Seeking stronger friendship ties
Nearly 100 people — Bunker family descendants, Thailand Embassy officials, local officials, and other guests were on hand Saturday to hear the Thailand Ambassador to the U.S., Manasvi Srisodapol, address the annual Bunker Family Reunion. Here, the ambassador speaks to the gathering while Master of Ceremonies Zack Blackmon Jr. stands nearby. Photo by John Peters | Mount Airy News
Thai ambassador talks of family, personal bonds
The importance of family and personal relationships have long been a hallmark of folks living in the Surry County region, and Saturday that was highlighted in remarks made during the 31st Bunker Family Reunion.
The event brings together the descendants of the famous Siamese Twins Eng and Chang Bunker, and this year the gathering also included Thailand’s ambassador to the United States, Manasvi Srisodapol.
The ambassador spent much of Friday and Saturday taking part in various reunion activities — a picnic at Mayberry Campground; a more formal dinner at Cross Creek Country Club hosted by Mount Airy where nearly two dozen Thailand Embassy staffers were able to meet and talk with local city, county, state and school board officials; and Saturday’s lunch at First Baptist Church, hosted by the embassy followed by some unofficial sightseeing around Mount Airy.
The reunion brings Bunker descendants from all across the nation to Mount Airy every year — last year’s event was canceled in light of the coronavirus pandemic — because the famous Siamese Twins settled here. The two, conjoined in the torso area, were born in Samut Songkhram, a city in modern day Thailand that was then known as the country of Siam.
They left the country, touring as oddities in traveling shows, before eventually leaving their managers behind and touring on their own. After a decade of touring that brought them financial success, the two settled in Mount Airy, became farmers and U.S. citizens, married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates, and between the two of them fathered 21 children.
The twins died in 1874, at the age of 62, and over the intervening generations their descendants have played significant roles in the development of Mount Airy and Surry County, as well as scattered across the nation.
When thinking of the twins, “We see in them the pioneering spirit,” Ambassador Srisodapol told Saturday’s noontime gathering. “They symbolize hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit.” Most of all, he said the twins were known for success in raising their families, and instilling in them those characteristics.
“I think the pioneering spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit is still evident” in their descendants, he said.
Srisodapol also touched on the importance of the formal sister-city relationship Mount Airy has with Samut Songkhram, and how he had spent time with Mount Airy Mayor Ron Niland Friday talking of ways that relationship could be strengthened.
In remarks before his speech, Srisodapol said it is important for individuals below the federal government level to work on and maintain that sister city partnership.
“It is relationships,” he said that are the key to a long-lasting city friendship.
The ambassador said those kinds of strong relationships were on display over the weekend during the Bunker reunion.
“You see family bonding here…people coming together…descendants that are partnering in this.”
Srisodapol, making his first trip to Mount Airy, said he has found his trip to Mount Airy a pleasant one.
“Mount Airy is very scenic…the people are very open and affectionate.”
The ambassador said he was surprised to find his hotel — the Hampton Inn — completely booked for the weekend, which shows him how strong tourism is to the city, and how successful it is in bringing visitors here for not only the family reunion, but other events. He specifically made reference to the Mayberry Cool Cars and Rods Cruise-In that was Saturday evening.
Others in the Thailand delegation also mentioned how much they had enjoyed their time in Mount Airy, and how friendly and open they found its residents.
“We have been very impressed by the reception we have had here,” said Paween Thanarat, an embassy official. “It is very nice and peaceful here.”
The trip was special for another reason for Thanarat and his wife, Pimida Thanarat — it was the first state, other than Virginia, their son, Boone, had ever visited.
He said the first year they were working in the U.S. embassy, his wife was expecting their first child so they were not able to make the trip to Mount Airy for the Bunker reunion. The second year, 2020, the event was canceled because of the pandemic.
Finally, this year, he said they were able to make it, along with their nearly two-year-old son, Boone.
Local folks had equally effusive praise for the Thailand officials visiting the city.
“The entire Thailand delegation, they are all Southerners at heart,” Niland told Saturday’s gathering. “They are warm, friendly people, family is very important to them.”
Niland said after just two hours of meeting with the ambassador — “Two of the best hours I could spend anywhere,” that he now considered Srisodapol a friend. “As genuine and nice of a man as I’ve ever met.”
He also said he learned over the weekend just how close the two nations are — that Thailand was the first Far East country that established diplomatic relations with the United States, in 1833 — when Andrew Jackson was president and the U.S. had just 24 states.
Surry County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mark Marion also addressed the crowd, recounting how the Bunker twins had settled in the area and worked hard at building a prosperous life for themselves and their children.
After the noontime gathering, the Thai delegation went their separate ways — some to return to Washington, D.C., others to take in some sight-seeing or a show at The Andy Griffith Playhouse.