1 Poling up the Ping February 1875 (Buddhist Era 2418), on the Ping River, north of Siam.
Three scorpion-tailed boats were sliding slowly upstream through the dawn mist. All was silent, apart from the plop of poles piercing the water and the soft thud of bare feet on the teak decks. Six polers propelled each boat, while the captains steered from the curved tails that gave the boats their name. The crews of muscular men, wearing indigo loincloths and tattooed from the waist to the knees, thrust iron-spiked, bamboo poles into the riverbed at the bow, then pushed against the pole and walked along the side of the boat, moving it forwards. When they reached the stern, they plucked the pole from the water, lifted it high, returned to the bow and started over again.
On the middle boat, the heads of two Westerners protruded from the fog, gazing at the dense jungle. The missionary Dr Daniel McGilvary, in his 40s, was tall and slim with a gaunt face and a long, wispy beard, while medical practitioner Dr Marion Cheek, just turned 21, stood a little shorter than McGilvary. He was chubby and clean-shaven, with clipped blond hair and blue eyes. Both wore tight-fitting suits. As the mist cleared momentarily, a flash of bright blue and orange darted from a tree branch into the water, then emerged a moment later with a small silver fish in its beak. “Did you see that?” squealed Cheek, “What amazing colours on that bird!”
“That bird, Dr Cheek, is a kingfisher, one of many marvels that Our Lord has bestowed upon this land, though I wonder why He has been so generous to these unbelievers. But now that we have you to heal the sick, I’m sure that soon they will be begging for baptism into our flock. And while their souls remain in the dark ages, you will find them hospitable and helpful.” Cheek adopted a puzzled look, unsure why the local people should be disparaged if they were so helpful, but at that moment a bullet zipped between them, singeing McGilvary’s beard, and a loud crack rang out from the east bank of the river.
For a second both men froze, then McGilvary dropped to his knees, shouting “Get down! It’s a band of robbers. Keep your head down.” Cheek knelt behind their simple cabin, and through the window he spotted puffs of smoke rising from a rock where more shots had been fired. He grabbed a Winchester rifle he had bought in Bangkok in the hope of hunting big game, and let off a round in the general direction of the robbers, but McGilvary gestured wildly for him to stop and take cover.
Bullets smacked into the hulls, but the agile polers slipped like fish into the water, then used their poles and feet to push the boats into the shadow of trees on the west bank. When the gunfire stopped for several seconds, Cheek moved to the front of the cabin on his knees and started to stand up for a better look. As he looked upstream he saw a few dugout canoes coming towards them, each occupied by a paddler and a crossbow bearer. He hardly had time to duck before a short, thick arrow embedded itself into the cabin above his head with a swish and a thud. He noticed one of the polers wriggling his way across the deck like a lizard, edging forwards with his elbows and knees, then laying silent at the side of the boat.
At the sound of wooden hulls meeting, the poler leaped to his feet and drove the spiked end of his pole directly into the face of the crossbow bearer in the first canoe. Blood spurted everywhere and the man collapsed screaming. His mate paddled away in a panic and the other canoes followed. As quickly as it began, the incident ended, but the two missionaries stepped ashore in case of further gunfire, while the polers cheered the hero who had saved the day.
The attack mystified Cheek, so he asked McGilvary for an explanation. “Pray tell me, what cargo do we carry that attracts such attention?” “I, er, well,” stuttered McGilvary, before regaining his composure. “I didn’t want to worry you unduly during our journey, so I neglected to tell you there have been occasional attacks on river vessels by robbers, known as dacoits in these parts. In the hold are chests of specie – coins in rupees from trading companies in Bangkok for workers in the teak forests of the north. Their value amounts to several thousand dollars, and someone must know or guess we have such a cargo.”
“Several thousand dollars?” Cheek raised his eyebrows. “Why, that’s a fortune! Perhaps I should have become a dacoit myself. No doubt one could live a lavish life with such a windfall.” McGilvary frowned. “Oh doctor, how could stealing improve your life? Rather, guilt would eat at your heart, making your life a misery. As it is, in Chiang Mai you will make sick people well while spreading the gospel. What greater good could there be than this?”
Cheek shrugged his shoulders and then boarded the boat for the next stage of the journey, but he kept his rifle close in case they met more unfriendly locals. As the boats renewed their slow progress, he sat with his back against the cabin and turned his head towards the sun, now peeking over the treetops.
Cheek began to wonder whether he had made a wise decision in joining the mission, and his mind went back to a muggy afternoon at Baltimore College about six months previously, when he had been half asleep, his head resting on folded forearms during a tedious anatomy class. The sound of a lilting Scottish brogue had stirred him from his slumber. McGilvary, a friend of the anatomy lecturer, had interrupted the class to launch an impassioned plea for a doctor to join his mission. The reverend’s brief description of this exotic kingdom caught Cheek’s imagination, so he had approached McGilvary after the talk to offer his services. A few months later, after graduating, Cheek had sailed from San Francisco to join McGilvary in Bangkok.
Now, after six weeks inching upriver, they were within a few days of their goal, the ancient city of Chiang Mai. Cheek reflected that his hopes of an adventurous life in this far-off land had not included being shot at by robbers, nor having vital information withheld by his employer. Nevertheless, he realised it was too late to back out now. As the sun rose higher, the combination of warm rays, cool breeze and the repetitive plop of the poles sent him into a doze.
2 Encounter with a teak raft
When he woke, Cheek lapped up the constantly changing scenery. Huge rain trees formed canopies leaning out over the water, and towering palms stood on the hills behind. Fist-sized butterflies flitted over riverside blossoms, while parrots squawked and monkeys squabbled in the treetops. Shrubs and bushes filled the banks and there appeared to be no place to moor a boat apart from temporary bamboo jetties that had been battered and warped by the changing moods of the river.
Here and there, however, the banks were stamped flat as if paths led to them, and Cheek assumed that these were elephant trails, as at one such clearing he saw a couple of the huge, shiny beasts dragging logs to the water’s edge with riders or mahouts perched on their necks. A riderless youngster scampered around the chained adults, trying to help by pushing the logs with its tiny trunk, but only getting in the way and receiving a neat clip round the ear from its mother’s trunk for its pains.
Cheek was still looking back at this scene and grinning to see an animal displaying such humanlike behaviour when he became aware of a rumbling behind him, and saw panic-stricken expressions on the faces of the polers looking over his shoulder. He turned round to see a raft of logs coming downstream towards them, and the crew had to plunge their poles into the riverbed with all their strength in an effort to push the boats out of its path.
The massive raft, strapped together with strips of rattan, covered almost the entire width of the river, and in the distance two men were running across its surface, leaping from trunk to trunk and throwing ties into the far bank to prevent the raft from crashing into the side of the river. An eerie resonance, caused by hundreds of logs jostling together yet muffled by the water, got louder as the raft came nearer.
The unfamiliar cacophony scared Cheek out of his wits, and he started shuddering uncontrollably. McGilvary was on his knees; he wanted desperately to clasp his hands in prayer, but he had to hold fast to the cabin doorway to avoid being thrown into the river. By some miracle, the raft missed their boats by a mere hand’s width. The polers managed to rope the boats to trees on the bank until the raft had passed, and Cheek gasped to regain his breath, which had ceased completely as he contemplated all too vividly being crushed by a thousand tons of timber. McGilvary clenched his palms together and thanked the Lord for His divine intervention.
Later that evening, as they waited on the riverbank while the polers prepared a supper of spicy fish and sticky rice, Cheek revised his estimate. “No, no,” he muttered to himself, “not a thousand tons, it’s more like two thousand. There must have been a couple of hundred logs in that raft, and each must weigh at least ten tons.” “What’s that?” asked McGilvary in a none-too-interested manner, absorbed by his translation of the Holy Bible into the Lanna language. “Oh nothing,” said Cheek, “I was just wondering what mortal remains they might have found for our burial if that raft had hit us.” McGilvary peered over his half-frame reading glasses.
“The regrettable truth is that we would probably not even receive a Christian burial, but be cast into the fires of Hell by way of the heathen practice of cremation, since our mortal remains would decompose during the rest of the journey.” Cheek chewed on a mouthful of peppery fish that had just been placed in front of him and let out a long hiss, though whether this was due to the spiciness of the food or the vision of his remains being burned to a crisp was not clear.
McGilvary put aside his Bible and notebook, and joined Cheek at the supper table, an upturned box beside which they sat cross-legged. He made a ball of sticky rice with his fingers and dipped it into the fish dish. As soon as he tasted it, he blew through rounded lips and shook his head gently. “These people are a perpetual enigma to me. Despite living in a hot climate, they have a passion for fiery food that borders on the perverse. Look at my brow, I’m breaking into a sweat already.” He dabbed it dry with his napkin.
Cheek giggled. “Well, it was a shock at first, but now I’m developing a taste for this spicy cuisine.” He dipped another ball of sticky rice into the fish. “Besides, these spices probably contain valuable nutrients. Just look at these polers – I wouldn’t like to cross one of them for any reason.” “They are indeed impressive. I thought our chances of escaping that raft of teak logs earlier were non-existent, but those polers seemed to tap into unknown resources of strength. I will show our gratitude on arrival in Chiang Mai by adding an extra rupee to each man’s purse.”
Cheek nodded in approval. “By the way, what will be our lodging arrangements in Chiang Mai?” he asked. “Well, you’ll have to stay with my family and me for the first few months, until Sarah can follow you from Bangkok. In the meantime, we can scout around for a good site to establish a dispensary. With any luck, we might rent an adjoining house for you and your future bride.”
The mention of Sarah’s name made Cheek go misty-eyed. He remembered the moment he first set eyes on this ravishing creature with her wavy blond hair, close-fitting pink bodice and flowing hoop skirt. She had been waiting with McGilvary and other family members when he stepped off the boat in Bangkok, and he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Sarah was a half sister to McGilvary’s wife Sophia, and both were daughters of the recently deceased Dr Daniel Beach Bradley, one of the first American missionaries to live in Siam. Cheek remembered how a few days after his arrival, Sarah had gazed on him with adulation as he assisted at the birth of Sophia’s son.
Later, when they were flirting in a bower in the Bradley garden, he had pulled a strip of paper from his pocket, rolled it into the shape of a ring and knelt in front of Sarah, begging her to become his wife, which she quickly agreed to. Sarah had stayed in Bangkok to acquire materials for a new girls’ school that she and Sophia planned to open in Chiang Mai, and for both Marion Cheek and Sarah Bradley, the days could not pass quickly enough until they were reunited. This turn of events meant that McGilvary was not only Cheek’s employer, but he was also destined to become his brother-in-law.
After supper, McGilvary resumed his Bible musings by candle light in the cramped cabin of the boat, while Cheek paced along the riverbank, eyes and ears alert to the new sights and sounds of deepest Asia. Crickets shrieked in the trees and mosquitoes whined round his ears. He flicked the latter away and moved out of the shade of a huge tree to see more stars than he had ever seen before. As he let out a gasp of pleasure at the sight, a streak of light flashed across the sky. “A shooting star!” he realised, “The first I’ve ever seen. I wish that this new phase of my life will be full of such auspicious moments and that I shall remain immune to the many tropical diseases that lead to an early end.”