Weekly Local Biography

  Carool Kersten

Between 1907 and 1909 Dutch scholar and diplomat Hendrik Muller made a lengthy trip through parts of Southeast Asia. He recounted that amazing journey in a two-part book that was published in 1912. Almost a hundred years later, Dutch scholar, Southeast Asian historian, Arabic linguist and Islamic expert Carool Kersten has translated Dr. Muller’s book and introduced it with a biographical sketch about the author. Dr. Muller’s Asian Journey, published by White Lotus, was just released. This is author Kersten’s second book. The first, published in 2003, is provocatively entitled Strange Events in the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos, 1635-1644, and is again a translation of a work by a Dutch author, Pieter Casteleyn. I found them so interesting that I started reading both of them at the same time!

How, you may ask, did this gentleman from Holland with a background in business in the Middle East come to be an author and university lecturer in Chiang Mai? As he says, it was a series of most serendipitous events.

Carool Kersten was born in a small village in Holland. One of the most outstanding things in his village was an old castle that was used as a retreat house for an English mission organization. His grandparents were active supporters of the organization; and his grandmother even arranged to have him baptized by one of the members of the mission. But his most startling memory of the castle took place at its annual fair. A priest demonstrated a rather exotic cultural dance for the fair-goers, the dance of a headhunting tribe. Something, young Carool thought, is out there other than my village.

In high school he became interested in the events that were unfolding in the Middle East, near peace through the Camp David Accords, considered the “framework for peace in the Middle East”, and then the assassination of Egyptian President Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat. He knew then that he would focus on Arabic studies at university. Middle Eastern studies included Arabic language, but he also concentrated on the study of Islam. After graduation, he traveled to Egypt and practiced the language, and then he went into the military for compulsory service. He was placed in the communications division, but an accident in which he injured his knee resulted in his being discharged from the military. He was not displeased.

A Dutch construction company with contracts in the Gulf States hired him as a translator, and he was soon moved to Saudi Arabia to work on a defense project. He considers his experiences living and working in Saudi Arabia to have been “wonderful years”. He had almost unlimited opportunities. He glows with enthusiasm as he relives those times. The company provided four airline tickets annually for rest and recreation. He used one each year to go home and visit his family, then used the other three to go further and further East. He met his future wife on one of his trips to Thailand.

He is a voracious reader, and he devoured travel books. Many Dutch writers had traveled extensively in Asia because of the Dutch East Indies. Many of them had been sent to provide colonial services, and wrote of their experiences when they returned to Holland.

After six years in Saudi Arabia, he realized that he knew more about foreign cultures than his own. He took a sabbatical and studied philosophy in Holland for a year. Then his old company called him, and he went back to Saudi Arabia.

He says that he had many opportunities within the company, and the one he most enjoyed was working as the personnel director. As such, he had the opportunity to recruit personnel from all over the Middle East, and he was also responsible for government relations. As he ended his fourth year back in Saudi Arabia, his tenth year altogether, business slumped. His last job with the company was to fire himself.

He and his wife now had a daughter and a son, and they moved to Chiang Mai. They had purchased a home here the year before, knowing that eventually they would live in Thailand. Carool entered the Thai studies program at Payap University, completed it and began teaching history in the program. Then he branched out and began teaching other courses in history at Payap, and finally was recruited to lecture in the Faculty of Theology.

In September he will leave Payap and enter the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London to work on a Ph.D. He will not be required to complete repetitious academic course work, and that’s part of the reason he will be studying there. Instead he will be able to focus on research, and he loves research. He says with a smile that he has developed a bit of an attitude. He’s an academic, a teacher, a researcher and a published author. He doesn’t want to spend precious time duplicating what he has already done. I understand.

Carool and his family are working out the logistics. His wife is presently also studying at university, and the children are settled into international school here. So they will join those families all over the world who are temporarily separated by educational or professional needs. A distance marriage doesn’t appeal to him, but they’re making the necessary plans. He has no plans for future jobs. As in the past, “something will pop up”. With his credentials and experience, I think he’s right.

Our conversation strayed to his students. He says it’s not uncommon for him to run into students from past years who are back in Chiang Mai vacationing or working for NGOs. It’s as though they’ve been “bitten by some bug”, and we’ve both heard that many times. He and his family may live and work in Europe after he completes his doctorate program, or they may go to a university in a neighboring country. But they’re not selling their home in Chiang Mai. Obviously, the same bug bit them.