When Pope Francis visits Thailand this week, hospital employee Nukul Choikrua, 55, will be able to relive the excitement of an earlier papal visit to the country.
In 1984, Choikrua was present when Pope John Paul II made a stop at St Louis Hospital in Bangkok.
"He arrived in the evening. I was standing five metres away from him. I didn't get to touch him, but I was excited," said Choikrua, who worked as a hospital mechanic at the time. "He went in to pray before coming out to give blessings to the children of the hospital staff. All the while, we cheered 'Viva Papa!'"
Pope Francis will arrive in Thailand on Wednesday, becoming the second pontiff to visit the country. It will be his fourth trip to Asia after he visited South Korea in 2014, Sri Lanka and the Philippines the following year and Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017. He will then visit Japan from November 23-26.
[His trip also commemorates the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam, which formally marked the beginning of the church in the country.
The 82-year-old Argentinian pope will have a busy schedule during his four-day visit to Thailand. He will pay courtesy calls to King Maha Vajiralongkorn at Dusit Palace, the Supreme Patriarch at Ratchabophit temple and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at Government House on Thursday. Later that day, he will visit St Louis hospital and bless the patients and hospital staff.
Pope Francis is expected to perform two masses: one on Thursday evening for 50,000 gatherers at the National Stadium and another on Friday evening in front of 7,000 youths at Assumption Cathedral.
Some 65 Christian bishops from across Asia will travel to Thailand's St Peter's Parish in Sampran, about an hour from Bangkok, for a chance to meet the pope on Friday morning, and so will thousands of lay people from countries such as China, Vietnam, India and the Philippines. Parish member Kommala Suriyapongpraphai said some 18,000 visitors are expected that day.
[Here, he will honour Thailand's World War II-era martyrs, who were victims of persecution by Thais who viewed Christianity as foreign and associated with French colonial powers. Francis will pray at the sanctuary for Thailand's first martyred priest, Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, who was beatified in 2000.
Also on Friday, Francis will visit Chulalongkorn University where he will meet leaders of other beliefs and denominations, university rectors, academics and students.
Last week, Pope Francis sent a message to the country in a video clip, urging an interfaith dialogue as he seeks to establish bonds with Buddhists in Thailand.
"During my journey I will have the opportunity to meet the Catholic community of Thailand to encourage them in their faith and in the contribution they make to the whole of society.
"I also hope to strengthen the bonds of friendship that we share with many Buddhist brothers and sisters who bear eloquent witness to the value of tolerance and harmony that are so characteristic of your people," said the pope.
Thailand's 388,000 Catholics are a minority as over 90 per cent of the country's 69 million citizens are Buddhists. Nonetheless, the pope's visit carries historical significance and relevance in today's society, said Father Anucha Chaiyadej, media secretary at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Thailand.
"He is a spiritual leader and he cares very much about humanity," Chaiyadej said. "His meetings with state leaders, religious leaders, academics, the youth and the people serve to show a connection through love among us that he represents."
Francis has made the fight against human trafficking a cornerstone of his papacy, a message that is likely to resonate in Thailand, which the United Nations considers a key trafficking destination as well as a source of forced labour and sex slaves.
Protocol and security details have been established for the papal visit. Two brand new Vatican-approved popemobiles have been prepared to be used at the National Stadium and St Peter's Parish, with number plates that read SCV - Status Civitatis Vaticanae or Vatican City State - fitting for the head of the papal kingdom.
[Bangkok residents have been advised to steer clear from the downtown area during his visit as a number of roads will be blocked at certain hours to allow the pope's motorcade to pass through.
Meanwhile, two bespoke papal silk robes have been created by seamstresses from the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Sisters of Bangkok.
"It is customary for the pope to have new robes, chasubles, during his visit because they represent different aspects of each place," said Puttipong Puttansri, an archivist at the archdiocese of Bangkok.
At Assumption Cathedral, the sacred 173-year-old silver chalice believed to be a personal item of Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, a vicar apostolic of Eastern Siam in the 19th century, will be on display to reflect the long-standing relationship between Thailand and the Vatican, Puttansri said.
[The pope's visit to Thailand will also be a family reunion. His cousin, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, 77, who serves as the vice-principal at St Mary's School in Udon Thani province, about 600km from Bangkok, will travel to the capital to meet him.
After concluding his visit to Thailand, Pope Francis will fly to Japan on Saturday, where he is expected to appeal for nuclear disarmament during a trip to Nagasaki and Hiroshima on Sunday. He will also meet victims of the March 11, 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in northern Japan, pray at the memorial of the 26 Nagasaki Martyrs, who were crucified in 1597 at the start of a two-century wave of anti-Christian persecution by Japanese rulers, and use his visit to highlight Japan's use of capital punishment and its high suicide rate.
Additional reporting by Associated Press
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