HIS Excellency Dr Péter Jakab is back in Thailand, this time as the ambassador of Hungary. During his first assignment at the embassy from 2007-2011 he held the post of deputy head of mission. It doesn’t happen very often for a diplomat to be posted twice to the same country, but if you look at Dr Jakab’s credentials it makes good sense.
By all accounts he did an excellent job in his first assignment to the Kingdom, he can speak Thai, has comprehensive knowledge of Bangkok and the whole country, has many Thai friends, and above all, he genuinely loves Thailand.
The first question was about his wife, Krisztina Szabó, who worked in the embassy’s consular section during Dr Jakab’s first posting, but not this time. “Now my wife is involved in charity work,” said Dr Jakab. “She has an important position in the Spouses of Heads of Missions. They are organizing annual charity bazaars in Bangkok for YMCA International and the Diplomatic Red Cross.”
The new Hungarian embassy is on the 14th floor of the super-modern Park Ventures Ecoplex on Wireless road in Bangkok. Opened in July 2014, the office was designed by Hungarian architects. It has plenty of natural light and a design scheme that seems to promote relaxation and inspiration at the same time.
“We are very happy with the location. It is very central and near other embassies. The building is eco-friendly and energy efficient, which is very important for the mission and for me personally. The location makes it easy for Thai people who come to the consular section and also for Hungarians who need assistance. We are very close to the BTS Ploenchit station. I sometimes take the Skytrain to avoid traffic, but when it is raining or too hot – I always have to wear a suit – I take the embassy car. Even if there’s a traffic jam I can of course always work inside the car, making calls, using the internet or checking emails.
“We have 15 people working at the embassy, including local staff. We will soon have a new colleague to take the position of second commercial counselor. This is necessary as we are concentrating on trade and investment and economic relations more and more,” Dr Jakab said.
“I was born in the Hungarian capital of Budapest in December 1969. My father is an engineer and my mother is a teacher. I was raised in Hungary and never lived abroad until I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFA] in July 2003. Actually I never really wanted to be a diplomat; it just kind of happened. But of course now I know it is a great honour to represent your country abroad.
“After graduating from the Budapest University of Economic Sciences with an MA in International Relations I worked for Phare projects funded by the European Union to assist the political and economic reconstruction of former Eastern Bloc countries. When Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, colleagues at the EU Delegation suggested that having gained experience in project management I could join the new Hungarian ODA (Official Development Assistance) program. This new department happened to be organized within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where it still operates today.
“I liked the idea of switching from the recipient to the donor side and after completing all the required tests and passing the entrance exam joined this new unit in the MFA. However my intention was to work for international development cooperation and humanitarian assistance projects alone and never gave a thought to being a diplomat.
“I came to Thailand for the first time in February 1993, the same month our president first visited Thailand. But I didn’t come with him – I was a student at the time and I was travelling with friends. We spent a month here travelling around and we all loved the country very much. I had no idea then that I would ever return as a diplomat, which I did in 2007 as deputy head of mission, not to mention that I would one day represent the president of the republic in this country.”
Dr Jakab, who is also ambassador for Myanmar and Laos, personally escorted Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited Hungary in September 2013. At the time he was director general of the MFA’s Asia-Pacific Department. “I had a lot of time to talk to her, much more than anyone else. I spent time with her in the hotel and had lunch with her. Walking with her in tourist places she visited was like walking with a rock star. People were literally rushing towards her to greet her and express their respect. It was a very special experience for me, even though I had met her before in Myanmar,” said Dr Jakab.
“This is my first ambassadorship. The term is three or four years. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be back in Thailand. It is such a rewarding place to live and work, and my wife also feels very much at home. We have many friends here. We know the streets and shops. I can drive around without a problem. It helps that I can speak a bit of Thai,” said Dr Jakab, who besides Hungarian can also speak English, German, Russian and Spanish.
“I am responsible for my country’s political, economic, cultural and educational relations with Thailand. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs was renamed last year to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is a reflection on the importance now placed on trade, investment and economic relations. My main responsibility is to promote trade and investment – Thai investment in Hungary as well as Hungarian investment in Thailand.
“As for trade, Thailand is our second largest trade partner in the ASEAN region, after Singapore. But still there’s room for improvement, and that’s my major objective.”
“Hungary established official diplomatic relations with Thailand in 1973, but I prefer to quote another date: the signing of the Treaty of Amity, Trade and Navigation between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Kingdom of Siam in 1872.
“Our two countries have a very long, traditional relationship. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy opened a legation in Bangkok in 1913. My very first predecessor, the first envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, Rudolf (Rezsö) Wodianer von Maglód, from a small town near Budapest, presented his credentials to His Majesty King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, in 1913.
“The diplomatic mission was called a legation and not an embassy back then, and was housed in what is now the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. This is commemorated by a plaque in the hotel, unveiled by the Hungarian minister for foreign affairs when he visited here to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the legation. Among other dignitaries attending and co-hosting the event were the Thai foreign minister and the Austrian ambassador,” Dr Jakab said.
“Today relations between Hungary and Thailand are very dynamic. Thailand is an important partner for us in Asia. For example, there’s Hungarian investment in the area of solar energy in Thailand, and Thai President Food is producing MAMA brand noodles in Hungary.
“We export to Thailand mainly electronics, machinery, but also some agricultural products, especially famous Hungarian wines, and goose liver. Thailand also imports pharmaceuticals, which is traditionally a very strong sector in Hungary. From Thailand, we mainly import quite sophisticated products too, like electronic appliances and computer spare parts, as well as rubber for our automotive industry or pineapples. We have a very active agricultural working group, for instance conducting joint research projects on famous Thai chillies and Hungarian paprika.
“As you see, food and agricultural products are important, but that’s not all there is to our bilateral trade as some people would think. Very high-level, sophisticated products are being exchanged on both sides, like machinery, electronic goods, computers and mobile phones.”
Dr Jakab said that promoting Thailand to people in Hungary is another important part of his job. “There are reasons why Thailand is such a popular tourist destination. Thai people are so nice and the environment is beautiful, but I want people to understand – especially policy-makers and business people – that Thailand is a well-developed country which is also important to Hungary in terms of economics.”
On the subject of high-level visits, Dr Jakab said there have been numerous visits by Thai royalty to Hungary, “the most famous of which took place in 1897, when King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, visited my country a year after Hungary celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state by our first king, Saint Stephen. A book was published about this visit. Many more visits from Thai royalty have followed.”
“Approximately 25,000 Hungarians visited Thailand in 2014 and the numbers are growing. When we talk about the number of tourists, the trend is always positive, upwards every year. It is difficult to tell how many Thai people visit Hungary, because we issue Schengen visas which allow passage between EU countries in the so called Schengen area.
“The number of visas we issue in Bangkok is only a fraction of the tourists visiting Hungary. We issue a lot of Schengen visas at our embassy here, but other European countries do so as well. Therefore, we don’t really know exactly how many Thai tourists visit Hungary because if they are coming from another Member State there’s no border control. We estimate around 20,000 per year, and it is steadily growing,” Dr Jakab said.
“People wishing to visit Hungary can come to our embassy and get a Schengen visa. The rules are, you apply for your Schengen visa at the embassy of the European country in which you will spend the longest time (or which is your main destination). Sometimes it is difficult to determine this because tourists spend just a few days in each country. Then it depends on the first point of arrival in the Schengen area.
“Issuing a Schengen visa at our embassy is very fast. We can do it in one day if it is urgent. This is for a short-term visit. For a long-term visa the decision is made in Budapest by the immigration authorities and it may take longer. Many Thais are now going to Hungary to work so they need a long-term visa. Of course, there are other people-to-people exchanges between our countries. Many young Thais study in Hungary, at high school and university level alike. Scholarships are offered through Hungarian institutions and students are also coming within the European Union program of Erasmus Mundus.
“There are about 1,000 Hungarians permanently living in Thailand. A couple of hundred Thai citizens live in Hungary, and despite the cultural differences they integrate into society very well, in Hungary and also in other European countries. There’s no Wat (Buddhist temple) in Hungary yet, but there are some resident Thai monks there already. The nearest Thai temple is in Vienna, Austria. There is a much larger Buddhist community in Austria than in Hungary, so they can support the temple.
“A number of highly qualified Thais are working in various companies in Hungary. They work in sophisticated jobs, like with Hungarian multi-national companies, but also sushi chefs in Japanese restaurants in Hungary are usually Thais because it is very expensive to hire a chef from Japan. The Thai chefs are very well trained. Thai massage is also very popular in our spas. The spa industry has a very long tradition in Hungary, since ancient Roman times, and it is really growing, especially at hotels. You can find traditional Thai massage even at Lake Hévíz, which is becoming extremely popular with foreign tourists from all over the world.
“I have to tell you that there are no problems with Thai tourists in Hungary whatsoever; they have a very good reputation in Europe. On the other hand, with so many Hungarians visiting and living here, consular work can be quite a challenge in Thailand.” Dr Jakab said.
“Hungary is a very popular tourist destination, attracting millions of people every year. There are many natural attractions. It is home to the largest thermal water cave system and the second largest thermal lake in the world, Lake Hévíz. Bathing in the water is very healthy. We also have the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe, Lake Balaton. The water is very calm and it is safe for families with children. Hungary also encompasses the largest natural grasslands in Europe, in Hortobágy National Park.
“There are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Hungary, among them the Puszta (meaning in Hungarian “prairie”) of the Great Plains. This is the traditional home of Hungarian cowboys – actually the name for the well-known Hungarian soup goulash means cowboy. In the old days the cowboys rode horses, herded cows and cooked their goulash on the prairie. These days the cowboys are mostly there for the tourists, but their traditional lifestyle is still alive to some extent.
“Hungary has many interesting places to visit, from the prairies to the mountains to the magnificent caves. Budapest is considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful capitals, with the river Danube bisecting the town, the city center and the castle district, which is another World Heritage Site.
“We like to promote our spas for tourism, like the famous thermal Lake Hévíz. We urge people to not only visit the capital but also the countryside, to go to the thermal lakes and spas. There are many spas in Budapest as well as in other places throughout Hungary, and some have been there since times of the ancient Roman province Pannonia.
“Architecturally Hungary is a treasure trove, with everything from Roman ruins and medieval castles to baroque churches, neoclassical public buildings and Art Nouveau bathhouses. Hungarian goulash is world famous but there is a lot more to Hungarian cuisine, and it remains one of the most sophisticated styles of cooking in Europe. The nation’s wines are also world-renowned, from the big-bodied reds of Villány to the honey-gold dessert wine Tokaj (famously dubbed by Louis XIV as ‘Vinum Regnum – Rex Vinorum’ – the wine of kings, the king of wines).
“Hungarians are proud of their creativity and inventions, which include the dynamo, matches, ballpoint pen and holography. There are many more, among them the famous Rubik’s Cube invented by Ernö Rubik, an architect in Budapest. The country has 12 Nobel Prize laureates, one of the highest numbers per capita in the world.
“The first university in Hungary, the University of Pécs, was founded in 1367 by King Louis the Great. Hungary has historically excelled in sports and has the third-highest number of Olympic medals per capita and second-highest number of gold medals per capita in the world. Only seven countries – the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Italy, and Germany – have won more Olympic medals than Hungary. In the all-time total medal count for Olympic Games, Hungary is ranked 8th out of 211 participating nations, with a total of 476 medals.
In our modern history, this is certainly the best time for Hungary. Twenty five years ago we had our first democratic elections, after forty years of communism, so 2015 is a very special year for us. We joined the EU in 2004 and NATO in 1999. Hungary has always considered itself as an integral part of Europe and the Western world – although we are also proud of our Oriental heritage.
“The division of Europe after World War II was a very artificial one. Hungarian people love freedom, and the famous revolution in 1956 against the Soviet Union is a prime example. At that time Thailand had an important role because the country chaired the UN General Assembly,” said Dr Jakab. (A UN General Assembly resolution established the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary, and another resolution was approved which deplored “the repression of the Hungarian people and the Soviet occupation”).
“Hungarian people have the image of being romantic, which you can experience in our culture, dances and music. The music of Hungary consists mainly of traditional folk music as well as classical music by prominent composers such as Ferenc Liszt, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. Hungary is also famous for its folk art, including temperamental dances and colourful embroidery.
“But there is also a certain Hungarian trait of pessimism, which is typical of central Europe. We like the absurd. There are many famous novels and movies which give an insight into the character of Hungary and the region. Our culture is not so easy to understand for the outsider. We are not always funny and enjoying life; there’s also this kind of pessimistic and critical side.”
“Thailand is a very nice place to work and live. Everyone wants to come here to live and work. That’s why we feel very lucky to return. The culture is very interesting, a friendly atmosphere surrounds you, the climate is great and the food is superb. However, I know that the mindset of the people is very different from that of Westerners. Even when I like something and become interested in it, no matter how hard I try I must be aware that I may not actually fully understand it the way Thai people do. When you start to learn the language, you get a little closer though. Each and every class you take you always learn something new about ‘Thainess.’
“When I returned to Hungary after my post as deputy head of mission was over, I maintained a relationship with Thai people in Hungary, especially with colleagues from the Royal Thai Embassy. This was mostly because I wanted to speak Thai when I was at home and I did not want to completely lose touch with Thailand, although I didn’t know then that I would come back here. I didn’t want to forget completely what I learned so hard during my first assignment here. I can read a little but cannot write.
“I try to travel often outside Bangkok. I have been to many parts of Thailand, both officially and on private trips. I also travel to Myanmar and Laos regularly on official trips because I am accredited to these two countries as well. Actually, Hungary used to have embassies in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and so on, everywhere in the region, but it was not feasible for a country of our size to maintain so many embassies, so unfortunately we had to close many of them.
“My wife and I both love to hike and trek. We love nature. We also go diving. We have been to diving sites all over the country, including in the marine national parks. We have also been to most of the major land national parks, including Thung Yai Naresuan – Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, where you need a special permit to enter. I think that place is really very important and must be preserved! It is located in the Western Forest Complex, the largest unbroken forest in Southeast Asia, in northern Kanchanaburi and part of Tak province near Myanmar.
“I also play sports such as tennis, sometimes basketball, and I like swimming. It is very important to exercise,” said the ambassador.
“We have also visited the beautiful city of Pai in Mae Hong Son province. It is a very artistic and nice place with a pleasant atmosphere. However, like all the good places it is unfortunately getting a bit too popular and touristy. In Bangkok, we often go to Bang Krachao, which is a very green area just across the Chao Phaya River in Samut Prakan province.
“We like to eat spicy food, because our cuisine is essentially the same, so I can eat just about everything in Thailand, and Thai food is very popular in Hungary. There are many Thai restaurants there.”
When asked if being able to speak Thai makes his job easier, Dr Jakab answered: “To understand the culture and the people is important. To show your appreciation, you should try to get closer to the country, which includes learning the language. This is true not just in Thailand, but anywhere in the world.
“However, almost all the people I am in contact with professionally, especially at the MFA, in government, big companies, universities and so on, they all speak English. So to know the language is not so important in this regard. To work you don’t need it. If you go outside on the street and converse with Thais, like when you’re buying something, they will appreciate it even if you only say ‘sawasdee khrub’ or ‘khob khun khrub’ and tell you that you speak Thai very well.”
Dr Jakab and his wife enjoy attending concerts at Mahidol Music Hall. “We have Hungarian teachers of classical music at Mahidol Music College. The Dean, Professor Sugree Charoensook, is a good friend of ours. He’s visited Hungary several times. My wife and I attended the American Music Night at Mahidol in June. Mahidol’s concert hall is wonderful. The acoustics are top quality. I think one of our new concert halls in Budapest was designed by the same company that did Mahidol Music Hall.”
What similarities does Dr Jakab see between Thais and Hungarians? “I like the creativity of the Thai people. They come out with all these ingenious ideas, like OTOP (One Tambon One Product). That’s why there’s no unemployment in Thailand. People are always looking for something to sell or produce and take care of themselves and their family. That’s very close to our mindset. I think Hungarians are quite creative, just like Thais. This is one of our great similarities.”
HUNGARY is a medium-sized country in Central Europe, situated in the Carpathian Basin, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains and bordered by Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. The capital and largest city, Budapest, is one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, with two different city parts, Buda and Pest, on the banks of the river Danube.
Hungary is a parliamentary democracy and a member state of the European Union since May 2004. The population of Hungary is around 10 million, with approximately 1.8 million people living in Budapest. The official language is Hungarian, which is part of the Finno-Ugric language family and said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. The ancestors of present-day Hungarians migrated to Central Europe from the East more than 1100 years ago, and their unique language and culture have been preserved in the country ever since.
By the 12th century, Hungary became a middle power within the Western world, reaching a golden age by the 15th century. The Golden Bull of 1222, issued by King Andrew II was the first constitutional document of the nation of Hungary and therefore it is often compared to the Magna Carta of Britain.
The greatest ruler of medieval Hungary was the Renaissance king Matthias Corvimus (1458–1490), son of the famous military leader John Hunyadi, who hailed from a small noble family in Transylvania. He was an enlightened patron of arts and learning, and his library, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, was Europe’s greatest collection of historical chronicles, philosophic and scientific works in the 15th century, second only in size to the Vatican Library. Following the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and about 150 years of partial Ottoman occupation (1541-1686), Hungary came under Habsburg rule, and after the Compromise of 1867 formed one of the constituent countries of the Austro–Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
Hungary’s current borders were first established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 after World War I, when the country lost 71 percent of its territory, 58 percent of its population, and 32 percent of ethnic Hungarians.
During the Second World War the country again suffered significant damage and casualties. At the end of the war it came under the influence of the Soviet Union, resulting in the establishment of a four-decade-long communist dictatorship (1947-1989).
Hungary gained widespread international attention from the Revolution of 1956 against Soviet oppression and later for the opening for the first time of its previously restricted border with Austria in 1989. This accelerated the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. On October 23, 1989, Hungary again became a democratic parliamentary republic, and is today an upper-middle income country with a very high Human Development Index. – Dr Jakab.
• Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary – PhD, Intercultural communication, 2006
• Budapest University of Economic Sciences, Budapest, Hungary – MA in International Relations, 1998
• Eszterházy Károly Teachers’ Training College, Eger, Hungary – BA, teacher of English, 1995
• University of Ottawa – Communication and Testing, one semester, 1993
• National Institute of Public Administration – Basic Exam on Public Administration, 2001
• National Institute of Public Administration – Professional Exam on Public Administration, Foreign and Security Policy Specialization, 2002
• Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) – Consular Exam, 2007
• November 2014 – present: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Hungary to the Kingdom of Thailand
• July 2013 - September 2014: Director General, Asia-Pacific Department, MFA
• January 2012 - June 2013: Deputy Director General, Asia-Pacific Department, MFA
• September 2007 - September 2011: Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Republic of Hungary, Bangkok
• January 2005 - August 2007: Deputy Director General, Department of International Development Cooperation, MFA
• July 2003 - December 2004: Head of Unit, Project Unit, Department of International Development Cooperation, MFA
• January 2001- June 2003: Head of Phare Unit, Department of International Programmes, MFA
• September 1999 - December 2000: Project Manager, Department of International Programmes, MFA
• January 1996 - August 1999: International Elections Supervisor, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo
• Assistant Professor – Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary