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Phuket Australian Honorary Consul Larry Cunningham farewelled in style

Phuket Australian Honorary Consul Larry Cunningham farewelled in style

PHUKET: Australian Ambassador to Thailand James Wise joked that if retiring Phuket Honorary Consul Larry Cunningham had known when he took the job that the number of Australian visitors to Phuket would increase the way they have, he might never have taken the job.

By Claire Connell

Saturday 28 September 2013, 12:54PM

Mr Cunningham was farewelled at an event held at the Chava resort in Surin last night (September 27), surrounded by friends and supporters who have helped him during his eight-year posting.

He will officially retire on Monday (September 30). No official announcement of a replacement has been made, though a recruitment process is already underway.

Mr Wise told guests that when Mr Cunningham first took up the position of Honorary Consul on the island more than eight years ago, around 3,000 Australians visited Phuket each month.

Fast forward to 2013, and more than 22,000 Australians are now visiting every month – making Australia one of the island’s largest expatriate and tourist groups, and Mr Cunningham probably the busiest Honorary Consuls on Phuket.

“If Larry had known when he took on the job, that it was going to grow to 22,000, he would have thought again,” Mr Wise joked.

“He has never failed to meet the needs of Australians who have found themselves in some spot of bother – or worse than a spot of bother,” he said.

Mr Wise spoke about moments during Mr Cunningham’s time in the role, including calls from the Australian Embassy at all hours of the night (which Mr Cunningham later said was usually met by a “wtf” when he answered the phone), sitting for hours with distressed Australians during police interviews, and meeting boats returning from Phi Phi with injured Australian tourists on board.

He described how Mr Cunningham worked “tirelessly” following the One-Two-Go airline crash at Phuket International Airport in September 2007, which killed 89 people including one Australian.

Mr Cunningham had helped “hundreds” of airline passengers on several occasions over the years – the latest of which was when Air Australia went bust in February 2012, leaving many Australians stranded at Phuket airport when flights were cancelled, Mr Wise said.

He “dealt so calmly” with jet ski owners, including one incident where one “held bamboo spikes while negotiating a fee for damage,” Mr Wise said.

Mr Wise also read out two letters received by the Embassy, from people who had been helped by Mr Cunningham, including one from an Australian whose child had died on Phuket.

“Dear Larry, We can’t thank you enough for the support you gave us in Phuket. To lose a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. But the way in which you moved so quickly, it made an unthinkable situation less awful. It meant we could concentrate on looking after our child, and worry so much less about the outside details. Thank you for being there for us, and for putting a caring human face on what can often be just another bureaucratic process. Australians travelling in Phuket are in good hands.”

This letter was met by a round of applause from the audience.

Mr Wise said, “Those are the people that really mattered and Larry has been there for them.”

Mr Wise praised Mr Cunningham’s Thai staff at the consular office, and spoke of his energy, commitment and dedication while in the position, and that Mr Cunningham had “done much more than we could have reasonably expected from an Honorary Consul, anywhere in the world.

“He has a very good nature, and the capacity to speak his mind.”

During a short speech, Mr Cunningham thanked everyone for their support, particularly his business partner Bill Wavish who allowed the Phuket Australian Consulate to be run out of the Chava resort for the last five years, good friend Phil Gill who he shared “Aussie beers on a Friday” with, Trudy McGowan from the Australian Embassy in Bangkok, and close friend Sarayuth Mallam, vice-president of the Phuket Tourist Association.

“We have had a lot of problems in Phuket, and it’s amazing when you start writing the things down,” he said.

“We’ve had plane crashes, airport takeovers...we have had all sorts of things.

“It’s been up and down, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. I’m so blessed with so many wonderful [fellow Phuket] Honorary Consuls, and so many friends here.

“I think the Thais and Australians are probably two of the most similar people in terms of working together,” he told guests.

Phuket Tourist Association Secretary Bhumkit Ruktaengam said Mr Cunningham was “the most outspoken Honorary Consul on the island”, and always respected Thailand, its people, and the culture.

“If I had to choose my own Honorary Consul somewhere else, Larry’s got my vote.”

Speaking on behalf of the island’s Honorary Consuls was Seven Smulders, Phuket Honorary Consul for the Netherlands.

“You were there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, available to assist your fellow Australians in need in any way you could.”

Mr Smulders said Mr Cunningham was “very direct, very honest, very outspoken and very committed”.

Presented to Mr Cunningham, on behalf of Australian icon Molly Meldrum, was a special hat belonging to Molly.

Earlier this month Mr Cunningham said that one of his main reasons for wanting to step down was that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren in Australia.

He plans to spend half the year in Phuket and the other half in Australia.

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