As a digital nomad, we experience tons of things both fun and challenging. Parties at Ibiza, trying to get fast internet in some city in Asia, Surfing in Maui, etc. etc.
This is truly what makes this lifestyle worth it. We get have unique experiences while building tenacity to face the challenges of life. We get to dictate what we do each day and be able to design our lifestyles.
We also get to meet interesting people along the way. Sometimes, these chance encounters are fleeting moments in our lives. However, at times, we meet extraordinary people who have the power to change our lives.
This post is one of those instances. Tony Stokes tells us his encounter with Father Joe, the Slum Priest of Kloeng Toei.
This is an inspiring story that provides a glimpse into the amazing experiences that us digital nomads can encounter.
I’d heard about a priest who was living and working in Bangkok’s central slum. Apparently he’d been there for years. A Westerner at home in Kloeng Toei seemed odd, and the story sounded made up. The idea of a city changes over time, and concrete jungles can become entangled with stories. Folklore interweaves the everyday with the outlandish, and separating reality from
make-believe is no simple task. Bangkok is like this; it’s a place where the rumors that are rooted in truth can easily bloom into fantasy.
Creating the legend
Bangkok is like this; it’s a place where the rumors that are rooted in truth can easily bloom into fantasy.
Myth making is an old habit. We communicate through stories because they’re captivating. Bangkok is alive with languages – Ancient, Modern, Eastern, Western, Contemporary, and a foreigner taking care of slum folk has a broad, mythical scope to it. It’s a bold image, and fits in
with the kind of far out tales told by expats.
Perhaps there was some truth to the story, but it had been exaggerated. From knowing the winding passageways of Kloeng Toei’s sprawl, and sometimes wondering if a white man could survive there, ‘The slum priest of Kloeng Toei’ seemed like a fitting title for an urban legend. I pictured an angel headed tough guy, landed in the middle of Bangkok’s no go zone, who’d thrived.
I typed his name into Youtube. Several documentaries popped up on the screen, so I clicked on the first one. It showed a friendly looking well aged man, walking through the slum and speaking to the camera. He appeared
calm, focused, unselfconscious, and he’d clearly made the village into his live-in neighborhood.
The renegade priest
After a couple of weeks of emails I arranged to meet the man at The Mercy Centre in Kloeng Toei. Arriving by tuk tuk mid-afternoon, I sat down on one of the wooden benches that border the garden. Palm trees, plants, and a lush green lawn vitalize and decorate the center of the complex. Looking up at the floors above, an open panorama of the building is visible, as there
are no walls on the inside. In all directions I could see people dotted around the place, talking on phones, sitting at desks, and walking the corridors above and below. Some were carrying things,
whilst others shepherded kids.
It reminded me of some of the books I’d had as a child, where the author had used split section drawings to explain the functions of town and city buildings. The centre was put together in 2005, and financed by an American philanthropist. It cost around $3 million to build, and was essentially constructed as a place to house Tuberculosis victims.
The Nomad and Father Joe
The atmosphere at The Mercy Centre was welcoming and friendly. After taking in the scene for a few moments I noticed a sturdy figure in a tracksuit and trainers walking towards me. He was speaking into a cellphone. He looked occupied, but relaxed. As he spoke his eyes moved over the surroundings and he nodded his head. A few moments later he was standing opposite me with a quizzical look of expectation on his face.
We shook hands.
“Hello Father Joe,
“ello”, he replied in an Irish accent.
“Is that Northern or Southern Irish, Joe?” “Oh it’s Southern, ya
know”. We laughed.
This priest enjoyed testing people out. He’d acquired a ‘Father’ status a
while back but he exuded the energy of a young soul; someone inclined to test the water, and push the envelope. His demeanor was playful and cheeky; surprising given the life and death nature of his job.
Here was the man who saw people safely across to the other side – victims of the Aids virus, drug addicts, elderly folk, young people, and children with fatal diseases. At themoment of death he was there, by their side. Father Joe also provided house and home for dispossessed locals, downtrodden souls, and the lost and the lonely.
He agreed to be interviewed after his return from America a month later.
Not your ordinary priest
When he got back we decided on a morning. Tony and I found ourselves heading to Kloeng Toei in a taxi at 5am. We arrived at the center early, before dawn, and were asked to wait for Father Joe. There were already a few people there, and as the sun rose I heard a voice speaking fluent Thai, with an Irish American kick.
Joe appeared, approached us, and I introduced him to my friend. After the niceness of the initial greeting he started to lambaste us for our ‘casual’ attire, cursing and swearing, left, right and centre. He was genuinely annoyed, and told me to sit down whilst he took Tony off on his own.
I waited for about ten minutes on the bench and thought that the day had gotten off to an unexpected start. Tony returned with Father Joe who then pushed home the importance of dressing appropriately. With the rant over he seemed to lighten up suddenly, and suggested we go outside to get some coffee.
What makes a man
The neighborhood was flooded with the morning sun, and Father Joe began to express a sort of mischievous, irreverent glee. On the way to the coffee house a car passed behind us and the driver shouted from the open window. Joe span around, broke into a broad grin, and then pretended to piss on the car like a slum dog. He greeted the driver in homespun Thai and they shared another joke before the jovial priest slapped the car bonnet, then span back around and winked at us, gesturing with his head towards a small wooden building up ahead:
‘What kind of coffee do you boys like to drink?’ His mercurial antics were amusing; he had a dash of the showman and the touch of a scally-wag. In the coffee house Joe’s focus changed again as he introduced us to the group of women organizing the place. They had their eyes on the children were running around us.
I was beginning to get more of a sense of why this man
was the way he was, and of the character traits needed to care for people in such an off the map place as this. It was friendly but unpredictable, edgy, and with a sense of immediacy at the fringes of every scene we found ourselves in.
The slums and the nomad
Things in the slum had a way of pulling you in, and of demanding your attention; it insisted that you be you, that you take part in whatever was happening at that very moment, and there was no way that you could hide behind any façade for very long. You were forced to get involved and
the feeling of immersion had an addictive quality to it.
Father Joe has a knack of charming Asians and Westerners with a manner that can deviate from serious to jovial, to gentleness, then back again to tough and real, never taking ‘no’ for an answer, and forging ahead into realms unique to him, places that make way for his special kind of work; his individual calling. He has a gentle, fearless charisma. A slum priest has to possess a malleable personality and the kind of quick wits you rarely find in church abiding men of God.
Star struck (Not)
As we settled down on stools with our coffee, the conversation turned from life in the slum to royal patronage, and some of the famous visitors that had dropped by the centre. The Buddhist actor Richard Gere had breezed in, Steven Seagal the martial art film star had rocked up, George Bush the ex-president of America had visited, and various other high profile characters had passed by over the years – from the worlds of film, music, and politics. As we talked it became apparent that to Joe it didn’t necessarily matter how famous, rich or powerful they were; what really mattered was how they handled themselves, and if they ingratiated themselves with the children.
In a city that seems to be being chewed up by glitz, glamour and the mind numbing tenets of materialist religion, it’s refreshing to spend time with a man who doesn’t believe the hype, and likes to keep it real.
The nomad mission
We finished our coffee and walked back across the street to the center. Setting up the camera and using the benches for the interview, Joe launched into a story about one of the women who was sitting across from us. He has this habit of drawing you in, and using the people around him to illustrate the work that he does. He told us that this woman spends most of her time on fishing boats, but as she is an alcoholic she has trouble looking after her daughter.
The conversation then turned to other people, characters and regulars that passed us by. Many of them have the Aids virus and are dying. One girl who was born with it was now fifteen years old but had stopped growing at around the biological age of ten. You could see she had a debilitating disease but she was with friends, and surrounded by a supportive network. Her face was lit up by a bright smile. It is an odd thing when you witness bravery in the young. It seems to have a way of slightly unsettling you. Many problems suddenly seem fairly minimal; curious self-created phantoms.
Inspiring the nomad
Joe then signaled to the guard, a lean dark skinned man of about fifty, who had the gnarly look of a retired Muay Thai boxer. The two men exchanged a few words.
“Ok, let’s go, are you two ready?”
We grabbed our equipment and followed Joe and the guard out of the building, across the main thoroughfare, and down a narrow passageway. As we neared the sloping front of a house on the right, Joe turned around and told us that we were about to see an Aids victim, a few days away from death. There was a stillness to this lock, and as the camera rolled the guard gave us a demonstration of someone approaching rigor mortis.
Just then, a cat, absolutely perfect in its beauty, wound itself around our feet, and looked up at us with its huge opal eyes. Joe remarked that he’d never seen such a beautiful cat, and was amazed it had kept its tail.
We entered the house and a middle aged woman, who was sitting on the floor, turned to us and smiled. The guard then gestured to the bed with his head. Lying on his back and covered in layers of blankets was a man who I thought was dead. His frame was motionless. From where I was standing he seemed not to be breathing. His face was turned towards us and his skin had a yellowish hue – tightly stretched across his cheek bones, brow, and chin. His eyes were closed.
We stayed for a minute, and then left. The cat was still outside, watching a small lizard skitter behind a drain pipe. The experience was brief but intense. We walked back in silence, as though being close to death had shaken us into stillness.
Even Joe seemed to have been affected.
We are the face and the eyes
Back at the center we continued the interview seated in the garden, in front of the Lady of Kloeng Toei. The cast bronze statue has been rendered minimally, but the icon is instantly recognizable, blending in with the natural surrounds. It has no facial features or eyes, but Father Joe said that’s because “We are the face and the eyes.” He remarked that it was different to the Buddhist goddess of Mercy which was usually depicted with
one thousand eyes.
He also told us that there had been some reluctance from the metal workers to make a Christian statue, as in 80 years of casting they’d only created Buddhist icons. However he’d turned up to initiate the commission with a couple of kids from the centre, one of whom asked the metal workers if he could place in an old coin of one of the monarchs of Siam. This must’ve clinched the deal, as they agreed to do it. Father Joe also threw in one of his Catholic rosaries, for good measure.
We were calmer now, as after the telling off, the antics outside the coffee house, and then the eerie visit down the lock, we all needed to relax. We’d also had a good chance to get used to each other.
I kicked the interview off with the inevitable:
“Why Thailand, Joe?”
The Father of Kloeng Toei rocked backwards in mirth, his eyes twinkling
“Oh, you’re very kind.. very kind.. They threw me out!”
Apparently “they” didn’t share Joe’s love of The Grateful Dead, and his open feelings of opposition towards the war in Vietnam.
“They sent me as far away from them as they could.. so I came down here with the Catholics that kill the pigs.” Referring to the immigrant Vietnamese Catholics who were working for the Chinese meat trade.
Joe then remarked, “I needed to be here with the people.. this living up town shit just doesn’t work.”
Converting to Converted
I asked Father Joe how his radical move into the heart of the slum had gone down with the church.
He smiled, then ‘popped’ his cheek with his finger, before replying,
“Other priests think I’m loopy, barking.. to be admired, but not imitated.”
I then asked him if he felt he was still a Catholic. “I’m Catholic. I believe in the gospels, but I don’t necessarily believe in the Vatican. I made my vows and promises to the gospels, so yes, I’m Catholic.” Father Joe is a priest who
focuses on the true teachings within the gospels. He reiterated: “Get back to the radical teachings of Jesus – be good to one another. Be humble. We’re here to serve.”
Apparently a couple of very pious local Buddhist monks had personally thanked Father Joe, for which he said he felt “honoured and accepted by such a wonderful people.”
“Do you believe in God, Joe.. and if so, what is God?” Father Joe thought for a moment, before replying: “Yes, I believe very much in God – go day by day, and do the best I can.”
We asked him how he felt about the Buddhist concept of karma. He answered “I believe in karma. What goes around comes around.. you pay your dues.” I then asked him about angels, demonic entities, and ghosts. He told us that he thought evil only has power if you give it away to it, and
that “Yes, there are angels.. Einstein said that positive energy is never lost. Some of the little children walking around here are angels.” He then told us about “a beautiful woman who had died at the centre, but had come back a few days later as she was worried about her children.”
Joe, the staff, and some local monks held a special service for the women, assuring her that everything would be taken of care of, and that the children would be fine.
She didn’t come back again.
We asked him how he felt about the Buddhist concept of karma.
He answered “I believe in karma. What goes around comes around.. you pay your dues.”
We then asked him about angels, demonic entities, and ghosts. He told us that he thought evil only has power if you give it away to it, and that “Yes, there are angels.. Einstein said that positive energy is never lost. Some of the little children walking around here are angels.”
He then told us about “a beautiful woman who had died at the centre, but had come back a few days later as she was worried about her children.” Joe, the staff, and some local monks held a special service for the women, assuring her that everything would be taken of care of, and that the children would be fine. She didn’t come back again.
Intuition, positive intent, and awareness
We discussed the power of intuition, positive intent, and awareness. Father Joe said “You have to be in tune with yourself. The greatest part of wisdom is to laugh at yourself, and never think that you’re important.” We then asked him what he thought about the growth of Western consumerist culture within Thailand, and he replied “The greatest of American sins is this sense of entitlement.. that you somehow deserve everything you desire.”
Staying true to the nomad mission
We returned to the Mercy Centre early the next morning, but Joe was busy.. then again on Saturday, for most of the day. We arrived mid-morning and set down our equipment.
There were many children, smiling and laughing. I had some colored spinning tops that I’d bought from the market near the school where I teach, a stone’s throw from the slums. I took them out and span them on the floor. Some of the kids are dying of HIV, so it was a privilege to play with
them, and to see how much fun they have in simple interaction.
One of them
Father Joe arrived. We talked briefly, and then agreed to follow him on a walkthrough of the surrounding area. He casually greeted many of the locals along the road, exchanging banter and light-hearted jokes. Everybody seemed to know him.
A dead pond at the end of one soi looked like a ghostly film set. The water was dark and held a boat in its grip, dilapidated and motionless. Rubbish and plastic bottles were strewn across the surface. An abandoned house stood silently on the other side, and palm trees with greyed leaves
flanked its jagged broken walls.
The hood and the nomad
After taking in the scene for a few moments, we headed down a
narrow passageway. We met many people; young, old, beautiful and decrepit… all living together in small little slum dwellings. Sometimes we were told not to film.
A bit further along we reached a group of tattooed gangstas playing poker in the shadows. The sun was beating down on us. Most Thais don’t like the sun, and prefer to relax in the shade. It was a slightly edgy moment, but smiles were exchanged, and we walked on, along the rickety wooden platform.
We passed families with their children, small dogs, a large blue-eyed Husky chained to a post, a small bar on the right, and kids running out from all directions; shouting and laughing.
Eventually we reached the end of our trek, realizing that Joe had taken us on a broad loop through the ‘hood, sweeping back to the safety of the Mercy Centre.
The mission goes on
Returning, we sat down on wooden benches, relaxing in Kloeng Toei’s oasis of calm. Filming the last few minutes of our time with Father Joe it was apparent that closure had been reached.
We asked a few more questions, and the irrepressible priest answered without hesitation; his eyes twinkling and his voice dancing in that odd mixture of a Chicago drawl on the lower tones, and an Irish lilt on the upper.. breaking out in fluent Thai to converse with his loyal staff and
His last gesture was to suggest we walk upstairs, to see the kids drawing
pictures, and eating ice cream. We shook hands, he smiled a quizzical smile, stood up, and then was off again – to greet a teacher, and a documentary film maker. Two more of a curious line of far flung folk, drawn to the brave heart of Kloeng Toei’s struggling community.
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