My life in Thailand from April 1977 to February 1980

†† April 1977, I was only 20 years old and in the last year of my secondary education.† There was only one more month to the end of the fiscal school year, and there wasnít any school two days prior, because of Lao New Year (Songkane).† That same day a friend of mine, Phoxay, came to me with a relatively strange question.† He asked me to help him escape to a refugee camp in Thailand.† I was sort of confused, there were a lot of different things going through my head, but whatever I wanted to say, it couldnít be said there because of the dozens of people surrounding us might have overheard.† See back then if the authorities somehow discovered that you were planning to flee or were helping someone escape you would have been killed immediately.†

†††† I looked into his eyes carefully and closely, I could tell that he truly meant what he said, but I had never ever even imagined about leaving my homeland before then.† Laos was my home--I had lived there, I had loved there--I had spent my entire childhood there, and I had planned on spending my entire manhood there, as well.† Laos was my life, I didnít know what I could do without it.† I loved Laos--I loved living in Laos--I loved the simple life I led in Laos.† As a young man, I spent all of my time going to school, playing my guitar, and having fun with all my friends, I paid no attention to government and politics, I could care less about what kind of government or ruler I lived under.† I was just a stupid kid, who thought he knew everything about the world, when in truth I knew nothing about the real world, I just liked playing my guitar and being a kid.

†††† That night I was sitting alone in playing my guitar when suddenly my friend burst into the room.† He sat down beside me and I started to play again, he had heard the tune before and he started to sing along with me.† I just sat there thinking when suddenly he asked me the same question again, he said, ďMy friend, since your village sits right on the bank of Mekong River, would you please take me there and help me escape?Ē† He persisted to ask me and I still said nothing. I knew that if I didnít help him he would get caught and would definitely be killed, so after much consideration and persuasion it didnít take long before I said ďYes, my friend I will help you but just wait until the day off first.Ē†

†††† From that night on, I couldnít get any sleep at all.† I just kept contemplating the many different things that might have happened to us, many of which were different worse -case scenarios in which we were found, captured, and killed.† I really hoped that I wouldnít live to regret those words I uttered to my friend, but I did hope to live.† When it really came down to it, deep down I didnít think I could go through with it, I would miss my family and my girlfriend entirely too much.† What would I do to survive in Thailand?† Different questions kept popping inside my head, one after another.†

†††† This was it, the day had finally arrived, we were going to make our great escape.† It was April 13th and everyone was ordered to sign out of the dormitories.† I went to my friendís room and waited for him so we could leave together.† We stayed close as we walked about an armís length apart off the campus smoothly.† Neither of us spoke a word, we supposed to wait for the bus to go to the city but decided to walk instead.† We didnít pack much at all because it would be too much weight to carry for 7 km.†† That night we stayed at his brotherís house so we could catch a bus to my village the next day.†

†††† I still couldnít sleep at all, so I grabbed my guitar and started to play some sad songs that I knew. We snuck out early the next morning, and headed for bus stop.† It was a bit puzzling, there wasnít a bus in sight anywhere.† I glanced around and saw a small group of people a few yards away, I approached them and asked them about the bus situation.† From what I gathered, some government officials postponed any type of bus transportation for the remainder of the Lao New Year celebration.†

†††† I could tell by the way he walked that my friend was very disappointed.† I, myself, was relieved particularly.† I tried to look as sad as possible but it was extremely difficult because of the feelings of comfort and ease I was experiencing.† On the way back, we stumbled onto another friend of ours.† We told him our problem and he told us that he knew one bus would go that way without authorization because his wife was expecting to deliver her baby sometime that day, so he invited us to join him.

†††† Luckily we passed the city limits without any trouble from the authorities.† I couldnít that we actually made it on the bus, are planning was running pretty smooth so far.† While we were on the bus, I kept praying for our safety and wishing the best for my friend.† We were about halfway when all of a sudden I heard a loud boom.† When I took a look outside, sure enough there were about 4-5 guerillas lined up in front of our bus blockading us with their weapons.†

†††† Then they came closer to the bus and ordered the driver to take the bus into the woods, I wasnít totally sure what they were going to do.† The bus stopped abruptly by the order of one of the guerrillas, all of us were then commanded to get off.† They demanded that we sat looking downward, with our heads in between our knees.† Without them knowing, I took a quick glance up, and I saw them ravaging through all of our possessions, someone took my backpack.† I was disgusted because almost all of my life was packed away in that one small bag; my books, my clothes, and pictures of my family and friends.†

†††† One of the guerillas saw me and demanded that I look down otherwise he would shoot me.† I looked at him and my bag sorrowfully, but abided by his command.† He sat there crouching for almost an hour before they released us.† As soon as we had left, the women who were on the bus began to cry and whimper, I couldnít blame them at all.† None of us no longer had anything to our names, the soldiers had stripped us of all our belongings, even the jewelry that we wore was taken away from us.

†††† My friend and I walked the rest of the day, we luckily reached my village before nightfall.† For the short time we were there, my activity with my family was limited, I didnít want my family, especially my parents to know what we had been through and what we were going to go through.† Early the next morning my parents left home and headed for our fruit farm at the Mekong Riverbank, my little sister proceeded to ask† me dozens of questions.† From what she said , I think she knew we were trying to escape.

†††† I didnít want to involve her so, I only said, ďI will tell you all laterĒ.† I couldnít even muster up the courage to tell my parents about our plan in my dreams, how could now.† Later that morning, my little sister left home to take food to our parents.† I grabbed a bucket to put some of my sisterís dirty clothes in it and headed to the Mekong River.† Many of the villagers asked me where we were headed, I told them that we were going to wash our clothes in the river.† I hated lying to my friends and people I respected, but it was all that I could do.†

†††† We started looking for my dadís canoe as soon as we arrived at the Mekong River, we found it floating far off to our west attached to the dock.† There were many people working and doing something around the bank where we got the canoe, some inquired about where we were going.† I told them we were going to my parentsí fruit farm, I was sure they wouldnít believe me though--I was a very bad liar.† We started paddling the canoe up north.† When we got to my parentsí farm, we headed east towards Thailand.† Fortunately, we passed the water line border safe and sound.†

†††† We stopped at a small rocky island before we got to the Thai riverbank.† We went inside a small cave and went over our plan again a few more times,† I told my friend that we couldnít go back to Laos again unless we were caught and deported back by Thai authorities.† Together we prayed for our safety.† Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my back, I was stung by a wasp.† I took it as a sign, I have always believed that the wasp brings me good luck.† So I told my friend if we went across now, we wouldnít get caught.†

†††† He went with my feeling and did as I said, we got back on the canoe and headed for the Thai Riverbank.† When we got to the riverbank, I met two of my Thai cousins who just came back from an afternoon of fishing.† They of course asked, ďAre you escaping from Laos?Ē† I replied, ďYesĒ.† They then led us to their village, we hurried because if we were caught each of us would have been persecutedónot just my friend and myself.†

††††† We hid in my cousinsí home and had dinner there also.† During dinner, my cousins asked me if I knew what we were going to do next.† I told him that I didnít have clue, but we would think it over that night.† I starting to get worried, because I just realized we had no money, transportation, or shelter to help us along.† I was beginning to know the true meaning of being an adult, my life was in my own hands now.† When the morning came, we ate breakfast and told my cousins that we were going to leave for the city of Ubon.†† They asked me what we were going to do in the city.† I said, ďI donít knowĒ.†

††††††††††† Eventhough my father was originally from Thailand but I was born and raised in Laos.† So, officially I wasnít Thai citizen but instead I was a political asylum refugee or an Illigal alien in Thailand.† The most important question I asked myself was ďWHAT I GONNA DO TO SURVIVE?Ē

††† Before we took off, one of my cousins told me about a job at a lumberyard in Amphur Amnatjareun.† When we left, we tried to look inconspicuous because we risked being seen and caught by Thai deportation officials.

We got on a bus and headed for Amphur Amnatjareun.† As soon as we walked into the mill area, we were surprisingly greeted by Lao workers whom we knew.† I told them that we were looking for a job there.†

†††† They led us to their managers and we got ourselves our first jobs in Thailand.† Our duties were to put the cut--off log in the two--wheeled cart and dump them into a big pile outside the mill.† Our shift started at 4:00 in the afternoon and ended at around 2:00 in the morning.† Most of the time it was dark and raining, yet we had to work without any covering except for our regular work clothes.† I remember one time when one of the wheels was blocked by a falling log, the whole cart stopped suddenly and jerked my body.† It threw me down on my butt, I felt as though I broke a rib or something of that nature.† The whole experience jogged memories of my simple life in Laos, now I was working hard labor--which I had never done in entire life.† I really missed my family and friends, I canít believe I didnít even say goodbye to them when I had the chance.

†††† After dumping that cart, I slowly got back to the sawing area.† A friend of mine asked me if I was crying, I of course denied it like a man.† I told him that the drop of rain got in my eyes and it stung bad.† I had a high fever the next morning but it didnít stop me from working.† We worked there for two grueling months, when out of the blue, I was told that Thai authorities would catch us if we didnít leave in a day or two.† We immediately took a bus out of Amnatjareun, but this time we got off at my fatherís friendís village.†

†††† A villager who had heard of him led us to his house to meet him.† His wife and himself still remembered me from the last time they visited Laos four years ago.† They asked me what I was doing in Thailand, and after my answer they immediately followed their question with, ďDo you have any idea how to get to the refugee camp?Ē† I told them ďI donít knowĒ as usual.† A mutual friend of suggested to go to Bangkok to get a job. We had both heard some good things about Bangkok so we accepted. †Since we didnít have the proper identification to be employed there, she promised she would arrange to obtain some forged documents for us. We stayed in that village for only one night.

†††† When we received our identification we left that morning on a Bus to Bangkok.† As soon as we arrived in Bangkok, that lady took us to the Temporary Job Service place.† We waited there all day for an employer to pick us and give us a job.† Finally a Thai--Chinese couple drove up and took us to a place that was looking for male workers.† The officer there pointed at us and sure enough we got a job.†

We thanked the lady who helped us to Bangkok and found us a job, even though she did for a commission.† She got paid and then said good-bye to us and went back to Isaan.† That Thai--Chinese couple drove us to their place, and explained our job duties to us.† My job was doorman and my friendís job was appointed something like janitorial work.† It was funny because we both couldnít talk Thai, I knew some but it was accompanied by a thick Lao accent.† One month in Bangkok, and we didnít get to go anywhere except for our job.† One day, I helped my friend clean the living room and I found a guitar standing on the corner.† After we finished cleaning I grabbed the guitar and started playing and was immediately followed by my friendís singing, we didnít even notice our bossís daughter standing I the doorway staring at us.†

†††† She had a surprised look on her face as she stomped towards us.† She questioned our true identities, she knew something wasnít right by the way we sang.† On our applications, it said we only had a fourth grade elementary educationóbut we were singing French and English.† My friendís face gave a guilty look and he completely shut up.† I couldnít lie any more, so I told her the truth;† I said that we were from Laos and were students before we had escaped,† we sometimes played in our school band,† and we studied both French and English.† She told me that she was a student at Chulalongkorn University and had problems with French.† She asked me if I could help her, I agreed if she wouldnít tell anyone who we really were.

We had worked there for over a month, and my friend and I were still not paid. A couple days later, we were called into the bossís office, he told us they were having financial trouble. Even though our salary was only 400 baht (about $10 U.S. now) per month, we still needed some money to help us with food and other basic supplies.† I was so sick the next day and I couldnít get out of bed, my friend† asked the bossís wife to take me to the hospital.† First she didnít want to do so, but she came by our room and saw me in really bad shape.† She took me to Chula Hospital and did all the paper work for me.† She left me there with total strangers.† The doctor finally called me in tested me.†

†††† I found out I had an abscess tonsil and it had to be removed.† I told him to go ahead and do what he had to do.† They sent me in a different room for special treatment, it took them about two hours to finish the surgery. After they were removed I waited in the waiting room for almost four hours before my bossís wife picked me up, all they gave me was a bottle of Listerine.† When she finally came, it was dark in the evening. That night my friend and I were talking about going back to Isaan without getting paid.† Luckily, in that house, there was a boy from Isaan who was hired to be his jockey (horse rider). His name was Noknoy, he told us that we werenít going to get paid because they spent all of their money on horse racing, they also found out that we were Lao and they would take advantage of us.† I told him that we didnít have any money left and didnít know the way to go home.† That boy was really nice and promised us heíd take care of the whole thing for us.†

†††† When nobody was home he called a taxi for us to go to the bus station and gave us some expense money.† He told us to not even think about paying him back,† he just wanted to help us.† He also told us not to come back to Bangkok again because people would easily take advantage of us, we were so grateful to him.† We arrived at the village on the next day.† People gathered around us and asked us many questions.† All I could tell them was ďBangkok sucks!Ē† We stayed in that village a few days and then my friend wanted to go back to Amnatjareun to work in that lumberyard again.† I told him if he wanted to go, he would have to go alone.†

†††† I said I had to recover from my sickness first.† Since we both had only 200 baht (about $5 now) left, I told him to go ahead take all the money and go to Amnatjareun.† I promised to follow him whenever I could go.† It was a sad moment when we left each other since we had been through so much together.† I never saw him again after that day.† I stayed in that village for a few more days and then the people I was staying with told me to go help their son in the rice paddies in a different village.† Their other son took me there.† I had never been to that village before and I had never worked in a rice paddy.† The family I stayed with welcomed me because they had no son.† That was the first time I felt like I actually belonged in Thailand.†

†††† First they had fun teaching me how to work in the rice paddy.† It took me a while to get hold of all the procedures.† It was really hard work but everybody in that family was kind and nice to me.† It only took us a few weeks to finish planting.† Then we had a break from it for a few months.† When they finished the planting part, the whole village got together to practice the Isaan traditional folk song (Mhor Lam).† I watched them practice every night.† Back then, they didnít even have any instruments but a drum set.† One night after they were finished dancing, I asked them why didnít they have more instruments;† such as, a solo guitar, a keyboard, and a bass guitar?† They told me that they didnít know how to play those instruments.† I told them I knew how to play and I would teach them.

†††† They all asked me the same question, ďDo you really know how to play them?Ē† I said, ďYes.Ē† The next day they took me to another village, it took us about four hours on the bicycle to get there.† They heard about one teacher in that village who wanted to sell his instruments.† They bought the instruments that I wanted and brought them back with us on the same day.† That night the whole village came to see me play Thai songs on the guitar.

†††† Because of that one night I became extremely popular among the native villagers, I got to know more people and made a lot of good friends, they even tried to get me a girlfriend.† The neighboring village knew my name too.† I met a lot of different girls too.† I turned down marriage proposals because I didnít want to become a rice farmer for the rest to my life.† I began to enjoy the adventurous life in Thailand.† When Isaan festival season was over, I had friends asking me to go to Bangkok with them.† I took another chance, I went to Bangkok with them and got a job in a noodle factory (Keuay Tieo).†

†††† I enjoyed working there because I got to meet many people from all over Isaan.† It took me a month to save enough to buy myself a cheap guitar. One day after work, I sat down by myself and played French and English songs.† A brother of the companyís owner walked by and stopped in front of me.† I had to stop playing because I didnít want him to know and I could play French songs.† He asked me not to stop and sat next to me, I played one song after another for him.† He then asked me if I wanted to see his expensive guitar.† He asked me to play for him again, after I met him I was promoted to an easier job, delivering the noodles around town.† Now I got to see even more of Bangkok City.† That guy took me everywhere on his motorcycle.† The rainy season came again and friends of mine from the village asked me to go back with them, which I did.† My life started getting better gradually.†

†††† Many families with daughters tried to get me to marry their kids and become a Thai citizen.† I turned down all proposals, because I didnít want to become a rice farmer forever. We had the same routine as the year before.† When planting season was over, we got together to practice, we had a band now.† I stayed in that village until the month of June of 1979.† One of my cousins who was staying in a refugee camp came to see me with family news.† My sisterís family escaped to Thailand and entered the camp too.† I had to go see them and help them anyway I could.† It was a really sad moment for all villagers and me.† It was so hard for me to say good-bye to them and the band that I started up.† One good thing was that I taught many people how to play the guitar.† Some of them were good enough to take over my place as the bandleader. Well, I had to do what I had to do.† I finally had to leave all of my friends and people who have always been good to me.†

†††† The good thing was I became really familiar with that region, so I could go back and forth anytime I wanted to go visit them.† We arrived at the camp that day.† It was a huge camp for all Lao refugees.† It sure was a surprise for me because when I got in the camp, I saw all of my long lost friends.† Iíve never thought I would see them again.† Now I knew exactly where I belonged.†

†††† Since that day, I stayed in the camp with my sisterís family.† While I was in the camp, I volunteered as the interpreter and opened up Basic English class to Lao people who needed to learn to settle in the third countries, e.g. USA, Canada, Australia and Germany.† I met many Lao and Thai girls who talked to me about family life (married life) but I just refused.† It wasnít because I didnít like them or anything like that, but I just wasnít ready to have anymore responsibility just yet.† Back then, I was only 22 years old.† I left refugee camp and the country of Thailand and headed for the United States of America in the middle of February 1980.

††††† I spent two and a half years in Thailand, I had been through a lot stuffs.† I had experienced happiness, sadness, love, and hate.† That was the two and half years of my life that I have never forgotten.

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