My recent visit to Australia which included God’s Squad’s 35th anniversary celebrations in Melbourne and other engagements in New South Wales and Tasmania, with John Smith and Sammy Horner, saw me take the opportunity to return home via a slum community in Bangkok.
The several hour stopover at Bangkok airport gave me enough time to go through immigration and get a cab into the city of bizarre extremes and visit friends in Klong Toey - a slum community of many thousands on port authority land over looked by huge commercial blocks. I have visited the area twice before. Thousands upon thousands of people live in semi-ordered community of shacks and some more permanent dwellings on and over the mud flats of the Port Authority. Flooding is therefore common and as I saw first hand so is the risk of fire.
The reason for my return visit was to see the good folk of UNOH (Urban Neighbours of Hope), whose pioneering work in their home of Melbourne saw them move to Klong Toey some years ago to live and serve amid the community there. Amid the sights, the stench of open sewers, the aroma of spicy thai food being cooked on every corner, there is also the fragrance of Christ permeating through these narrow walkways partially covered by tin roofs and linked with precarious bridges across the river.
The river itself boasts of life itself - to my amazement fish survive amid the sewage and below the film of slime. The dogs are everywhere but are silent and the radiance of the Thai smile beams from faces working away from dark spaces inside their small home.
I don’t recall any other place where people smile so freely - I was keen to reciprocate as I was acutely aware that after my first visit Rod’s young Thai friends warned him after I had left that I was probably a drug dealer. Before I met with Rod this time I was more aware of the quizzical stares as this white, bearded, long haired, tattooed ‘farang’ entered their neighbourhood. I hoped that my broad smile would speak the words I could not.
Rod had moved to a different unit since my last visit and his place was also home to several others - including a young couple and their baby daughter and a haven to others who had been victims of hostile gang behaviour. The work of the Community Centre thrives - Ash was in NZ, but Anji was busy sorting jewellery made by local ladies which UNOH sells overseas and therefore provides a salary for several families. Not wanting to keep them from work, I had a coffee from their street stall - Starbucks coffee beans no less, (which also provides another wage), I left Rod to continue packing boxes of ‘Free Burma’ T-shirts - printed locally and for sale in Oz at a UNOH event.
I wandered back through the narrow passage ways seeing hard working smiling faces on my way back towards the chaos of the city streets -huge Mercedes billboards providing shelter for those with no home, buses crammed full, tuk-tuks loaded with produce, small motorcycles everywhere, policeman bribing who they can and further on towards the lights westerners empty journey for temporal intimacy finds solace of the young and pretty.
As I journey back to the vast new airport in a cab, bartering with the driver for a fare, once again the land of smiling faces, amid desperate poverty and bizarre extremes leaves a lasting impression.
To learn more about the work of UNOH please visit: http://www.unoh.org and the handicrafts can be found here http://www.allyearround.com.au/unoh/