by Dr. Iain
club manager of the prestigious Royal Varuna Yacht Club is Kamolchai
(James) Padungkit, a young man who had his heart set on being a fighter
pilot like his father, but instead, by a very circuitous route, has found
himself associated with the water, rather than the ether. He also found
out that sometimes it is not advantageous being a Thai in Thailand!
James was born in Bangkok. His father was a group
captain who was Thailand’s first jet fighter pilot, and who saw action
in the Korean War. When James was three years old, the family moved to
Taiwan, where his father had been sent as the Royal Thai Air Force attach้.
It was there that he was given the name “James”, which he still uses
today, despite having a Thai nickname as well.
When the family returned to Bangkok, his mother wanted
to enrol him in an international school, and it was then they found a
reverse racism in play. Only foreigners were accepted in those days, Thai
nationals were not! The next choice was St. Gabriel’s College, and that
institution was to be his education provider until the end of high school.
By that stage he was sure that he knew where he wanted
to go. He wanted to be a pilot, and all his energies were spent in that
direction. He needed at least a Bachelor’s degree and so he was sent to
Florida in the USA to a small private college to study for his
Bachelor’s, majoring in Physics. However a trip back to Thailand after
two years and a visit to his Alma Mater changed his direction, when he was
told that physics was not his best course, and he certainly wasn’t going
to get into NASA!
Returning to Eckard College in Florida, he changed his
majors to Business Administration and Economics. He also began to change
in other ways. Eckard had a strong waterfront program. Windsurfing was
emerging as a new pursuit, and he enjoyed his first foray into the world
of water, with a sail. From there it was a seemingly natural progression
through larger sail boats until he was in the college sailing team, racing
in the inter-collegiate regattas.
One afternoon, the Rescue Team asked him to help out.
He was needed to play the victim! He obviously played it very badly,
because they ended up offering him a position as a rescuer! Again he
progressed through the ranks, going all the way to becoming a senior boat
captain and then working with the US Coastguard, going through the
Coastguard School. “I’ve done between four and five hundred
rescues,” said James. “I’ve actually saved quite a few people’s
lives.” He was also the first Thai civilian to do that course.
That all took six years, and he decided that perhaps he
should continue with his own education, going to a post-graduate college
in Daytona in the US. This time it was an aeronautical college. “I was
coming back to my love of flight.” There James did an MBA in Aviation
and a major in Aeronautical Science. To really satiate his need to fly, he
also got his commercial pilot’s license, complete with multi-engine and
He had not returned to Thailand in all that time as he
always had summer jobs. It was doing these that showed him that he had a
strong practical ability, working as a carpenter. “I’m a handyman. I
built a whole house in the USA!”
However, after 11 years in the US, his mother wanted
him back in Thailand. She had also found her own feet during those 11
years and had become a well known entrepreneur, being named as the
Ironwood Plantation pioneer! James did not regret his time overseas. “It
was a good opportunity to see and understand other countries and cultures
and language. I would not have had those opportunities (if I had stayed)
in Thailand.” But there was a downside - he had been away too long and
had very few friends here. “Personal contacts are very important in
Thailand,” said James.
Not having given up on a career in aviation, he applied
for a pilot position with Thai International, made the final 10, but not
the last five. It was time for another rethink.
This was now where his mother had the personal
contacts, and she asked him to accompany her to a meeting at Ital-Thai
Marine, the largest shipbuilders in Thailand. What James had not realized
was that his mother was arranging a job interview for him, and he found he
was being offered a job as engineering procurement officer. He took it and
spent the next four years based in Bangkok, but travelling the world to
assess equipment. “Dealing with military hardware is a lot of fun,”
said James with a grin.
His next move was unplanned, but fitted in with
James’ need for different stimuli. He had kept in contact with Thai
classmates from his US days, and with fast foods becoming very popular in
Thailand, the group decided to take a master franchise. This was to be
Wendy’s and James went to America for training, then returned and the
consortium built up six locations in Bangkok. Business was good until the
economic crash of 1997. Suddenly the price of goods and equipment sourced
from outside doubled as the value of the baht fell. Wendy’s was no
longer really viable and they relinquished the franchise.
Not long after, he was approached by the Royal Varuna
Yacht Club to take on the role as club manager. Once again it was the sea
that beckoned, but water and air are not mutually exclusive, says James.
“Flying and sailing are almost the same. Art, and a lot of science!”
So now he is here in Pattaya and wondering if he should take out his
carpentry tools and build a small boat for his son. Or perhaps a
radio-controlled plane. It’s that old water or ether conundrum again!