BANGKOK — Buddhism and snow: these are probably not what Thais generally associate with Pakistan, but ambassador Asim Iftikhar Ahmad named them as a hidden highlight that awaits Thai visitors.
“Many places in Pakistan are of interest to Thailand. There are many places related to Buddhist history. We have them carefully preserved,” Ahmad said in a recent interview. “There are also mountains and valleys of beautiful scenery. Thai people love mountains … they can come for skiing.”
Despite what appears to be a large gap in cultural differences between the two nations, Ahmad said Pakistan and Thailand share not only a rich historical heritage and mutual cooperation, but also a successful interracial community.
Pakistan-Thailand trade is valued at about 1.7 billion USD – much of it in favor of Thailand. The Kingdom is also consistently ranked as one of the top destinations for Pakistanis; an average of 80,000–90,000 Pakistanis visit Thailand yearly, and there are currently three direct flights connecting Thailand with three Pakistani cities: Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi.
Thailand’s exports to Pakistan largely consist of automobiles, autoparts, machinery, electronics, and rubber, while Pakistan exports fishery and – you guessed it – textiles to Thailand. Khaek khai pa, or South Asians hawking cloths, has been a stereotype among Thai people for centuries.
“I suppose the stereotype has some truth,” Ahmad said.
The diplomat took up the post in June 2017, in what was also his first-ever visit to Thailand. Ahmad, 52, said the country is “quite easy to settle in,” largely thanks to the “friendly, open” attitude of Thai people, which he said is similar to the people back home.
“People in Pakistan also smile, and they will welcome you,” Ahmad said. “Thailand and Pakistan, we are Lands of Smiles.”
Thai-Pakistani relations extend back to 1950s, when Pakistan was a close partner of Thailand in anti-Communist defense bloc called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO. Cooperation between Pakistan and Thailand outlived SEATO by decades, Ahmad said, citing ongoing joint efforts in security and defense.
But what may matter the most for Thais is Pakistan’s commitment to preserving the rich history of Buddhism in the Swat Valley region, where centuries-old pagodas and Buddhist architectures stood as a testament to the early years of the faith.
“Many Thai Buddhists know about Taxila,” Ahmad said, referring to an ancient city once ruled by Buddhist conqueror King Asoka, “But they don’t know it’s in Pakistan!”
Only about 6,000 Thai tourists visited Pakistan in 2018, but that doesn’t mean the people-to-people ties between the two countries is a small matter. Far from it, the ambassador argued, pointing to the success stories of Thai nationals with Pakistani origins, or “Thai-Pakistanis” as they call themselves.
It’s a very prosperous circle; its members include business owners, textile moguls, celebrities, and politicians. For instance, four MPs and two Senators in the parliament are Thai-Pakistanis, Ahmad said with pride.
“They are very dynamic community, and they contribute to the country in their own ways,” the ambassador said. “They forge friendly ties between the two nations.”