In 1998, Pastor Tony was planning a ministry trip into the far north of the country and would be visiting some villages that had not seen outsiders since the Vietnam War. Knowing that I had a few weeks off from work, Pastor Tony invited me to join him on his travels. I helped him load the old 2 ½ ton U.S. Army surplus truck he used, known affectionately as the “Deuce and a Half”. We were laden with sacks of rice, donated clothes and soccer balls and looked forward to bringing these gifts to the villagers.
I imagined the faces of the children as we would hand out the precious soccer balls to the young kids. Football, as soccer is known in Thailand, is the national sport and an actual football is a special gift. Many village children play the sport with a tightly bundled ball of rags, as a ball is an expensive luxury for many poor families.
We headed out on the 600-mile, 2-day road trip. The drive to the village was an adventure in itself as we forded streams and tackled barely navigable dirt roads. We stopped for breaks in many of the villages we passed through, which were really our fun way of terming the frequent truck breakdowns. As always, I enjoyed shocking villagers with the fact that I could not only speak, but also read the Thai language as well. I would entertain the small crowds that gathered around me during our rest stops by reading out shop signs and newspaper headlines in Thai.
We eventually arrived at our destination; a small village in the province of Chiang Rai, nestled in the fabled and notorious Golden Triangle. The villagers were farmers and for generations had made their living growing poppy flowers. They would harvest the potent opium sap from these flowers and sell this to the ethnic Chinese traders who would regularly pass through the village on mule caravans.
When I exited the truck, I understood that the people were excited to see a foreigner when one young man beamed at me with a toothy smile and gave two thumbs up as he shouted, “USA! We love you Bill Clinton!” They were fascinated by the tall foreigner who looked so different from them but spoke Thai.
The children did not disappoint me and they were overjoyed to receive the soccer balls. I kicked around a ball with some of the kids in the village square. As remote as this village was, the children knew all about football and they peppered me with questions about their favorite European football teams and stars.
We were unloading the rice sacks with the help of some of the village men, when an old woman approached us excitedly. She looked ancient. Her leathered, weather beaten face, callous hands, and the splayed toes of her shoeless feet spoke of years working in the poppy fields and rice paddies. Her dialect of Thai was difficult for me to understand. As she spoke to us though, I caught, “I’m a Christian! I’m a Christian! I must show you something at my house!” She would not take no for an answer, as she grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her. We took this interruption in stride and Pastor Tony said, “You go ahead, Bill. I’ll finish up here.”
The old lady escorted me to a small house. It would be more accurately described as a hut, as its walls were roughly built of old discarded lumber and the roof was a patchwork of sheet tin and dismantled wooden crates. We removed our shoes, as is the custom, and ducked low to enter her dark dwelling. It took a few moments to adjust to the poor lighting. With an excited smile on her face, the woman animatedly pointed to the wall that held her spirit shelf.
The spirit shelf is a part of almost all houses in Thailand. This is where statues of the household gods are kept. Every morning the family will light an incense stick on the shelf and place a small glass of whiskey and some fruit in front of these idols, so as to appease the ruling spirits of their home and village.
I walked closer to the shelf to see what she was pointing at. Behind me the old woman was breathless as she anxiously awaited my recognition of her idols. And sure enough, even in the dimly lit hut, the two deities on her shelf were easily recognized. Surrounded by the ash of burnt incense, a shot glass half full of some potent looking liquid and a rotting banana, there sat a miniature bust of JFK and a dusty picture of a young Elvis Presley.
The woman was pleased; very satisfied as she saw the recognition on my face. “See,” she almost whispered, “I told you I was a Christian! I pray to the American gods!”
We spent two enjoyable days with these kind and understanding people. Out of their poverty, they fed us with the best of their food and gave up their own sleeping mats so as to assure our comfort. I never did find out how this old woman came to believe that these two cultural icons were the gods Americans prayed to. As far as I know though, JFK and Elvis are still today worshiped with whiskey and incense in the hinterlands of the Golden Triangle.
~Bill Samuels, 2008