I’m doing a slight detour here from my next post about the counselling I received after my mother died, as I’m hopping back to my involvement in women’s liberation.
In 1975, my boyfriend at the time and I had decided to go back to the UK for a holiday but I changed my mind as I simply wasn’t interested in returning to England at all. I was fascinated by Australia, Asia and all things going on in this region of the world where I was now living.
So I took my share of our holiday money and put it towards my fare to Thailand and back when I was invited to act as Co-ordinator of the Secretariat of the Women’s Conference held by the Asian Students Association in Chiang Mai in November, 1975. The Women’s Conference was being held as part of activities in the United Nations’ International Women’s Year in 1975, and preceded the general conference of the ASA. There was a lot of political activism among Asian students in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand at that time as there was considerable repression in those countries.
I flew from Perth to Kuala Lumpur via Indonesia. We landed in Jakarta in what looked like cool weather, overcast skies, rain – only to enter a truly oppressive sauna when we stepped outside the air-conditioned plane. We only had a short stopover in the city but the sight of armed police with machine guns was very sobering. It was a very solemn reminder that the Suharto dictatorship was still in power, more or less a decade after the massacres of 1965-66 when genocide was carried out against sections of the population alleged to be communists or sympathisers, or of Chinese origin. The army was the driving force when nearly a million Indonesians were brutally murdered and a blind eye was turned to this disgusting atrocity by the Australian, US and British governments.
When we arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport, I was pretty appalled and panicky when the customs guy started checking my suitcase as, at the bottom, were copies of Malaya News Service, a newspaper produced in Australia by progressive students and which I was bringing to pass out to other students in Thailand. For the first (and last) time in my life I did something which went right against my principles, and flirted outrageously with the Customs guy to deflect his attention from my suitcase. It worked and hey, while I hated acting like a ditz, it probably saved me imprisonment in a Malaysian prison as they didn’t muck around in those days, and still don’t. The Emergency Powers were used to imprison people without trial and that would have been my fate if the newspapers had been found in my luggage.
I had a day or so in Kuala Lumpur before catching the train to Bangkok, and enjoyed looking around the city. It seemed so Western to me with traces of Malaysian heritage, and of course exotic as this was my first prolonged stopover in south-east Asia. I was staying in a very Westernised hotel but took public transport to one of the big night markets, it was fantastic, I really enjoyed myself.
Then I boarded the train to travel to Bangkok. It really was a wonderful journey, to see such a totally different culture and scenery, to talk to people on the train and to really feel like I was in a foreign country. I’d travelled a lot in Europe but this was something else altogether. We saw small villages on the edge of the jungle, small stations, stopped in the big station at Penang for a while, then set off for Bangkok.
That city was a real eye-opener. Even in 1975 it was crowded, the traffic was chaotic but the various shrines to Buddha around the city were such a stark contract to the slightly seedy feel of the city in those days. It looked calm on the surface but suddenly you’d see an army truck go past full of armed soldiers and you somehow felt that there was a seething turmoil beneath the benign, placid, public face of Bangkok. As I was to find out, attending the Asian Students’ Association Conference was also dangerous, as there was huge conflict between left and right forces in Thailand which still exist to this day.
I met up with fellow participants at the conference in the hotel we’d been booked into and then, once all the delegates had assembled, we set off for an overnight coach journey to Chiang Mai in the north. When we arrived we were in a fairly modern hotel, but told not to stray from the hotel. I thought that was seriously weird – why come all this way to Chiang Mai to lurk in a Western-style hotel? So I took myself off, explored the city – it’s beautiful and was much cooler than Bangkok as it was so much further north – and had a wonderful time browsing in the various markets.
However, when I got back to the hotel, I found out we’d been advised to stay put because right-wing students were threatening to attack participants in the ASA conference and to bomb the hotel. We also had students armed with guns who were our bodyguards wherever we went in Chiang Mai!
The conference went well with various speakers on many issues: it was noticeable that the students from Malaysia and Singapore were very nervous about government surveillance of them, and they were very careful in what they said publicly at the conference. In between the switchover from the Women’s Conference to the General Conference (if I remember the timing rightly) we were taken for a remarkable experience which I still remember with profound gratitude today and which is why I wanted to write this post.
We were driven outside the city to the outskirts of the jungle, then walked quite a way through until we ended up in a small village where we were to stay overnight. It was an amazing stay, one I remember with fondness and great gratitude. The people were extremely poor but their hospitality and generosity were just unbelievable. We had an evening meal and then attended a community dance out in the open afterwards. In the middle of the event, a young man jumped up to launch into a speech which I guess was critical of the government, but I’m not sure. No-one turned a hair but applauded the speaker when he’d finished and then carried on the celebrations as if nothing had happened!
When we returned to the hut where we were to sleep overnight, I remember asking (or miming, more like) the lady of the family where I could use a toilet. I always remember her warm words as she held her open hands out to me and said (a student translated for me): “The jungle floor of my home is yours as much as it is mine”. Well, it was a reminder that a conventional toilet was out of my reach, but the way in which she offered such basic facilities with grace and dignity is a memory I really treasure.
The next day we had sticky rice balls, sugar of some sort and plain water for breakfast, before we thanked our lovely hosts profusely for the generous way they opened our homes to us and then walked out of the jungle to get on the coach back to the hotel.
And here comes the crunch. I got gastric poisoning from the well water we drank at breakfast. About four of us copped a violent stomach bug which left us very ill and bed-bound. It was vicious and I almost died in the early morning when I was vomiting and choked on my vomit. I remember lying on the floor, struggling to breath, with my room-mate fast asleep oblivious to my difficulties, thinking I was going to die on the floor of a bathroom in northern Thailand, away from family and friends. And then finally I to cough and clear my airways. What an immense relief – and that’s probably an understatement!
I was left with severe bouts of diarrhoea which would hit me without any notice. So one lunch-time, when we were back in Bangkok, we were having a meal with a lady we’d met from the United Nations when I started getting severe stomach cramps. I ran round to the restrooms – which were labelled in Thai so I had no idea which loo to use. I turned to a family eating nearby and gestured to one of the restrooms and they just smiled so I ran in and used the loo, which was one of those in the floor. When I walked back, the family were laughing their heads off so I figured I’d used the male toilet instead of female. I’d just got back to our table when the cramps hit again so I ran back and used the other restroom, assuming that this was the ladies. But when I walked out, the family at the table nearby were in absolute hysterics. So I never did find out which restroom was for women and which for men!
I finally flew home into a political storm in Australia as it was just after the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, had been sacked by the Governor-General and a Liberal-Country Party administration installed. There was upheaval, rebellion, marches, general uproar and my time in Thailand faded to a wonderful memory.
But in the following year, the Thai Army staged a coup and introduced martial law. I saw scenes of deal people on the streets of Bangkok and so many of those were the lovely Thai students I’d made friends with. They were murdered by army forces with many of the young women raped before being killed out of hand.
It was such a sad ending to my Thai experience but I treasure the memories of those I met at the conference, and also so very much the kind villagers who offered complete strangers such wonderful hospitality.