The last time Jaeyaena Beuraheng saw her seven children was in 1982 when she left south Thailand on one of her regular shopping trips across the border to nearby Malaysia.
She never returned, and police later told her family that she had apparently been killed in a traffic accident.
In fact, Jaeyaena had simply taken the wrong bus home — an error that would have been easy to fix except that she only speaks the local dialect of Malay known as Yawi, according to officials at the homeless shelter where the 76-year-old has lived for two decades.
“I didn’t tell anybody where I was going on that day, because I went there quite often,” she told AFP, crying as she spoke.
She was heading home from her shopping trip when she mistakenly hopped on a bus to Bangkok, some 1,150 kilometers (700 miles) north of her home in Narathiwat province.
In Bangkok, unable to read Thai and speaking a language few Thais can understand, she again took a wrong bus, this time to Chiang Mai, another 700 kilometers (430 miles) further north.
There she ended up as a beggar for five years, until she was sent to a homeless shelter in the central Thai province of Phitsanulok in 1987.
“I thought I would die in Phitsanulok. I thought about running away many times, but then I worried I would not be able to make it home. I really missed my children,” Jaeyaena said.
Officials at the shelter told AFP that she was known as “Auntie Mon,” because her speech sounded similar to the language of ethnic Mon living along the border with Myanmar.
But still no one could understand her, until last week when three health students from Narathiwat arrived on an exchange program to research the problem of homelessness at the shelter.
She sang a song for the visitors, one that the staff at the shelter had often heard but did not understand.
“She sang her same old song, one that nobody could understand until those three students from Narathiwat told us that she was sing in Yawi, a Malay dialect,” the official said.
“So we asked them to talk to her and find out if she had relatives,” official said.
Jaeyaena told the students that she had a Malaysian husband and seven children, recounting her entire story of the bus and how she had become lost in northern Thailand.
Her shocked family sent her youngest son and her eldest daughter to meet her and bring her home on Tuesday, the official said.
“She remembered all of her children’s names. But at first she couldn’t recognise her youngest son, but she recognised her eldest daughter,” said the official, who was at their reunion.
Her children took her back to their family home in Dusongyo village, in a remote corner of Narathiwat, where her children and grandchildren were still hugging and kissing her two days after her return.