The journey.......

21st Dec 2012


My spirits are high as I take the bus south from the rural town in Northern Thailand.  I have been leading a trekking group close to Thailand's border with Burma and it's been a fantastic area for exploring and hiking.  The team had a great adventure and I'm feeling very happy about having a final few days in Bangkok.  The bus rattles along the winding roads stopping regularly for passengers to hop on or off and I sit listening to music, relaxing and enjoying watching the world go by.
At one particular stop a man gets on and speaks to the driver before climbing the step to the seating area.  He's dressed in jeans, a brown leather shoes, a casual shirt and a black leather jacket.  In fact he's dressed like lots of people on the bus, but he stands out.  Once on the same level as the passengers he waits at the front row of seats and stares into the sea of faces ahead of him.  I had been conscious that quite a few of my fellow passengers on the packed bus have been asleep, but as I glance around no one is sleeping now.
He stands and he looks.  It must take some confidence to do that with 60 pairs of eyes staring back at you, but he doesn't look at all phased.  It is clear he has power, he knows he has power and the passengers know it too.  I'm probably the only one who hasn't got a clue what he's doing here, but I feel the tension.
After glancing around the bus for a while he fixes his gaze on a family sat in the row in front of me.  They are a very sweet looking family but their features are slightly different to the rest of the passengers.  The mother has stunning brown hair, piercing blue eyes and an innocent, questioning face.  The father has boyish looks and square, lean features.  He has appeared a little nervous since they got on the bus but he looks terrified now.  They are both dressed in simple loose fitting black cotton clothes of the type I have seen many labourers in the area wearing.
Their daughter is gorgeous.  She's probably about 5 years old and has a beaming smile framed by a flawless round face. During the journey she's been stood on their seat facing me most of the time.  I brought a melon onto the bus and I've been handing little slices to her along the way.
At the sight of the family the man moves down the bus towards their seat. I'm no expert on body language but I don't need to be.  The family are beside themselves. The father goes to stand up but the woman pulls him back onto the seat.  The man is heading down the aisle from the front and there are passengers standing in the aisles between the family and the rear door.  There's no where for him to go anyway.
After what seems like an age the man reaches their seat.  For a moment he says nothing, as if willing them to reveal themselves, but the family say nothing either.  He holds out his hand and the father hesitantly passes him two tatty cards with their photos on.  I had been shown Thai ID cards by friends in Bangkok and these looked the same, but I'd also seen that you could easily buy fakes on Khoa San Road for a few hundred baht so I know not everything here is always as it seems.
I'm not sure what the man isn' happy about but he glances at the cards only briefly before starting to ask questions in a more aggressive and louder voice. The father tries to answer as best he could, the daughter cowers in her mothers arms and the woman stares at the floor.  I notice tears are rolling down the woman's cheek and dripping onto the girls head.
I have no idea what the questions, or the replies, are, but I do know the man is shouting louder and the father is shaking more with each word.  Suddenly the questioner has heard enough.  He reaches down and pulls the father up from the seat by his collar and starts dragging him along the bus.  The mother begins sobbing as she staggers after them carrying the little girl squeezed close to her.  As they leave the bus the man nods to the driver and the doors close behind them.  The last I see as we speed off is that the family have been forced to sit on the dusty road side while the man speaks on his mobile phone.
A silence falls over the bus and I try to make sense of what has just happened.  I look around to see if I can get some clues and the man in the seat opposite, seeing my concern, utters some words in Thai.  I have no idea what he's saying so I get him to write it down.  Before I get off the bus I collect up a delicately arranged pile of melon peel the little girl left on her seat and on arrival in Bangkok I ask the hostel owner to translate the man's scribbles.  Loosely translated the message is simply that the family are Burmese refugees.
Travel opens our eyes to some amazing things in our world but we also need to be prepared to see the things we'd rather not.