BANGKOK — Meir Shlomo first saw Thailand through the eyes of a backpacker. The year was 1979. The Kingdom made an impression on the Tel Aviv native and his wife, who was backpacking alongside him.
The impression eventually turned into a lifelong passion. Forty years after his first visit, Shlomo is back in Thailand as Israel’s ambassador, responsible for the well-being of about 200,000 Israeli visitors who trek to Thailand yearly and hundreds of expats who call the Kingdom home.
“We loved it,” Shlomo recalled his 1979 trip to Thailand, a visit that coincided with the thawing of Cold War tensions in both nations. “So when I had the chance to come back, I was very happy.”
Shlomo, 65, said he is particularly fond of Thailand’s beaches and cuisines, but what has touched him most is the country’s friendly locals who never seem to run out of smiles.
“The people are the best,” he said in an interview at a downtown hotel shortly before a reception to celebrate the 71st anniversary of Israel’s independence.
Shlomo’s compatriots seem to share his warm views of Thailand. The country is the second most popular tourist destination in Israel – about 2.5 percent of the entire Israeli population travel to Thailand each year to “enjoy Thai hospitality,” he said.
But Israel’s place in world politics means travelers require keen protection measures. In 2012, an attempt by a group of Iranians to assassinate Israeli nationals in Bangkok was only averted when their explosives went off prematurely in their rented house.
Thai and Israeli police share robust cooperation to counter possible crises, Shlomo said. Israel’s police attache for the Southeast Asian region is based in Bangkok, and the two nation’s police forces have even undergone hostage negotiation training together.
Explaining his vision for Thai-Israeli relations, Shlomo noted that the two governments already have a good relationship while the respective economies don’t compete with one another. What he wants to see are deeper “people-to-people” exchanges, including higher numbers of Thai tourists visiting Israel. He is also interested in promoting closer cooperation in advanced technology – an expertise Israel is world-famous for.
As proof of how the Thai-Israeli friendship can bear fruit – quite literally – Shlomo said the juiciest and sweetest dates sold in Thai supermarkets are always imported from Israel and grown by the 25,000 Thai farmers working there.