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Chiang Mai Thailand - All About Chiangmai Thailand


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by Dr. Ted Brown

Missionaries were the first foreigners to come to Chiang Mai in the late 19th century. They did much good in terms of education, healthcare as well as converting many souls.

In 1994, I was invited to meet one of Chiang Mai's medical and Christian pioneers, Dr. Boonchom Ariwongse. Dr. Boonchom, who passed away on December 5, 1997, was a spellbinding storyteller. He had a good memory for the details of his youth, excellent grasp of English language and had been both witness to and an influential figure in the development of Chiang Mai's medical system. With apologies for the inevitable mistakes that I have made, I will provide an account of Dr. Boonchom's conversation, supplemented here and there by other sources. The topic was the history of missionary medicine in Chiang Mai until the end of World War II.

While missions of the Catholic Church were very active in the Northeast, the North of Siam was to a great extent the domain of Protestant missionaries. All of the missionaries described below were connected with the American Presbyterian Church.

Dr. and Mrs. Daniel McGilvary are acknowledged to be the first Christian missionaries in Chiang Mai. McGilvary had arrived in Bangkok in 1858, where he met his bride, Sophia. She was the daughter of the pre-eminent Dan Beach Bradley, M.D., who had been practicing missionary medicine in Bangkok for over two decades at that point. McGilvary's father-in-law introduced him to Jao (prince) Kawilorot, the last absolute ruler of Chiang Mai. Kawilorot was on one of his regular visits to Bangkok to pay tribute to the King of Siam. Dr. McGilvary obtained an audience with Kawilorot and soon developed a friendship with him. The Prince invited Dr. McGilvary to "see the people of Laos," and opened the door for his missionary expedition to Chiang Mai.

In 1867, The McGilvary family, including 2 young children, traveled upriver, embarking from Nakorn Sawan by steamboat, continuing by canoes in the shallows and finally arriving by poleboat. The trip took thirteen weeks.

Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, there was no inn at which the McGilvary family could stay. Such enterprises did not then exist. Following custom, they took shelter under an open-air market sala. There, they used draped cloth to cordon off a section of the sala so as to afford a tiny degree of privacy. With minimal comforts, the McGilvarys remained there for two years, preaching Christian faith, as best they could. People were very curious to see this family of white people, to touch their skin and see them eat with knives and forks. However, little evangelical progress was made.

Later, McGilvary was allowed by the Prince to move to a site which is today the location of Chiang Mai First Church, adjacent to the Nawarat bridge. The Prince gave the land to the Presbyterian missionaries, as was his right. Nonetheless, it already had an owner who wasn't happy about having to summarily give up his land. As he was a neighbour, the mission decided it was best to pay him, but did so quietly so as not to get the attention of Kawilorot.

Dr. McGilvary had brought some medications along. Witnessing the great suffering from illness among the natives, he started dispensing medications from his home. He introduced lifesaving quinine to the North. Even fragments of a pill could have miraculous results. Dr. McGilvary lived in Chiang Mai for many years, visiting and preaching to the locals. He was known as "Pau Kru Luang," or "Great Father Teacher." He lived into his 80's, and died in Chiang Mai in 1911. McGilvary Theological Seminary, located on Doi Saket Kao Road, honours the evangelical work of Dr. and Mrs. McGilvary.

McGilvary was followed by other Presbyterian missionaries who were truly doctors, the first three being Dr. Vrooman, Dr. Cheek and Dr. Cary, in that order. Dr. Vrooman and Dr. Cary stayed only a few years. Dr. Cheek, who arrived in 1875, was the most colourful and tragic missionary doctor in Chiang Mai's history. Dr. McGilvary recruited Cheek from his home state of North Carolina and obviously had high hopes for him. The two became brothers-in-law when Dr. Cheek married one of Dr. Bradley's other daughters, Sarah Adorna. Dr. Cheek raised a pledge of 10,000 dollars from the U.S.A. to build a hospital in Chiang Mai, but the Mission board would not allow it. He was greatly disappointed and embittered. Meanwhile, the Mission was disturbed by his business activities and attempts to have a private clinic. He quit the mission in 1885.

Subsequently, his wife left him and took their children to live in the U.S.A. He became a teak wallah (trader) and acquired several wives. One missionary complained in 1891 that Dr. Cheek had the only sawmill in Chiang Mai and had repeatedly directed his foreman not to saw any lumbar for the mission hospital then being built. Cheek ran afoul of some governmental and royal personages and was barred from the logging trade in Siam and Laos. An attempt was made on his life, but he managed to fight off five ruffians with a heavy cane. At the time of his death in 1895, he was the defendant in a lawsuit of such magnitude that it was discussed in the U.S. Senate.  
To his credit, he designed a sturdy bridge built at the site of what is today the walking bridge to the Warorot market. The original bridge was removed because it was obstructing the teak logs floating down the Ping River. He helped to build the old church located next to the Ping River, one hundred meters south of the Nawarat bridge. It is now home to the Chiang Mai Christian School. Rev. J.J. Thomas wrote of his death, "No man has done more in a few years for our mission here, and no man has been so- I was about to say hated- but I will say pitied and discarded by his former friends and loved ones because of what they deemed a misspent and bad life, as Dr. Cheek."


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