The Saints of Thailand

    “The Saints of Thailand,” Tambuli, May 1993, 41

    The Saints of Thailand

    “I was baptized at five o’clock in the morning in a river. The water was very cold, but I felt warm. It was a good feeling.”

    Recalling his conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ some twenty-two years ago, Kriangkrai Pitakpong, president of the Khon Kaen District echoes experiences similar to those enjoyed by the almost 4,000 converts to the Church in the beautiful country of Thailand.

    South of China and cradled by Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia, Thailand is an Asian nation never colonized by a European power, a historical fact reflected in its name, which means “Land of the Free.”

    The first Latter-day Saint missionary to this traditionally Buddhist land was Elder Elam Luddington. He arrived in the nation’s capital of Bangkok in April 1854, and left in July of the same year. More than one hundred years later, in November 1966, the land was dedicated for missionary work by Elder Gordon B. Hinckley. Following two years of negotiation between the Church and the government of Thailand, six missionaries were transferred to Thailand from the Southern Far East Mission. By 1969, Thailand became part of the new Southeast Asian Mission; and then, in July 1973, the Thailand Mission was created. There are now ninety full-time missionaries, twenty of whom are native Thais.

    Because proselyting is not permitted in Thailand, most investigators come from member referrals. Other investigators, like Kriangkrai Pitakpong, become curious when they see the missionaries. “I used to see the missionaries riding their bicycles, and I wondered who they were and what they did. When I finally made contact with them, I accepted their invitation to attend the English language classes they were conducting. Then I began studying the gospel and reading the Book of Mormon. I was baptized in October 1970, when I was nineteen years old.”

    Blessings and Challenges

    Gaining a testimony and being baptized were among the highlights in the life of Kriangkrai Pitakpong. Other highlights include his marriage to Mukdahan, whom he introduced to the Church; his callings as president of the Khon Kaen Branch and then as president of the Khon Kaen District; and a 1990 airplane flight with his family and other Thai Saints to the Manila Philippines Temple.

    “When we flew to Manila, it was a milestone in the history of the Church in Thailand. There were about two hundred of us. We were all very excited,” he remembers. “It was a trip we had planned for a long time. It was very expensive, approximately $350 per person. Everyone worked hard to raise the money to go. Even our ten-year-old daughter, Kesarin, made some money selling charcoal for cooking. It was a special time for us.”

    But in addition to the blessings, life for the Pitakpongs has had its traumas, too. Some seven years ago, President Pitakpong was out of town on business when an intruder in his home struck Sister Pitakpong with a wrench and stole a gold necklace she was wearing. “My son, Wuthikrai, went to his mother’s aid, and he, too, was hit, as was my wife’s mother. The man ran away as my daughter screamed for help.

    “My wife had to be hospitalized, and she still suffers from severe headaches that make it difficult for her to concentrate.”

    But the family finds comfort in living the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Being sealed together in the temple brought a special spirit into our family,” says President Pitakpong. “It strengthened our individual testimonies. Now, not only does our sixteen-year-old son want to go on a mission, but his two younger sisters want to go, too.”

    Speaking of the two thousand members in the nine branches over which he presides, President Pitakpong says that many in the district are very poor. “In some families there may be only one person working, and then not always regularly employed. Some families hardly have enough money to exist on. In some families only one parent may be a member of the Church. But whatever the circumstances, the members have great faith, and they are active in the Church. They come to meetings on foot, by bus, or by bicycle—no matter how far they live from the church.”

    Sometimes nonmembers attend Church meetings, and some who have heard the gospel message would like to join the Church, says President Pitakpong, “but the religious tradition of their parents or their families prevents them from joining. Personally, I wasn’t concerned about tradition. I knew the Church was true, and I wanted to be baptized.”

    Now in his daily life and in presiding over the Khon Kaen District, President Pitakpong likes to use the Book of Mormon as a guide. “I often apply the lessons I learn from the Book of Mormon.”

    A Need to Share the Gospel

    The Book of Mormon was a means of introducing Wannipha Thongchalerm, to the Church. First introduced to Christianity by a United States serviceman, she received a copy of the Book of Mormon from a friend. The book led to visits by the full-time missionaries. “Learning the gospel was a happy experience for me,” she says. “The missionaries would visit me every other day, and I would make notes of what they told me. Each time they came, I would repeat the previous lesson back to them. I was baptized in 1976.”

    Sister Thongchalerm married a nonmember whose work required him to travel a great deal. After five years of marriage, they were divorced. Prior to the divorce, Sister Thongchalerm began studying to be a nurse, a profession she still follows at one of the local hospitals. Three years after her divorce, she married Anan, who had been baptized in 1981. With their two children, Ariza, 4, and Aachanoon, 3, they were among the group that went to the Manila Temple.

    “When I came back from the temple, I felt a greater need to share the gospel with others. I decided I would try to bring at least ten other people into the Church, a goal I reached within two years.”

    Sister Thongchalerm, who teaches in seminary, Sunday School, and Relief Society, treasures her testimony. “I feel that no matter what happens, no one can take away my testimony of Jesus Christ.”

    The Thongchalerms live in a multilevel house in Udorn—a house Brother Thongchalerm will completely finish “some day.”

    Strength in Gospel Principles

    In contrast to the Thongchalerms’ large home is the simple wooden dwelling of Boonthom and Suwan Pamangkata and their six-year-old daughter, Suchitra.

    Brother Pamangkata ekes out a living operating a pedicab, a passenger-carrying tricycle. He works about ten hours a day and would like to work more, but he has poor nighttime vision because of cataracts developing in both eyes. He used to have a pair of glasses to help him see better, but someone stole them. He can’t afford another pair.

    Sister Pamangkata supplements the family income by cooking and cleaning for other people and by selling beautifully made crocheted items.

    Brother Pamangkata studied Christianity in his youth, but there was no church available for him to join. As a married man, he met the LDS missionaries, who rekindled his interest in the Savior. Sister Pamangkata was impressed with the gospel message, but she was reluctant to be baptized. “But then, before my husband was baptized, he started living the Word of Wisdom. It helped him overcome the smoking and drinking that wasted a lot of our income. Seeing what the gospel did in his life helped my testimony develop, and I was baptized. Now, every day, I find strength in gospel principles.”

    “I Am Committed”

    Four hundred and fifty kilometers northwest of Udorn, in Chiang Mai, workers are installing a fountain in the manicured grounds of a spacious, modern home. Three children are busily watching. They are Atikun, 13, Punjaree, 8, and Nathanon, 6. Their mother, Datchanee Limsukhon, is the only member of the Church in the family. Her husband, a neurologist, does not object to her Church membership, but sometimes she has to adjust her Church participation to meet her family’s needs.

    Sister Limsukhon’s first contact with the Church came when, as a young woman, she heard branch members singing in a rented hall in Bangkok. She liked what she heard and wanted to join “that church” so she could sing with the other members. She believed the missionary discussions, but her family initially refused permission for her to be baptized. “But I knew that I wanted to be baptized, and I was in November 1969.”

    In January 1970, she returned to her home in Chiang Mai and earned a nursing degree from the local university. She then went to the Church’s Language Training Mission in Hawaii, where she taught Thai to the missionaries for four months before she was called on a mission herself. On completing her mission in Bangkok, she had the opportunity to go to the United States for additional nursing experience in Utah and Texas. She then went to England to marry her Thai fiance, who was studying there.

    When her husband completed his schooling, they returned home to Chiang Mai, where he has been in practice ever since.

    “Since I am the only Latter-day Saint in my family, the standards of the Church are most important to me,” says Sister Limsukhon. “I am committed to living them.”

    “I Found the Answers”

    When Sister Limsukhon was living in Chiang Mai as a new member of the Church, one of the full-time missionaries was Anan Eldredge. Brother Eldredge’s life has almost spanned the history of the Church in Thailand.

    Born Anan Tubtimta, he lived in a small village approximately five hundred kilometers north of Bangkok. When he was eight years old, Anan’s mother died—leaving him with questions about life and death. As he sought the answers to these questions, he also sought educational excellence and became one of the top students at his high school.

    “When I was sixteen, I left home and went to Bangkok, where I worked as a busboy in a hotel,” he says. There he became friends with the teenage son of a U.S. State Department official, Louis Eldredge. Louis and his wife, June, were Latter-day Saints. When the Eldredges were assigned to a major military installation in Thailand, they invited Anan along.

    “I met two Latter-day Saint servicemen who discussed the gospel with me. Through them, I finally found the answers to the questions I had on life and death. I discovered who I was, where I came from, and where I was going.”

    Anan was baptized 24 December 1967, the first Thai male convert in Thailand. The following year, when the first six full-time missionaries were assigned to Thailand, Anan became their constant companion, teaching them the language and helping them translate Church pamphlets.

    The Eldredges offered to adopt Anan and send him to college in the United States. Even though it meant giving up his family name, Anan’s father, a respected school principal, encouraged his son to accept the Eldredges’ offer.

    But no sooner had Anan arrived in the United States than he was called to serve a mission in Thailand. After a thirty-month mission, Anan returned to the United States and entered college in California. There he met a Brigham Young University graduate named Margaret Brown, a convert from England. The couple was married five months later in the Los Angeles Temple.

    “After my graduation in business management, Margaret and I went to Thailand so she could meet my family. During that visit, I was hired to establish the area distribution office for the Church.”

    While there, he helped prepare a revised Thai-language version of the Book of Mormon, and he helped with translating and publishing the Thai Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

    After he had worked for five years with the Church Distribution Center, Anan and Margaret returned to the United States, where he continued with gemology studies he had begun in Thailand. Eventually, he opened a jewelry business in Kansas City, Kansas, and later a store in Anchorage, Alaska.

    When asked how a Thai, married to an English woman, decided to live in Alaska, he jokingly says, “I love the fishing there.”

    But Anan, Margaret, and their growing family of three sons and two daughters, were to become fishers of men. In 1988, Anan was called to preside over the Thai Mission. (Before he completed his term as mission president in 1991, he greeted a new missionary couple from the United States—Louis and June Eldredge.)

    Under President Anan Eldredge’s missionary leadership, Church membership in Thailand showed a steady increase. He constantly emphasized the need for members to fellowship and retain new converts, and to reactivate the less-active. He looks forward to the day when the first stake is created in Thailand.

    That day may soon come, and when it does it will be the fulfillment of prophecy.

    In his 1966 dedicatory prayer, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley set Thailand apart as a refuge for lasting peace. At the time, neighboring nations were engaged in fierce warfare. Elder Hinckley said, “We dedicate this land of Thailand … to the preaching of the everlasting gospel. We pray that the Spirit may rest upon this land and this nation that there may be many, Father, yea, thousands and tens of thousands, who will hearken to the message.”

    Photography by David Mitchell

    Left: A gift of the Book of Mormon led Sister Wannipha Thongchalerm and her children, Ariza, 4, and Aachanoon, 3, to the gospel. Above: Members of the Khon Kaen Branch recently enjoyed an activity-filled social.

    President Kriangkrai Pitakpong, left, and Silapachai Traachew, of the Khon Kaen Branch presidency, deliver first aid supplies to Dangchai Sasud, right, as they have to other families in the branch. Brother Sasud, a member for more than twenty years, was a farmer until six years ago, when a spider bite resulted in his blindness.

    Lady missionaries bicycle red earth roads on the outskirts of Udorn on their preparation day.

    Anan Eldredge, the first Thai male convert in Thailand, helped the Church to grow in his native land.