My wife, Lim, was born and brought up in the tranquil and peaceful Kingdom of Cambodia until, as a teenager, she was caught up in the turmoil and tragedy of Pol Pot’s killing fields. Eventually, with the Vietnamese Army advancing from one direction and the Khmer Rouge Army retreating and killing everyone in their path, Lim made her escape. Separated from her family, half-starved and sick with a jungle sickness, she managed to get across the border into neutral Thailand, where she sought sanctuary in a village called Tapik.
Lim was nursed back to health by a kind Thai woman called Payoun and remained in that village for six years, hoping against hope for news of her lost family. By good fortune, in 1985 she was reunited with the surviving members of her family and came to New Zealand as a refugee, where over time we met and eventually married.
I only mention these sad events here to set the scene, to explain why, as a married couple, we have ventured back to that remote Thai village a number of times, where there is no running water, sewage or rubbish collection. The electricity supply is intermittent, the well-water smells of urine, and the climate at times is insufferably hot. We do it to thank and assist Payoun and her family for unstintingly helping Lim back then.
On our first trip I took along some costume jewellery, earrings and necklaces mostly, and gave them to the little girls of the family and their friends. This turned out to be such a great success that on every subsequent trip I have repeated the amount of jewellery and toys we’ve taken along.
On one trip I was reminded that it wasn’t just the very young girls who were in need of jewellery. After a meal shared with some of the older ladies of the village, I was suddenly surrounded and had it made clear to me that now these ladies were widows, they lacked earrings and necklaces, so would I give them some? As soon as I opened my bag I was quickly pushed aside and a scrum the ABs would have been proud of ensued. Eventually my bag was empty, but there were many toothless geriatric grins that proved to me that being mugged by the Thai Ladies’ All Blacks was well worth it.
On our last trip I had a suitcase full of jewellery, school books and toys for the kids, and some better-quality earrings and some reading glasses for the old ladies, but fearing another punch-up I was loath to distribute them. Eventually I gave all the old ladies’ stuff to Payoun and let her distribute it where she may. Just before this last trip, I sent around to all my friends asking for any donations of earrings or the like for Thailand. I was very pleased with the enthusiastic response, and in the end had to leave behind some of my own clothing, in order to get everything into the suitcase.
One of our first tasks on arrival in the village was to host a birthday party for one of Payoun’s granddaughters, who had tragically lost both her parents the year before. The little girl, Moke, aged ten, had invited all her classmates, all her young relations and half the village children. Lim and Payoun cooked an enormous amount of food and I provided toys, jewellery and six water pistols, one of which I retained for personal protection, until some wowser grown up confiscated it from me. The wowser, of course, was my wife, who later claimed that the child who had enjoyed the party most was me. What cheek.
When the children first arrived, they were invited to choose a set of earrings, a necklace and from a selection of coloured pencils and school books, with the smallest girls the first to make their choices. This turned out to be an arduous long procedure as the little girls seemed mesmerised by the colourful array and quite unable to decide what they wanted. After some urging by the older kids they would reluctantly make a grab at something, only to be led back in tears, wishing to swap.
As it turned out, I’d brought more than enough goodies, so they were all allowed a second choice. I did try to get some photos of proceedings, but the kids wouldn’t stand still long enough. Lim did manage to corral a bunch of girls who stood rather woodenly, scowling at the camera, refusing to yim noy (smile).
Our attempt at introducing a Western-style birthday cake with candles, which we’d brought all the way from Bangkok, fell rather flat as none of the children had ever had a birthday party before, or ever heard the birthday song, which I was obliged to sing by myself. Notwithstanding my terrible rendition, the cake, once it was cut, disappeared in seconds — even my piece ‘went missing’ from under my very nose. I suspected a fat boy, but Lim wouldn’t let me interrogate him, so I went hungry.
When the party finally wound up, Payoun, Lim and I were worn out, and since some wowser had confiscated my water pistol we had only been observers of all the fun and shenanigans. It was clear from all the smiling faces and the young ladies showing off their new earrings and necklaces that the party had been a success and would probably be talked about for years to come.
All too soon our visit was at an end and we were made to promise that we would come back soon, before we returned to Bangkok for a few days of comparative luxury of air conditioning, hot showers, sit-down toilets with seats, and no spiders. Lim and I had already decidedthat next time we return to Thailand we’ll invite Payoun and Moke to stay in our hotel in the city. For a man of my mature years, life in that remote place is getting too hard for more than a few days. Drinking warm beer by the light of a kerosene lamp in 40-degree heat while being eaten alive by mossies and ants, then later in bed being bitten by cockroaches the size of small crayfish, is not my idea of a fun holiday.
To prove I’m not just a wimp who can’t hack a bit of hard living, I’ll give an example of the sort of conditions we had to endure in the village. On the first night there, I was obliged to take a torch and go out of the house to use the outside squat toilet situated in a small shack bordering on the jungle. As I was engaged in some serious business, I noticed, in the beam of my torch, a large spider advancing purposely towards my foot.
With spiders, I can usually take them or leave them, and I normally have no fear of them. But this one was something else. He was really large; later analysis, at the autopsy the next morning, revealed that the flattened body measured 80mm across. It appeared to me he was bent on some evil towards my foot, so instinctively I whipped off my flip-flop and gave it a good whack. Actually, to an outside observer (had there been one) it would have looked more like the actions of Sean Connery, in that James Bond film where out of fear and panic he whacked the tarantula over and over again, just to make sure it was dead.
When the deceased arachnid was scrutinised next morning, the locals told me it was a “velly velly bad” type of spider. Neither Lim nor I used the toilet at night after that. Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever using the toilet again until we returned to our hotel in Bangkok, although not through fear you understand.