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Local Heroes

The grass is always green at the Relaxing Café. Literally, because fake grass covers the floor, but also because owners Warunee (Jacky) Panichattra and Suparak (Peaw) Wongsuwan, a couple from Thailand who have made the New South Wales agricultural town of Moree their home, refuse to let it be anything else.

It was early in the morning—still dark—when Jacky and Peaw unlocked the doors of the Relaxing Café to prepare for a day of service ahead. One of their regulars, bus driver Peter McLellan, was there too. The 65-year-old would often lend a hand before grabbing his takeaway coffee for his morning bus run. He was carrying chairs out to the verandah when three teenagers wearing hooded
jumpers crashed into the café from the side entrance. One picked up a milk crate and used it to bash Jacky repeatedly over her head and back. Another
tried to rip Peaw’s handbag off her. The third got into a scuffle with Peter. The kids then cleared out as quickly as they arrived, jumping the side fence and
disappearing into the dark morning. They didn’t steal anything, but they had terrified the women and badly hurt Jacky. An ambulance arrived and took Jacky to hospital and the Relaxing Café shut its doors.

For a month the doors stayed shut. Jacky and Peaw were frightened. At first the women wanted to return to Sydney, where they had lived and worked for almost 10 years, meeting there after separately moving from Thailand to Australia to
study—Jacky from Chiang Rai in the north and Peaw from the south. But then the Moree community—population 7300—rallied around them in ways they did not expect. Peter visited them daily. Other customers sent flowers and plants. Another paid for security cameras to be installed in the café. Messages of love and support came pouring in from loyal customers. This was the moment that Jacky and Peaw, despite being bruised and rattled and having lived in Moree
for not quite a year, realised this small town was their home. They felt acknowledged, accepted and appreciated. This is where they wanted to stay.

Today, four years after the attack, the Relaxing Café is buzzing. The customers steadily stream through the door, which Amy the waitress continually opens as she delivers coffees to tables and greets or farewells the incomings and outgoings. There are tradies and blokes in high-vis, farmers, undercover detectives, council workers, professionals and mothers with prams. There’s talk of frosted wheat crops and snakes on the move. There are two ladies visiting from Sydney who come to Moree to ‘take the waters’ in the artesian pools; they swear by the Relaxing Café’s golden teas. Peaw and Jacky greet everyone with cheerful hellos and the singsong Sah-wat-di-kha from the kitchen. Amy opens the door again, slightly bowing and smiling. Everyone is smiling. Jacky has a freakishly good memory for how people like their
coffees, even if they only come in occasionally. Most people don’t have to actually place their order. They arrive, Jacky clocks them and she starts making the coffee while they chat to whoever is around. Peaw knows to what exact degree of crispiness each customer likes their bacon cooked. And if it’s a regular’s birthday, she’ll slip them a little cake or make them some special
Thai food. ‘We look after everyone like friends and family, not like customers,’ says Peaw proudly. ‘They love it. They give to me. I give back to them.’

This is an extract from Issue 2 of Galah. For the full article, we'd love you to shop Issue 2.

Words by Annabelle Hickson.

Photos by Hugh Stewart and Annabelle Hickson.