Intense. If I had to describe Thailand in one word, it would be intense; intense heat, intense flavors, intense crowds. During a recent visit to the country, a simple walk to the bus stop or train had me taking in tons of stimuli. There were more faces than I could comprehend as I passed through vast crowds of people. There were innumerable stores and stands lining the streets with sights and smells foreign to my experience. The smells alone consisted of everything from enticing aromas of food cooking to the stench of garbage rotting in the streets to the perfume of exotic flowers blooming everywhere. I tried to take it all in so as to process it later. If you didn’t already guess, this was my first visit to Southeast Asia.
I love to travel. It makes me feel more fully alive; more fully awake than at any other time or place. It can be physically demanding and emotionally draining (the older I get the more this is so). Still, I love every minute of it and treasure the places I’ve been able to see and experience. Taking myself away from the comfort of the familiar helps me see the world from a new perspective. While the trip is unfolding, I often work to process what’s around me and what I’m experiencing. This can take longer the more removed I am from the norms of my daily life. I feel like I’m a slow processer, but I don’t want to form opinions without first giving thoughtful consideration to the people, places, lifestyles and cultural norms that now surround me. As you might imagine, I do a lot of journaling while I’m traveling.
It’s important for me to understand Thailand because my 23 year old daughter has chosen it as her new home. Frankly, she’s fallen head over heels in love with the country. As such, I want to see Thailand through her eyes. I want to better understand what has caused her to move away from relationships with family and friends. I want to know why she’s left the only home she’s ever known to move halfway around the world. Toward this end, we visited her apartment, her job and her church. Along the way, we met many of the beautiful people that are now part of her life. I started to understand Thailand a little better and the calling my daughter feels to be there.
Thailand is a land of contrasts. Modern apartment complexes filled with white collar professionals stand next to rows of one room shacks where people live in stark poverty. Any visit to a beautiful palace or temple includes passing by numerous beggars. Some are mothers with small children or crippled men with gaping wounds or disfigured limbs. The hardest to see are the small children sitting alone, frail and weak. All of them tore at my heart strings. Are there shelters for these people? Does Thailand have a welfare or foster-care system? My daughter instructed me not to give as these beggars are controlled by various criminal rings, but my heart had a hard time accepting that. Thailand’s contrasts were further experienced as our walks past modern, well-stocked downtown shops included passing prostitutes openly soliciting business at mid-day. I’m afraid I stared at a sight I’m not used to seeing. Does that young woman have other options? Why is one young woman selling me silk scarves while 100 feet away another young woman tries to sell her body?
We left the hustle and bustle of Bangkok one day to visit the coastal town of Pattaya. Here, prostitution is a booming business fueled by over two million foreign visitors every year. Many girls come to Thai cities from the country’s rural areas in hopes of making money for their families. These hopes are often dashed and these girls end up selling themselves out of necessity. It’s hard to imagine the desperation that drives a girl to sell herself or the oppressive shame that would then becomes a part of her life. With all this in mind, I approached the Tamar Center, a beacon of hope in this otherwise bleak situation. In the heat and humidity of Thailand, the modern building of the Center’s restaurant and bakery, advertising free air conditioning and free wi-fi to customers, was a welcome site.
Since 1999, the Project L.I.F.E. Foundation, which runs the Tamar Center, has been helping the bar and street girls of Pattaya escape the abuse of the sex trade. Offering a three month training course, they teach English language skills, the basics of restaurant operation, and hair dressing, sewing and card making skills. They also provide on-site child care.
What a joy it was to visit with women enrolled in this program and hear their stories of transformation.
One young lady shared with me, “I used to be a bad girl. Before, I didn’t know how to work at a restaurant, make cards or do hair. Now my heart is happy.” I was able to watch first hand as the women made the cards, sewed the scarves and strung jewelry-items Elevat has been selling for the past two years. After touring the facility, chatting with several residents and purchasing many new items for Elevat, I left with a full heart. I could hardly contain my joy at the privilege of partnering with such a wonderful work in offering hope to these hurting women.
There’s so much need in the world, and so often I feel overwhelmed, especially when traveling to developing countries. Purchasing items from wonderful partners like the Tamar Center, however, helps me know I can make a positive difference against the injustices of this life. Thank you for your part in helping do the same!
It was hard to get on the plane and leave my daughter behind. Even so, after experiencing Thailand myself and seeing her joy and satisfaction in living there, it was not as hard as I thought it would be. She doesn’t mind she only has cold water with which to shower, that she can’t put toilet paper in the bowl, or that she rides standing in the back of a pickup truck in order to get to work every day. She is exactly where she’s supposed to be and doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing. As I process the experience of my brief time in Thailand, I can rest assured this is so.