Khon Kaen is characterized by its many big and narrow streets winding through every possible corner of the city; bright colored vehicles; squiggly-charactered signboards hanging on run down, grim-looking shophouses; roadside peddlers selling all sorts of grilled and smoked meat including pork, beef and chicken; wandering stray dogs of various breeds and colors; and many a big-trucker 4WDs, amongst other vehicles mostly of Toyota make.
We for one, drove a rented 3-litre Toyota Fortuner for the 8 days that we were there. My friend, Andre, who's been to Khon Kaen annually for the past 7 years, drove us throughout our trip. He is a display of aggression on the road – he had to, else our 4WD would hardly move an inch amidst a flurry of big and small vehicles, motorbikes, pedestrians, stray dogs, narrow roads and bad traffic.
More importantly, the largest city in Northeastern Thailand is characterized by its extremely warm, gentle and humble people.
In fact, if humility has a face, the Thais in Khon Kaen wear it well. I believe I have never encountered a culture more subservient than the Thais in Khon Kaen (I can't speak the same for Thais in other cities including Bangkok and Udon Thani). They have need for little extravagance. It is common sight for peddlers to bring their children with them everywhere they go – putting little ones to sleep on dirty rags of mattresses next to their mobile stalls.
Our accommodation at Tonwa Resort is every bit a natural experience. A mere 5 mins drive from the city centre, Tonwa Resort is set amidst a village – I'd wake up in the mornings to the sound of sparrows chirping, open the door to my room balcony and breathe in the fresh cool December breeze.
After a quick gulp of milk, I'd run the streets of Khon Kaen, attracting many a puzzled looks from the locals. Despite an international marathon held every year in the city which draws runners from all over the world, Khon Kaen has very few tourists. In fact, for the 8 days that I was there, I saw no more than 5 foreigners in the city.
As I ran, I was greeted by the sights and smells of a city deeply rooted in humility. Monks walked bare-footed on the grease stained roads, and on several occasions, I saw locals bowing down low on the ground at the feet of a monk as he chanted a prayer of blessing before making his way to collect more alms. Stray dogs are everywhere in the city – they roam every big and small streets. I was barked and chased by a dog once, ran into a nearby shop, asked the shop owner to walk me down the street and learnt not to run when I see a dog, but to walk on slowly.
We attended a local church service conducted in Thai on Sunday morning, and though I did not understand the language, I closed my eyes and took in the presence of God, and wept at one point when we sang 'Amazing Grace'. Next to the church is Khon Kaen Christian School whose students are a lively bunch of friendly and gregarious boys and girls.
On the third day, we painted the fence wall of the Gerald Khoo Harvest Family Centre, a Christian foundation that reaches out to children in the slum areas adjacent to railroad tracks – providing love, care, shelter, protection and education for the children. I grew acquainted to a mischievous boy named Fhuc. He warmed up to us easily and by the next day when we visited the school, he leapt when he saw my husband Jason, ran towards him and hugged him tightly. I was surprised by the expression of affection from a young Thai boy, and took a deeper liking for this boy whom I have affectionately come to call 'my Thai son'.
Apart from Fhuc, I came to know many other boys and girls in the school who readily smiled and posed for my camera – a sign of openness to a stranger who doesn't speak their language. I wish to return to Khon Kaen again – simply for them.
Each passing day makes me more welcomed and at home in Khon Kaen, until I learned of a secret that lurks behind the city door – a tale of moral and sexual degradation. A majority of married men in the city has; besides their wives, children, homes and businesses; young teen lovers who are either still in school or dropped out of school as soon as they could in order to earn quick, extra bucks in the sex trade.
In a city where the monthly income of a lower class household does not exceed SGD$300, it is extremely tempting for these young girls to exchange their morality for comfort, especially when they may not be educated on the gift and preciousness of their femininity.
Tales of little girls left to be taken care of by grandparents while their parents are at work, and male neighbours who offer the grandparents alcohol in order to intoxicate them so that these men could rape the girls – are common.
My heart bleeds at the knowledge of such rampant immorality that rages through the city. I may not have been long in the city, but the atrocity against women and the spiritual oppression of lust and greed in the city are real – and in dire need of help and salvation.
I have been privy to the land, people and culture – and I carry now a burden for its soul.