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Rural Thailand is one of the least likely places in which to encounter a snippet of the South Island, so I was bemused, on a recent visit to Chiang Mai, to find a well-weathered plaque on a tiny house just 2km from the city, bearing the words ``Canterbury Westland Region of New Zealand''.
The house was one in a row of identical, diminutive dwellings lining a short, neat street on an island in the Ping River.
Wherever I am in the world, I am always drawn towards gardens, so I soon found myself peering into a bright flowerbed outside one of these tiny cottages. Before I had time to move away, the gardener appeared, and so began a conversation in two languages augmented with a great deal of smiling and, on my part, a lot of pointing.
I say ``on my part'' because even if my new-found gardening friend had wanted to point, she couldn't; the fingers of both her hands were missing. It was my first encounter with the damage that leprosy can do.
The care of leprosy patients in northern Thailand dates back to 1907, when American missionary Dr James W. McKean approached Chiang Mai's then ruler, Chao Inthawarorot, to ask for land on which could be established a leper colony. What eventuated was the donation of an island that had once been used to house elephants belonging to local rulers. Eschewed by the surrounding population who believed the island was haunted by the spirit of a rogue white elephant, the land became a home for those whose leprosy had led to their own community rejecting them.
Very slowly, local people armed with fishing rods tentatively ventured on to an island they had previously shunned. Some were so fearful of contracting leprosy they even asked staff to wash themselves in water from the pond to prove it wasn't infected. But the ploy worked. While the fishermen dipped their lines in the water, staff spoke to them, slowly winning their trust and convincing them there was nothing to fear from leprosy patients.
The result is that almost all of McKean Centre's patients have been able to return home to the families and villages that previously excluded them. Only those with no family to return to, the very elderly, or those who have been at the centre for so long that independent living would prove too difficult, now remain. And it is the tiny cottages, some financed through donations from New Zealand, that are their homes.
Before I could stop him, he was taking me on a tour of the community composting system. The leaf raking isn't something Uncle Wang (as he is affectionately known) is required to do. He has a perfectly adequate senior's pension - and the meals on wheels are for him, too. But he likes to contribute to the centre's organic garden, and composting is something he can do.
On my way back to the administration centre, I was passed by a stream of bicycle-riding tourists (the island is so scenic that tour groups frequently come through). A little further on, a group of residents was sitting in the shade while being instructed in the art of making organic fish food.
Before I left the centre, I was shown round the hospital workshops where those who have been disabled from the disease have proven the ``wound is the eye'' by deftly designing and manufacturing prosthetic equipment they know will work for fellow leprosy patients. It is ingeniously fashioned from inexpensive parts that are easily replaced should they fail through wear and tear. A simple spring, for example, is designed to stretch and contract to help a patient lift an unresponsive foot as they walk.
On my way home past the handcraft centre, where expert artists fashion carvings, prints and jewellery, and teach these skills to patients who can take home the skills as a way of supporting themselves, I purchased some pretty cards. They were printed with bright flowers and reminded me of the garden outside the tiny cottage that had been built through the generous donations of New Zealanders.