Teaching the Sea Gypsies
Khru Lek, a gifted educator of sea gypsy children, was once addicted to drugs, but her mother's tough love helped her answer her true calling

By Father Joe Maier
Published by Bangkok Post, August 21, Spectrum Section 

'Teacher! Miss teacher! Miss teacher! You be teacher!" That's what an old crazy woman who lived under the Three Soldiers Bridge used to shout at Lek.  As early as she remembers, every time she walked by that bridge, the old lady would turn those words into a chant, "You be teacher! You hear me? You be teacher!”

And so she is today, but nowhere near the slaughterhouse or the Three Soldiers Bridge.

Now she rides a longtail boat 45 minutes each school day from the city of Ranong to the island of Koh Lao, where she teaches 60 sea gypsy kids in a rickety wooden shack that floods ankle-deep in the high tides. Sometimes the mums have to carry the kids on their backs, wading thigh deep in the water, from their stilt shacks to the rickety school.

Khru Lek is a gifted teacher. Brilliant. Even magical. And the sea gypsy children adore her. Her school children can say with pride, "We learn to count, to read, to write our own names, to dance, to sing, to tell stories, to play new games, to brush our teeth, to fight germs, to say nice words,  to make friends."

When Khru Lek teaches the children how to count, they in turn teach her the numbers in their own Moken (ethnic sea gypsy) language.


Khru Lek is a widow. In the slums, they would call her a single mum. True, she had two children by her man – each between his prison terms. However, there was no wedding. No parental blessings. Khru Lek and her "companion" rented a shack, but Lek's mum, Khru Dueng, never approved of the arrangement. Nor did her dad.

Dad really disliked this "companion". Wouldn't let him set foot in their home.

Dad told Lek: "If this companion of yours sets one foot in our shack, I will shoot him with my .44 and feed him to the hungriest fish in our khlong."

Dad was a gun-carrying narcotics cop.

Eventually dad did get to shoot him, but not for coming into the house. That never happened. Lek's companion went down in a drug battle. Khru Lek believes he drowned in the khlong, taking a bullet or two on the way. That's the way she dreamed it that night, after the gun battle. Nobody knows for sure. It all happened so fast, with lots of shooting on both sides, the companion fellow fleeing towards the khlong with a pocketful of drugs and an illegal .38 he'd taken off a wounded policeman years before.

He kept shooting at the cops over his shoulder and running as the cops, led by Khru Lek's dad, were closing in, guns blazing, bystanders screaming.

Lek's companion, the father of her two children, either jumped or stumbled over the bank of the khlong on the slaughterhouse side, across from Wat Saphan, in the deepest part of the khlong, the spot that holds the legend of the hidden alligators.

In fact, nobody has seen an alligator around there for years. But no body floated to the surface on the night of the gun battle or in the days that followed. Not that anyone looked very hard, but nevertheless, there was no body and no evidence of this guy's death, though there were trails of blood leading to the banks where he jumped.

On the night her man disappeared, Lek was standing on the banks, not far from her dad, when a friend beside her urged her to dump her drug stash. A few cops overheard, but she was the daughter of a cop and her man just went down. They gave her a little space.

Lek's dad caught drug guys, a job in the slums that comes with several perils and temptations. On the night Lek's companion went down, dad was already tottering in his job.

Sometimes he didn't bring the "product" to the police station to be weighed, counted, and photographed. And somehow he always had a pocketful of ready cash offered by some of the better-heeled drug folks he caught red-handed. On the way to the police station, cash made the product disappear.

Then one day dad got tempted, and tried a bit of the product. Then another day and another and one day he awoke totally addicted.

That's how it began for him, much the same way it began for his oldest beloved daughter Lek, born to be a teacher, as that old crazy lady used to shout at her. Lek slithered down that long drug path for 17 tortuous years.

Let me tell you about her promise, a promise to quit drugs that took her 17 years to keep.

You could say, her addiction was her own fault. We all have our choices.

Lek's dad, as a narcotics cop and drug user, always had a small stash of product in the house before he turned in state's evidence. Even though he went after bad guys who sold drugs to kids, he told his own daughter she could try a bit of product if she wanted, but to be careful.

Lek wasn't careful. Not at all. And after her companion "disappeared" into the khlong, she began mainlining.

Her mum, Khru Dueng, would scream at her and throw the product in the toilet. Then Drug Cop Dad would go into a rage at Khru Dueng, saying, "You're throwing away money! And lots of it!" He raged on, how was he supposed to get promoted for catching bad guys if his own wife throws away his promotion, and the evidence? Plus, he could sell the product on the side, make enough so she didn't have to work, teaching all those snot-nosed kindergarten kids always tramping through the house. And with her husband in a rage, all Khru Dueng could do to fight back was to go out and buy him strong whiskey so he would drink and pass out.

As Khru Lek's addiction got worse, her mum, Khru Dueng, begged her daughter to make a promise to stop.

Khru Dueng is almost Catholic (she has a few Catholic relatives), so she insisted that her daughter make the promise before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And since Lek and her children are Buddhist, she also made the promise, kneeling together with her two children, before a statue of Buddha.

The only thing that saved daughter Lek was her mother's insistence to keep the promise. Khru Dueng never gave up on her daughter. And her daughter never forgot her promise. During all those years, Khru Dueng always provided food for her drug-addicted daughter, always left her a cosy place for her to sleep beside her shack. On the buggiest nights, Khru Dueng even gave her daughter mosquito nets, but Lek always sold them for drugs.

Khru Dueng never cursed her daughter, and never abandoned hope.

In the end, Khru Dueng's narcotic-cop husband never got his promotion, and was rousted out of the force. Unemployed, drinking hard, he had a stroke about 10 years ago, and has been paralysed and helpless ever since. He slurs his speech – you can barely understand what he says now – so maybe that's better. We don't know why his wife, Khru Dueng, cares for him. She has stood by him, even after he had pretty much destroyed everything sacred in their family, and added ruin to the police force and their slum neighbourhood.

As for Lek, after 17 years on every kind of drug imaginable, her destiny on this planet was still to be a kindergarten teacher, like her mum before her.

About a year ago, Ms Lek began scratching and crawling her way back. She quit drugs by herself, but what got her to quit was what happened to her daughter. It came down like this: Lek had been hanging out near the sacred shrine outside the new flats across from the pigpens. There's always fresh garbage there, some of it edible. Her old, lame one-eyed dog was beside her. The dog always protected Lek. Most days, when she and her dog were hungry, they'd do the garage bins together. On that particular day, she hated herself for feeling so sick and miserable. She was retching in agony, sick from a bad batch of heroin. In between a bout of retchings, she heard a rumble of voices as a small crowd gathered nearby. One of the noodle stall ladies hollered at Lek, "You better get over there to the pens. It's your daughter."

Lek stumbled over to the holding pens. The daily delivery of just over 2000 pigs had just been trucked in, counted, weighted, and prepared for the night's butchering.

There, lying on the ground, she saw her brother, drug drunk, stuck halfway into a trough that carries out the leftovers into the canal after the nightly butchering.

And there, a few feet away from her brother was her own 15-year-old daughter – dazed, delirious, whimpering. Her clothes in tatters, she had been raped by her uncle.

Lek grabbed a nearby bamboo pole – one of the poles they use to herd the pigs off the trucks and down the wooden ramps to the butchering pens –and began beating him with it. But she couldn't even hold the pole straight, didn't have the strength after 17 years of drugs. And then she burst into tears because she couldn't beat him to death. She tried to soothe her daughter, tried to hug her, but her daughter screamed, "I hate you, mum. Get away from me."

A few kind neighbours took Lek's daughter to the hospital. Cops came by and took Lek's brother to the police station.

Lek was left all alone. Even her dog ran away. Hours later, her mum, Kru Dueng, came by. She had been to the hospital. Her granddaughter was OK, kind of.

But Lek was a mess. Khru Dueng half-carried and half-dragged her daughter, born to be a teacher, back to her shack. Then she tied Lek to a pole outside their shack to keep her from running away or hurting herself during withdrawal. She kept her tied up that way for several days, and kept reminding her of her promise as Lek cursed the day, cursed the night, and cursed her promise. The neighbours complained a lot about the noise, the screaming and moaning. Some even threatened to hit her with a pole if she wouldn't shut up. That only made Lek scream louder.

Finally, Lek felt better. But she still hated herself for never being a good mum for 17 years. Instead, her own mum, Kru Dueng, raised the children, always waiting for Lek to come home and keep her promise.

And so far she has kept it. She hasn't touched drugs since she was tied to that pole. Her daughter is OK. She's back in school, living with her granny. Khru Dueng.

And Khru Lek, she's down in Ranong, teaching sea gypsy kids. She plans to return to Klong Toey some day, but not too soon. Feels she's not quite strong enough right now. But there will come a day, and Kru Lek will return and perhaps bring her sea gypsy school children to meet her mum and show them Klong Toey and the Slaughterhouse, where she grew up. It is not easy growing up here. Klong Toey, especially the Slaughterhouse, can be a savage place.

It's like the line from that beautiful Irish song: "A savage place, drenched in decency."