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Home Away From Home : A Thai Remembrance

Rick was nine years old before he noticed Christmas.

But in those days, he wasn’t Rick.

He was Chavalit Pichetrungsi, a boy born and growing up in Bangkok as the son of a Buddhist family. Their December was a month to celebrate the birthday of their king, not the birth of the King of Kings.

Yet there was a Christian colony in Thailand. And tourists from Europe, Africa and Australasia expected the food and festival of a traditional Christmas even when abroad. Then in the early ‘60s came the first of several hundred thousand Americans who were fighting in neighboring Vietnam and looking for R & R in Thailand.

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“So at the big hotels in Bangkok, like the Menam and the Erawan, there would be decorated trees in the lobbies,” remembers Rick, now 40 and a naturalized American with a Western nickname. “Every Christmas Eve there would be ballroom parties for the guests and huge banquets. Not fish curries and rice. But American food, turkey dinners with pumpkin pies.”

The spirit of the season was also evident at the Assumption School, a Catholic facility where Rick was a student, although he was a Buddhist.

“They would decorate the classroom with a Santa Claus, blinking lights and snowmen, and I learned to give presents, something like a Thai silk tie, to my teacher,” Rick recalls. “Later, when I was hotel busboy and a waiter, I learned to receive gifts when my boss gave me a bonus, maybe 800 baht (about $40) or a tie pin.”

Christmas caught on. So did the office party, family dinners at home and, for Bangkok’s Buddhists, all the festivities and most of the traditions of Christmas with none of the worship. Says Rick: “That was the period when Thai people became international.”

So international, in fact, that young Rick picked up an American addiction. “They cost a lot, about 30 baht for a small packet, but it was the best chocolate I had ever tasted,” he said. “M&Ms.;”

Chavalit Pichetrungsi came to the United States in 1970. He married Rattikorn, and they have a son, Justin, 3. Rick built a career that has taken him from lettuce chopper in a deli to owning Anajak Thai, a cozy, hole-in-a-Ventura-Boulevard-wall that dining critics have applauded.

His Sherman Oaks restaurant is popular among Thais living in the San Fernando Valley. Some will visit this season to remember homes and relatives left in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai, to wonder about this month’s birthday parade for King Bhumibol and to dine on chicken and cashews, spiced salads, curried beef, ginger pork and the chili pepper fried rice of Thailand--beneath the tinsel and twinkle lights of Southern California.

For many there will be Christmas Eve visits to the Wat-Thai Temple at Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Cantara Street in Sun Valley. They will give thanks, bring food and financial donations for temple activities and be blessed by the monks.

Rick and his family will wait until New Year’s Eve.

“I’ve promised to take Justin to Santa’s Village on Christmas Eve,” he said. “My American son has asked Santa to bring him a choo-choo train. And M&Ms.;”


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