A GERMAN SURGEON’S ARMY DIARY (1909-1911)
. Friedrich Schaefer, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, Thailand, 2011. Available at the DK Bookstore, Soi Post Office, Pattaya.
Ever since the Thais rolled out the proverbial ‘red carpet’ for the first western visitors, the Portuguese, the country has attracted a steady stream of brightly colorful and exotic ‘farang’ characters.
These worthies ranged from Greek adventurers to Dutch traders, English merchants to Japanese samurai, Iranian courtiers and advisors to Chinese rice brokers, French priests to a variety of mercenaries from several nations plus other hangers-on, con artists and plunderers looking to partake in a newly discovered world of Southeast Asia.
All of them have added to the ornate fabric and texture of Thailand’s society and history., When the Thais reopened the country to the west in the early 1820s a new group of visitors soon arrived.
They were western missionaries who were also trained as doctors and teachers - two of the most highly respected careers in Thai culture. They were all warmly received. When King Chulalongkorn decided to modernize (or Westernize) Thailand in the latter part of the 19th Century, there was a great demand for Western specialists to train Thais in certain critical fields: engineers, pharmacists, accountants, political advisors and architects plus medical and military experts.
In 1909 one noteworthy invitee was a German military physician – Dr. Friedrich Schaefer – who was asked to modernize Thai military medical practices and hospitals. Dr. Schaefer decided to keep a dairy of his personal observations about Thailand, in general, and Bangkok, in particular.
His sharply drawn viewpoints on the many aspects of Thai culture and society plus his frequent interactions with King Chulalongkorn and other members of the royal family makes for very fascinating reading.
It is easy and interesting to contrast what has changed in over a century with the Thai people and their culture in the ways they lived their lives and with what has not changed.
Dr. Schaefer also had many interactions with the other few Western professional expatriate residents also working in Thailand and dealing the occasional visitor.
These encounters are no less fascinating. It seemed to be a non-stop round of visits, parties, dinners and other gala events. The author particularly focuses on the highly complex social relationships he must deal with on a daily basis.
The book is an enjoyable read for anyone seeking to peer back into Thai history over a century ago.