“Off with your head” opulence! When I was growing up in Asia, the enchanting movies of Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I had become worldwide sensations. The “exotic” land e Siam, now Thailand, intrigued millions of people worldwide. A land of gold, gold and gold palaces. With the beauty, charm and elegance of exotic royalty. Opulence is clearly the right word.
“生杀予夺”一般的奢华和权柄！在英文的童话故事里皇帝都喜欢说“要砍掉你的头”（“off with your head”)一句话来表达他的这种权威。
Siam’s King, however, had great ideas for modernizing his country, even though he was clearly a dictator! After all, he was King! Though no actual heads rolled on the movie sets, similar threats were obviously executed.
In modern-day Thailand, the recently deceased King was thoroughly modern and well educated. He was revered and loved throughout the kingdom as a demi-god, with huge, impressively elegant photos of him in every home and institution! Few people outside of Thailand know that he was actually born in the USA, where kings aren’t normally born, and that he was also a fine musician on the clarinet, a key instrument for early 1900s jazz, which isn’t that popular in Asia. A fascinating king in a fascinating country.
The power of the throne. The throne is still immensely powerful today and is the wealthiest ($90 billion) in the world. Plus, there is the infamous les majeste law, which means that any offense (even verbal) against the king means practically off with your head consequences!
Off with your head for fun. Where else would you applaud “Put Head in Crocodile Jaws”? There are few places in the world where a brave man gets a huge admiring audience cheering him on when he willingly shoves his head into the gaping jaws of a crocodile. And where the same semi-naked agile man grabs the tail of the crocodile, or wraps his arms around the cold- blooded reptile with a hug and clamps the gaping jaws shut. All for fun and fascination! That’s Siam for you.
Where else can you get snake venom squished from live poisonous snakes 5 feet before you? At 15 years of age, I remember watching in awe from 5 feet away, with no protective glass separation, as a snake handler expertly clamped the jaws of different poisonous snakes and deftly squished out the deadly venom onto petri dishes, to the amazement and applause of all onlookers. All for a great cause, at the Pasteur Institute in Bangkok, to produce precious anti-venom snake antibodies, literally for the world. Exotic crocodiles and exotic snakes, in an exotic land.
Better to turn man-eaters into handbags. It seemed in those days like a brilliant idea to have deadly crocodiles and snakes farmed and controlled for science, entertainment and dollars! Especially when converted into precious handbags, wallets and belts.
I was mesmerized particularly by the superb quality and polished beauty of the rugged, jagged and brilliant brown crocodile skin wallets, given to me as prized exotic gifts by my favorite aunt from Thailand. Such dangerous elegance! That’s Siam for you.
A 14-year-old girl from mysterious Siam flies into Sunday School. My personal high point in this Siam story was a 14-year-old girl who dropped out of the sky from Siam, and showed up in my Hong Kong Sunday School. During a time when people rarely flew, let alone kids. A kid who entirely changed my life.
And who inspired me to learn Thai phrases, especially her very long Thai name. Actually no one else knows this name to this very day, and I won’t tell you, since it’s a convenient backup for secret codes.
Language inspiration. That inspiration to learn a new language started me on an early track of learning at least 20 phrases in at least 20 languages for the many countries I visited throughout life. Sometimes 50 phrases if I was going to be visiting for a bit longer. A very practical skill for anyone. People just brighten up immediately if I can say even just a few words in their native tongue!
Being young was a great time to learn a foreign language. Indeed, likely because I started young, native language speakers often commented that my pronunciation of their language phrases wasn’t bad.
Truly mesmerized at age 15. My first visit to Thailand at age 15 was indeed captivating. It probably helped inspire me to travel and learn for the rest of my life. Plus Siam was really so different in culture, language and just exceptional beauty. Palaces, temples, it seemed like practically any public structure was built with elegance and charm. The colors were often golden and brilliant purple. I had never seen anything like it, and I still think it’s one of the prettiest countries in the world!
“Bow to (gold-colored) Buddha.” I learnt that, contrary to modern western cultures, there was such a thing as state religion. There was no separation between Buddha and state! Public schools opened early in the morning with worship of an image or statue of Buddha, and he was literally everywhere. Huge temples were dedicated to him, and in each home there was often a small shrine or even miniature temple for him.
And his yellow- or brown-robed priests were everywhere, especially early in the morning, collecting rice and food from the neighborhood. It was a total visual assault on the brain.
I found out that only less than one or two percent of the population were Christians. Surprisingly, the Christian numbers were in significant part because of minority tribes that had accepted the new faith up in the mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of the big (majority Thai) cities.
Fearless motorcycle-riding native evangelist over unpaved mountain trails. Years later, I would travel with a local native Lisu tribe missionary, Barnabas. He regaled me with stories of how many of the minority tribes (especially Lisu, Akha and Lahu) became Christians. He was extremely active on his motorcycle, traveling from very poor village to very poor village in the mountains, preaching the Good Word.
He encountered gun-toting drug dealers when he got too close to their hideouts. He broke his leg while driving over the unpaved muddy roads. He had personally experienced many difficulties as a child seeking a good education himself. But his stories were also great examples of how the gospel changed the villages. Even from planting opium and drug dealing into law-abiding Christian villages.
Barnabas’ own minority Lisu tribe, amazingly, became 50% Christian, which is one of the largest Christian percentages of any population throughout Asia.
Objects on home high shelf are idols? I learned that tribal minorities were often animists, who worshipped trees, rocks and nature. Plus they had objects on their home shelves that looked quite normal, like vases and bottles. But these objects had been given special spiritual significance, and they were worshipped as idols.
Once items were considered sacred, the villagers attached special significance to them, including that they should be higher up than other objects. This even translated into Christian tribal feelings about things like the Bible, which could not be placed on any low surface, especially feet level.
“Let’s slaughter a big pig.” Some tribal customs were dramatic. Slaughtering a huge boar on church grounds with blood dripping into sandy ravines was indeed overly dramatic for foreigners. But it brought out the community spirit, with everyone getting together to chop up the slain boar and eat a big feast. This could include hundreds of people chomping on the very freshly boiled and very fat pork. One thing that was always impressive was their community exuberance!
Courageous 17-year-old Hong Kong girl. We heard the story of a courageous Hong Kong girl, Wendy, who began to visit northern Thailand tribal villages while still a teenager. She was touched by the poverty and aimlessness of their society. While still in her early twenties, she began organizing many Hong Kong teams to go every few months to encourage the tribal people.
Dramatically, she then decided on a 10-month stay, in an Akha tribal village under primitive conditions, which confirmed her personal calling for this specific people group.
After seminary training, Wendy literally plunged into an extremely challenging life, including marrying a local Akha minority pastor, and starting schools and churches. All for the love of her Lord. A truly inspiring story.
Life-threatening land mines and opium growing. Tribal minorities historically lived in mountainous borderland areas, often growing opium and other drugs, where vicious drug lords often planted landmines to keep out others, and where numerous illegal refugee crossings also occurred. These activities often centered around the infamous northern Thailand Golden Triangle region at the junction of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, named presumably for its “gold” and corruption.
Many refugees cross illegally, especially from Myanmar into Thailand, escaping war and chaos. They are usually truly “dirt poor” and often discriminated against.
These refugees are often the tribal villagers selling trinkets on Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai streets. They look charming and exotic, especially when dressed in colorful tribal attire. The Akhas appear strikingly beautiful, with their silver-loaded hats and garments, but they’re actually barely making a living selling these trinkets, which they have to carry around all day, hoping to sell a few to fascinated tourists.
Warm hospitality, land of smiles. There’s no question that Siam is a warm and hospitable land, the land of smiles. We could even sense that when visiting extremely poor villages. The homes were bare, with the family’s entire life belongings basically just hung up on the bamboo walls. The whole family often just lived in one room, yet they even tried to give us food that they clearly couldn’t afford. We weren’t even sure the bamboo floor would hold us when we stepped into the homes. Yes, when we interact with humans at a human level, it can be very touching.
Discomforting comfortable teens. I particularly loved to bring teenagers to these far, far away tribal mountains, because they provided significant challenges, including their very different cultures, languages, and religions. Youth is the best time to inspire and encourage everyone.
Dark side. “Leave your passport with us.” But there is a dark side of this storybook land. In our younger days, we heard of tourists, especially from Asian countries, required to pay a “special charge” to get through the Bangkok Airport Customs smoothly. But when we arrived at the airport, we refused to pay the bribes, so we had to stand in line until the officials figured out how to punish us.
They decided to hold our passports, thus forcing our hosting relatives to pick them up days later. It was also far easier to intimidate local people! I didn’t really ask what happened, but I’m assuming the officers probably didn’t just simply release our passports.
Horror stories. Horror stories started coming out of local airport agents planting drugs in the baggage of gullible Asian tourists, in order to then arrest them and exact huge so-called fines. Drug dealers could theoretically get the death penalty, so it wasn’t funny. Fortunately, this racket was exposed after some years.
Dark, dark side. The corruption at borders included mass prostitution tours and gangs heavily involved in drug trafficking or child abuse, particularly including victims from poor tribal minorities.
Our family and church faithfully supported tribal village education for decades, and certainly hoped that the teaching of truth values among poverty-stricken tribes could help protect many families and children from such evils.
A mythical paradise? The picture is often painted of Thailand as a paradise for inexpensive retirement, with excellent housing opportunities, beautiful beaches, and exotic delicious Thai food everywhere. However, the confusing and sharply contrasting, discomforting side of the story keeps popping up as a reminder that there are no paradises on earth, since humans readily contaminate them. There’s only one real ultimate Paradise, the one that we should aim for. Where there are no crocodile chomps, no vile venom, nor corrupt evil.