Mercedes Benz. We are also importing and exporting IT products.
“We export household products and delicacies, like the foie gras served in many restaurants and hotels in Thailand. In fact we export about 20 tons of goose liver to Thailand each year. One Hungarian company attempted to export Hungarian salami but the Thai public identifies salami with Italy, so ours was not widely accepted.”
Ambassador Tomaj and the rest of the Hungarian embassy staff recently moved to a new location in the super-modern Park Ventures Ecoplex Building on Wireless Road. “There are four Hungarian diplomats here including myself. I have a deputy who is in charge of political matters, a consul and an economic and trade attaché. We also have three colleagues who are in charge of the administrative and financial part of the work. We have seven Thai employees, including secretaries and drivers. They can’t speak Hungarian but I think maybe they can understand a lot because they seem to listen to us when we speak in Hungarian.
“My day usually starts with two routine tasks. The first is to get acquainted with developments in Thailand by reading the local English-language newspapers and the other is going on the internet to see what is circulating on Thailand in the media. The embassy is an office and we have official duties; one is to make reports and give suggestions to our government and to different ministries. As ambassador I am also responsible for embassy financial matters, security and so on.
“An important element of the job,” Mr Tomaj continued, “is to liaise with Thai authorities and officials and Thai society in general. In the daytime I often visit different ministries and institutions, going for lectures, presentations, exhibitions and so on. There are always receptions, dinner invitations or we invite guests. So my workday sometimes ends late in the evening. This goes on every day. Sometimes I am very busy and sometimes less so.”
Other major duties of the embassy include issuing visas to people wishing to visit Hungary and safeguarding the interests of Hungarian tourists and residents in Thailand. “We issued visas at the embassy for about 3,000 Thais to visit Hungary last year, but according to records many more Thais entered Hungary on Schengen visas good throughout the EU. About 18,000-20,000 Hungarians visit Thailand annually. This is a very popular destination for our nationals and they usually enjoy their stay very much.
“We don’t know how many Hungarian nationals reside in Thailand. There are about 200 registered with our embassy but we think it is two or three times that many. In extreme situations, a tsunami for example, it helps to be registered with the embassy because we can then look out for our people in an affected area.
“There’s no Hungarian airline flying to Thailand now. In the past our flagship carrier Malev had direct flights between Budapest and Bangkok, but unfortunately the airline went out of business in 2012. We hope that Thai International will one day make flights between our capitals.
“In comparison with other counties where I have been posted, such as Bangladesh and in Nigeria where I was a junior diplomat, I now have a higher level of contact with the local people. In former times people viewed Hungary differently, and ideologically it was different.
“Hungary as a member of the former Soviet bloc wasn’t welcomed on many occasions. Fortunately this has changed.
“Now in Bangkok my colleagues and I are very active, especially as we are also accredited to neighboring countries. I am also in charge of relations with Myanmar and Laos. Sometimes I go for a couple of days to accompany Hungarian delegations visiting these countries. When I come back I have a lot of papers on my table,” said Mr Tomaj, smiling.
“I also get out of Bangkok and travel within Thailand as much as possible. I am accredited to Thailand and not to Bangkok. If we want to get a realistic picture of the Thai people, the conditions they live under and the development of the country, then I have to go out, sometimes professionally and sometimes as a tourist. My wife enjoys these trips also.
“I like Thailand very much on the whole,” said Mr Tomaj. “It has a very vivid atmosphere and the people are very kind. It is easy to work with the Thai MFA, other ministries or with the Royal Thai Police. There’s respect for those who want to cooperate with the country. I love Thai food and in particular its freshness. Here everything is freshly made.
“I also like the natural landscape here. For Hungarians coming from a landlocked country the sea is a great adventure. I like very much to be on the beach,” Mr Tomaj said, adding that he had visited Koh Chang and Krabi with his family. They also like to visit historic sites such as Sukhothai.
“I have had many good experiences while travelling outside Bangkok. I really enjoy trips organized by the Thai MFA. They have taken us every year for two or three days to different parts of the country. These are itineraries that wouldn’t be available for the average tourist. Some aren’t even listed in the travel guides. During one such trip we visited a Royal Development Project in Chiang Mai. We went to the top of a hill where a former opium producing area had been converted to a modern agricultural project. We saw beautiful strawberry fields where opium was grown before.”
As mentioned earlier, Mr Tomaj likes to dress casually when he has the chance. “If I know in the morning that I don’t have to go out for a function or meeting outside where it is required to wear a suit, I will just wear light trousers and a long-sleeve shirt to the office. Of course, I have a suit in my office for any ‘emergency.’ Despite the tropical climate, this is the expectation. You have to show a certain level of formality. When I go to the MFA or other ministries, all my male colleagues wear suits. It is a show of respect.
“Women ambassadors are allowed more variety in their attire than their male colleagues. On the other hand, if a male ambassador wears the same suit many times no one will notice, but if a lady appears in the same dress two or three times, someone will notice. Women are more careful and innovative in combining different elements of their dress.”
For relaxation, Mr Tomaj likes to watch sports on television. “I also like photography and I’ve taken thousands of photos here. One day, I would like to select the best photos and to create an album, for myself only. For exercise as well as enjoyment I regularly play tennis with my wife and sometimes jog.”
Asked about disappointments during his tour of duty in Thailand, Mr Tomaj paused for a moment. “I had hoped that we could go a little faster in developing the relations between our countries, but there have been a lot of circumstances which prevented this. I am not dissatisfied, but at the beginning of my assignment I hoped for more progress in bilateral relations.”
Another minor disappointment is that there is no place he can go to dine on his native cuisine. “You can find almost any kind of kitchen in Bangkok, but unfortunately, there is no Hungarian restaurant. About 12 years ago there was an attempt to open a Hungarian restaurant, but I think because of a bad location on the third floor, it wasn’t accessible and it failed,” Mr Tomaj said. “I think Thai people would enjoy Hungarian dishes because we also like spicy food. Maybe one day someone will try again to open a Hungarian restaurant here.”
Summing up his term as his country’s ambassador to the kingdom, Mr Tomaj said: “The past four years I’ve spent in Thailand has been a very interesting period of time. A lot of important things happened, not only in Thailand but also in Myanmar and in Laos. It was a great experience.
“The circle is closing. I came to Thailand the first time about 40 years ago as a tourist and I really liked it. We were pleased to come back again over the years and I was delighted to be posted in Thailand. This is my last posting before retirement and I am happy that my diplomatic career will end here.”
HUNGARY, a landlocked country in Central Europe, is situated in the Carpathian Basin with Slovakia to the north, Ukraine and Romania to the east, Serbia and Croatia to the south, and Slovenia to the southwest.
It covers 93,030 square kilometers and has a population of about 10 million, with more than 1.7 million living in the capital, Budapest.
Hungary is a member of the European Union, NATO, the OECD, the Visegrád Group, and the Schengen Area.
Its many sights include Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Europe with an area of 592 square kilometers. Budapest has a lot to offer to visitors with its famous landmarks, among them the Hungarian Parliament Building, Buda Castle, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungarian State Opera House, Chain Bridge and Fisherman’s Bastion.
Beautiful old towns such as Székesfehérvár, Györ, Debrecen, Veszprém, Miskolc, Szombately, Eger, Esztergom, Sopron and Siófok are also well worth a visit.