This is a post that should have been written a couple of months ago, but I find that time gets away from me now that I am working full-time. The photos have been waiting for me to make time to write the story of Kwai River Christian Hospital, Saha Christian Suksa School, and the little community of Huay Malai that is near Sangklaburi. I challenge you to find Sangklaburi on a map of Thailand. Yes, you can get there in several hours by car these days, but when I was growing up, it took three days to travel to Sangklaburi – by train and river boat. My trip to Sangklaburi in January was my first trip to this rather isolated community near the border of Myanmar (Burma). (Hint: To find Sangklaburi, go due west from Bangkok to the Burma border and then north until you find it.)
I wrote about the War Cemetery, the Death Railway, the bridge over the River Kwai, and Hellfire Pass in an earlier post. In this one, I want to focus on the Kwai River Christian Hospital and the community around it just outside the town of Sangklaburi. This hospital (which has its own website http://www.kwairiver.org) was founded in 1960 to provide health care to the marginalized and forgotten in this rural area of Thailand. The first clinic was in the home of the first doctor, a missionary named Dr. Doug Copron. (His children were in boarding school with me in the 1960’s.) He treated diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy – tropical diseases that were common at that time and are still common in this area today. Most of the patients – then, as now – were not Thai citizens, but the very poor Mon, Karen and Burmese refugees who lived in the hills and border area.
Visiting the hospital and the community surrounding it today is like taking a trip back in time – to rural life and rudimentary health care in a time gone by in the USA. For me, it was like seeing Thailand the way I remember it from my childhood. The main roads are paved, but most of the other roads are dirt or gravel paths. Homes are largely made of wood and many are raised above the ground on stilts. Most of the people are farmers, though you can find some who raise livestock, weave cloth, or provide other commodities that villagers need. Cars and motorcycles have replace most bicycles and oxcarts, but in this community, I saw more bicycles and water buffalo than I have seen in all the other places I have traveled in Thailand combined.
The story of Kwai River Christian Hospital would not be complete without telling a little bit about Dr. Phil McDaniel, another missionary child I grew up with, who returned to Thailand and served as medical director of Kwai River Christian Hospital from 1979 to 2002. During that time, he helped to move the hospital from its former location in Nitae to its present location in Huay Malai village during the construction of Vachiralongkorn Dam. The old hospital now sits at the bottom of the reservoir behind that dam. While he and his family returned to the United States where he has a medical practice in the Northwest, Dr. Phil still returns to Kwai River Hospital every January to volunteer his time and his skills as a physician, allowing Dr. Scott Murray, the current medical director, to take some needed time off for relaxation and to attend a conference or two.
While life is much simpler in Sangklaburi than in Chiang Mai, many of the conveniences of modern living have found their way there: electricity, running water, some (but not much) air-conditioning, etc. Surprisingly, there are quite a few foreigners who live and work there. Most are medical workers attached to the hospital, but some serve as houseparents in the three hostels that were built to help orphans and refugees. Some support other ministries of the church in that area. Some of these offer shelter to refugees as they seek medical treatment at the hospital. Some teach handicrafts. I purchased a length of material that was being woven on a wooden loom during my visit (see thumbnail below).
Yes, one of our schools is in this little village of Huay Malai. Desperately poor and providing education for the poor and disenfranchised in this area, Saha Christian Suksa School struggles to pay its staff and purchase needed materials. But out of this school comes a nationally recognized choral group that placed first in its district, first in its province, and third in the national competition for choral groups from schools. The English language ability of the students in this school is actually higher than that of other schools I have visited, because many of the students live in the hostels and orphanages that have foreign volunteers. How I wish I could find someone who would love to live in this remote village and teach these children! They do not use their station in life as an excuse to just “get by.” They are “go-getters.” I wish I lived close enough to visit more often. God is truly at work in this place!