At 4:00am on May 2, 2556 Jiraporn Kamjan died of completions related to Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease at Rongpayaban Klang (Bangkok General Hospital). He was 40 years old, homeless and alone in the eyes of this world.
We met “Luung Wa” a little over 4 years earlier. He was serving as a security guard for the red-shirt protests in Sanam Luang, and Steve Goode (YWAM International Mercy Ministries Director) introduced us to him a few days following a YWAM Outreach event in our neighborhood. Our introduction involved sharing a homemade birthday cake with Wa on Valentine’s day, his unofficial birthday (his ID card says he was born on 17 Feb, but Wa told us it just took a few days for his mom to report the birth!) When Steve and Wa met, Wa opened up about the tragic loss of his wife, daughter, business and all of the fingers on his right hand during the Tsunami of 2004. Steve just couldn’t let that go and upon learning that Wa’s birthday was coming up, something just had to be done! A cake was baked, friends were recruited and a Valentine’s Day street-side surprise party ensued!
Wa’s favorite topic of conversation was always food – his cravings would shift from day to day, but often they would hearken back to some obscure dish he’d enjoyed in a childhood spent travelling around with his family. At one point he was writing a recipe book of Southern Thai cuisine. Khao Mok Gai. Bami. Gaeng Som. Kuaytieaw Pbet. He loved museums, history and ancient things. I remember picking Wa up from a medical visit one time and walking together back from Rongpayaban Klang past the central Bangkok prison museum. He’d been there many times, but wanted to share with me, so we stopped and wandered through. This museum is attached to the park that we have dubbed the “nearby slide park” because it has the nicest playground equipment in our corner of the city.
Outgoing and unashamed Wa would often greet new people by saying hello and shaking their hand – always watching to see how people would respond to his missing fingers.
More than anything Wa was a friend to us.
We remember the year he borrowed money to sell squirt guns during Thailand’s national water fight (he made enough money to pay us back and eat well for several days!) He was also a mentor. Studying scripture with Him his response was always honest: “That is too good. No one should be that good”. Learning about life on the streets, or negotiating the social service world of ID Cards, Bat Khon Pikan, Patient Rights, or what-not Wa was most often a patient co-learner. Generous with our children, we remember multiple street-side toys (and one stuffed carrot!) that “Uncle Wa” passed on to his “niece and nephew”.
Not a stranger to pain, Wa grew up all over Thailand, travelling about with his communist father and mostly unspoken-of mother until his dad died when Wa was about 12. His mom remarried and had several children with Wa’s stepdad. Estrangement ensued. Wa dropped out of school. The story gets sketchy at this point, but one way or another Wa ended up in Southern Thailand, Krabi Provence. From Rot Tu (mini-bus) driving, to construction, tour-guiding, to running an internet café, we know Wa fully embraced Southern Living. He married, and became a father.
On 26 December 2004 Wa’s life came to a crashing halt when the Tsunami which rocked the Indian Ocean swept his wife, young daughter, and businesses out to sea. Digging through the rubble on Phi Phi Island, trying to find any trace of his family, Wa’s fingers on his right hand were infected, and after refusing treatment for some time eventually they were amputated. Sometime later Wa vagabonded his way North, spending an extended stay in a hospital with a very kind doctor near Pai. After some colorful journeys Wa found himself at Hualampong Railway Station in Bangkok, not sure where to go next. Approached by someone offering work, Wa wound up “working” on a fishing-boat in the gulf of Thailand, a common statistic in the annals of modern human trafficking. The story isn’t entirely clear but one way or another he managed to escape and eventually return to Bangkok.
Coming from Southern Thailand (or was it Central? Wa’s stories always had a bit more going on than meets the eye…) Wa found himself in Bangkok, living as our neighbor, following a series of tragedies and injuries. When we first met Wa he had a tent, a job guarding the red-shirt stage, and some real energy. He’d shower in the Chao Praya river, eat with other protesters and generally make himself useful. But, as is often the case, one day all of his belongings went missing when he was out and about, and not too long after that everyone got kicked out of Sanam Luang. Wa next found himself sleeping on our street, Thanon Bunsiri, down near the 7-11 and Thanon Tanow.
When that didn’t work out he disappeared for a bit and then reappeared on the other end of Bunsiri, sleeping out in front of one of our neighbor’s food carts, P’ Naam Peung. A pretty good set-up (he had food included!) Wa stayed there for some weeks, and we’d see him often. I remember him sharing some of his more personal stories and often crying as he shared during this season. This was the first time we learned about his twenty year old son (whom he hadn’t contacted in maybe a decade). This was also the first place we saw Wa drinking, and eventually he was told he’d need to stop getting drunk if he wanted to stay in front of the food cart, and off he went.
The next long-term stop was on the side of the Thanon Buranasat, near Rachadamneon Avenue. He set up quite a camp there, and spent more than a year in that spot. It was while living there that his liver disease first got bad enough to send him to the hospital. While living there Wa and I were able to replace his ID card, successfully apply for disabled status, and that was his home during the only business venture he ever undertook during our friendship – selling squirt-guns. This was Wa’s home during our team-mate Leigh’s time in the neighborhood, living in a house just around the corner from Wa. Wa was still there when a team of young women from InterVarsity’s Global Urban Trek were staying in Leigh’s old room. Wa provided countless hours of conversation, laughter and encouragement to each of these friends as they were first adjusting to life in Thailand. When he was healthy Wa helped the vans which parked in front of his squat get into the parking spaces, often receiving a small tip as compensation. He liked that work. When he had less energy he’d beg. Begging paid better.
When Buranasat ceased to be a healthy place Wa relocated up the road right on to Rachadamneon avenue, where he could rent a mat for 20baht a night, right next to one of his more common places to ask for coins. Some of his other haunts were Pra Atit Road, Wang Burapha (where he stayed for almost a year) and Talad Dok Mor. Wa was ever-welcoming and quick to respond to opportunities to share his experiences and wisdom with short-term teams, friends, interviewers and later even on TV when Chan Rak Muang Thai came to video our family. As we were nearing the birth of our first child Wa enjoyed telling me the tale of driving his wife 25 kilometers in heavy labor on the back of his motorcycle over bumpy roads in the middle of the night! Though always friendly, Wa had few friends on the streets. Luung Tia and he shared a mat for as long as 4 months, but Wa said he couldn’t take Tia’s drinking and it ended poorly. There was a guy who fixed and sold “Phra” in the old Wang Burapa movie theater whom Wa would often stop and talk with. He was the only neighbor I ever knew to go and visit Wa in the hospital who wasn’t connected to YWAM (he visited Wa twice to my knowledge – during one of Wa’s many hospital admissions).
I don’t remember much about the first few times I took Wa to the hospital, I know we went to Siriraj once in the beginning, but it was a long wait, with a very disdaining doctor. I do recall that the first time they admitted him at Rongpayaban Klang, Wa mustered enough strength to make a joke about checking in to Rongraem Klang (a play on words due to the similarity in Thai between “Hospital” and “Hotel”). Much time during Wa’s last few years was spent in and out of the hospital, especially the 11th and 14th floors. We both got to know the staff, social workers, nurses and doctors better than either of us hoped. I’d often try to visit him every day at first, then eventually every other day, and sometimes less often towards his final few admissions. Diarrhea, swelling, pain in his legs, weakness, it all came back to his drinking. When Wa died most all of the neighbors in his regular places wanted to know what happened. Their universal response was variations on the theme of “He’s in a better place, finally free, doesn’t have to drink anymore!” I didn’t know that Wa was dying when he died – sure big picture it was coming, but the last few times I’d visited him it looked like he was maybe, just maybe getting better. The kids brought him some finger paintings. Steve Goode and I had scheduled some time to go visit Wa in the hospital that week – but it was too late – and it ended up being a chance to pay last respects and say goodbye in a different way than anticipated. That morning, as I’ve written elsewhere, after receiving the phone call, I sat on the couch downstairs and cried. I cried because I missed my friend. I cried for what could have been. I had so many hopes for Wa’s life still. I cried for what I wasn’t able to do for him. I cried because in the end I had been powerless to stop Wa’s disease. I asked God if He had anything to tell me and He said this, “Psalm 103:4.” I looked it up:
4 He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
That is my final prayer, and God’s final promise, over Wa.