The Real Thailand
As the bright blue, open-air tuk-tuk hurtled around a sharp bend in the road, I held on for dear life. My right hand gripped the metal pole in front of me, directly behind the driver’s left shoulder, and my left clutched my bag, which threatened to slide off the far end of the seat and into oncoming traffic. The wind tangled my hair across my face and, with both my hands conveniently occupied, my nose itched. In contrast, the tuk-tuk driver looked annoyingly relaxed, even slightly amused at his passenger’s befuddled state. He whistled a tune as we pulled up in front of my hotel and watched me tumble into a heap onto the waiting pavement.
I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where road safety rules don’t seem to apply. Five days into my trip and I was only just getting used to the organised chaos that brings Chiang Mai to life—the lurid advertisements decorating every street corner, the tangled mess of electricity lines overhead, and the spicy, delicious smells that tempt travellers toward overflowing food stalls. I’d spent the balmy evening browsing the local markets, where all manner of colourful wares were displayed in tiny stalls, all crammed in next to each other along the street. But after growing tired of the bartering game, I had decided to jump in the back seat of a Thai taxi, which vaguely resembles a three-wheeled motorbike, and call it a night. Unexpectedly, that trip became one of my most memorable experiences of Thailand; not because of the hip-displacing, nose-irritating ride home, but because of what came next.
As I stood on the street outside my hotel, searching for the taxi fare in the bottom of my bag, the driver suddenly looked pensively at me. “You know,” he said, “I could tell a few things about you straight away: that you had a good education, you have a good job and you’re from a good society.” I stared dumbly at him, not quite knowing how to respond. His observations—spookily accurate—were obviously meant as a compliment, but I suddenly felt like apologising profusely. Instead, I muttered something nonsensical, gave him a handful of coins and watched as he careened away.
His simple observations truly brought home everything I had seen and experienced during my five days exploring Thailand—the poverty, the injustice, the heartbreak and, incredibly, the hope.
I was lucky enough to be born in Australia, where almost every child has the chance to grow up in a safe, just society, go to school and find a decent job. In Thailand, these opportunities are not such a given. Just a few days earlier, in a tiny rural community situated a few hours’ drive from Chiang Mai, I had met a woman named Wanlapa.
Throughout Wanlapa’s childhood, her parents worked as rice farmers. But work was irregular, and if there was no rice to farm, the family didn’t eat. Plain and simple. Her father’s opium addiction made life even harder. Wanlapa married at age 18—late in life, compared to her peers. The early years of marriage were incredibly difficult for Wanlapa and her husband. Their first daughter suffered from multiple illnesses, including fever, infections and rashes, but they didn’t have the money to take her to the doctor. But then, when her daughter turned eight months old, Wanlapa found new hope and support through her local church.
Bathania Church partnered with Compassion Australia, and Wanlapa was encouraged to join the Compassion Child Survival Program. For Wanlapa, the program brought unbelievable change. It gave her access to simple but life-changing resources that we in Australia so often take for granted: medicine for her daughter, parenting information, income-generation workshops and the chance to become part of a group in which she was wholeheartedly accepted and loved. Wanlapa now has two beautiful daughters and can’t wait to meet the women they will become one day.
Though it has a happy ending, the disturbing thing about Wanlapa’s childhood story is that it is not unusual. During my travels I met countless Thai children who had been born with almost none of the opportunities that we have at our fingertips in the western world. But even though they seemingly had so little, their astounding peace, faith and joy put me to shame.
Standing on the cracked footpath in Chiang Mai, Thailand, something clicked. It’s so easy to become comfortable in our own culture and take it for granted. It shocked me that someone would comment on the fact that I had an education. There’s nothing special about being able to go to school, is there? But the people I met in Thailand—the ones living in gritty, soul-crushing poverty— helped me to realise that maybe a lot of the things I take for granted are actually pretty special. We are blessed beyond comprehension. But we are also called to do something with the resources we have been blessed with, to reach out to women like Wanlapa and make what we have actually count.
By Jacqui Henderson
There are heaps of ways you can support mothers like Wanlapa, and their children. Check out Compassion’s Child Survival Program, which works with mums and babies to prevent premature death, secure good health and enable positive development. Or join with thousands of Australians as we put children’s rights in the spotlight this Children’s Day (1 June), World Day Against Child Labour (12 June) and World Refugee Day (20 June).