Vol. XIII No. 19
Friday May 13 - May 19, 2005

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Local Personalities

Kamolchai (James) Padungkit

by Dr. Iain Corness

The 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 instrument ratings.

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!

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