History - Visits of Knights of Malta to South East Asia and Siam in 16th and 17th centuries.

South East Asia

The first recorded visit to South East Asia was in 1520 by Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar. He was part of the 16th century Magellan–Elcano expedition, the first voyage around the world in recorded history. Pigafetta was part of the team that first circumnavigated the earth and was a member of the Order of Malta.

Kingdom of Siam

Later, during King Narai of Ayutthaya’s reign, diplomatic ties were sought with France. In response King Louis XIV sent a French embassy under the leadership of Chevalier De Chaumont who was assisted by Claude Forbin-Gardanne who was a Knight of the Order of Malta. They arrived in Siam in 1684. After their mission, Forbin remained in the service of King Narai, and was given the positions of Governor of Bangkok and Grand Admiral as well as the Thai title “Ok-Phrasaksongkram” because he trained Siamese troops in European tactics. During his tenure, he suppressed the Makassar Revolt at Bangkok, however by the end of two years Forbin returned to France in 1688.

Antonio Pigafetta (1491 – 1531) (


Nao Victoria, the ship accomplishing the circumnavigation and the only to return from the expedition. Detail from a map by Abraham Ortelius. (Wikipedia)

Nao Victoria, the ship accomplishing the circumnavigation and the only to return from the expedition. Detail from a map by Abraham Ortelius. (Wikipedia)

Antonio Pigafetta
(1491 – 1531) (

Around the same period, another member of the Order of Malta, Artus De Lionne travelled to Siam in 1681 for the Foreign Missions of Paris. Since he spoke Siamese, he was chosen by King Narai to accompany the King’s embassy to France five years later, as a translator. He then came back to Siam and played a role in the negotiation between the French and Siamese sides during the 1688 Siamese Revolution. Later he went to China as a missionary in 1689 and was for a time the Archbishop of Sichuan when finally he returned to Rome in 1703.

Chevalier de Chaumont presents a letter from Louis XIV to King Narai at the Hall of Sanphet, Ayutthaya, on 18 October 1685 – a drawing by Jean-Baptiste Nolin (Wikipedia)

It is significant that the Order of Malta has a link with the Kingdom of Thailand and has been part of its history through the presence of its Knights who served the King of Siam in the 17th century. Hence The Order of Malta is no stranger to Thailand and its people and culture.

In modern times, in 1979, the Order of Malta through Malteser International, helped assist Khmer refugees who were fleeing Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Camps were set up along the Thai-Cambodia border to take care of the refugees.

Claude de Forbin (1656 – 1733)
(Antoine Graincourt, 18th century, Musée de la Marine, Wikipedia)

Official establishment of The Order

The Order of Malta’s consulate in Bangkok in 1984 became an embassy after the establishment of Diplomatic relations between Thailand and the Sovereign Order of Malta. The Consulate introduced the works of the Order of Malta in Thailand through its diplomatic means, as well as ‘on the ground’ efforts to serve the poor.



forbin Book

Memoirs of the Comte de Forbin, 1781 edition

1686 Siamese Embassy’s Audience at Versailles (Nicolas de Lamessin II, 1686, Wikipedia) Shows the three ambassadors before the king. De Lionne is standing holding his translation of the speech the envoy is to give. (

The Order began with a focus on observing the needs around firstly, and helping out the poor in their difficulty, as well as recruiting potential Thai members, to join in the work to expand its reach. Its main contributions would follow significantly as well in the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004 and other major catastrophes by bringing relief to affected victims.

When the tsunami hit the south of Thailand with a huge impact and devastation to lives and property, the Order first visited the devastated areas in Phuket to assess the damage. Following this, The Emergency Corps of the Order and Malteser International, brought relief in a substantial way through the distribution of food, clothing and medicines to the badly hit areas. These were first major opportunities for the Order in Thailand.

When the great floods occurred in Hat Yai in the south of Thailand in 2010, the Order was involved in rescue and aid efforts to the people who had lost their homes, their livelihoods, and all their belongings. Members travelled to the affected areas to assess and offer their help, partnering with government-based organisations and NGOs.

In 2011, major floods in Bangkok, which severely disrupted the daily lives of the people, was another moment when the Order assisted in a significant way towards aid efforts. The poor, already living in sub-standard conditions were affected the most. However, the flood also disrupted people of all social standing, increasing the scale of the problem which halted the day to day life in Bangkok. This made it even more challenging for aid to reach those who were in dire need.

Artus de Lionne (1655 – 1713)

The Order invested its first Thai national in 2009. In the following two years, seven more members joined the Order. Today, in 2022, the Order of Malta Thailand is a registered association under Thai law and has 20 members. It remains under the administration of the Australian Association as it has not yet been granted the status of a National Association by the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta.

One of its works today has a large focus on the elderly, as the need for such assistance is quite significant all over the country. Thailand is already considered as an “aged” society with those who are 60 and over set to account for 20 percent of the population, many of whom are not looked after well.

The works in Thailand follows in the footsteps of Blessed Gerard who started to assist sick pilgrims in the Holy Land 1048. The Order became a lay religious order in 1113 authorised by Pope Paschal II to fulfil the charism “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum”: to nurture, witness, and protect the Faith, and serve the poor and sick.

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