BANGKOK, Thailand — During his first trip to Thailand in 1966, President Russell M. Nelson traveled by boat through the canals and klongs of Bangkok.
He watched women gather water for their daily needs from the same river as their children bathed. He shopped at floating markets. And he visited the home of a medical colleague, spotting geckos on the walls controlling the insect population.
He did not meet another member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Greeted by highways and skyscrapers 52 years later, President Nelson returned to Thailand Friday as part of his world ministry tour, reflecting on the city's past half-century of growth.
It’s hard, he said, to believe the transformation that has taken place “in the space of one man’s lifetime.”
A capacity crowd filled the Queen Sirikit Conference Center in anticipation of President Nelson's visit. Some 30 minutes before the leader’s arrival, the crowd of more than 3,000 grew silent.
Entering this scene of profound respect, President Nelson looked across the room and said he felt the “love and faith” of the church’s Thai members.
The meeting marked the largest gathering ever of Latter-day Saints in Thailand, said Elder Randy D. Funk, General Authority Seventy and president of the LDS Church’s Asia Area.
President Nelson was welcomed to the meeting by a small group of Primary children from the three stakes in Bangkok, clad in traditional clothing. Each child held a golden platter with a floral arrangement. Made of hundreds of flowers woven together, the flower arrangements were a gift to members of President Nelson's party and were meant to be held.
But President Nelson found his too beautiful not to share. “When I got up to the pulpit, I thought, 'I am going to adorn that microphone with it,” he said.
President Nelson’s visit to Thailand marks the sixth stop on his world ministry tour. As part of the nearly-two-week trip, President Nelson also visited England, Jerusalem, Kenya, Zimbabwe and India. President Nelson, accompanied by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland, will complete his tour in Hong Kong on Saturday, stopping in Hawaii on his way home to address the Latter-day Saints there.
Known as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand today is home to more than 20,000 LDS Church members in four stakes and two districts.
“The Church has been in Thailand for nearly 50 years and continues to grow in strength,” said Elder Funk. “The Thai people are very warm and gracious and our members are exemplary in their goodness and service.”
Elder Funk said the Asia Area includes half of the world’s population, “so it is natural that a world tour would include this half of the world where the church is growing and becoming established in the larger cities of Asia.”
President Nelson said the saints of Thailand will not be passive.
“These people are energized. They are inspired. They want to do something about their faith,” he said. “They are going to get ready for their temple.”
After arriving in Bangkok, President Nelson walked the grounds of the site selected for the future Bangkok Thailand Temple, which was announced three years ago by the late President Thomas S. Monson. Located on Petchaburi Road in the center of a residential and business area in Bangkok, the 44,405-square-foot, six-story temple will include multiple spires.
The Bangkok Thailand Temple will be the first in this Asian nation and will serve members in Thailand and all of Southeast Asia. Before the temple was announced in April 2015, the nearest church temple was in Hong Kong, more than 1,000 miles away.
Elder Wisit Khanakham, an Area Seventy, said members feel “absolutely excited, delighted and so happy,” about the new temple.
“The temple is the symbol of righteousness that shines the light of Christ to the nation,” he said.
Born in Ban Pong, Elder Khanakham is from a very small village mostly unknown to the public, with no electricity or water supply readily available.
When Protestant missionaries came to the area, villagers said rude things about them and caused Elder Khanakham to question. His seeking led to his conversion to the LDS Church.
“The majority of the church population in Thailand are converts, except a few second and third generations of the local church pioneers,” Elder Khanakham said.
Standing at the pulpit during the Thailand member meeting and taking in the powerful scene, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland looked across the Queen Sirikit Conference Center and said: “I wish that every missionary who has every served in Thailand could be here tonight, especially those in the early years when there were virtually no members, little tiny branches, very few who really knew the language — and now this."
The audience is the miracle of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he added. “You are a stunning sight.”
Speaking of the growth of the Church in Thailand, Elder Holland said: “We are sometimes so close to history, so close to miracles, that we don’t know we are making history, that we don’t realize we are experiencing a miracle.”
To have President and Sister Nelson with the group is another miracle, he said. The Lord has made President Nelson “a spiritual physician to this vast, wide, wonderful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he said. “We are as happy as you are to be with him … and hear his testimony.”
Friday's date of the Bangkok member meeting had a special significance for Larry R. White, reached by phone in Salt Lake City.
Called to labor in the Southern Far East Mission, White was one of six young missionaries sent to Thailand in 1968. Their mission president told them “to learn the language and get the church started.”
On April 20, 1968 — 50 years ago to the day of President Nelson’s visit — the missionaries knocked on the door of Srilaksana Suntarahut. She was baptized on July 4, 1968, only a few months after the first missionaries arrived in the country.16 comments on this story
“Her testimony came powerfully, after reading just a few verses, from the English Book of Mormon,” recalled White, who presided over the Thailand Bangkok Mission from 1991 to 1994.
She helped the missionaries translate the name of the church. Ultimately, Suntarahut, who died in 2013, became the primary translator of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price into Thai.
It is very tender to think about knocking on her door 50 years to the day that President Nelson would visit, White said, noting the emotion of the moment. “Things have really changed in 50 years.”