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Sweden's Acting Consul, Christina C. Palm

Seventeen Deaths But Swedish Consulate to Close

Sunday, January 13, 2008
COCKTAIL PARTIES may be part of the diplomat's role but there are also plenty of unexpected calls to disturb dreams in the middle of the night.

And deep sadness, too. Surprisingly, official figures reveal that a total of 17 Swedes died on Phuket or in the region in 2007.

Natural causes, motorcycle smashes, drownings . . . holidays in the sunshine do not come with a guarantee against accident, crime or death, as Sweden's Acting Consul General, Christina C. Palm, knows only too well.

Poverty, too. Last year the consulate assisted 109 Swedes who simply ran out of money and requested, to put it diplomatically, ''economic assistance''.

These days, plenty of Phuket boosters say the superrich are coming to the island in increasing numbers.That may be so.

Yet plainly, an average of more than two impoverished Swedes a week demonstrates that people less rich than billionaires are boarding those multiplying charter flights.

So yes, there is sadness, there is economic hardship . . . and there is madness as well.

People suffering from mental ailments take holidays but sometimes forget to take their medicine, the Acting Consul says. Disorder follows. When a holiday starts to go awry, police may be called.

''It's only human to think problems happen to someone else, not to me,'' Christina said. ''People do get into a lot of trouble.

''There are a lot of motorcycle accidents. They get sick . . . ''

Of course, for the vast majority of Swedes and others who visit Phuket, Krabi or Phang Nga, no disasters ensue. Holidays go pleasantly and according to plan.

Still, it's always reassuring to know that if there is some unforseen hiccup, help is at hand.

Come mid-2008, visiting Swedes will just have to cope without the Phuket Consulate. The doors are being closed here and at two Swedish embassies and one other consulate around the world.

When the Phuket Consulate closes, Christina, widely known and respected on the island and in Bangkok's diplomatic corp, will be retiring after 35 years.

It will be the end of a long and satisfying career, as well as the beginning of a new chapter in her personal love story.

Because the Phuket Consulate was temporary from its creation post-tsunami, the closure is not unexpected.

Island resort owner Wichit Na-Ranong will resume as honorary consul.

Christina is hoping that he will be able to retain two of the Consulate's current staff of five so that Swedes and Thais do not have to go all the way to Bangkok to make hundreds of passport and visa requests.

Meanwhile, as the four diplomatic missions close, other facilities will be opened to better serve the needs of Swedes travelling overseas. That's the way it works.

As new countries become popular destinations for people from specific nations, diplomatic facilities follow in their wake.

But with rapid change, it's often difficult to keep pace. Russians for example are coming to Phuket in record numbers now, yet so far there is no local consul. (Please stick with your medication, Boris.)

Coming to Phuket as she did in the wake of the tsunami began a memorable period for Christina. It was such a difficult time for Sweden.

A total of 543 Swedes were among the 5395 victims in Thailand, a number rivalled only by Germany among tourist nations.

The big wave on Boxing Day claimed so many Europeans - Finns, Britons, French and Italians also perished in large numbers - simply because of their travel preferences.

At that time of the year, when the Christmas break comes, many like to flee the cold of Europe to celebrate Christmas in warmer climes. And many preferred natural Khao Lak to crowded Phuket. They still do.

As head of the consular section in Stockholm then, Christina counted home more than 19,000 Swedes, identifying each one as they returned to Sweden from Thailand on scheduled flights and special charters.

When she arrived on Phuket in October 2005, dozens of Swedes were still engaged in giving names to hundreds of unidentified bodies, counselling friends and relatives, and performing other essential tasks amid the tsunami's aftermath.

The then Consul General, Christer Asp, had had three hours' notice to board a plane to Phuket. In July 2005, he captured the sadness of the times for diplomats when he said: ''What do you say to a mother who has lost her three children?

''What do you say to a grandfather who has lost his son, his son's wife and the grandchildren? These are the kinds of things we have to do on a daily basis.''

That Sunday morning, the children's club by the beach at the popular Blue Village Pakarang Resort, north of Khao Lak, was busy when the wave swept in.

''There were 224 Swedes at the hotel and very few survived,'' Mr Asp said.

Fortunately, coinciding with the Consulate's move from the Pearl Village Hotel at Nai Yang to better facilities in Phuket City, Christina's role has been less harrowing.

While there are still personal tragedies and traumas, Swedes have returned contentedly in considerable numbers to Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga.

On the island alone, latest available figures show that 121,242 Swedish visitors have stayed at lodgings of all kinds between January and September 2007.

This compares with 201,316 in 2004, 68,844 in 2005 and 214,998 in 2006, when the Swedes ranked third behind only the Australians and Koreans in visitor numbers.

''We did not anticipate that people would return in such numbers,'' Christina says.

''Swedes came back to Phuket because they saw what the Thais did to help and appreciated it,'' Christina said. ''It was almost a matter of saying Thank you.''

As a result, the bond between Sweden and Thailand is stronger than ever, Christina adds, with the Swedish King and Queen among thousands of mourners who have paid several visits to the Andaman coast since the tsunami.

Bonds are also strong among the Swedes who came to help. Christina hopes to visit some who remain her friends as she returns to Stockholm and plans regular visits to London.

She is also looking forward to spending more time with the love of her life, husband Amjad Choudhry, the man responsible for the C. in her full name.

The couple met in Islamabad on her first posting in the '70s, although his job in the oil industry often took him to other destinations. From June 30 2008, they will be harder to separate.

''I have been a gypsy all my life,'' Christina said, ''so I think I will go back to Stockholm. It's about time I settled down somewhere.

''Then if I want to go to Thailand . . . maybe I will see more of the country.'' She smiled. '' I will be back.''


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