As a relative newcomer to Thailand and Chiang Mai in particular, I find myself continuously learning, absorbing and soaking up the history, culture and experiences of the Thai people and the nation they represent.
One part of that rich history I had no idea about revolved around the fact Thailand sent around 40,000 military personnel to serve in Vietnam alongside the Americans and South Vietnamese during the complicated conflict.
Out of the 40,000 men deployed during the war, only 351 died, but it has since been revealed that many of those Thai soldiers – alongside many American and Vietcong troops and Vietnamese citizens – were affected by the ravages of Agent Orange, a chemical used by the Americans as a defoliant. Its main aim was to destroy the agricultural base and forestation necessary to maintain a food supply to what was then North Vietnam.
The end result of the toxic herbicide was thousands of deaths, countless cancer cases, still births, intellectual and physical disabilities, nervous system disorders and babies born with terrible deformities.
So when I recently visited Vietnam, the latter and a lot more all hit home. In early April, I found myself on a bus riding along a highway somewhere between Hanoi and Halong Bay. Suddenly the vehicle stopped and we were told we would be spending 45 minutes at what was described to us as the Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre.
The centre, we were told, is a project started by a former Vietnamese war veteran now living in Hanoi. His intent then – and now – was to help those infected by Agent Orange during the war have purpose and a reason to get up in the morning.
For those aforementioned babies have now grown up, and instead of leaving them to their own vices or as a burden to their families the centre is a place for them to go to, where they are taught how to create all kinds of handicraft art, including carved wooden goods, statues, scarves, knickknacks, drawings and paintings. They can also live there, and earn a modest wage. As a result, they gain self-esteem and confidence and instead of being looked upon as burdens to their families can actually contribute as providers.
What a wonderful idea I thought and walking through the centre, one cannot help but feel empathy and certainly not sympathy for these people. They work with a certain calmness that is admirable. Some create with one hand, some with one arm others with deformed feet. Many appear entranced in their work, busily creating handicrafts that will later be sold. Others chat with neighbouring workers.
Like all civilians surviving the ravages of war, whether it is these people infected by Agent Orange, Holocaust survivors or those who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, none asked for their afflictions and personal tragedies. Like all civilian survivors of war, they have risen from the ashes of isolation and despair to make a life for themselves.
Granted the price of their work at the centre has been deemed very high by some reviewers on web sites like Tripadvisor.com, perhaps much higher than if it had been sold at a regular handicraft shop, while there are those who accuse the company of taking advantage of impressionistic tourists. But to fork out a few extra Vietnamese Dongs is a small price to pay to help people who were given a bad rap in life a chance to contribute and feel good about themselves.
There are layers upon layers of Thai society that I will never even come close to understanding no matter how long I choose to live here, and there are layers upon layers of Vietnamese society that I will never understand either. The same can be said for most countries in Southeast Asia.
Like the Vietnamese people themselves, so resilient and able to bounce back from adversity, occupation and war, the workers at the handicraft company are fine examples of how strong the human spirit can really be.
Theirs is a candle that continues to light and most importantly remind the Thai people of what could have been. That’s because in the early 1970s, Thai police officials wisely turned down an offer from the U.S. government to spray Agent Orange throughout the northern mountains to destroy opium plantations.
The police had the wherewithal and the correct judgment to understand the end result would have been devastation to the environment and the Hill Tribe people.
Finally, theirs is a light that continues to serve as a reminder to me as well. Especially on those days when I find myself complaining about such trivial things as the scorching summer heat in Chiang Mai, or how lonely it can be at times for a newcomer to this wonderful city.
It helps define my role in this very complicated and sometimes difficult world.