I like to keep things light-hearted on this blog. Even though my mum once told me that I was a ‘serious’ person, I don’t do serious very well. I go for romantic comedies over period dramas. I adored the whole Bill Bryson collection, but turned my nose up at Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat Pray Love. Even my Google Reader is full of fantastic, witty blogs like The Everywhereist and Escape Artistes.
But every so often, you need to be serious about something. These are always the blogs I get the most nervous about; will I sound too wanky and try-hard? I hope not. You see, I want to tell you about someone I met in Thailand; a young guy called Sam.
I don’t even have a picture of Sam, which I feel pretty rotten about. He made a pretty big impression on me – actually, on all of us – and because I was too distracted and flapping about doing things like photographing my lunch, I can only remember him through my head.
Sam was our local guide on the River Kwai. He was tiny, sprightly and as a result, it was completely impossible to guess his age. He was a bit of a mystery, right down to his ocker Australian accent.
When we were out of our longtail boat (and, consequently, I’d stopped questioning just how I was to disembark the boat and climb up to the dock in one swift move) we put an end to the mystery. Where did he learn his English?
‘Oh, you know, from all the tourists around, eh,’ Sam summed up, not wholly unlike an outback Queenslander.
We chatted away to Sam that first day, intrigued with him but also our gorgeous surrounds. We put our questions on the backburner and enjoyed the life of leisure instead.
We enjoyed the life so much, in fact, that we all weren’t that keen to follow Sam to our morning activity the next day. ‘Visiting the local village’ didn’t sound nearly as enticing as ‘lazing around, reading magazines in the sun’.
According to Paul, apparently Australians constantly do what other people want, just to please the other party; sort of an Aussie version of Japan’s ‘saving face’. The Dutch, in comparison, do not suffer from this problem. Thankfully for all parties involved, the lone Dutchman did want to see the village, and all the Aussies did not. So off we all went.
The ‘local village’, as it was so non-specifically named, was located a couple of hundred metres behind our jungle rafts. The people who lived there were all of Sam’s family and friends; indeed, all the people who were employed by the fifty jungle rafts floating nearby.
Hearing all of this, I immediately – shamefully – was cynical. So this was a Thai Village™, where tourists would be brought in each morning to gawk at things labelled as ‘local’ and buy the ubiquitous handicrafts? Thanks but no thanks.
Well, I was wrong on the first count. This was a Mon village, populated by people who were either born in or had parents from Burma. Most had fled through the thick jungle and over the border to do what so many immigrants around the world do and have done for centuries (when dehumanising labels like ‘illegal’ didn’t exist); to seek a better life.
Gee, did I feel bad then. Sam had either ignored our originally uninterested faces or was good at hiding it, and launched into his story. ‘I’m a Thai, I was born in Thailand,’ he explained. ‘When I was young, we went back to Burma to see family. But when we came back, they wouldn’t let us in. I didn’t have a birth certificate, you see, even though I was born in Thailand. So my uncle had to get me here.’
I’d never heard of the Mon people before. I’d heard references to Burmese refugees in Thailand, but hadn’t really progressed from there. Now I was hearing about it from Sam.
He filled us in about his people as he walked us around the village. The Thai Government lets the Mon people stay where they are, basically in the regions alongside the border. They can’t however go outside a 100km radius for ten years, whereafter they’re given full legal residency.
The only opinion I’ve heard on the whole arrangement is Sam’s – and he reckons it’s working out pretty well. Everyone’s got enough work and food, and when a home gets damaged in the rainy season the whole village pitches in and builds a new one within two days. There’s a school, a football field, and yes, somewhere for the tourists to buy handicrafts. Most importantly, his people were happy, and safe.
Oh, and I forgot one thing. There were also elephants. I got a bit distracted by them for a while.
On the way back, I chatted away to Sam. He intrigued me to no end – the way he would memorise the pronunciation of our names, the fact that he introduced dishes to Paul in simple Dutch and even how he spent his free time; watching documentaries on Australia. ‘Why Australia?’ I asked.
‘Because you’re all from there, eh,’ he replied with a grin. ‘And you come here. So one day, I’m going to save enough to see it for myself.’ He paused. ‘But I heard it’s really expensive there.’
As we walked back to the comforts of the jungle rafts, my heart felt as low as the river level. It was going to take something of a miracle for Sam to ever get to Australia; not only would he need to save for years or probably decades, he would have to get a birth certificate. He was a person without papers. It didn’t matter that he spoke English like Steve Irwin and worked every day of his life.
And what got to me the most? I felt like Sam knew this too.
I often tell myself that I’m lucky to travel. I tell myself that, but sometimes you need to meet people like Sam to really make the whole injustice of it all ring true. Why do I get to see the world, drink cocktails on the beach and constantly moan that I need a holiday (whilst knowing fully that I can access one pretty quickly)? We had the same job – tour guides. Yet we were so different.
If our roles were reversed, I don’t know how I would face the Western tourists every day. But, on the other hand, I have no idea if Sam counts himself as lucky – he had left Burma, unlike his parents.
On the bus ride back to Bangkok, I kept thinking about Sam. The more I thought, the more confused I became. I had no idea how to judge the situation – do we only see the injustices of it all when the two lifestyles are right next to each other and easy to compare? There are millions – no wait, billions – of others with dreams that are unobtainable not because of their own shortcomings, but because of where they happened to be born.
I can’t even begin to understand Sam; trying to simplify his life so that I can make sense of it is simply rude and naive. He’s not there for me to psychoanalyse. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
So I did what I knew I had to do. I laid in the towel, and recognised this hard, uncomfortable part of travelling. The more you see, the more questions you ask. More often than not you won’t get answers, or the answers you want, but that shouldn’t stop you from asking the questions in the first place.