Nestled among the misty, rolling hills of northwestern Thailand – close to the Myanmar border – is the tiny village of Pai in Mae Hong Son Province.
Here, you will find one of RakDek/TLSDF‘s field offices, where they have implemented a program called Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC). Some of the children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS; a few were living with the disease themselves.
The challenges these children face are numerous: they are ostracized by peers who have little to no understanding of HIV; they struggle with poverty and self-esteem; access to health care is very limited; and many of them are members of various ethnic tribes in Northern Thailand. The last issue is a political one – it means children are not granted citizenship by the Thai government, even though their families have lived in this region for several generations. At the time of my internship, TLSDF and other organizations were fighting to change this law; however, I am unaware of any progress.
Among ethnic groups, lack of citizenship is the primary factor underlying access to education (non-citizens are not eligible for free public schooling), healthcare, and employment. This in turn drives the poverty rate and exposure to risk factors for HIV infection.
To save money, we drove to Pai instead of flying, which meant I had to relive the experience of riding up a rural mountain road. I took Dramamine, but not before I was already carsick. The whole time, I struggled not to embarrass myself in front of TLSDF’s director by puking in the back seat.
I had the opportunity to work with OVC on my first visit to Pai, during the children’s school break. (The second trip was for a community conference.) Myself and a German girl who volunteered for Cultural Canvas Thailand were to lead English learning activities.
The children were simply delightful and, at least for those few days, seemed to have no cares in the world.
Pai is a hidden gem, although increasingly recognized by tourists. It reflect’s Northern Thailand’s richness in art and culture, concentrated in a dreamy little pocket of earth. I loved the melding of different cuisines, from Western to Indian and even Rastafarian. Some of the best pastries I’ve ever tasted in Thailand are found in Pai. I also first tried mango lassi there.
Of course, the scenery itself is enough to pull me back to Pai, reminding me of Muang Ngoi in northern Laos.