The rice fields passed quickly as the van wove through the rolling lands of jungle and farmland. I thought to myself the reality of sojourner life. A bag is always half packed, ready to leave to a new location at any time. The life of feeling content with the only constant is the pack on your back. Even coming back to a hotel room after a long day is a fragment of the feeling of home. Having food and a place to sleep is all a sojourner needs to keep moving. Keep listening. Keep watching. Before coming to Thailand I dreamed about what it would be like. I would stare up at the sky with music blasting in my ears, just dreaming of possible adventures. I have only been here almost three weeks and already Thailand has surpassed my dreams. The opportunities to see and experience life beyond the page of a textbook is life altering.
This last weekend I embarked on a trip to The Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. We had a good mix of tourist locations and the raw experiences of every day village and city life. The first stop we made was at the Hall of Opium. It was an incredible museum that took us through the history of opium as well as the effects of discrimination and destruction. It was sad to see how many lives were destroyed and continue to be destroyed because of opium. The thing that struck me the most was towards the end of the museum. I went to turn into the reflection room but was startled to see a mirror in front of me. I looked at my reflection and right above the reflection was the words “It’s your choice”. I felt chills as I reflected on my friends who are involved in drugs. A lifestyle they are creating that could lead to tearing apart their future. For just the thrill of youth, drugs have a lasting effect. Opium can kill. Drugs can kill. Drugs have never been an interest to me, but for many is what they have grown up with. It is what they know and it is a comfortable reality. I will never understand why people purposefully harm themselves when they know the possible effects. The museum was right, it is your choice. It is my choice. And choice comes with awareness. Without awareness of what life could be like, people are comfortable with the need or addiction of drugs. Choice is not found if other options are not presented to people. People in the Mekong region are still suffering the effects of illegal opium trade and thousands of lives are effected. Even great kings were exiled because they could not stop the Opium trade. And all they were trying to do was save their people from destruction. It was a sobering museum and had me staring out the window once again pondering cause and effect. What some people think is a one time thing can turn into a destructive lifestyle.
The transition of the Hall of Opium moved to reaching the northern Border of Thailand. We took a boat over to Laos and got to shop around a market. It was amazing to see three countries so close to one another, but each are drastically different. The people are different, and the land is even different. And each are only a river away from one another. There were beggar children who asked for 5 baht as soon as we stepped onto the dock. I have always had a hard time with beggar children. I am heartbroken that they have to beg, and 5 baht is not much, but then I have to realize that the beggar children do not even get to keep the money. Most have to give the money to a person who is exploiting them or using their cuteness for their benefit. I watched as one of my professors interacted with the children. They politely said no to giving them money but talked with them and asked them their names. They are comfortable with this form of poverty and chatted with the children in Thai. It helped me be comfortable with the situation and realize that I can interact with the children without having to agree to give them money that will not be used for good things anyway. We walked around the market in Laos and I found fabric that caught my attention. It reminded me of what a princess might wear, haha, so I bought some of it to hopefully be made into a traditional outfit later. We crossed back into Thailand by boat. It still amazes me how wide and full the Mekong River is. It is a river that provides so much for hundreds of different people groups, but it is also a mark of powerful countries that have more control. China controls the upper part of the river which effects people all the way down the river across Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. The control of resources is a strange concept. People should just share the land like they have for centuries. The majority of people who are displaced are displaced because of political conflict.
We visited a Shan youth group in the evening. All of the youth do not have citizenship because their parents have migrated from Burma. It made me think how I was blessed with a recognized identity and papers that allow me to move freely to other countries and within the borders of my own country. After youth group we we rode around the Red Light District in Chiang Rai. The sex establishments were more hidden because of the change in government and police crack downs. I could still see the red light stream between metal slates. There were groups of men standing around and clusters of women in tight clothing. In Chiang Rai there are over 500 sex establishments that are known about. We talked with a lady about the sex workers in the area. It is a normal thing. Every family is effected by the sex industry in some way. Some girls are sold for 100,000 Baht for their virginity. Others sell themselves for just 30 Baht, which is equivalent to a dollar. The culture of exploiting people first started with coercion of strangers and agents, but now it is sadly turned into relatives pulling one another into exploitation. Is it greed or desperation of poverty that push people to accept being exploited? For many is is the daughter who has to financially support her family, and the only industry that is available for girls is mainly sex work. No girl or boy should have to sell their own body for money. What disgusts me the most is the culture around sex in the area. How it is normal to get a prostitute and it is accepted. It has become a normal way of life. I am having trouble wrapping my brain around the reality of the demand for buying someone’s body. Rich older men come and pay thousands just for sex and it gives my stomach an uneasy feeling. It is a world here where women are not seen as equals. Even I have seen looks from men here that are not with good intention. It is a look of blinded lust and seeing girls as objects. It is dehumanizing and no one should be treated in such a way, yet thousands are every year. It is truly heartbreaking.
Sunday morning came quickly and we crossed the border into Myanmar. The border was busy with trade traffic. All the paperwork is done by hand, so it took awhile to fully cross into Myanmar. It shows just how underdeveloped Myanmar is in comparison to Thailand. We rode an hour crammed together in a vehicle to a Burmese village. The village has no electricity, but has rather nice cement houses. The people are incredibly welcoming and loving. They greeted us sweetly, especially the older ladies. We sat in church and listened to a sermon about leaving the past as the past and building up a better future. There is no use in dwelling on the past. Two years ago there was an earthquake and it knocked down every building but the church and the pastor’s house. How wild is that. We got a tour of their rice fields, which was trekking through some mud since it has been raining so much. While washing off my feet, the pastor lady took my shoes from me and cleaned them. She told me that the people have not been able to eat the rice from the field, but they are still happy. Her statement struck me. The people are still happy. They have almost nothing and yet they carry joy in their hearts. They have experienced loss, sickness, prostitution, battle of religion, disaster, and yet they are still happy. You can see the joy of God in their hearts and the understanding of joy even amongst suffering. The ladies made us a huge meal which was homemade traditional Burmese food. It was so good. The fried egg and bell pepper with rice was my favorite. I even got to watch them make it in a kitchen that is fired by wood and made on huge metal pans. It seemed rustic, but it is every day life for them. It was terribly hot, but the group seemed to manage okay with the heat. However, it is terribly hard to sit like a lady in a skirt when you are sweating profusely, haha. During the service I sat next to the lady who was guiding us through Myanmar and she interpreted for me. She speaks over five languages and absolutely loves language. Even in the village some people speak Shan, and others speak Myanmar. Yet, neither can understand the other unless they know both. Even amongst the Shan people there are 33 different dialects, which cannot all understand one another. We rode back towards Tachliek, Myanmar which is near the border. We had Burmese tea and walked quickly through the market that was closing down. I bought a skirt and hope to get it sewed together to make a tube skirt. We crossed back into Thailand and said goodbye to our guide. She was inspiring in her drive for language. She told me it only takes a year to learn a language, but you have to work hard and keep practicing. I told her I wanted to learn Thai so I could communicate with people here. It is a difficult language, but I am starting to think I actually could learn it.
On Monday we got to sleep in a little bit before heading to visit an organization that works with at risk children. I asked how they raised funding and learned how big organizations will donate a certain amount. Since the organization is international, it receives funding from big donors. I am familiar with trafficking for commercial sex, labour, and construction but I was not aware of organ stealing. It seems unreal, but some people are forced to give up vital organs so it can be sold. It is horrific. The center was nice and the director had a lot of examples for some of the issues occurring. One example was a group of girls were promised work across the border. When they crossed the border their passports were taken and they were sent for prostitution. One girl managed to get a hold of someone for help, but the other three are still missing. There is no way to track them because beyond the city there is no cell reception and the are mostly likely tricked into staying. That happened just last week. The organization we visited works in preventing at risk children from being trafficked and offers some safe houses. It was interesting to see how a bigger organization operates and what training they provide in awareness for many rural communities.
After the organization we visited a small Lahu village. The pastor and leader of the village spoke with us about his struggles in coming to Thailand. When he was ten he walked with his family from Burma into Thailand and settled in the jungle. When he was older he wrote to the King so the people could stay on their land. The King wanted them to move elsewhere, but the people insisted on staying. The King eventually let them stay as well as let the village have a school. We saw a traditional Lahu house that is made entirely out of Bamboo. The man also spoke to us about the struggle for getting citizenship and fighting for the right to have a known identity. He also works with translating the Bible into Yellow Lahu. A missionary came some years ago to the village and learned Black Lahu so they could translate the Bible and Hymnal. The Yellow Lahu Bible is still being translated. I have held hymnals and Bibles in several different languages this past weekend and am amazed how far God reaches and how far people are willing to go so people are able to experience God in their own language. After the village we rode two hours back to Doi Saket and had homemade dinner. The compound now feels like home and it was nice to be back home and sleep in a bit!
My thoughts are muddled and confused over the subject matter honestly. The realities of the struggles in this region have little words to truly describe the massive devastation and the heartache the people face here. Yet, there is joy. You can see the joy and the loving hospitality in them and it makes you want to smile right back and share in their joy. I could react in anger or frustration towards the issue, but that will not solve anything. The trip to the Golden Triangle was eye opening, heartbreaking, and joyful. I used to pray to God often to show me joy amongst suffering, and this weekend he showed that joy through many different groups of people. People who have nothing, yet offer everything. People who cry as you pray for their family. People who love unconditionally no matter where you are from. I am continually learning that love and joy moves through all nations. We can look at the devastation in pity, or we can see the love move and learn to move with it. I choose love. And I hope to continue moving with it as my awareness comes to sight in this sojourner journey.