Akha Chronicles 1991-2004
Chapter 2: The Bridge
Living in Maesai to sort out
a small fledgling business, exporting glass beads from China, was a very different kind
of life for me. But shipping items to the US
certainly wasn't a full time job and so I would spend my spare moments down
at the quiet bridge to Burma
in those days. The Maesai Burma bridge.
It wasn't long before I noticed children in very bad health on the bridge
The Bridge to Burma
was where I met the Akha people and began giving them first aid care.
I was first attracted to them as a people, beyond just compassion for their
obvious condition of poverty, when I heard the women around me talk as I
cared for their children. I found the language soothing, like poetry,
like keepers of the watch, who understood their job, a fact lost on most
The bridge was also symbolic of past events in my life both good and bad, choices,
errors, opportunities missed, opportunities seized.
The Bridge was a chance at redemption for so many people
I met an Italian friend, living in India,
spending days in Sri Lanka,
traveling, and self retired. He built a hospital in India, and was also inclined to help the kids
on the bridge, these kids that all turned out to be from some of the
displaced Akha villages on the Burma side.
I was hesitant to use what I knew about first aid, but Romolo suggested that
if I felt to do that I should go ahead and do it, that no one would mind and
that no harm would come of it. In the west all we learn is liability. Don't
help anyone, they might sue you.
For that piece of advice, I have Romolo to thank. Or "Lomolo" as
all the Akha kids could only pronounce.
So I began supplying first aid care to these people. Word rapidly
spread and soon mothers were bringing their babies for simple but unavailable
solutions. The mothers came daily to the market on the Maesai
side. At first I met them either there or as they headed back over the
bridge to Burma
in the evening. But as I provided first aid care more and more Akha's
came. I ended up having to go to the market in the early afternoon in order
to have time to take care of them all before the bridge closed and they
crossed back into Burma.
I saw some real nasty wounds at that time. Babies in a horrible state,
and then of course the worst stuff I got them on to the Maesai hospital, but
the attitude there wasn't very good toward poor people, sure not Akha from
Burma, so that was somewhat disheartening.
The bridge itself was a fascination, the convergence of two different lands
and many races of people, all trying to maintain their social position,
economy and cultural identity.
At the time I found the Akha people curious. I very much enjoyed
listening to them speak as they gathered around. Sometimes I was on the
bridge, sometimes under it or along side it at the Thailand flag pole.
I didn't have a clue what language they spoke or who they were. The
language was soft and their faces were gentle and poetic. I felt a
great attraction for these people. Some of the children spoke English,
they almost all came from Burma,
and they told me that they were mostly all Akha people. Once again, I
had no idea about this, but soon put together some observations that some
still held to their tribal dress, and most still held to some level of their
traditions, which I did not quite understand at the time.
In time I tried to learn the language, so I could talk to them a little, and
ideas on how I could help them came to mind and began to interest me more. I
became more involved in their lives, visiting them on the Burma side, finding villages on
the Thai side, all the more interested in their lives high in the villages
where it was so peaceful but seemed so hard to me. Life was hard for
them, but also there was a lot which was foreign to me, which made it more of
a surprise. Although many aspects of their life were hard, some were
just new to me and took getting used to.
I spent many an afternoon in the market where the Akha sold their vegetables
and herbs, and discussed what I was learning of their language with my new
friends from both Maesai and Burma.
I began to try and write the language down as I could, and discovered an
almost undecipherable dictionary. I was struck by the fact that there
were not good language resources in writing. I wondered how the
children would possibly learn to read and write the language if it was this
hard to work with? I asked Akha people who were trained by the missions
if they would help me but it was only on a "per pay" basis and not
very cooperative at that. I got bits of information, not a helping
spirit, and my interest to make the written language accessible was laughed
at. All of which increased my sense of how important it was to do
so. I felt that the missions had a monopoly on education of the Akha,
creating dependency rather than liberation.
There were two large trees, very symetrical, like in the story book drawings,
that stood at either end of the bridge on the upstream side. The trees
were like time sentries and I wondered how many different bridges they had
seen come and go at this location? They were quite large and would appear to
be at least a hundred years old, but since I had no idea what kind of trees
they were I had no way of knowing for sure.
The river in between was just a junior one, sometimes not much more than a
stream, sometims surging up over the banks in a wide torrent during the rainy
season, which once again, was not too far off.
The bridge was now of concrete and I had spent many hours under the shade of
the large tree at the far side, sitting on the railing, next to the green
iron gate, with its blue overhead sign watching the people and carts come and
go into Burma. At that time the sign said "Socialist Rebublic of
Burma" or something like that. Later they changed it to Myanmar
on the sign. Many people took offence at this, western people, but the
government only changed the name to be after the people of Myanmar, which was a name for
them as well.
The concrete bridge couldn't have been much more than two hundred feet long,
if that, and it had to be the laxest border crossing I had ever seen.
People wandered back and forth across it. There was checkpoints on either
side, the one on the Thailand
side not so much more than the one on the Burma side.
Only in recent years with the coming of a bigger road from the south had it
become slightly more formal. People had to pick up a piece of paper
when they came into Thailand, but many women and children just walked in
unnoticed or climbed under the railing a few meters before getting to the
check in box. All of which was ignored.
This was also true of many Burmese men making their living off bringing items
to the tourists who came to the bridge to see the northern most point of
On either side of the bridge on the Burmese end there was not much but a few
shops. On the Thailand
side there was a restaurant to either side, the one on the upstream side was
quite good, beneath the great tree,which was a part of the
restaurant. The restaurant on the downstream side was never up to
much though the building was quite large. A Suki house moved in, fixed
the place up well, was there for some time, then the woman who was owner and
landlord, and way too greedy, no one liked her, well she wanted more money so
they moved out. That was years ago and no one stable ever moved back
in. She was like that.
All day the traffic of every sort crossed the bridge and one could learn many
a lesson just watching it all go by.
Sometimes the Burmese police came out and fought with the Burmese hawkers on
the bridge, taking their cigarrettes, stamps, coins, whatever they were selling
and throwing them into the river. Once one guy tried to get away till
the Policeman punched him hard in the head and then grabbed his arm.
Several of the guys did six months in the Keng Tung Jail for this, where they
said there was lousy food, and scabies a lot.
But come six o'clock the bridge on both sides closed and all those wrapping
up some sort of business had to hurry to get through one gate or the other.
On the Thai side a small older man with big plastic framed glasses was the
one closing the gate. It was always an event. He would blow a
whistle and then hang around pushing the steel gate a little bit more closed
all the time. Even sometimes after he had closed it all the way he
would reappear when some Thai person's car had gotten out of Burma late
and then he would reopen it for them.
Pedestrians who waited too long had to climb the fence or take
Prasit and the Guy Drowns
The story goes like this.
There was this Burmese guy selling cartons of cigarettes to tourists near the
bridge, has been going on for years, occasionally, less so now, the police
would try to bust these guys.
One guy got caught by this particular tourist policeman Prasit, who was also
known for hitting the beggar children. (though no policy on the beggar
children was ever instituted.) Prasit took his cartons of cigarettes away.
A bunch of cops were having lunch, so the story goes, when the man came to
where Prasit was sitting and asked him if he would give him back his
cigarettes, as they were borrowed to be sold and he must pay for them if he
doesn't sell them and he had no money. A small favor, that was all he
asked. But Prasit, wanting to impress the fellow officers, had one guy
put some drugs in the man's bag when he wasn't looking, which then Prasit
goes on to "discover" and the man goes to jail in Chiangrai.
He was there least a month, and would have been there a year, but his family
took up a donation to get him out, some 50,000 baht. He had been married only
He got out and he came back to the bridge but the bridge was
closed over some dispute and the water was a little high. He swam
across but when the guys pitched his bag of clothes over they didn't quite
make it, so he quickly swam out to rescue the clothes, which would have been
another loss, and he was tricked by the swift waters, now tired, and was
pulled away and drowned. His friends and my friends buried him.
Prasit is still in town, or working with the Tourist Police in
Chiangrai. He works both ends of the province. Many shadows hang on his
house. Word was he borrowed money and bought a large ruby in the ruby
market. Then he showed it to some chinese tourists and they tricked him
and took off with it. He then pressed everyone for money, to pay the sizely
sum back, asking even tourists to give him a little cash. If he could find
them in the guest house with drugs or something "illegal" it sped
up his repayment plan.
She used to be at the bridge. An Akha girl. She was very short for her
age, passed her self off as much younger to gain more money and was a
seasoned actor. She was also a seasoned fighter for her share and more,
fighting with the burmese men if need be who enjoyed taunting her because she
was so fiesty and entertaining. She was a small but ruthless photo
girl, always getting two to three times the daily earnings of the other
girls. She would throw stones at the Burmese hawkers from the bridge and on
one ocasion while taunting them she leaned from the railing over the road
just a little too far and fell down below onto the street, breaking her thigh
bone. She limped after she recovered from that but was all the more
feisty. Any tourist who did not give her sufficient money for her photo
she would jab with a big hat pin and run away. The police got onto this
and would not let any girls come for two months to the Thai side to take
photos. The collective economic loss was probably in the hundreds of US
Later she went to Chiang Mai to work in a bar and whatever else that
Then she was back to the bridge, and later back to the Wang Tong massage and
She had worked there some good time when she returned home for a few days on
side. While in her house, a non paying customer tried to crawl into her
house and rape her. The police caught him and told her mother that the
man could either pay a fine to the girl of 20,000 baht or stay in jail.
The choice was Natallie's. I did not hear what choice Natalie made.
Burmese guy pitches 2500
baht of powder in river after being searched by cop
The little tweaker, after the cop searched him up there in the restraunt and
turned away for a second the little guy pulled out a bag of powder and threw
it to his side into the river below. I was sitting across on the bridge
railing watching it all. I asked him about it later, he said he lost 2500
baht of heroin on that deal.
Well, was better than going to jail for three years or more.
Lots of foreigners came here and used the stuff too, I am not sure how pure
it was but it must have been quite pure because a lot of adicts came here and
checked into the guest house, shot up, and checked out. Dead.
Lots of first time users too.
Course, there were a few parties that seemed to have a vested interest in
this occuring as the wallets and such went missing right after they
died. The Angel of Death?
I figure someone told them to shoot up way more than they needed to so that
they would in fact die of overdose immediately and then took their
money. This happened over and over at the hand of one foreign man who
Others from the Bridge
Meeh Smm and Meeh Yer were sisters whom I met on the bridge. Their
older sister was Meeh Dtah.
Meeh Dtah had a baby she abandoned by a house at birth and then went to the
doctor, but Thais found the baby. She then came back and asked for the
child and got it somehow.
Meeh Smm is grown up after many years working the bridge, then went to work
for a Thai family. She got very chubby at this job. When I years
later went to her village she was getting married and she was building a
house for her, her husband and her mother. Her father had died.
Booh Gah who used to be Eessalah, about whom there is another
story here, was at the bridge for a few years. Her mother died
recently. Her mother was an opium addict but a very kind woman. Father
lives on. Then Eesallah disappeared and I never saw her ever again.
Meeh Seh and Ah Pymm are sisters, From the school. Now the older one is
a real character. Big mouthed, obnoxious, never met a mirror she
didn’t like. They came to school for a while, then ended up
selling themselves. When all the high paying free lance work was over,
they and their older sister work in the Wang Tong massage parlor. They
had other options, but the money train was so sweet. Its so nice to
have new motorbikes, telephones, gold and nice clothes. Nice when
people give you money. In their case they had many more options, very
good options, but preferred the flash of the flesh game.
Beggars, their parents,
families, and personalities
Among all the women who begged their
children on the bridge between Thailand
it was often common to beg their babies as well. They would do this by
giving their new infant to one of the small girls of six or seven
years. Wrapping the baby on the child’s back, similar to
what they do in the village the girl would then dart off through the traffic
of the bridge to ply the pedestrians on either walkway for coins.
Getting run over by motorbikes on the bridge was not so uncommon
and I knew several kids who bore the scars from that.
There was this one particular woman who had a very small baby at her breast
that she was also giving to the bridge girls to run back and forth with and
beg. One girl Booh Gah would also do that job for her. One day
while taking photos of the baby I warned the mother to stop from that habit
but once again she only laughed it off. I warned her of it because I
cared, not because I didn't understand the economics that was forcing her to do
That was until she showed up at my door one day some weeks later awith tears
in her eyes. She didn’t have to tell me. The baby was
dead. Fever two days. Now she wanted copies of the photos.
I had talked to the Catechist about these bridge problems but the Catholic
church was not inclined to address the matter in any constructive way though
they had plenty of money in the Tachilek area with some pretty good land
holdings near to the village where all these kids came from. I wonder
why the church is always surrounded by poverty?
An Akha woman brought another woman from Burma side to where I sat with
some first aid medicine on the bridge.
I cleaned a fevered six inch unhealed place on her shoulder after she has
already healed 90% of a burn of her head and face and upper body. The
last six inches is healing itself down now, leaving a thin membrane of new
skin behind it. I had never heard of such a thing or seen such a thing,
and all with little to no medical care. The scar pulled her head to one side
and this needed to be relieved. I never saw her again. She had been
burned by boiling water that fell on her somehow. The skin which grew
back, produced by the ever shrinking fevered tissue, was very fine and very
Then they brought a child with a leg and foot abcess, the foot badly swollen.
I found the start point which was a tiny little scab smaller than a pin head
near the toe and picking it off, working a very large amount of fluid as
nasty as it ever gets out of her leg and foot. She promptly got better.
When word got out there was a line, cleaning wounds, applying salve,
bandaging, taking people to the hospital.
Reflections Around The
There is what I call the bridge Mafia, the tough girls and boys on the bridge.
They fight for every baht they get in a gauntlet of tourists, Burmes men,
Burmese police, Thai polcie, Thai tourists police and each other.
They range in many differen ages, 4 to 16. But 16 is a little old, and
then they begin finding jobs or go into prostitution. To where they go
after that is difficult for me to say. They get dispersed, like flotsom
in the wind, often a very tragic wind. As I would talk with my friends,
it was hard to remember one good story in this town. They were all bad stories.
Tragedy without let up. Always someone waiting to exploit the weekest
in a hundred ways.
We take for granted that many of our community efforts and events in the west
are from surplus, a luxury, giving off the top, but few are struggling like
these people have to.
The poverty here, there is often not enough for the long term solutions that
are needed. As well there is not the authority. Many families are
impoverished by internal and external oppression. And unless you have
the authority to alter some of this, there is no fixing the problem it would
seem. The solutions, as they come, must get past these localy imposed
limitations. And those who oppress and slave and accumulate wealth are
The children on the bridge are tough. Each group grows up. Now
there are many using the bright pink and purple fake hill tribe outfits
to get photos taken and numbers of the younger ones just begging. It is
common to see the young girls of ten and eleven, carrying an infant through
all the dust and heat all day, or even younger than that, feeding with a
bottle, in order to imporve the begging look and gain a sympathetic
baht. And it is not because they don't need it. Despised by life,
fighting for every grain of food, gathering to take something home, these
miraculous children only get blamed for being some scourge by those who have
never studied the plight they come from. Their stories are not tidy
stories. They are at the very bottom, hoping for a little hope.
They dodge two way bridge traffic skillfully although some have been
hit. One, Anna got run over by a motorcycle years ago and has a round
scar between her eyes.
In years gone by the burmese men saw the Akha children as competitors and
often hit them. I persuaded them to let this practice go to which they
finally did. Still there are the few hard heads. All in all we ended up
The photo children make up to 100 sometime 200 baht a day.
70 is average while the beggars make 30-40 baht per child. Mostly the
beggars are the younger children. While the children work, some of
their parents use opium and others are working to bring vegetables to the
moning and afternoon markets.
Consistently opium, alcoholism and gambling are problems for these
people. And not just the Akha. It is endemic to the entire
community. The winners buy the prositutes, the loosers are the
prostitutes. There is heroin involved in the Tachilek area, quite common
actually and that is a very expensive habit. As well there is now much
speed or methamphetamine.
The mothers serve as their own gang bosses, and extraction of the last baht
is always the goal, snapping at their child to jump here, run after that
tourist there, get more money, quit sleeping, quit playing. The
children fend for food themselves begging bags of this or that food off the
hands of Thai tourists from Bangkok.
While their government exploits all it can from Burma, the average tourist has
not a clue.
Booti was a beggar child. I didn't see her around much anymnore, nor
Meeh Kauh. Bootis mother died giving birth to a child. She had
been a hard core opium addict for years. Booti was thin with big quick eyes.
Recently as this fall Natalies father died from opium and shortly there after
her mother gave birth to another child. For people here, having a child can
be a way of making up for loss. But it is sad to see the despair cycle
that the children enter into. But these people too have to live, though
some wish they did not, and they make progress however they can understand.
Always keeping the children alive is the hope. Some people might say
that if they only have one or two children they would live. But fate is
not that kind, and those with five kids, they all die. And those with one
kid, the child dies too. Life is just that rough. For those that
had 12 kids, four survived, so they thought they had gotten their job done.
One can not imagine the toughness all around.
One year Mee Yer is working. Mita, her older sister is working.
Mee Yer is begging and caring for a little brother just born.
At the market there are also a few kind yao girls from the opium village who speak
Akha. They live with the Akha, I never learned the story of how they
ended up there.
Mee Mee, I don't know where she is. Probably prostitution.
Her mother was burmese, father Akha. He went to prison in Chiang Rai for
stealing video tapes and other things. The video tapes are what did him
in. He used to take Mee Mee to the market and have her carry the bag
that he put stollen stuff into. It was a way she wouldn't be suspected,
she hated the work, but they were of course as poor as it gets. After
her father went to jail, Mee Mee worked in a soup kitchen and then I lost
track of her . Often they shuttle from Thai home to home, the lives
becoming blurred as to what their job actually is, though its always called
The Closing of the Bridge
One winter, during the Thai Demnocracty Uprising and slaughter, there was a
dispute here in Maesai between the Thais and the Burmese at the bridge and in
a tit for tat trade off both sides shut their border. This always hits the
poor very hard who depend on this bridge. They must cross it to sell things
and of course the beggars use it for begging.
My friend Adjew, she came across the river secretly and told me that they
needed rice. I went and bought a hundred kilo sack. The
next morning 15 women showed up to collect. At first I couldn't see
them but after a moment they all came out of a narrow space between two
houses on the rivers edge and filed into the lower part of the guest
house. The sack was soon gone and so I went and got more. Time I was
done I had loaded up 1,000 pounds of rice into their baskets.
In helping the Akha one must be cautious and experimental, braced for
disappointment. I think this is true for helping anyone. But it
beats the cowardice of looking for an excuse to not help or to quit helping
the less fortunate. How can one expect to help the poorest, those in deep
poverty, and not view their down side? Will they not be less dressed in
this manner than the rich who can shuffle greed and every other bad habit out
of sight? Why do we remember when the poor clamor, but not notice when
the rich use a computer to do it?
And the young men are often overlooked. The young men don't
attract much attention since most of the organizations see the girls as the
prize, without considering the issue of marriage. Who are these girls
going to marry? The church, or the state, has always wanted to be every
The young boys go into very hard work early on, be it the fields or
construction labor. Their chance to support a wife is very difficult.
Western missions who take the girls away to the "good life" make it
all that much more difficult.
I have tried repeatedly to assist the Akha in Burma and in Maesai with
medicine, encouragement and what ever energies I could muster. Many times I
have tried to come up with grass roots ideas for helping to support a form of
economics, but it is hard to do with no funds. To get close enough to
see what is happening to the poor, one ends up being poor themselves, and as
well, one can see more of the ugliness of poverty than making a cute donation
to United Way requires. But I will still do it.
Meeh Choo choking Meeh
So I am at the bridge one day and Meeh Seh, the girl who never met a mirror
she didn't like got into it with Meeh Dtah, over some baht, and soon was
strangling her frantically.
A rock injury
An akha man came to me with two large holes above his ankle from rock
splinters that injured him and then became infected. He worked on the
big quarry rock pile on the Burma
side near his village. Sometimes he worked up above drilling and breaking
loose the large bolders on the hillside that rolled down where anyone could
take some to their spot and break it all into small gravel pieces for road
work. they got paid for how ever many large cans of gravel they
produced. Not enough to buy a days food, but the job everyone took when
they couldn't find any other job that day. Rock chips had flown off from the
sledge hammer and chopped into his leg. This had happened some time before.
The tendons were exposed and it all was rather ugly. I got him some
medicine from the pharmacy to get it to begin to heal, it was infected, raw
and open for two months now.
Back at the bridge
Cripple. There are a lot of cripples here, caused by injections in
childhood which damage the nerve in the leg, and then the leg dies and
One burmese girl, her legs swollen at the knees, is the child of a lepper
family. Her sister sat beside her, collecting coins in an aluminum pot.
After a time she disappeared. So horrific.
Then there is the cripple girl on the catwalk, hopping along like a rabbit,
unable to straighten her bad leg and the other leg going bad along with it.
Her family refuses medical treatment for the girl because her crippled
condition makes them more money, her father doing a lot of drugs and even
more poverty. I always love the morality of those who blame the drugs
on the poverty. The tragedy, the oppression, the incredible surrounding
force of those who have no one to help them, no hope, has such an immense
effect. And in the end, drugs are a pain killer, secondary to the
pain. But now her father is dead after many years, those willing to
help are gone, and the girl is still crippled, still begging now for her
mother and whoever else is in on her poverty.
Her one sister went to Chiangmai to sell herself. She got
a AIDS and died by 12.
Then there was the cripple boy with the crutches come from the far river
bank, up and across the bridge to get a hot meal of rice, potatoes, fruit and
meat. Crippled from a misplaced injection. The other boys would take
his crutches and beat him up to get the money he collected. He was very
quiet, never said much, his crippled and withered leg swinging loosley. Once
one of us chased the boys away who were taunting him. He said they beat
him up anyway on the way home. His mother came to the bridge, to get a
large boil cleaned.
The Older Akha Women
Many older Akha women, 25 plus years, work in shops near to the bridge for
the Thais. They would stop by the school to visit. As well I
noted that numerous girls began to come who were also prostitutes, looking
for something different to do. When you see this in your soul, you kind
The guy with the camera
One day while I was cleaning a child's wound, a tourist with a camera came by
and said a"Are you a doctor, I wouldn’t be doing that first aid if
I were you." Reminded me of all the other asshole foreigners who
always have a comment but never help.
The border was like a
Every time that regulations at the bridge changed then all these crossings
along the river would open up and half of everybody would go across the river
that way. Well the authorities knew this but this was the overflow
system that kept this whole place going on smoothly while the winds of policy
and politics blew.
Then there was the clever chinese lady at the corner of Sailom Joi who made up
all the shit that she sold to the Akha who came from Doi Tung where they in
turn sold it to all the tourists who came up to Doi Tung. I spoke with
her a few times, she reminded me of a very greedy woman, she made her living
off the hill tribes. Something few Thais liked to admit. She was
really secretive about what the Burmese girls were busy making for her there
at the shop.
Whenever a rain or a flood in the river was coming you could see the cat fish
come up to the shore in large numbers right next to the bridge. They
knew when it was going to happen, some changes in the water, pending pressure
rise or something. And then the water would rise and they would be all
along the banks resting and coming up for air. The water was full of silt.
Girls Try to get back to China
This evening five girls from China
tried to get back into Burma
on their way home but Burma
wouldn’t let them in and Thailand didn’t want them
back. They had been prostituting in Bangkok.
I watched for a while at this forlorn sight till a man came out and
negotiated with one of them and took her back into Thailand. After some time
an old woman came out on the bridge and after some talking the remaining
girls all picked up their plastic bags of clothes and went with the old woman
back into Thailand.
One could only guess for what kind of job.
A common experience to the bridge was that these young women, who worked for
however long in Thailand, sometimes years, would have all their earnings
robbed from them in searches when they got to the bridge, either on the Thai
side or on the Burma side.
She had come to Maesai from Burma
for many years. She had been there on the street when I first came to the
town years earlier. She brought her children with her and they never
got any older as it looked to me, always they remained small boys.
She was small and had a childlike face herself, a darkened red plaid scarf,
typically worn by Akha women if they weren’t wearing a head dress,
pulled down to her eyes, covering her hair.
She moved down the street, begging near cars, especially ones with foreign
She was always hard to pick out in the street scene, always quiet and
reserved to the shadow spaces as it were. I had gotten used to looking
for her in this way, but I had practiced it, because at first I always
And I liked this about her, her low key approach, her way of
approaching life. Always she remained gently beautiful, never grubbing
as it were, for her money.
Her clothes were traditional, but sparse, rumpled black Akha dress and
jacket, a dirty t-shirt and a visible beaded rosary of turquoise plastic
beads along with some other red and white plastic beads. The Rosary the
only benefit the Catholics offered her, and that in plastic.
Always she carried one of the boys on her back, the other one slipping
between parked cars nearby, looking for a coin. Sometimes one of the
other older Akha women would borrow one of the boys to go begging with.
Her children were different than the other beggar children and appeared to be
the result of her consciously holding her family together with some dignity
despite very difficult circumstances. I wondered about her begging, but
couldn’t imagine that it was because she was lazy because she didn’t
come across this way, rather I guessed it had to do with the quantity of
money she needed and the circle in which she lived, making it more
appropriate a solution, with no training in any other regard or proof that
any other employment would actually improve her lot.
The street was dusty this time of year, dry and hot.
She never clamored with the other women , but mostly kept quietly to
herself. She might compare notes with them at the end of the day during
roundup before everyone made their way back to Burma. They begged
aggressively, where as I felt as though she was not even a beggar but had
only been there a few minutes.
I wouldn’t spot her every day but she always caught my gaze every few
days as if we were both checking in with each other, the world unchanged.
This contact became common, passing each other frequently and all the while
she raised her family best she could.
But my life changed more rapidly, and I left town on one occasion to tend to
And so it was one day, later on, that I spotted her coming across the bridge
into Thailand from Burma where she lived, creeping forward with a limp,
shaking uncontrollably, sweat pouring from her fevered forehead and leaning
on a thin bamboo cane. She was the same woman but her childlike wisp of
a body had become more pronouncedly frail against the backdrop of whatever
ailment held her in its fist.
Without hesitation, my heart paining me at what I saw, so I took her to the
hospital as though she were my child. But that was only the beginning of what
was to become a long journey for me.
She did not stay at the hospital for various reasons which tend to dominate
the lives of the poor, and so I got the medicine and pursued her with
it. The first she took, but when she couldn’t perceive herself
getting better she refused to take anymore and chose to once again face her
illness alone. She had Typhoid, and the treatment is long.
I talked to her often, trying to get to the world she lived in. Once
she told him that she had dug some dirt loose from a man’s hill and he
put a curse on her and no medicine would fix that.
I went to her hut, outside of any of the Akha villages, and interestingly
enough against the military hill, but without the protection of the
village. The hut location was somewhat on the back side of life and the
place was sinister. The inside dominated by the heavy use of
opium. I scolded the old woman there for making a slave of this younger
woman. The old woman and man lived off her coins that she collected
before she died. I think I have a picture some where.
Back in Maesai I mused to myself. I could understand some of her
thoughts, life not being so sure or kind to justify going to heroic
lengths of faith to save it. But it was equally sad that she
didn’t understand how close deliverance was.
Possibly her hovering at deaths door for so long was like a prophet calling
out to the ears of passerbys of social injustice.
Like Lazarus of old, she begged near the rich man’s gate, the driveway
of the Wang Tong hotel.
She lived on, resistant to what should have killed others months before,
moving slowly back and forth to Burma, no solution in sight.
I kept track of her, gave her kind looks and conversation, knowing that she
wouldn’t take more medicine but aware that I might still sustain her
with a sense of understanding.
In the later days they pointed out where she lay down in the afternoon when
she was too frail and tired to stand up all the time in the heat.
Spread out so small under the steps of a bank, in the shade, her older son
crawled about her as a puppy licking its wounded mother.
I had felt for months that death could not be so far away but she held on
persistently to life just as persistently as she refused medicine, not only
from me but from a world that cared not for poor people.
As she had expressed so specifically, if she died, if she waited to die, that
was her problem, nothing to anyone else, and if she died it would be a better
thing than the hell she came from which he needed not telling of.
Around her perched like vultures were kin who stripped her of her daily
collection for their opium habits, she gleaning enough off the top to feed
herself. They were more frail than she, they had no farm land, and the
opium stove off the need for food until they too died. She was catholic but
no Catholics came to aid her. She was not of any use to them. Her
rosary did not even have a priest at the end of it she could call.
The hostility of those who didn’t live with her was that poor people
were stupid. To blame the poor for their own poverty as a result of self
inflicted stupidity was a conscience cleansing theme as sure as
She got considerable sums of money. She looked so frightfully close to
death's door that people, Thai and foreign alike, convulsed visibly upon
seeing her and thrust frantically into their money totes to give money of
kindness and maybe also fear of an omen.
In the heat of the day when not resting she would shift her way over to the
water pot near the bridge, some of the merchant women giving her food or
fruit. All of the Thai women were kind and compassionate to her.
She represented something, a kind of courage to everyone who knew her.
I wondered often what she thought of from behind all of that grief.
Even when the border closed she would make her way up the river and come
across anyway, her one leg giving her much trouble as it shook violently.
The Burmese police left her alone though they might send the other beggars
fleeing. Once when the Thai police were doing a roundup I stood talking
to her behind a van with tinted glass, looking through the van at a truck of
those police looking for her and her friends, parked just a few yards
away. The Thai women told her not to move until the police were gone.
Quite obviously they cared for her.
He found that to address the situation of the woman was not so simple because
of all of the intertwined problems. If the hospital, if Thais in
general, had a better relationship to the Akha it would help. But the
hospital looked down on them obviously and didn’t understand their
unique situation. This led to a sense of unwelcome for the Akha.
I had seen where the Akha from Burma had to pay the nurses five hundred baht
on the side, and then they failed to do much at all that was necessary and
the baby died from simple respiratory distress anyway.
As well there was nothing for the Akha who had to come down from the
mountain, no overnight accommodation for small children and often they had no
And my experience with the Akha had always been that they said it cost a lot
of money for them to go to the hospital although the hospital I was always
told was mostly free, except for medicine. That was because I asked of
After a time, when I would bring the Akha in to the hospital the staff came
to resent it I sensed. In addition they would tell me to take the
individual to the night lab of one of the lab workers and pay their prices
rather than easily get the service from the hospital. In everything with humanity
there enters the arrogance, the elevation of one individual over those they
sense to be inferior, and in this case dirty.
In the end, my sense that I could change something for the better carried on
but not without a fight. I felt that other people denied knowledge of
the causes, defending the status quo that holds the poor so often in its
grip, all the while blaming the poor, that their plight was solely of their
own doing. Shame on you for pointing out how the greater society or
even those same individuals might be benefiting greatly from the exploitation
of these same poor.
I was reminded of the proud Akha woman, in ragged clothes, who came across
the bridge with four of the most beautiful golden orchid plants in
bloom. Old Thai merchant women came and offered her ten baht for them
when they were worth well over the forty baht she was asking. I asked
the Thais how they could have the face to do such a thing?
And so the sick Akha woman limped back and forth into town, the locals all of
the feeling that nothing could be done, not at their expense anyway.
I gave it great thought and wondered if someday I might come up with the
I hoped I would before it was too late. I admired her and she needed to be
there for her sons.
But later when I had been gone for a while and came back I found that she had
I knew her well. She was part of bridge life. Her hair was dark black
and all ratted up. If she were seventy years old someone might have
called her a banshee because of her wild appearance. But she was only
six years old.
For her, life consisted of running back and forth across a bridge, touching
people on the hand, and tilting her head back with an upward cast plea for a
Even for her age she was really small, tiny one could say. She had a
spirited flare to her style of collecting coins, that gave more character to
it than mere begging.
Her mother was usually not far off, a tall, very thin woman who always wore a
dark brown jacket that was as thin as she was. Sometimes she could be
seen near the river’s edge washing out clothes.
Where she lived I did not know, but as with most all of the begging children,
opium was involved. Either the father smoked it or both the parents
smoked it. Some women who carried an older child on their back might
sometimes give opium to the child in some form, the child sleeping most of
The little girl would come and talk to me many times when I sat near the
bridge, watching all the people coming and going. Her name was Eesallah,
which was a charming name for such a charming child.
I felt it unfortunate that she couldn’t go to school. But that
was the least of it when you consider the future such a child will
have. The families depended on the children to beg and they would be
punished if they didn’t, which was the stark reality of it.
Without someone addressing the situation of the parents there was no hope for
the children. And one could not be so foolish as to disregard what many
of these families had gone to that had displaced them to this border town,
wars, villages burned, incredible poverty. And unless someone addressed the
exploitive nature of the overall environment in which they lived no progress
could be made either. In their world there were far more predators than
the few who could save them when they came into the jaws of peril.
I had known most of the children of the bridge for a long time. I did what I
could for them, but really what they needed was security. A half day
school and fun things to do would be a start, the chance to be children
instead of living the hardening life of beggars.
I didn’t have the money to set up and maintain a school so I contented
himself to be their friend and always listened to their elated chatter and
arguments about a one baht coin.
Eesallah, despite being so tiny, managed to hold her own, and due to her
flare even seemed to be respected by the bigger beggars. Often the
child who was smaller for their years became a kind of mascot for the older
and bigger children. I had seen this happen before and suspected that
it might be the case here once again.
Eesallah would chatter at me for a while and then flit off
across the bridge like a black butterfly, with golden cat's eyes, lighting up
the dark. Her Burmese sequined base ball cap, set rakishly to one side,
reminded me of an old sarcastic tobacco spitting ranch hand. I found it
amusing that in the personality of a child one could so often see the traits,
developed over many years, of older people who I knew.
Almost all of the beggar children, same as other village children, had head
lice. Between hopping and dancing across the bridge, as she would often do,
Eesallah might stop and shove both hands into her hair, scratching her head
and pushing the hat up on a stack of black tangled hair as she did so.
I wished I could find some remedy for head lice, available from the jungle
which these families could use without cost. They could hardly afford
the pricey shampoo from the stores.
When Eesallah got tired of the bridge she walked down below it for some
shade. Maybe she marched off down the street by herself or with another
small child, and began begging near the big hotel.
One could try and throw a lot of reasons at it but the chief contrast I saw
here was strictly a matter of the rich and the poor.
If I took any of these beggar children and added enough money to the equation
they would come out groomed, well clothed, well fed and healthy. With
so many things working against their future what they really needed was intervention
to break the cycle and give them enough respite to learn of or experience
other possibilities in life. One could look for all the possible causes
they could and they would still come up with the need to intervene, to set
lives on a new track, going in a new direction. This I thought to
myself was the meaning of redemption. The mission solution of course
was to break up the families.
At the end of a long day, eating bits of food and bits of candy she had
begged off the passing folks, Eesallah handed her coins dutifully over
to her mother for the last time and headed back across the bridge to sleep in
some dirty corner of a hut, the likes of which I had seen many times before.
In my mind, most sad scenes such as these were the result of the inequitable
distribution of wealth, many people having far more than they needed, without
seeing the connection which that had to those who had little or
nothing. Sure , reasons could be found, events of human frailty, which
caused these people to be poor, but wealth begets wealth and poverty begets
I remember the day that Ajew’s baby died. That was a few winters
ago in the my early years at the bridge. Her two sister-in-laws had
just lost new baby’s.
I was on the bridge that crosses to Burma that day. I saw her
there. I had held her baby numbers of times. He had gotten sick
and they hadn’t told me for those two weeks, and then he died.
Ajew was sitting on the bridge walk, her hair let down in mourning, long,
black and gracious, as she leaned against the railing looking at the small
She looked at me with a look of deep sorrow as she shook with
sadness, the tears gently rolling down the brown skin of her lined face, her
thoughts of him in rememberance.
Later she also lost her other son. In the end I don't know how many
kids she had, but I kept photos of the boy. On occasion I saw her in Maesai
or even Chiangmai at the night bazaar. The women outlived so many of
The children on the bridge work for money for their families posing for
photos, begging intermittently. At the ripe age of 7 or 8 they are
perfected at their business.
Some worry about the wooden switch if they come home empty handed often
supporting their families or even an opium habit.
They worked often in a collective, sharing the take, so no one got left out
and to limit fights. If the money was an uneven amount that could not
be devided between them equally, they used a gambling method of paper, stone,
scissors, which was a chinese system using the hands, which was not much
different from dice or drawing straws. I won't explain the method cause
I never had a child fully explain it to me other than to say that scissors
are stronger than paper and a stone stronger than both of them, something
like that, so the winner with the best hand signal takes the odd coin.
Anna’s Step Father
Anna’s step father had a bad leg in his final days. He had long
been a heroin addict, but drove a taxi motorbike, was very strict and worked
very hard as well, unlike some of the other addicts. Anna's mother
preferred to go to church or get her hair done. When Anna's father
finally went down for the count he was in bed for a long time before he
died. Her mother would bring a new lover to the house and go at it in
the other room, now that would be the death of a guy.
Later her oldest daughter Meeh Jooh, was sponsored by an American woman to go
to the US, but would not do all the required paperwork, was too busy hooking
for a living, and lost the chance. Was quite amazing, they have a set
role, everything in a certain kind of balance, perverted by times yes, but a
balance and they don't dare disturb that no matter how self destructive it
is. Parents and child, coming up with the days needs to keep them all
I mentioned it to the Burmese white haired pastor that I found it odd that
Anna's mother went to church while her daughters hooked at the Wang Tong a
block away, sitting in the line up, waiting for a bidder to come and take
them to the hotel for some fun. But being pastor, owning a church, was
just as distant as anything else, and church was about money, and you would't
have any if you helped other people.
People here were going to have to learn how to end the cycle. Those who
didn’t weren’t going to make it.
Oct 5, 91
I had made friends with Romolo Dipaolo, an Italian who lived in India and
built a hospital there.
He helped me get started caring for the children. I started by buying
dressing for one boy’s abcessed leg and changed the dressing every day
for a month. Then the injured kids from the Burma side began coming out
of the wood work.
I had to work on very little money as I didn't have much but I did what I
could. There are many skin infections from dirt and poverty, more here
on the border than in many villages as I was to learn later. Abcesses,
All of the children soak up all the love you can give them. A meal here
or there, always. I metered out my small money. The group gets
bigger every day. What to do? Every day I ask for them all by
name, searching for the missing faces. Oh, sick today, fever or some
There was boisterous talkative Natalie and her group. As mentioned she
was very small for her age. Then there were the other girls dressed in
their tribal dress instead of the fake colorful dresses of the photo girls.
Boober, Boo Choo, Dolo,
Meeyer and Mee Smm with her catching eyes
I wondered where the boys were, working with Dad and not able to sell being
If I was to travel on to another place, would there be anyone to help take
over this work?
In those days I hoped to travel on to another place, other places. I
thought I could arrange for people to help me in each place. Hardly the
case, it takes much more than that. Everywhere there is an outstretched
hand with few able to help in return.
The men selling on the bridge are often jealous of any kindness shown the
kids. Without question life is much harder for them than this rag tag
band of rufian children. And often the children make more than the
grown men do. But neither group had anything to make them enviable to a
The Burmese people appeared impoverished but could there be other answers
than wild market capitalism? Did they want to do to their country what
the Thais had done?
The children on the bridge met Romolo and I this Sunday and took us to a
picnic. We went to the top of the hill with them all dressed in their
street clothes for Sunday, and overlooking Maesai from the small pagoda we
All of the bridge kids are Akha from Burma. On the way back down the
steps the girls began squealing about a snake which we chased away.
Near the main street a beggar boy who was žslowÓ met us and walked back to the
bridge with us. I had been doctoring sores on his legs. The days
outing had been most pleasant. The children had been very good to us,
even bringing the food.
On arrival mear the bridge one policeman grabbed at one of the smallest girls
as they all squealed and darted into the crowds of people. Our group
scattered. The Italian and I stared in disbelief as the policeman
chased girls through booths, a look of defeated meaness on his face.
Unable to catch any of the girls, the oldest 11 or 12, he grabbed the
žslowÓ boy who had fallen behind. Dragging him to the police booth he
closed the door. Moments later the boy came out screaming and making a
fist like holding a gun and shooting the policeman. Hobbling as fast as he
could, wild eyed he crossed back into Burma. The policeman was angry
that these beggar children had gained some friends?
Romolo saw it as well, and could only shake his head, žshit peopleÓ.
The Italian and I looked at the guard so he knew we had watched him but there
was not much we felt we could wisely do. But those days would come.
I wrote a poem about this guy. About 16 years old or more I would
guess. Then later I saw him on the street and bought him some clothes.
In the morning I found his net bag on the ramp next to the bridge, I knew he
often swam the river because the police beat him so he was afraid to walk
past them on the bridge.
But then I thought that most the guys stripped their clothes if only to keep
I never saw him again and felt that either he was driven away, or more than
likely he drowned.
The next day I found his empty bag at the bridge, no clothes, no boy, only
The earth eats up the living and makes them into the dead, the poor, die in
silence and suffering, no one to comfort them, no one to say kind words or
set their souls at ease, the world a harsh place where one minute you are
fighting the dirt, and the next you are down in it, glass eyed.
Such an odd thing, and us humans so weak against it.
To which I wrote these few
Ado was a little bit slow
Sometimes the people took him in tow
And then they whipped him fierce
ŽCause he didn’t know no better
And don’t you come back here no more
He had no clothes but dirty
And his legs were raw and scabby
ŽCause he always slept on the ground
So I bought him some new trousers
And don’t you come back here no more
I went down in the morning
to the riverside
To find that Ado boy
But all I found was his carry bag
New clothes were gone and the river deep
And don’t you come back here no more
So that last night God took
A battered and slow young boy
He had new clothes for going away
Maybe the river was his chariot that day
And don’t gotta come back there no more
And he don’t gotta
come back there no more!
Romolo. My friend from Italy. He saw many things, he saw through many things.
What people are thinking is their right but what they are thinking should
never effect your life.
What you are you are.
What you are not you are not.
Never think about what people are thinking about you.
If I have not plate of rice to eat no one is going to bring one so why do I
care what they are thinking?
Punch harder to get what you want. Ask people to give it to you.
Punch hard when people try to make shit to you.
Don't use violence to do it.
Always thinking positive.
Don’t react to it. No response. No anger.
Be yourself quietly as no one can make you angry if you don’t like to
Don’t repress yourself
Live with your feeling, it is always right
If people make trouble for you, respond
See them leave.
Do it without anger
Do it without violence.
It always come back to you.
Be willing to wait.
Live peaceful, not like violent people.
Life is beautiful in what we don’t have.
Know what you like and want.
Life can be easy or hard depend on you.
Learn to enjoy what life give you every day.
If you feel badly you are thinking too much about the problem.
If you think to the positive side, only the positive side will come to you.
If you are negative, vibration negative come around you.
Learn about the world and what makes it all go on.
Everything going on around.
Education about life.
Reaching your dimension.
You know what you need.
You know yourself.
How to live with people.
How to think.
How to build relation.
How to solve problems.
Coming up with solutions.
Teach others to avoid problems.
People who don’t want problems don’t get them.
Teach how to live a smoothe life.
If you don’t want problems you can not get.
Know yourself very well.
When you know what you want to be, what you want from and for your life,
there is no obstacle, I call this vision.
Goal, you want to go there. Really want, don’t deviate from there
and you will get it.
Mistreatment of the
The mistreatment of the the girls on the bridge proceeds. We interdict
it where possible. One confrontation yesterday. These situations
Still treating children for infections. Mostly Akha that come across
the bridge from Burma. Some real bad infections. One little child
of a year old had almost all of her scalp consumed in a fungus and bacteria
My own personal export business has been slow for me so I am working on very
marginal supplies. Not much money.
The Italian had encouraged my ideas about medicne in India in pediatrics.
Peg leg woman and first
The peg leg woman went with me from Burma to Chiangmai. She had been in
a nasty accident and the doctors did very little so she had two inches of
flesh missing from all around the bone just above her foot, her foot looking
like it was on a peg. We went to the Chiang Mai Hospital and they said
she didn’t want to mess with it and have another scar from the
transplant, sort of the do nothing policy of doctor and patient, with great
likelyhood that she would get no use out of her leg and eventually loose it
from the calf down. Horrid to look at or picture in the mind. I
could never tell if the patient didn't want the help, or if more than likely
the discussion went that the doctor decided for the patient that they didn't
want the help.
Then my friend's baby died. No one said the child was even sick.
One boy had a huge swollen ear infection and no one said anything about it
till I heard and insisted they bring him over.. It went away with some
medication. He later died of too much heroin and opium as a very young
boy of 19 or 20.
An Acher woman had a baby with a huge amount of scalp rot but I mixed antibiotic
cream with a fungal cream and we got rid of it very rapidly despite how
horrible it looked.
Often the poor kids of opium parents would come past the guest house along
the road. Their father or mother woiuld tag along, faces yellow.
Sometimes the kids were happy and hopping along unaware of their plight and
other times they dropped behind wailing from a cuff or from being hungry or
scolded or not having gotten something they wanted.
A wretched existence at best one might say.
Was there hope in their hearts, a future, education on some level? One
couldn’t jump to a conclusion too soon.
Often they didn’t even have sandles and during the wet season their
feet sometimes got infected from never drying out.
As I worked more and more in the villages in the mountain, to see the
government take the land, to see what conditions had been imposed on these
people, it was only a wonder that there weren't more of them on the street.
kill a man
When I got back from US I found out that one friend's brothers had fought
with a man after he got into an argument with the brothers. He kept
butting into a discussion, from where he was lying under a stoop, and the
kept telling him to mind his own busines, which he would not do, so finally
they fought with him and he got clobbered in the head with a piece of wood
out of the fire. A catholic village with its share of despair and
hopelessness and then some.
I knew their mother. The man died next morning, The brothers went to jail.
I asked if the dead man had children. Pious the catechist explained it
all to me. He had a son. I asked who would care for the son? My friend
said "you adopt him", about the orphaned boy of the dead man. The
attitude bothered me.
Two of the youngest brothers bailed out, I gave some of the money, the oldest
went to Keng Tung. I only agreed to help the youngest two because
I knew their wives and children and acted on their behalf. Appa's
father, who had to go to Keng Tung died there within the year. I knew him,
he came to see me at my house. Such a sad place. His daughter Appa went to
see him on the day he was to be moved but they had moved him already and she
never saw him again. He died of stomach problems within a couple months while
in the jail.
I never knew really what happened. But the oldest brother was a good
guy. They all were. How they got in this fool's mess I had no
idea. Meeh Oh was the wife of one of the brothers who died. She lived
in Thailand now. She lived in a village up in the mountains west of Wiang Pa
Paoh, on the way to Chiangmai.
Anna’s one eye ruby
Anna lost vision in an eye when a child struck her with a stick and a
splinter went in the center of it, scarring the iris even. If you
looked real close you could tell which eye wasn't working. A man
offered her a job cutting stones, but she couldn't focus her remaining eye
sufficiently to do it accurately and had to quit.
Stone cutting, which lots of girls did, was high speed and very exacting if
they wanted to make any money at all. After a while the eyes felt the
strain and the girls went on to something else. Ms. Q was a stone
cutter at one time but went to selling fruit on the main street when she grew
Man Buying Rings in
This American man came to Maesai. I eventually ended up talking to him
in the restaurant next to the bridge. It has a very big tree that grows
over it and this was a twin to a tree across the river at the Burma gate
side. These days the restaurant had not been added onto yet with
concrete and the floor of the original section was wood and is still there
witness to so many things on the bridge. Once a year it floods that
part of the restaurant, thus the new section is higher up. But right
next to the railing one can sit above the water and watch the kids jump in
off the low concrete pilings of the bridge into the water. There is
always something restorative about sitting near water. Like bringing
your troubles to the water and the water washes them all down the river, like
making room for hope again. The Northern Guest House had a restaurant
perched above the river. Quite a bit higher, but it also was a beautiful
view, the river, the men loading sand, diving to the bottom with baskets, and
Burma scattered on the other side.
This fellow was buying rings from the Burmese guys. He said he prefered
not to go around but to sit like a king as it were and have the men come to
him with a long line of wares, silver rings of this and that. Well, I
think most of it was made in Chiangmai, real cheap designs with silver and it
was getting sold off the carts near the bridge, the glass carts with the
displays inside and these red ring boxes full of rings under their glass
covers. Well he thought they were going across to Burma for all of them
and so he went on and they charged him probably 100% more than what he could
have negotiated for himself just a few yards away, but that is the price you
pay to be a king for a day and after about $800 of rings he left. Of course
he never came back cause there is no profit in it doing it like that.
But such are the žpack it up in a wooden crate, stamp it with stamps of
import and ship it to homeÓ mentality that so many would be traders come
with. A few make it. A few even stay. The illusions are the
I had been out of town and just getting back to Maesai was nice. I
began taking some photos around town. The Akha were coming back from
the afternoon market. I was wondering where Appa was. I had
a picture of her with her new baby. So I asked some of the Akha and
they said she had left her baby at her mothers and gone south into Thailand
That was a year before.
Her husband was in prison, her father dead at 46 and she was only 17.
What made it worse than just grinding poverty was that there was plenty of
demand for prositutes in Thailand and the brokers were always out looking for
The whole game was hard.
A few years before when Appa was 13 she was begging in Bkk with her
mother. They got caught by the police and they did a year in the
prison there. She had been through diffulty there.
One must consider the life here, without some great western style
shield. The people so often end up in bad situations and the people who
feel it their job to help are too few and far between.
I remember the day Appa had come to me to show me her new baby. I
wondered if she would live to see it grow up.
Aids kept a lot of girls from making it home again.
I hoped I would see her again.
And then one day I did, happy, her well displayed gold in place and looking
better than robust.
The Dehydrated Child
One begging Akha woman had a very small yellowish baby all wrapped up. She
was out begging. I took one look and could see that the baby was not
nursing enough and was very dehydrated. Its eyes were gooey and
it slept with its dry mouth open. The skin on its arms was loose and
I told her she must begin to feed it formula as she had no breast for it and
that she must keep it out of the sun and quit begging the child with the
small girls on the bridge. Sometimes I could buy the formula, sometimes
I could not.
I knew as I told her it would be of no use.
A week or more later she waved to me from the roadside. I
stopped. She said the child was at the house and very small. I
told her she must bring the child from Burma and come over to the house so I
could help. She said she would and this time I actually thought she
would but she did not show up. A few days later I saw her and she told me the
child was dead. The bridge was difficult to cross and expensive and I
could not do it for each emergency, because they were all emergenices and I
had next to no money at all.
These people knew me well yet I felt that there were those who just lacked
the willingness to believe, to seize the moment.
Sure, I didn’t speak enough of the language but when your baby is dying
you must take some action. Because they didn’t often have money
they resisted going to doctors and when they did it was often too late. The
doctors and nurses did many things that took away the trust.
The Bad Tooth
There was this one kid, I don’t remember whose kid she was, it was a
long time ago, but I met them near the bridge one day and her face was
swollen up huge on one side from an abcessed tooth. The swelling had
been bigger but was already ruptured out through the cheek and going
down. Her teeth were swimming in it. So after that when I saw
someone with a cigarette burn type scar on their lower jaw I knew what it
came from and that once they were in a really bad way, and believe me it
isn’t that uncommon that you see it.
Come to think of it, I think it was one of the sisters of Booti, this little
girl who was always at the bridge begging for money and real super hyper.
While she begged there her mom and younger siblings begged the streets
further into town.
That was dangerous back in the old days of maesai, the cops chased them, but
now maesai had gotten so busy that they didn't got chased so seriously since
traffic problems were now the greatest problems the cops had. But there
were other predators, now Thais who wanted to make money off them.
Once I asked the Chinese at the Chinese Baptist Church just around the corner
from the bridge if they could help, but they said there was nothing they
could do. Then they built an immense four or five story church building
and painted it pink.
Boohgah's mother had a bad tooth. She called for help in the summer’s
heat and so I pulled the tooth. She’s dead now, came for an IV
one day, shortly after I went to get Ah Dteeh. I had spotted her in the
hut and she had a tremendous fever. She was an opium smoker but a very
nice woman. I told her to please come over to the building since I
hadn't brought any fever medicine with me. She didn't come over, but
died. It was a kind of resolution. Death happened to you for years, you
wore out, you got ill too many times, you worked all you could to keep your
children alive, and give them every chance, and then you laid down and
died. Just like clockwork. No vacation till then.
Ah Muh’s mother
When Ah Muuh's mother was dying Ah Muuh wouldn't even speak to her. Her
mother took an IV for a day, it was so hot. She was skin and bones. She
said she saw many people in the room waiting for her, but her and I were the
only ones there that I could see. She told me not to worry, they were
good people. The next day, after a good nights rest, as if having
gathered the courage, she went home to the Burma side and died. Later
Ah Muuh told me she was sorry for not caring. There was a party going on in
town, people were paying kids to come to the parties. Why watch your
mother die when you could be at a party? Such are the illusions of life. She went
on. She ended up in Bangkok. Her father and sister lived in Burma. Her
sister often was at the bridge or at the rock pile, watching a new economy
speed by that they had no part in.
TB Anna goes to chiang
There was one child at the bridge named Anna. She had been the one hit
by the motorcycle and had the damaged sight in one eye. I was at the
bridge daily and did not see her for several days. I asked the other
children and for some reason they made up excuses and stories as to what had
come of her and where she was at. So finally I got one girl to talk and
she said that Anna was a little bit sick. I pressed on and finally
insisted that she be brought to the bridge so that I could see her since she
lived on the Burma side. Finally they relented and she was brought to
the bridge and her abdomen was grossly distended and her whole body in
fever. Her belly was as though filled with water. I asked them to
come to the guest house as I had one Akha woman at the guesthouse who could
translate for us, so they came. I explained very carefully that if Anna
didn't get to a hospital, she would not live long. The translator would
not directly translate this bad news until I continued to insist at which
point the family consented. They went with me to the Maesai Hospital
where they told us she had to go to Chiangrai.
I got the paperwork done and since the mother could not go I had to go with
her by myself. I only had a motorbike so I tied her to my back with a
cloth and took her down, and got her checked into the children's ward.
Mosquitos buzzed like they raise them there. Conditions were very hard for
people taking care to someone.
In the morning they diagnosed her with TB of the abdomen, and she began
treatment. They made a small incision and began draining fluid and
removed some cysts.
After a few days her father came down, and took my place. An adult had
to stay with the child and I had no blankets and had to sleep on the floor
without even a mat until someone gave me one of those. I also had to
keep the bugs and mosquitos off Anna and a few chicken lice.
Then I came back to check on the family. The nurses gave me enough
medication to take care of the followup treatment and then released her to
me. Daily she came to the house for injections until her treatment was
This was one of my first experiences with the hospitals. There were many
events packed into that week, and many reflections of what was to come and
who some of the players were. Little did I know that the situation
spoke much of missions and medical care in Thailand for the Akha.
Atturs two brothers dead
The Akha girl Attur had three brothers, one died in prison, the other died of
fever and then the last one died also I was told. Attur married a
Burmese man and got an ID card for Thailand and lived in Chiangmai where she
had two children. But later while traveling in Thailand I found the
widow of one of the brothers and then at a festival I met the youngest
brother who had not died after all.
Attur's mother would go down to help with the children, and then come back
again. I knew her mother for many years, a short tiny woman.
Naha was an Akha woman who sometimes came to the guesthouse, but mostly had a
shop at the bridge. She was related to a half Akha Lahu man in Burma at
a village called Malipaco. She could speak english very well but we
seldom talked over the years. Many times people chose to be private in
this part of the world. What I saw her doing and going on in her life I
did not comment on, nor stop by and talk to her about, though I might very
well have done so. One morning as I left room 61 and was walking down the
walk, I heard the door of room 62 open behind me and turned in time to see
Naha leaving the room with a foreigner. Good bucks? She was from the
strict Baptist camp and was down on the traditional Akha people. Malipaco was
a village Paul Lewis had been much involved in.
Hom Dwan's House Burns
She was a girl from the bridge, and the Wang Tong massage later, and she went
to Hatyai, and in the end I don't think that she or her family got much at
all. Always wondered where she went. Marvin Hatfield would have gladly
married her. Her sister went to Hatyai and so she had to go too. Mom
and Dad wanted the money that her labors would bring in. She wouldn't
marry my friend and I always wondered about this.
Later her family's house burned down there near the bypass road and the
market lane where Akha alley was. If you could call it a house. I went
for a visit. The family was very poor. They were Shans. The
father was very eager to sell this next daughter in line. People liked
to accuse the hill tribe of selling their daughters, but it was in fact very
direct in the Shan community. Not actually selling, they would borrow
large sums of money on the girls values. She might be working down the
street for years, a few blocks from home. Many times the money was
spent like fools, in the end they were all robbed by the grief of it.
Rich, he always got angry at people, his kids were going to sell his farm in
Australia, so he went home and we never saw him again. He did live up next to
Tom's place for a while. He was retired. One would see him, fat, red
faced, walking the hot street with his baseball hat on. Maybe he had a
motorbike once, I think so and then a bycycle, but hadn't seen him in years,
wonder where all that anger goes when there is no point in it any more, maybe
just an old bed you can't get out of?
Bus rolls over beggars
The Akha boy sat down behind the bus to the side on the curb. But the
bus didn't see him and had to back up, and rolled right over his leg.
It didn't break the bone but split the whole side of his leg open below the
knee. He was soon stitched up and on a crutch. I think it mostly healed,
but not sure, and I lost track of him after that. This was the story
here so often, people moved, people died, but often you didn't know which
one. Ten years later and I probably never will. That was when all the
buses came to the bridge and turned around, we called those green busses to
Chiangrai the "Green Weenies" and they went very slow all the way,
the woman hanging from the rear door, calling out to would be riders, calling
out to the driver to slow down and drop someone off or pick someone up, it
was very much a team and a lot of fun to ride in a sleepy kind of way down
the warbled blacktop road before the highway came. The road really
wasn't big enough then and to keep the ride sort of smoothe the bus had to
run right down the center when there wasn't traffic coming. There were
big trees on either side of the road, but when they built the big highway
they cut them all down.
Life is so sad if you are a tree.
In those days to go to Chiangrai on the bus, small tiny Thai style seats, was
a commitment. I mean like all day. Exhausting. Yet it was a
quaint road, and these people had been here for timeless ever, going south,
coming back north to the border. Mountains close to the west. All the farms,
and seasons. Life going on forever before tinsel town came. They had
survived the Burmese, the Chinese, the Japanese, and they still went
on. The stories were legion. When the rainy season came, it was
like driving down a plantation road, to Chiangrai, one might feel the sides
of the road would grow into the bus if the bus went any slower.
The woman would finally walk down the row of the bus, holding a long metal
container in her hand, like a round cylinder, the cover lifting up, showing
rows of various price tickets, and she would give you one and take a few baht
coins. Last I checked it was 26 baht to Chiangrai or something like
The Paluang dressed in red skirts
and wore rings around the waste, some gold, or some silver, and thus
they were called red or silver Paluang. The men wore baggy short trousers and
liked turquoise rubber boots, they got somewhere and had big ear rings as did
the woman. They were mostly flat land farmers living near the Shan, lived in
long wood houses built above the ground on stilts and raised pigs and other
Once I went to a village in Keng Tung with a rented truck and some
friends. We were wandering around their village and then suddenly heard
roars of excitement and shouting and laughter from the children. We
hurried to the truck to see what it was and there the kids all were, fighting
for turns, lined up behind the truck. They had wiped all the mud off
the chrome bumper and were busy making faces at their distorted reflections
in its curved chrome surfaces.
Card playing Attur
Attur often played cards at the bridge, she did so till lots of her money was
gone and her business went down and then she finally quit playing. She
became better at business and got married later on. While she was
distracted playing cards the others would steal money or other things from
her. I remember one woman who stole from her. I saw her over many
years. She was somehow very poor in spirit, frail. I never held it against
her as I had at first, cause I saw how hard life was on the bunch of these
people. With tragedy all around, who could want payback?
Sales and the jade hair
A jade bracelet, hair and cigarette lighter. These were the saleswoman's
tools. She was trying to sell one of these fake jade bracelets made of
some chemically died white stone. To help her sales pitch she would
pull one of her hairs, then wrap it around the bracelet and try to burn it
with a cigarrette lighter. But the stone pulled all the heat out of the
flame and the hair would not burn through, thus the customer thinking that
some how this proved that the bracelet was real jade.
This reminded me of the Pakistani man Edward who said people want to be given
permission to buy something, if you can give their mind permission to buy it
they will. They have little guards, like a "permission to
buy" button, the buy side, the no buy side, and you just got to switch
the item from one side to the other side in their mind, doesn't matter how
you do it. And when this happens, they will buy it. The true
reasons why they should buy this item over that one are really quite non
existent he felt.
One baht fight, Meeyer,
Meesmm and Dolo
This was big, pulling hair, crying and the whole likes and I asked what it
was about and they said "One baht". The smallest girl felt
that she had been cheated one baht and in their lottery system of division,
it might as well have been one thousand. These were the rules.
And over the years, I found that the Akha honor system in this regard did not
Japanese photo man with
pictures of girls on bridge
One man from Japan came and took many pictures of the girls at the bridge
while they worked selling photos. Some people claimed he was up to no
good. I never saw any proof of that though it might have been the
case. Another man claimed the Germans had a similar racket going.
The woman with the scabies, her baby died. One month old girl.
She had come to my house for scabie medicine. The scabies were
gone. I wondered why the baby died and how. Many of the people
with scabies came from really poor situations. Poor households, poor
nutrition, no running water. Once scabies got in a house it was hard to
get them out, and Benzyl Benzoate was the only common medicine for getting
rid of them, and it was of course expensive. Scabies were like raising the
water temperature on a frog. The worse they got, the more you had them,
you couldn't focus in your mind where they were, but your skin began to
creep, and the low level chronic pain became so bad that someone could beat
you with a stick and you couldn't feel it other than to think it felt good.
Scabies also caused kidney problems, an immune response, the body confusing
the scabies with the kidneys. At least this was what I was told. But it
looked like misery and infection got to people before this ever could.
I had never known how the locals got rid of scabies, though some obviously
did. But once I got a supply of Benzyl Benzoate which I kept with me
for years, replenishing it, I had a steady stream of people seeking this free
medicine to relieve their grief. I never once charged for medicine to
the Akha. I didn't want "Thank You", I didn't want anything, but to
help them. This was in contrast to those people who seemed to have the
most, blessed by God, and in return felt that everything you did for people
must have some price, some cost, lest they should think they got it for free
and then took it for granted. I got the sunlight free every day.
I wonder what they got free, ending up with all that money?
The Acher people were said to be one half Akha and one half Shan. I
really didn’t know but I knew quite a few of them. The women wore
distinctly wrapped black cloth head turbans some of the time. The women
all seemed to smoke long pipes.
On this one particular occasion there was this opium smoking Acher woman who
was pregnant and tremendously huge. Then she gave birth to twins and
word was that she was ill.
She ended up at my house with her twin boys and her aunt.
A friend of mine bought medicine and infant milk for them as she wasn’t
nursing well enough.
The smaller one was less favored. After a few days she had ginaed her
strength and they left to go back to Burma. Shortly after that I saw
her using her older daughter to beg the two twins on the bridge. They
often lay on the bridge in the dust and motor exhaust of all the passing
cycles and trucks. I talked to the mother repeatedly about the health
of her two babies and the harm she was doing them by making them breathe that
filthy air but she would not listen, needing any money she could get for
survival. But the children would likely die. This was always the high stakes
gamble of their desperation. So finally I told her that if she came
back with them to the bridge I would have the police catch them. Despite
the fact that I didn't think the police cared about such things she believed
me and did not come back. The babies were healthy and quite grown up when I
next saw them again.
I could not say how many infants died on that bridge, nor if it
was more than if the families had not had the valuable income in real coins
that they got from people walking to and fro in much better lives.
One amazing thing about the bridge was to stop and listen. To all the
stories that the children could tell you, because they knew everything.
One of the first Akha women who brought me a first aid problem was this Akha
woman with a huge thumb. She had got a piece of wood sliver stuck in it
and then it had infected and gotten very big and had a hole in one side and
out the other. I kept it dressed and cleaned every day until it
healed. I saw her many years later selling vegetables in Doi Mae
Salong. She said her daughter was nearby. She held up her still
slightly enlarged thumb in a sign of victory.
Then a man came to me under the bridge with three very large groin abcesses
that he wanted me to drain for him which I did. Never knew what you
were going to run into and mostly it was cleaning wounds or helping things
drain and then cleaning them, and bandaging them properly and then doing it
all again the next day. Care was the chief ingredient one used.
Many times in those days I took special care because I knew that the most
unkept or weakest Akha would never make it to the hospital which was set so
far back from the border due to concerns about security with Burma. There had
been wars here many times, along the border. The police would usually
turn back the Akha trying to make it to the hospital, so if someone needed to
go, I had to physically take them, pay for the taxi which was a hefty sum in
Natalie and her beating
As I mentioned, Natalie was quite the actor, and sometimes to get sympathy
from tourists for money, and because of her small size for her age, she would
go to crying very loud on the bridge and then when all the other kids came
(and tourists of course) to see what happened, the girls would talk loudly
that her father was no good and had beaten her because she failed to gather
any money in the day, being so small and it was nearly time to go home and
she had nothing and was crying in anticipation of the beating which she would
get. Then the tears all went away as soon as a coin made its
Boober's sister is shot through hand while they are living in Thailand.
Her husband was working on some job and gone, so some drunk Thais tried to
break in and rape her. Her and her mother held the door shut best they could
and then the Thai men shot a gun through the door and the bullet went right
through Boober's sister's hand.
Boober worked at the hardware, where they make carts, down at the south end
of town, not far from the dirty theatre.
Boobers house was near the creek on the Burma side, set apart from all the
other houses, except for one. I wondered why? Was there politics
to that? Then if you went a little further, you would come to where the
protestant Akha lived.
Boober and I were friends for a while. This was before I could speak Akha
very much at all. I was madly in love with her. At any rate someone
can catch ahold of your heart and your heart won't let go no matter how
many times they walk out of your life. In the case of Boober I just
didn't know enough of Akha and what was going on with the culture to know how
to hold the relationship together and get married.
And I also didn't know what was going on behind my back but it appeared as
though something was.
In the end Boober got married to someone in Chiang Saen and I didn't see her
again though I did see her sister once or twice on the main street in Maesai.
Then years later, when I could speak Akha quite well and also knew more of
how the communities worked, I met her father and mother somewhere in
Thailand. I asked them why things hadn't worked out. They replied
that they didn't know me, they just knew "falangs" and they thought
that I would get married to their daughter and take her to America and they
would never see her again, because that is what happened around they
thought. And of course, in many cases it was true, not just about
Akha but others also.
Burned fingers girl
Her fingers were all fused together. Her mother called me to see her in
the market. I very much wanted to fix those hands but after many years
still could not afford to do it. Later she was in school according to her
mother. Down by Mae Chan. That would have been about 2000. Due to my tiny
budget, it was very difficult for me to fund any extensive hospital
work. Matter of fact, the hospital at Overbrook got so demanding about
rapid payment that I could no longer take the Akha there at all, not knowing
ahead of time how expensive it was going to be. And then they would
hold patients hostage until they paid, the bill going up every day to
Cheri the school teacher
Cheri was a girl from Malipaco who was a school teacher for me during
one of the half day schools that I ran for beggar children. We were all
super poor. I bought whatever food I could and cooked it up in the
morning, all the kids pitching in.
I meet Paul Lewis With
He is a tall man, somewhat rude to
me. This was before I knew much of his history, and certainly there was
no apparent cause that he should be rude, unless it was more fear than
rudeness at the perchance that I should stay around and find out too much.
He heard that I was working on the Akha language, and seeing himself as the
expert on this, he became upset. Course later there were rumors that he
was CIA and that there was STILL a heroin connection in Burma. The
Burmese government had accused all the old missionary CIA types of political
rather than religious activities. People had talked of the US wanting
Eastern Shan state as a proxy state to fight China from, but everyone got
kicked out and the Shan got beat up pretty bad, much of their identity wiped
out. Course the Shan hadn't treated the Akha very well, and the Akha took
note of this.
He worked for Leo on books in Chiangmai.
But these books were never made available.
He went to Taiwan for two years, but I don't know if he made much money there.
He was content to come back.
Seemed there was a Taiwan connection eager to take Akha girls too like the
one at the Police Box junction on the way to Doi Mae Salong on the Thatong
Maechan Highway. As time went by we heard more and more about incidents with
the Taiwanese missionaries and girls gone missing.
Little Akha Mamma Sahn In
She was always behind the Wang Tong trying to call people into the brothel
there. She also helped get them up the back door to the hotel.
Saw her many years later at the Chiangrai River Elephant Camp. She had lost
her other job. And now life was going down that much faster. I had
always wondered about her job and what she thought about it but we never got
to talk much. There were a lot of unanswered questions.
Man with three wives
This Akha man was from the upper christian village, murdered, found out
behind the flat village. Ah Zeh saw the hacked corpse. Killed with a
He had been dealing in pills they said. Who wasn't?. The situation in
the upper village with the Taiwanese mission there was really messed up.
There were lots of suicides and things like that. People with very serious
health problems but no one would assit them from the mission.
Then there was their village headman, Ah Seh, who was over to visit a friend
at another hut and someone came to that hut and blew him with a gun from
outside the hut very close up, it tore the whole of his face and jaw
off. He had been the man who fought us about burying the dead Akha man
from our village in their cemetary up on the mountain. They didn't want any
Akha from the low village buried there. But this particular man was
Christian, but they didn't care, they didn't want him anyway.
Meeh Smm's father
The bird man dies, 2000.
I saw him one time. Mom was running a little store, they had this new
little boy, and the father was perched in there on the shelf near the front
of the littel wooden and tin shop like a bird, he was that small. But Akha
women didn't mind. Men kept the house, the Akha women needed them to help
Mita Green Shoes
I remember Meeh Dtah once got these
new green shoes, they stuck out in my mind, they were so green. I saw
her alive long years after she left Maesai and came back. Funny how that
was, you remembered this kid or that kid, and then someone would grab you by
the arm years later in Maesai and say "Machu". And I would pause
and try to remember who they were, and then be overjoyed that yes, another
one was still making it, still alive. That was making it around here.
Meeh Looh, Ah leh
These two girls, one
day I saw them having a big fight. Not like angry, but like what young
people do when they are contesting something, friends. Well it turned
out they were contesting an Akha boy named Aih Aih. Seems that an
accusation or a reputation was at stake, in this competition for this
boy. But Aih Aih as mentioned died when he was 19. Does anyone
remember? Aih Aih was the son of one of Attur's brother's. He probably
got buried there in the rugged cemetary the Catholics owned near the village,
a great assortment of crosses of the "rich" and poor, buried in
such poverty. Death like this, seemed like such a great
humiliation. In the west we hide the humiliation of death in mortuaries,
forest lawns as we like to call them, and some how the termporary status of
our very important stay here is covered over. A look at an impoverished
cemetary will tell you the tragedy that got the people there, nothing is
hidden, nor was it, for those whot took the time to pay notice.
Bala Akha was just over the border into Burma. I stayed there after my
motorcycle wreck, he was a dear old boy, smoked opium, hung around, like they
had been doing for years, raising kids. The hut was tiny. they had two
daughters, one name Meeh Smm, who was mostly deaf in one ear. His wife had
the sweetest tail there was he said as she was giving me a massage for my
rather smashed up body. I liked the Akha villages on the Burma side
better than on the Thai side. Not because of the Akha being different so much
in one place versus the other, but because the Thais so profaned what it
meant to be Akha, and the missionries of course. If you weren't some
slant eyed Chinaman, you weren't nobody. First you had to become Chinese,
then you could become christian, in that order. Course, wasn't near so good
as being white protestant.
She was the second sister after Meeh
Dtah. I heard rumored there was an older sister went to Japan. I
don't know if they ever heard from her again. That was so many years before
one could only guess about the conditions of that situation. I always
wondered about this, families seperated, this was a significant event in
life, an unreconciled seperation, where the family didn't even know what
became of their child, never heard of them again, so very very tragic.
The years closed in over all of it like water, the hope of even seeing their
child or knowing the truth just a wisp of time.
Meeh Yer married and went to Chiang Mai. She had two kids there. She said her
husband got drunk. Take a look at the poverty and the kind of jobs and it was
Had a kid and then asked for it
back, they gave it to her, she held her life together and here that is a
miracle. We must look, we must see these miracles, not what should be
but what is in spite of everything and be very thankful to God for it.
That is how severe this place is. In the later years I saw her often
going to the market in Maesai.
Meh Khong was this Akha girl and her
mother, they were super poor, like everyone, but more so. Her Sister
was hooking and died of AIDS. She called me to go look at her on the
Burma side before this. She must have been 19 or 20 by this time. Her face
was covered with herpes blisters. She died not too long after that.
I didn't see Meh Khong around for years. She and her mother went somewhere.
But then later the kids said she came back and then went to Bangkok.
One felt few people came back from Bangkok.
It was because so many of these people went out into "nothing" that
I didn't quit, how could I possibly have it as difficult as they, so often
they were so without hope.
Mr. joes akha cook, bawdy
She laughed a lot while talking
about all the positions and ways that sex could be had. Not exactly what you
wanted to overhear at breakfast. I wondered what all the laughter was in the
She told how the women were always asking her how much sex she
had and what it was like, some guys big, some guys small? I guess she had
been in that job before.
She was the cook for a while at Mr. Joe's guest house.
When the bridge closed they all went home to Burma.
Nati attemp rape by
security guy from across street
Nati was this Lahu girl
who worked at the Guest House. The Shan boy across the street was one of the
security guards and broke into her room and tried to rape her, but she got
out of there in a hurry. The catechist came over but the owner tried to hush
the whole thing up.
Later almost the entire family in that house died of AIDS.
Nati gets pregnant?
Then they say that she was pregnant
while she was taking gold from the Hawaiian who broke the police station
clock, but at the same time was the mistress of an Akha or Lahu headman in a
I was always on speaking terms with her and it was really her matter. I
suggested she keep it to a low roar. But she went away for a few months
and the others said she went and had an abortion and hid out in Burma for a
while. One never knew, and seldom asked questions about such things.
Girl in Keng tung band
There was an Akha Band Master at the
Keng Tung Festival who was a girl. She was said to be an orphan and
"opted" to become a nun. This was part of my first
investigations into the church and how they funneled a lot of so called
orphans into mission service without ever giving them a chance to get away
from the church in Keng Tung and having a life. The Keng Tung Mission
had big stone halls. I used to go and visit father Ah Pah when he was alive,
he liked to smoke cigars, the rank Burmese green ones, and have some
whiskey. Sometimes the hill tribe women would cook us lunch, but I was
often arriing just after all the priests had lunch. Father Norman, and
others. Father Ah Pah, his lower lip was thick from smoking so many years. He
struggled to make an Akha book but it didn't get done. He finally got
to go to Rome, but wanted to go on to Florida and see an old friend he had
known for many years. It was impressive how well he knew and was known
by people, the first Akha priest, but the Bishop wouldn't let him continue to
Florida and he came home only to die that summer. I met him when he had
moved out of the mission building and was in the old man's house as I called
it. A seperated and lonely place. They said that he had a stroke, but
it was more than this, I think that after so many years in the mission
building his heart broke when he left it, and he should have been allowed to
stay there and pass away at will, as he had been so faithful to that room, to
that building and to the Akha. He had spoken up to bring back more of the
culture, to not destroy it all, that they Akha kids didn't know much of their
language any more. But Bishop Abraham would hear nothing of it. I couldn't
imagine the shock of going to Florida, or even thinking about Florida, a
place where it was warm and tropical and many people retired, and one had
hope, one thought hope, one felt things could get done. But living in Keng
Tung compared to that was like living on Mars. Not bad, but about as
far away from the world as one could get, particularly the world where you
could make changes in your poverty in a hurry.
I will miss him, he was one of the main reasons I slipped in the end door of
the great mission building time and again. Coming up from town in the
cold evenings. Seeing a dim light on in this room or that, getting the
big gates open. After Father Ah Pah died I came back and saw Father
Norman. The place didn't change much, which is a different story.
Like him, the mission would not be there forever.
There was a library up stairs they would not let anyone see.
The Burmese came and built a huge Buddah next to the mission. I
sort of figured out why.
The missing baby boy,
Phillip was a visitor
here and he said that he investigated where this Akha woman took her child to
the hospital, and then they told her that her son was sick and that she
should go home and come back in a couple of days and then when she came back
they said that the boy had died and been cremated already. When Phillip
went and talked to the doctor, the doctor claimed that the records had been
destroyed when the hospital basement flooded.
Som Pah Sak village had a similar case around 1997.
The mother and father were very angry but there was nothing that anyone would
do about it for them at the time. I only heard about it three years
Phillip was from New Zealand. He was making a video he said. It became
clear that making a video about how bad the Akha had it was more important
than the fact that they had it bad. Exploitive journalism I called
it. Journalism being some kind of holy grail, that if you labeled
yourself as a journalist, an artist, that somehow there was a kind of purity,
an acceptableness about the exploitation.
This is what we called her because
of her happy go lucky attitude and the look on her face. She was one of
the older Akha girls in town. Years later, now pregnant by a Thai, as his
second wife, running a small shop near the bridge. Not much future.
She had a brain, a lot of western guys had wanted to marry her
but she was deep in the hooker system of 01 Karaoke in Maesai. She too
was from the mission in Keng Tung.
The English Speaker
There was this one guy who lived in
the Akha village, who could speak broken english. He would tell me cases for
years. He looked pretty sick the last time I saw him. He was a heroin
addict, always scruffy, from the catholic village of Attur. But he knew a
lot. Funny how this is, that some of those who by western standards are
the most visually broken people, are the best people, that they have time for
people, that they know facts and grief and that it ain't easy. They
don't spend a lot of time hiding their humanity, their failures.
There was a thin Muslim man, extremly black skin, thin as a
rail, lots of kids, sold wares on the bridge for years feeding his family. He
had a very nice wife. One of his last kids was born with a birth
defect. I asked him about what chemicals she worked with because it was
similar to a birth defect showing up in the Akha villages in Thailand where
the babies were born without an anus. Required immediate surgery and
made big headaches for years.
Agaw was a protestant Akha man. He
knew about the old Akha language. He had seen a man use it once to make the
leaves turn yellow and fall off a tree. He said that they could also
use the old language to make a girl fall in love with you.
He said that a person could get an old man to make these things happen for
you by paying him, but he thought it bad, said it came out bad. I wondered if
this was in fact the case or if he was mugging the facts because he was
supposed to be "christian" now. This interpretation of the
culture was very bad. But he said that he did sit and see this Akha man
make the leaves dance and a the leaves on a tree turn all yellow.
Agaw had told of many of the Akha women who Lewis sterilized and how they
were dead now.
He knew about it, but I also got the impression he had gotten roped into
helping gather up the women. Paul Lewis had used the pastors in this
way, to gather up Akha women for sterilizations for his project, a new kind
of gospel. He had said that there were these tents set up where Lewis
had trained Akha's or others to do sterilizations in the communities, and
that they weren't done well and some women died of this too.
Running a religion was business here, churches, traveling salesmen, snake
oil. Churches would give money for this and Agaw worked very hard to stay in
this position. They all did, one never knew what truth they were
telling. Agaw was unique in that he was a kind of orthodox christian,
he lived a very ordred life, and tried to teach those around him in an orthodox
kind of way, about living and health. But I couldn't live in Burma, so it was
hard to see close up. I went to his house under the military hill, and saw
things he had written up on the wall to teach people. He built another
house and church eventually, the same building, not sure how it developed
after that. Churches here were dime a dozen, including on the Burma
side where he was. Study of the Bible and finding a sponsor to become a
preacher, all you needed was the sponsor and go at it. No one ever
asked about substance, just long as you made people change some aspect of
their lives to be more "white". Some people took it
seriously, others I didn't know. Agaw seemed to take it more to heart
to live a good life. But his sister said his wife was very unkind to
her. His wife sold flowers in the market, they never quit working, that
family. His sister went away to Bible school in Rangoon. People here were
always going to Bible school. Others went to the Phillipines, really was a
big business with rather a vague outcome. No one would sponsor you to
be a scientist or doctor, but would spend untold fortune to help you be a
Agaw said he was working in seven or so villages. He used to be a
catholic catechist I think, but later quit. His brother Andrew was a cultural
leader at Malipacco the Paul Lewis camp. I wondered about what he was
really up to. Andrew said that the Malipacco people didn't want him to
help me on the script, to stop. I think Noel was the author of that
problem, he was paid a lot to do the old testament for the Lewis camp. I
think that was done now, and he had gotten himself in somewhere at Chiangmai,
maybe Chiangmai or Payup university. He was also called Nowin. There
were several efforts on the Bible, but not much willingness to cooperate. SIL
was involved in the matter too. I asked the SIL man about all the
divisiveness and why it wasn't a more transparent process. He got mad
at me, sad he didn't like the tone of my voice, rather than answering to the
questions and their validity, which I was conveying for the people in the
Akha community who were concerned about it.
There was a conneection to a Gum Shay who was a Burmese man with a wife in
the US. He was at Payup, and he went back and forth. He supposedly
checked Noel's translation work. Then the Australian man with the Jesus film
knew about that project too.
Attur got married to Moo Moo's son.
The got pregnant. An opium man told how she decided to get an abortion on the
advice of someone. The opium man, this addict, who still was very powerful in
the village, told how the mother of Attur came and asked him to help stop the
abortion, but it happened anyway. The mother said she went and buried
the baby in the yard after Attur brought it back to the house wrapped in a
Attur’s sister got sticks
under the skin in arm when she decided she didn't want any more kids. Depo
Pravera I think it was. Something that people are against in the west, but it
gets used on lots of people in the third world.
Attur's Fat Boss
Attur's boss at the shop along the
road was a big fat Chinese woman. She had made money on opium and heroin was
the word. But she, like all the other pinched owners near the bridge
slaved all the Akha and Burmese boys and girls she could to be little
servants at the shop, selling this and that, going home, washing clothes,
cleaning the house and then up early to cook the rice, years of this for
maybe $10 a month. The fat boss had a daughter who fell in love with this guy
but the boss wouldn't let her marry him and she took a bunch of pills and
tried to kill herself. In the end she didn't marry the guy, but a
certain hope was gone from her eyes after that. In Akha culture the parents
can not forbid a marriage.
One guy, not an Akha, some other group, wanted to marry this
girl really bad, so her family killed him, invited him to their house and
then tied him up in a chair and shot him up with a big dose of heroin.
Attur got a sewing machine but didn't much care to use it. I
think she sold it eventually. Being a seamstress was not what it was
cracked up to be. Matter of fact, the Thai women would split their dress
making enterprises. They were so afraid to allow the employees to learn, that
they had one house where they made the sleaves, another where they made the
rest, another where they sewed on the collars and another where they sewed on
the sleaves, so that no body would know the whole process and then go do
their own business, this was how desperate and exploitive the whole process
was. So why your servant girls from Burma slaved, you carefully parked
and locked up your mercedes each night. That was the dream. That was
This fellow came to the bridge as a
guide. He brought tourists, and he looked intentionally like Elvis, long
bushy side burns, that is what we then called him. Elvis. He was from Doi
Maselong. An ok guy. "The Lahu are a little quicker on their feet
to gaining knowledge than the "slow Akha" he says. The Akha
can do it the same way 100 times and loose the money each time and they will
keep doing it that way he figured. So much for Lahu Akha relations Then years
later I saw him again in Laos.
Ah meeh marries AI who
Ah Meeh was this chubby Akha girl
who was always happy. She grew up and married to Aih Aih. But then at 19 Aih
Aih died of Aids they said. And then later Ah Meeh died.
In 2001 I saw Ah Meeh's now grizzled mother, with the grand daughter, I was
very happy she was still alive. The fragments of the village.
Very sad that all these things happened this way. I felt so sad because
there was so much that I would have done, that I dearly wanted to do if I had
but the resources to do it.
I wrote all that I could remember down on paper, the people, tried to
remember the faces. What they looked like, there were so many, and we
remember friends again by seeing them, but at the bridge the people died so
fast and so many, that one had a hard time remembering them all. To
tell about who they were in words, what their lives were worth, their
importance, is somehow far short of who they really were and the credit they
Ah Zeeh was a commander of the Akha
militia on the Burma side. Sometimes we crossed the brdige and went to see
him. He built a market for the Akha and many of them sold vegetables
there, it was a little out from the town on the road to Keng Tung.
The drug and jail
transaction regarding Bah Lah Akha
One time a man from Burma tried to
sell some drugs in Thailand. The police were trying to steal the pills,
and got caught, cause you don't go to the source of all the drugs and try to
do law enforcement there. One policeman died and another got shot through the
arm. The Akha translator they brought along they threw in prison because they
thought he was double crossing them. And they captured other men returning
home to the village that had nothing to do with it. So the Akha
chieftan told Ah Zeeh to write a letter that said that the man who sold the
drugs had to pay money for lawyers to the family who's son was arrested to
get him out of jail. Quite a large amount of cash changed hands to get
this done. Hard feelings kept to a limited amount. The
negotiations were done from one house, a house where I later found out the
one young man died of fever. It was down towards the bottom of the
village. The girl there had a scarred lip. Later she ended up working in Huai
Krai at a feed store that the Akha owned.
There was this man on the
bridge, Burmese. His wife died, he had a little girl. He sold soda pop in
small cups, back in the good ole days when we hung out on the bridge
itself. And he brought his daughter with him, she sat on the motorcycle
seat under the umbrella that he had on his cart. He had soda pop and
then a chest of ice. We were always friends, from about 1991 on. Then I
didn't see him so often, when the bridge became more formal. Later
years later, I saw him working in a welding shop near the river east
side. He was working in a welding shop. Arc welding. He didn't have any
goggles, he worked without them. He was welding together metal gates.
She was from Chiang Mai. A
slight woman. She worked on ID card issues for many Akha
villages. She was overwhelmed obviously with work and with awareness of
the difficulties in the lives of the village Akha. She however had a
real hard time delegating her work load to others and I think that this made
her job more impossible.
She did not yet know how to speak english and I think it made her skills to
network on behalf of the Akha handicapped.
Booti was a thin girl of about ten
years old who came to the school sometimes. She was rather high strung, and
didn't always get along with the other kids because of this, not because she
was difficult but was just very reactive to everything. Booti's mother
was an opium adict. But then one day Booti said that her mother was
having a baby and died. But the child lived. Her mother was very tiny,
not much left of her, it was something I could imagine. Opium addicts
often got vrey small and stayed that way for many years. Some days
later I asked Booti if her baby brother was doing Ok.. Then Booti
replied that now the child was dead also. And it was the way she said
it, as off handedly as saying "it rained". They didn't figure there
was much anyone could do. I asked her why she hadn't come over and the
reply was that it had just happened, life was that way, some people
die. Their community was very poor, and life was very matter of fact
over the hardest things.
After she left the school I never saw Booti again. Some of the children
went south to work, very young, into Thailand, Chiangmai, some grew into
unsavory jobs, and others died, but I might not hear about it for
years. Or sometimes I would be going down the street and someone would
grab at me, and it would take me the longest time to remember who, and then I
would be really amazed that they were doing ok.
She is one of the girls who takes photos
at the bridge. She is different from the other girls, more proper and
more respectful than the rest who are generally ill mannered and fight and
quarrel among themselves like dogs and a bone. Then at 14 she mixed it
up with a chinese fellow and got married, didn't see her much after that. He
wanted her to start a karaoke girly bar, don't know what came of that, her
mother didn't like the man or so claimed, but it was all sort of hard for me
to figure. Then after a while she was working in the Wang Tong massage
so that her mother could sport more gold and busy body around all day. Her
older sister was there too, but after two years or more got married.
Ah Meeh's husband was still a going event, so after doing a little
prostitution she was still together with him from what her mother said, but I
never saw any of the family in town to know one way or the other, if they had
kids or not.
While their mother worked for me they both got sent to school, and also
language classes. I offered them to keep going to classes as well, but
they were not interested in that, so in the end they went their own way at
the direction of their mother. It is difficult to see people make that
decision. I had spent considerable money trying to keep them in the
education process. Quite battered by life, I did see them years
later. Tired. Worn. A child or to, lives that were very very hard. Some
of them were staying in Thailand with no ID cards.
I didn’t notice her first as I
walked down the lane in the market but she called out to me as I came
by. Then it took a minute for me to remember who she was.
Oh yes, she had been one of the photo girsl on the bridge in years gone by
and then I had lost track of her.
I sat down beside her on the bamboo mat where she sold her goods and was
comforted that something in her life was not disjointed and torn apart.
I wondered if she had any idea what my life was like. Most villagers
thought all western people were rich, and for the most part they were
right. Yet the complexity of western problems were far greater. Visas
and all of that.
She said she was poor, not like the photo days. He understood. It
meant way poor. Now she was married and pregnant. They
didn’t have much money between them.
She said too many people come to the market to sell and things don’t
sell well. She scratched betwen her fingers and asked him if he had any
medicine for mites. Her hands were scrabbly with cuts and scratches
from working in the jungle where she took her basket on her back and gathered
bamboo shoots and other plants.
Despite what she said, and her poor clothes he was made to feel
that she was still strong, still carrying on. The hardness of her life
accented the beauty of her face. Whatever she held in her heart came
out in a soothing voice that I found comforting. I was always amazed
when people with so many brutal experiences in their lives, came out with
statements of contentment or joy where one would think none could grow.
I didn’t have much to offer her beyond words and promised that I would
bring some medicine the next day which I did.
My Friend From The Keng
Life goes on, parts company with you
and then hooks back up again later on.
There was this one woman whom I offered a ride back from Keng Tung many years
She always sold vegetables in the market. She was short and small and
packed this amazing huge basket on her back, sometimes full of bannana leaves
which were sold for wrapping food to the Thai women, or she got a whole lot
of lychee fruit to sell. Either way it was heavy. WhenI was in Keng
Tung I saw her. I was riding in one truck, but I got her a lift back in
another truck because she had a small baby with her. She was sitting in
the back of an open truck at the water station just up the mountain south of
Keng Tung and she would soon be covered with dust along with the baby.
The truck was packed with people standing up, sitting on freight. She would
be able to sit inside on the way back to Maesai.
But I didn’t see her for many years and then one day way down in
Thailand I ran into her on a Thai farm, with a daughter.
Her baby at the time when I gave her the ride, had caught fever and died.
This is so common here. I have photos still of that moment, at the truck, her
baby boy. So sad when the children don't make it, and usually they die
of simple things. This always causes me to feel that these people are
abandoned, that they suffer and die so often in silence and no one hears
their voice or comes to help them. One need only to hear a mother in a
village wailing over the loss of her small baby to have this etched in the
Nothing about life is very long or permament here in these parts. And
the frequency of the loss was stunning to the mind. I wondered how I
came from a land where there was so often hope, where people hoped for it and
fed it, but here it was like people dared not think of hope, but just wanted
to slip by the dark side of fate unnoticed. Death of children was not
the exception, it was the rule. Mothers saw nearly half their children
die. Sometimes more.
Ellen and I to village
I met this woman named Ellen Burno
who worked with the Tibetan nuns. She thought the Akha looked Tibetan.
She stopped by in Maesai and asked about the Akha so I took her over to the
Burma side. She ended up making a video called žSacraficeÓ about
prostitute’s lives here.
There was this other woman, she had
two small girls and a boy. One girls name was Booma and the other's
naem was Meeh Dtah. Meeh Dtah was serious, Booh Mah was laughing and
funny. But what made you notice her, was that she tried not to be funny. She
would think something was funny and try to hold onto it for the longest time,
fighting to keep her face serious, and then finally let out laughing. Which
of course everyone thought was funny too. The group of them sat there for
long hours each day selling vegetables in the Maesai market.
She was a very short woman.
She was in her sixties now so I could imagine the stories that she had to
tell about this region of the world. My father in law was only 45 and
he had plenty of stories. She smoked a pipe, had a round happy face,
and like many other mothers saw most of her children die. She lived in
a tiny hut on the uphill side of the trail in the village. It was so
small. Attur's father was dead. I had seen a picture of him when he was
very old, before I came to these parts of the world. A very tiny picture,
stained and tattered. Akha houses had clothes, pictures, a broken
mirror. Always there were pictures to pull out. When I first knew the Akha I
had less context in which to mount the pictures but in time I realized that
these photos, so recent a phenomenom to the Akha, were the only grasp they
had on the past, memories. And soon enough the humidity and the rain changed
the color as mold and stains crawled across the memories.
Vaccinations of children by
the Burmese nurses
On one of my trips across the bridge in those early years, when it was a
chore to get any kind of permit to go through the gate, I went up to the
catholic Akha village and saw some Burmese Nurses with a stainless steel
thing of ice and little vaccines down in each one that they were giving to
the children. What a contrast, trying to do this amidst all the
poverty, with very little back up. And with all the controversy about
vaccines as well.
Later on, the Thais and
then the Burmese, built massive buildings atop each end of the bridge, ugly
as hell, totally destroyed the view up the street and into Burma. But
that was so typical, ugly for the sake of ego. "My bridge house is
bigger than yours!"
In the end, the bridge part of Maesai was horribly congested,
the huge building that fell from space on top of the road. There wasn't
adequate parking, but a thousand and one events and people going on.
Buses going to the Wong Tong, pedestrians, a busy border point as in any
I knew most of the immigration people, some were friendly, some
were dark and grumbling.
But the area was so conjested that one could hardly see any of
the hawkers, only the trained eye could pick them out, the regulars.
Gathered in little groups here and there. The faces fewer and fewer.
A new bridge was near completion east of town. But somehow the
quaintness of the place was gone for ever. I had seen photos where
there were only a few huts on the Maesai side and almost all the buildings
were on the Burma side. And that was not so long ago.
The End Chapter 2.
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Copyright 2004, by Matthew McDaniel