BANGKOK — In the early hours of one January morning, Pongsorn Bhumiwat was asleep when an Iranian missile struck a U.S. airbase a few kilometers away from the hotel he was sleeping.
Shockwaves from the explosion sprung Pongsorn – possibly the only Thai in the Iraqi city of Erbil – out of bed. Later that morning, his trip to a Kurdish community took a dangerous turn when he found himself trapped in the middle of a standoff between US and Iranian troops.
“I was afraid of death at that moment,” Pongsorn said. “The locals seemed to panic at first, but by late morning, people went about their day, shopping as if nothing had happened.”
Pongsorn was sharing his tales from Kurdistan with his audience in a recent talk. Through his published books, events, and Facebook – where he has more than 230,000 followers – Pongsorn said he hopes Thai people would have more knowledge and understanding about the Middle East beyond the bits and pieces they heard on TVs.
“From my observation, people care about what affects them,” Pongsorn said in an interview. “It’s not that distant since it affected the stock market. It’s also linked to insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South, which is being supported by many Middle Eastern countries.”
Fifteen people were in the audience when Pongsorn recounted his latest trip to the Middle East at a recent meetup inside a coworking space in Asoke.
They listened to the lecture with rapt attention and giggled to Pongsorn’s fun facts about the Kurds.
For instance, his Kurdish guide doesn’t know where Thailand is on the world map, but seemed to be a schooled expert about Pattaya and katoeys, or ladyboys.
A photo of him standing next to Kurdish militias was projected on screen as he talked. Attendees munched on Baklava and other snacks he brought from Iraq.
“They got KFC and even a Starbucks. It’s completely different from the image of war-torn Iraq we usually see in the news,” he said, adding his observation that Iraqi fried chicken is more pungent than Thai counterparts.
He didn’t just talk either. From Dec. 27 to Jan. 10, he took his biggest fans on a “war tourism” trip to offbeat destinations like Iraq and Iran to see the Kurdish communities straddling the borders and hear their struggles for independence.
“I’m fond of the region because it’s the birthplace of many civilizations,” Pongsorn explained his personal connection with the Middle East. “It’s also the strategic point in world politics, where major powers like the U.S. and Russia are trying to secure their footholds.”
He has published seven books on world history; the best-selling one about the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Although his Facebook page might not be the most viral platform in the Thai internet which feeds on dramas and celeb scandals, Pongsorn said he tried to shift netizens’ attention to the complex stories of the Middle East.
“I always go to places that others don’t. As a history writer, I’m interested about the people who are living in peculiar situations,” Pongsorn said. “At one point, I met war victims whose every man in their families were killed during an ethnic cleansing.
He added, “I’m also surprised to see Erbil, the city next to Mosul, is as developed as Chiang Mai.”
The vast majority of his fans are fellow history enthusiasts. A female fan – one of the only two women at the recent talk event – said her fascination into the Middle East stemmed from Persian arts and culture.
“I’ve been to Iran and I fell in love with their art,” 21-year-old mechanical engineering student Phaphimon Veerakiatikit said. “Although they’re not as lavish as European culture, I think it’s striking and distinctive.”
Another fan believed the surge of Thai interest in the Middle East comes partly from growing economic ties between Thailand and the region.
“The region is not irrelevant to Thais anymore,” 30-year-old Wiboon Chumnongsaksarp, who works in exports, said. “Many Thais are working there, and Thai goods such as textiles and fruits are also popular over there.”
Wiboon is also a member of a Discord chat room dedicated to Thais discussing Middle East affairs that has more than 70 members.
The internet plays a big role in bringing them together. Apart from his popular Facebook page, Pongsorn runs a public group where 100,000 history geeks discuss all kinds of imaginable factoids related to history, from the size of Greek sculptures’ penises to the price of Thai slaves during the 19th century.
Their prolific discussion and interest is in contrast to formal education in Thai schools, where world history is rarely given a serious treatment – an apathy some blamed for occasional displays of Nazi symbolism.
Everyone interviewed at the event, including Pongsorn himself, said their love for history comes from their own binge-reading into the subject.
“My mom used to tell me stories from Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” Pongsorn said. “Unlike most stories I’ve heard during my childhood, there’s no obvious hero or villain, so it made me ponder and debate a lot.”
“Once I grew up, I realized about human’s self-interest and it makes me wonder about history. It reflects the reality of this world.”