Chat with Mark Gooding, the British Ambassador
Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions about your work and life here in Thailand. Can you begin by briefly introducing yourself?
Of course. I’m delighted to be back in this region. I’ve spent much of my working career here. My first job after university was as a French and German teacher at an international school in Sri Lanka. That was fun and rewarding, and really gave me a taste for life in this part of the world. Since I joined the Foreign Office about 20 years ago, I’ve done jobs in China, Cambodia, and back in Sri Lanka. So, I hope my regional experience will be useful in Thailand. Outside the office, I enjoy running, swimming and music (though running in the tropical heat is hard work). Outside pandemic times, I also love travelling to new and remote places. All recommendations for travel within Thailand are welcome!
Officially you are the Ambassador designate until you present your credentials to the king. Do you have any idea when that will happen?
I’m hoping to receive my letter of accreditation from the Royal Palace soon, which will enable me to arrange official meetings. I don’t yet have a date yet.
I hear that you have visited Thailand before as a tourist. What were your impressions of the country as a tourist and what were your favourite activities and destinations during your visits?
I’ve visited Thailand many times and have always had a warm welcome. Thailand has stunning scenery, a rich history and culture, and of course amazing food. It’s difficult to choose my favourite memories, but they include cycling around the ancient city of Sukhothai as a backpacker, visiting an elephant sanctuary, and trekking in national parks. I also love Bangkok for its bustling energy and dynamism (and I am looking forward to seeing that again soon!).
Obviously with travel restrictions in place since you came here which means you cannot travel much, what are your travel plans once restrictions are lifted?
You’re right I’ve had to postpone my travel plans since I arrived. Once restrictions lift, I plan to visit the major centres for the British community across the country. My first stops will include Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Khon Kaen, Hua Hin, and other well-known locations.
I know you have a Master’s Degree in Modern Languages, but how difficult was it for you to learn Thai?
Thai is not easy for an English native speaker. The tones and writing in particular are challenging, even after learning Chinese. One advantage of having learnt different languages is that I know what study techniques work for me. For instance, my attention span for listening exercises is much longer if I do them while walking round Lumpini park rather than sitting at a desk.
I can imagine most of the Thai you have been learning is the formal version for making speeches with a vocabulary list needed for the diplomatic world. But can you also speak street Thai? Can you, for example order food and chat about the weather?
You’re right that much of my training was designed for work at the Embassy, so there was a lot of political, economic and professional content. We also covered conversational Thai, so I feel like I can get by. Of course, as a Brit, my default conversation starter is about weather, so I feel well practised in that.
Can you speak and understand royal language? This is not easy even for Thais.
This is one area where I really need to study more. My Thai course did include Royal vocabulary, but mostly for passive use (e.g. reading, listening). So I would definitely need some revision before trying to put my Racha Sap into practice.
One of your predecessors, Mark Kent, was a prolific tweeter and often engaged with the expat community in Thailand. He was much loved and admired for doing this, but he is a hard act to follow. I noticed you have been on Twitter since 2008 but you have only tweeted 80 times! Do you have plans on tweeting more while you are here?
Yes, indeed. Previously I’ve used Twitter mostly to monitor what’s going on. Now I’m going to use it more. That’s why almost all my 80 tweets since 2008 have been posted since I started in July.
Since you have been here, you’ve done a couple of videos that were posted on social media. Are you planning on doing this on a regular basis? In particular about covid updates for British citizens.
Yes, definitely. I am planning to do Thai language videos for our Thai audience and English language videos for our English speaking audience. I think it’s important that we keep people updated, and am committed to doing this.
Out of all the social media options, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and also youTube and TikTok, which are your favourites?
I mostly use Twitter and Facebook myself, but I think different platforms have different audiences, so sometimes we need to use them for different purposes.
There was a lot of criticism when the British government sold the old embassy grounds in Ploenchit. Now the embassy is in an office building. Do you see this as a downgrade compared to what we had before?
The Embassy move was completed before I arrived in Thailand so all I’ve known is the new Embassy. But of course, I’m aware that the Embassy move caused some controversy and some people were sad to see us move out of our former premises. I like our new building. It is a modern, light office space in a good location, so for me it is a great base from which to operate.
You also lost your official residence and gardens which were well-known among the expat community who visited during official functions. Are you able to entertain now where you live, or will you have to hire a ballroom at a local hotel?
Although we’ve moved, I still have an official Residence (though you’re right about the garden)! Both my apartment and the Embassy have space to host official functions, so once restrictions lift, I shall host events there.
Are you working from home at the moment, or are you going into work at the embassy?
I’ve been mostly working from home, so have spent quite a large proportion of my waking hours on video calls. That’s worked well, but I confess I’m looking forward to being out and about a bit more and away from the computer screen.
What tips do you have for people who are working from home? How do you keep both physically healthy and sane?
For me, doing physical exercise is essential. That has been difficult when gyms, pools and parks are closed, so I’ve been doing early morning runs on the streets of Bangkok. That’s certainly a colourful way to see the city, though I have to watch out for buses, street vendors and the occasional hole in the pavement. During the day, I tend to have back to back video calls, which are useful and help me stay connected. But from time to time I need to take a break and go outside to clear my head.
This can’t be the easiest of times to take up a new post, what with the ongoing local and global pandemic. What challenges do you face ahead of you?
That’s right, arriving during a lengthy lockdown is tough, and I am aware what a strain this has been not only for my team that has been here even longer but also the wider community. It has meant that we have to adapt plans as well as focus on resilience. I think that Covid will remain a major challenge, with much to do globally on disease control, vaccinations, and opening up travel, as well as working together on the longer term challenges of post-Covid recovery.
What new initiatives do you plan to implement over the next few years during your tenure as the British ambassador?
I see huge opportunities for a stronger and broader relationship between the UK and Thailand. We already have many successful British businesses in Thailand, a large British community, thousands of visitors in both directions, many Thai students studying in the UK and of course many personal and family links. The big opportunity now is to work together to address the challenges of the future. So, my priorities will include a stronger trade relationship, joint action on climate change, more collaboration in science, health, education, as well as more co-operation to deal with pressing security challenges.
Your official role is to represent the UK government. But do you also represent the interests of British citizens here? If so, how?
Of course. This is one of the most important things the Embassy does. Each year we handle well over 1,500 assistance cases, although of course most of the assistance we provide is not in the public domain. These are cases where we provide assistance to vulnerable individuals or families, many of whom who are facing a personal emergency (e.g. British nationals in hospital, detained, needing welfare support, or children who need safeguarding).
What kind of things do you really want to help people with, but protocol does not allow you to do so?
You’re right that sometimes we get requests that we can’t meet or there are restrictions governing what we can do – and they are often stricter than protocol! For example, my team can’t pay medical bills or give people money, and they can’t give people legal advice. Sometimes there are also legal restrictions. For example, we can’t share personal data with anyone without permission.
Do you have a registry of all British citizens in Thailand? For example, do you have any idea about the numbers? Can you contact everyone in an emergency?
We don’t have a registry, no. Some people will remember a system we used to have called Locate. That was stopped some years ago as so few people actually registered with us or kept their details up to date. Now we encourage everyone to sign up for Travel Advice alerts (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/thailand) and follow us on Twitter and Facebook (@UKinThailand) – they are the best places to get advice from the Embassy, including in an emergency.
On numbers, Thai immigration authorities tell us there are about 45,000 British residents and 2000 tourists in Thailand at the moment.
It is often said that as the years go by, the embassy does less for its citizens. One recent example is that you no longer notarize documents such as degree certificates which are needed to get a work permit. These now have to be sent to the UK. Why is that?
We have one of the busiest consular teams of any British Embassy in the world, dealing with over 1,500 assistance cases each year, so it’s simply not true that we are doing less. But it’s correct that our focus has evolved in recent years. For example, nowadays, we focus our assistance on those most in need, and the most vulnerable. Our notarial services are also busy, handling well over 5,000 notarial and documentary services every year. This has also evolved, with some services moving online (e.g. registration of birth, marriages and deaths) and others phasing out when they become obsolete (e.g. when the Thai Government no longer requires certain documents or these services are provided locally). When it comes to educational certificates, Thailand only recognises certificates issued by the Legalisation Office of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in the UK, so our customers need to apply for their notarized documents directly from them.
Quite a few Brits have complained that the embassy hasn’t helped them to get vaccinated. They pointed out that the French and Chinese embassies brought in vaccines for their own citizens. Why didn’t the British embassy do that?
This has obviously been a huge issue since I arrived in July. The UK’s global approach is that we don’t provide healthcare overseas and we advise British nationals to get vaccinated in their country of residence. But when I arrived, I saw that many British people were facing real difficulties accessing vaccines locally. That’s why I made it my top priority to secure access to vaccines for the British community within the Thai national programme. I have engaged intensively with the Thai authorities at the most senior levels and we are now seeing rapid progress. Foreigners are now eligible for vaccines and there is a national registration scheme. The vaccine rollout for foreigners has started, with vulnerable groups being prioritised first, and with centres outside Bangkok now starting to receive vaccinations. Over 9,000 British nationals have already been vaccinated. There is still much to do, but I feel we now have better systems in place to ensure that British people have the access they need to vaccines.
When the UK government donated some vaccine recently, why didn’t you stipulate that some of it should be for British citizens like the Chinese did with their donation?
The UK’s priority is to save as many lives as possible. As we have said, no-one is safe until we are all safe. For that reason the UK donation went into Thailand’s national vaccination programme, where it will help ensure the most vulnerable people of all nationalities in Thailand get vaccinated. The programme is already making progress, with hundreds of thousands of people receiving vaccines each week.
One of the main vaccines in Thailand is AstraZeneca. Although this has links to a British company, it is believed that the locally produced version is not recognized by the UK government. Is this true and will that situation change in the future?
The UK is taking a phased approach to opening up travel. For now, only those vaccinated in the UK, US and EU have their vaccines recognized for the purposes of being exempt from self isolation when arriving from an amber list country. We appreciate that this is frustrating and recognise that this needs to be expanded to include travellers from other locations. Work is under way in the UK to do this (including on the key issue of vaccine certification, on which there is no global standard), and I hope that things will move forward soon.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have any closing remarks?
Thank you too, Richard. My final thought is that I feel very lucky to be in Thailand, and I’m greatly looking forward to getting to know the country and to meeting the British community here.