Dressed as an angel, a petite blonde Australian woman flitted about the auditorium, hugging participants and lecturing about the healing power of love and laughter. Australia's Susan Aldous prescribes laughter as the best medicine. Called the Angel of Bang Kwang, she is a ray of sunshine for underprivileged Thais - from inmates at a maximum security prison to women and children in shelters, writes Tibor Krausz in the Sydney Morning Herald.
At a recent symposium in Bangkok, hundreds of health-care professionals from across Thailand were treated to an unusual spectacle. Dressed as an angel, a petite blonde Australian woman flitted about the auditorium, hugging participants and lecturing them about the healing power of love and laughter.
Susan Aldous wore a white chiffon costume, with fluffy wings and a sequined tiara - a clumsy mixture, as she puts it, of Snow White and Bridal Best circa Word War II.
Yet the outfit wasn't simply a publicity gimmick.
Melbourne-born Aldous is widely known in Thailand as the Angel of Bang Kwang. She has earnt the epithet with her dedicated volunteer work with inmates - many of them serving life sentences for drug offences - at the notorious maximum-security prison outside Bangkok, where she is friends with prisoners and guards alike.
But she does so much more.
Invited to act as titular mascot for a Thai national hospital institution, the high-school drop-out was at the symposium to teach doctors and nurses about humanised health care.
Her credentials: decades-long devotion to helping the needy, the neglected and the down-and-out at countless hospital wards, women's shelters, refugee camps, or anywhere else she can find them.
"My past is my PhD in this work. In the course of my work I've been called an angel but I've never [been asked] to dress up as one," she laughs.
A few days later, Aldous demonstrates her modus operandi.
During her weekly visit to a women's shelter on the outskirts of Bangkok, she waves to a group of women - battered wives, rape victims, single mothers - unwinding in the shelter's shady yard. Children mob her. Some have been rescued from sexual exploitation or sweatshop-style slavery. Between hugs, Aldous hands them toys and chocolates - two each so they can donate one to a sibling or friend.
"This way they learn they never lose by giving, if only a smile or a helping hand," she explains before proceeding with an English lesson for them.
On weekends in Bangkok, Aldous also holds birthing and laughing yoga classes for expectant mothers and has parties for residents. Recently, as part of her drama therapy sessions, she staged a play with several battered children at the shelter to emphasise an anti-violence message. The children performed to popular acclaim at Thailand's National Human Rights Commission.
"Sister is so kind to us. No one else cares about us," says Oy, an emaciated woman at the shelter who has AIDS. Her 13-year-old son is cared for in a Buddhist monastery but she doesn't tell her family where she is, so as not to brand them with the stigma of her disease.
The two women hug, tears in their eyes. Momentarily, though, Aldous begins joking with Oy in fluent Thai and they both laugh, in line with Aldous's philosophy that laughter is the best medicine.
Everywhere else Aldous goes, from crowded cells to hospital wards, her bubbly, instant camaraderie seems infectious.
"She's relit my beacon," says Martin Zweiback, a Hollywood producer who met Aldous by chance during a holiday in Thailand. He credits her compassion and buoyant optimism with his revitalised will to live after his wife's death from cancer three years ago.
"I felt my life was over," he says. "Then I watched Susan going about the slums of Bangkok with a shining spirit and a bright smile. I saw her hugging a double murderer with such compassion. But forgive me for drifting into Pollyanna land as there's nothing Pollyanna about Susan."
A single mother with no income, Aldous, 47, lives hand-to-mouth in a small rented apartment with her 17-year-old daughter near Bang Kwang. She is a youthful, pretty sprightly woman who wears hand-me-down clothes and backpacker-style trinkets. Aldous lives on kerbside meals and walks a lot to save on bus fares. Her Thai neighbours often slip money in envelopes under her door.
"What do I need?" she says. "I'm 31 years down the road with [humanitarian volunteer work] but I haven't yet missed a meal." A born-again Christian, she still has in her some of the hellraiser she once was.
An orphan raised by foster parents in an upper-middle class part of Melbourne, Aldous became a rebel in her early teens. Dropping out of school, she was, at times, a spaced-out flower child with bird bones and feathers dangling from ears (Mary Poppins on crack, she jokes); a skinhead biker in military fatigues; and a proto-punk complete with tattoos, safety-pin piercings and shaved eyebrows.
She was nicknamed "Petrol Head" for sniffing petrol, glue and aerosols. She'd slash herself with razor blades.
"I was angry at the world and rebelled at a predictable life in the suburbs," she says.
Burnt out and jaded, she thought of suicide. Then in Melbourne's red-light district, St Kilda, she encountered Christian aid workers, one of whom suggested: "If you're going to throw your life away, why don't you instead give it away?" "Compassion has been my drug of choice ever since," Aldous says.
While volunteering as a welfare worker in South-East Asian slums and prisons, she arrived in Thailand in 1985 on a nine-day visit - and has never left. She has just launched a campaign to raise awareness of gender issues in Thailand, where spousal abuse of women is still widespread. As part of this drive, Aldous has also submerged herself in the marginalised world of the country's renowned third gender - ladyboys, as transvestites and transsexuals are known locally.
As a frequent visitor to Bangkok's Boys Town, a gay strip with rowdy bars and transvestite shows, she counsels ladyboys, warning them against prostitution and drug abuse.
She has just published a book of interviews with ladyboys, to provide a view past the stereotypes.
"Susan touches a lot of lives," says her Thai co-author, Pornchai Sereemongkonpol. "At first I was suspicious of her motives, then you see the way she treats people and how they light up at the sight of her."
Last month a popular Thai television series featured Aldous in a two-part program. It drew an overwhelming response from viewers, who called in from around the country to thank Aldous for her charity works and to offer support for her projects. "Everywhere I go, people now recognise me," she says. "They come up to me and say, 'You're Susan.' They shake my hand, thank me or give me free water and yoghurt to keep me going."
Yet Aldous is not basking in her fame. She has started visiting a school for disadvantaged children to teach English and give them books, toys and sport equipment, which she collects with help from friends and grateful former proteges.
A close friend and a helpful ally at Bwang Kwang is Chavoret Jaruboon, who was Thailand's chief executioner until recently.
"The inmates call us the angel and the devil," Chavoret laughs.
Aldous, though, rejects the angel moniker and says: "I'm not a little-goody-two-shoes, or a saint. I just believe that a smile and a kind word can change lives. They've changed mine."Source: The Sun-Herald