To save Siam

Pictured above are the cremated remains of the deceased at the Phrabatnampu Temple. After being cremated, the temple sends letters to the relatives to collect the remains. Most don't reply. If so the temple sends the remains via registered mail. More often than not, they come straight back to the temple.

Pictured above are the cremated remains of the deceased at the Phrabatnampu Temple. After being cremated, the temple sends letters to the relatives to collect the remains. Most don't reply. If so the temple sends the remains via registered mail. More often than not, they come straight back to the temple.

"You look tired," the man said from behind the coffee counter.

He was lying. I looked dead.

Coiled in fever for the last three days, I'd arisen from a serious lung infection only to cough up blood.

Certain I'd be killed by the pollution I'd inhaled across Bangladesh, and I'd made a pact with myself. If I was gonna die, I'd do so in a civilized fashion: with a newspaper in hand, and caffeine flowing freely through my bloodstream. Crawling across the street to what seemed a suitable final resting place, (a large leather chair in the back of a Bangkok Starbucks), I was hoisting a grande house blend, and flipping through a copy of the Bangkok Post when a banner headline caught my eye:

"Urban Asia choking to death: 750,000 die a year from pollution."

"750,001..." I corrected, then followed the article down the page.

It highlighted a recent study by the World Health Organization that concluded pollution had reached "serious" levels in Asian cities - up to 70 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter. Safe levels hovered around 20.

It had been five years since the contingent of dimwits in the highest halls of my homeland had dismissed themselves from the ratification of the Kyoto accords - choosing cash over clean air.

And now, as the black clouds of their inaction gathered and spread, atmospheric poisons crept their way to a city near you. With that thought burning in my head and lungs, I staggered to my feet, and hit the streets in search of antibiotics.

A week later, as a testament to modern medicine, I was back on my bike and pedaling north.

Having cycled Thailand previously, it was hard to resist riding a beeline straight for the coast. But there was something more important calling. Something deeper. Something closer to the heart.

Winding my way along a farm road on the outskirts of Lopburi, I was pedaling through a patchwork of sunflowers when I rounded a corner and came upon my destination: the Phrabatnampu Buddhist Monastery.

Started in 1992 by a monk by the name of Alongkot Dikkpanyo, he'd converted part of the temple into an eight-bed hospice for those suffering from HIV-AIDS.

Now, some 14 years later, it had grown into a 400-bed complex.

I parked my bike and entered the administration office, where I met the secretary.

She looked overstressed and underpaid.

"Are you here to volunteer?" she asked, lifting her eyes momentarily from a mountain of paperwork.

"Uh ... yes," I replied nervously. Without a word she gathered a clutch of papers and a key, then placed them in my hands.

"Here are your instructions, and this is the key to your room. Breakfast is at 8 a.m."

That was it.

I stood outside the office for a moment and skimmed the paperwork. It stated that Thailand now ranked as the fourth-highest country affected with AIDS in the world. Conservative estimates put the number of HIV-positive Thais at about one-million - a number quickly approaching one in 10.

Every day, another 600 people contract the HIV virus, and nine die of AIDS every hour.

Of those one million, 10,000 are waiting to get into the Phrabatnampu facility.

With that in mind, I made my way through the complex until I came to a bleak concrete structure - my quarters. I turned the key and creaked open the door.

After entering, I stood for a moment and looked over my new surroundings - four blank walls, some cobwebs and a hospital bed.

"Merry Christmas," I mumbled to myself, then laid out my bed sheet.

That night I had a dream: I was walking through an empty house filled entirely with sinks when I noticed one of the faucets stuck on. When I turned it off, on came another.

Then another, and another. Eventually, unable to keep up, a hundred faucets began to pour, and the house began to flood. When the room filled neck deep, I woke up.

I got up that morning and wandered around the grounds, then stood for a moment in front of the glass doors of the hospice. I took a deep breath, then walked in.

First came that classic hospital smell - urine, antiseptics, medicines and cleaning fluids.

Then I heard the distant moans of a woman from another room.

I glanced around. In each bed were those in the final stages of the AIDS virus. Although a few sat upright, the clear majority were laid flat. Most of them impossibly thin - their coppery skin covered in spots.

As I walked to the center of the ward, all eyes turned.

All except one - a man sitting in a corner holding a small plastic bucket beneath his limbs. I watched for a moment as he obsessively scratched off flakes of skin.

Wandering nervously for the first few minutes, I approached the nurses station to ask how I could help.

They spoke little or no English.

I wandered around the room fidgeting, feeling entirely useless and out of place. Then someone shouted from behind.

"Hey! what is your name?" I turned to meet the eyes of an elderly Thai man dressed as if he were going out.

"My name is Moam," he said, smiling.

"Rick," I returned, and I shook his hand.

When I relaxed my grip he did not let go.

"Have you eaten?" he asked. It was the Thai equivalent to, "How are you?"

When I answered yes, he patted a place on his bed for me to sit.

As I took a seat, he was still holding my hand - and a profound comfort washed over me - the comfort that stems from human touch. I'd experienced little or none of it during the last year of my journey.

And as we sat hands clasped, I wondered just who needed it more, him or me.

"I'm going home today," Moam informed me. "My family is coming to get me."

Sadly, I would find out later, this was what he'd hoped for, and the exact opposite of reality.

The truth was, that in Thailand, AIDS struck mostly poor rural farmers and their families.

Because their education levels are low - most of them completing only four to six years of primary school - the majority have little or no idea how to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS, and even less knowledge about the disease itself. As a result they approached it with a fear just short of superstition.

More often than not, when family members are struck ill, they are almost instantly abandoned.

After several minutes with Moam, my attention turned to a woman in the bed next to him, her shrunken body in the last painful throes of the disease. Staring at me with a haunting gaze, I looked upon her thighs as they protruded from her waist. They were barely thicker than my wrists.

"Her name is Niramon Eiamsaad," a woman informed me in perfect English. The woman was a random visitor passing through.

"How did she get here?" I asked the woman. The two spoke in Thai for a moment, then the woman turned her head back toward me.

"She contracted AIDS from her husband, who died last year. Her family dropped her off when she became critically ill, and told her they'd be back when she got better - she hasn't heard from them since."

Then, the bed-ridden woman's eyes turned to me, almost pleading. She spoke to our impromptu interpreter.

"She said she doesn't want to be here anymore ... she asked if you could help her to return home to be with her two children."

I had no idea what to say.

I spent the rest of the morning wandering listlessly around the room - pouring a patient a glass of water, or handing them things they couldn't reach. Sometimes I steadied them while they walked, or helped lift them as I changed a bed sheet.

To be honest, I was a fairly ineffective volunteer.

Then came lunch.

"We need help here," someone called to me.

Then a man handed me a stainless steel tray of food and pointed to a separate room.

"She needs to be fed."

The room was a place I'd purposefully avoided all morning. The Tuberculosis room. Reluctant at first, I pulled on a mask and walked in. Then I approached her bed with the utmost awkwardness. I lowered the rail and set the plate near her head.

She rolled her face from beneath a blanket.

When my eyes finally met hers, she gazed at me with a look I will never forget: still fully alive, but filled with a torrent of pain. A mixture of fear, suffering, confusion and desperation.

When I grabbed the plate and filled the spoon, my hands shook.

I lifted the first small bits of noodles from the stainless-steel plate, then poured it from the spoon, over her lips, down her chin, and all over the sheets.

I felt like a bumbling idiot.

"If you think this is messy," I said, "you ought to see me feed myself."

It was a statement more for me, than for her - a chance to lighten the heaviness of the moment.

Her eyes urged me to press on.

After a few spoonfuls I got the hang of it, and she ate heartily, until she finally turned her head the other way.

She was full. When she turned her head back, she stared at me for another moment, her eyes looking deeply within mine. As she stared, I could see that she had once been a beautiful woman, and could not have been more than 24 or 25.

I tried hard to choke back the tears.

"We could use some more help in here if you're done in there," a voice called from the other room. And I set my hand on her shoulder and again looked into her eyes.

"OK then ..." I said, as I got up to walk away. That's when I noticed something else in her gaze. Call it moronic self-serving projection, but I swore that something looked like traces of appreciation and hope.

Before I knew it my day in the hospice was done. When it was, I tossed my mask and walked outside.

I walked to a small shrine to pay my respects to the thousands of souls - those represented by neatly arranged bags of cremated remains stacked nearly to the ceiling.

Then, as I had many times on this journey, I stood for a moment and wondered just how long this group of fellow human beings would have to suffer before we collectively began to care - and in that caring - enacted the appropriate solutions.

When the sun began to set, I climbed a small hill and took my place beneath a 30-foot statue of a sitting Buddha over-looking the monastery. A place where I'd hoped to find some peace. Sitting cross-legged, I began to watch my breath - following it slowly as it moved in and out. As I did, I reminded myself gently, "just this, just now. ..."

Then, when the thoughts in my mind finally stilled, my defenses fell, and the dam finally broke into a flood of emotions. Deep emotions that took the form of tears. Tears that flowed freely to the corners of my mouth.

They were tears of sorrow, tears of confusion, tears of pain. Tears that reminded me that deep inside I was not a traveler, a volunteer, a cyclist or photographer - but still, in fact, very much a human being.

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHEN: Dec. 12-30, 2006

MILEAGE LOG: 12,798-13,202

ELEVATION: Sea level-800 feet

WHERE: Bangkok, Lopburi, Nong Phai, Lom Khao, Phu Rua, Chiang Khan, Nong Khai

For those interested in donating or volunteering, the Phrabatnampu Buddhist Monastery desperately needs your help. Please call: 66-661-831-3441, or e-mail the temple at temple@ksc.th.com or go to www.aidstemple.th.org.

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