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Experience #29 - Thailand

After having our visa on arrival denied in Bangladesh we had to improvise and anticipate our arrival in Thailand.

My tendency is not getting too excited with very touristic places and, definitely, Thailand is a plate full of this. Anyway, it’s undeniable that Bangkok is one of the most live and charming cities I have ever been to. The islands, in the south of the country, are really breath-taking and people are usually spreading smiles everywhere.

The country is a monarchy that since May 2014 is governed by the soldiers and our feeling is that for some subjects the law – when it exists – seems not to be applicable in the strict meaning of the word. Known by its paradisiac beaches and lively nightlife, Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the world and only in 2013 have received 27 million tourists (source: UNWTO).

For many people, it’s still a trip of dreams and that’s why this experience is even more important, due to the issues it will show you and the way it might influence you.

According to UNODC, the UN office for drugs and crimes, around two billion people (yes, two billion) are not fully protected against human trafficking. This happens because, if these people aren’t already directly victims of this crime, they live in countries where laws and treaties about this matter were not ratified yet and if they were, they are still in the process of “maturation”.

As the main consequence of human trafficking, the estimate is that 21 million people are submitted to forced labour (source: ILO). Not by accident, the majority are women that invariably became victims of sexual exploitation.

In Thailand the refugees who live out from the refugees’ camp delimited to receive them are considered illegal and subject to penalties. In practical terms, they simply don’t have any right or assistance from the government or police and they feel intimidated to seek for help in case of necessity. This stimulates the practice of human trafficking and forced labour inside the country, once the victims are silent for being afraid of looking for justice.

This situation is the perfect scenery for explorers, which take advantage of the fragility of law and human rights to make a lot of money. Forced labour developed by the private sector moves around 150 billion US dollars per year (source: OIT).

This scene is too absurd to imagine, but became very clear when we started to see it openly in the streets. Bangkok introduced us to this theme as a punch in the face. It was painful and necessary.

Walking through the streets I could confirm that sexual tourism is really one of the attractions of Thailand, what proves the data that I mentioned above and confirms that the majority of forced labour is evidenced by the sexual exploration of women and girls.

This is not by accident. Traffickers strategically search for refugees from other countries or girls from rural villages. The conversation usually begins as a job proposal in a big city as waitress or maid and as a hope to take them and their families from poverty. These girls believe in this dream and accept to move out. They end up surprised with the nightmare of being sexually exploited, having their passports retained, afraid and ashamed. And the worst part, without any idea on how to quit alive from this situation.

In each 500 meters it’s possible to pass by one of those couples with a western older man and an Asian girl, skinny and much younger. But as I saw in the streets, it’s not a privilege of more experimented men, once we saw a lot of youngsters doing the same.

To the picky ones who would like to say that this is prejudice and judgment, I can tell you upfront that I believe in all the different forms of love, but when all the data indicates that 60% of tourist men in Thailand take benefits from the sexual industry (source: Night Light International), it’s hard to believe that absolutely all those cases were love at first sight. Even though, it’s obvious that there are couples who got together only and exclusively due to their wish of being together. Lucky them.

In one of the organizations we visited, the Night Light International, works with many fronts related to human trafficking, but especially victims’ assistance. We had the chance to talk to Krista Couts about this matter and the challenges faced. To have an idea about this market, there are weekly and even monthly packages offered to the customers who can “rent” a companion for the period they wish. Lacking, low self-esteem, loneliness… everything could justify the practice behind this “relationship” if there was not a black market moved by all types of privation, violence and abuse.

It’s important to stress that among these women, there are the ones who freely choose this kind of work (by “freely” in this context understand without any type of physical, social or moral coercion made by someone against this woman). They deserve respect and legal protection as well, but they are not the focus of my story, which wants to make clear that the impossibility of choosing to engage in a sexual relationship in exchange of money is a crime which is impossible to be classified in my mind.

Nothing called out my attention until we arrive by accident in one of the most famous streets of the city. We went down from the metro and while we were looking for a place to have dinner, we were abducted by Soi Cowboy, an illuminated narrow street where women of all ages, wearing clothes or bikinis, invited us for a drink. I lost my voice and kept walking with difficulty, trying to smile and mentally singing the mantra I learned in the Buddhist retreat (the one which awakes compassion). If I could make a wish at that time, it would be that all those women could have the chance to choose or to not be there. As simple as that.

Some of them are there by option, but most of them are victims of trafficking and live in constant alert, without expectations for a life changing neither at least for been rescued. It’s for them that my heart got broken.

I wanted to sit for a beer, an unburden or a chocolate, but I know we don’t live in a pink world and any evidence of idle talk could call the attention of who is in charge of the business. I thought I was cautions enough to not create any situation that could damage or disturb them somehow.

But for my surprise, it seemed to me that only Fe and I were uncomfortable with all of that. The other tourists, including women and couples, seemed to be inebriated by the lights, the shots and the beautiful smiley ladies. Would it be possible that nobody was concerned with anything but checking one of the TOP 10 places to go in Bangkok?

We went back home in silence, feeling powerlessness for not being able to do absolutely nothing to change that reality.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, we had the chance to visit a social business – the Chai Lai Orchid – which focuses on fighting women trafficking by the tourism. The founder Alexa Phan decided to create an Eco Resort truly based in the concept of consciousness and sustainable tourism that includes and benefits directly the local community, represented in majority by refugees from Burma, nowadays Myanmar.

In Chai Lai Orchid it’s possible to stay in a charming bungalow for a very fair price, what doesn’t even pay the privilege of waking up with an elephant passing in front of your balcony. There, riding elephants using those heavy wood chairs over their back is not allowed, as it causes hard damages to them. Moreover, the elephant tourism is also a very profitable industry in Thailand, what stimulates the bad treatment and animals’ abuses which seems to be unnoticed to who is having fun in the chair. But everything is a matter of information, as you and I know now that this is not correct, neither healthy for the elephant, we can disagree on doing this tour and share it so more people can find out as well and stop feeding a cruel and inhuman practice.

Back to the human trafficking and sexual exploitation, through the project Daughters Rising, directly linked to Chai Lai Orchid, Alexa works to bring awareness and opportunities to women and girls who live as refugees in the villages. Through workshops, courses and discussions, girls earn confidence to protect themselves from potential prospectors and develop themselves as well in the tourism and handicrafts area. The whole team that work in Chai Lai Orchid is composed by refugees who learned from cleaning up the room to welcoming guests and all the profit of the resort is invested to maintain the business and projects ran by Daughters Rising.

We really saw this reality when we spent a night at Eddy’s house, a young Thai whose family came from Myanmar some decades ago. We cooked together, learned about the culture of his tribe and we could confirm that access to information and opportunities for development protect people of falling into cruel traps.

From Chiang Mai we went to the beach! Uhu.

I love beach and for this reason I couldn’t miss going to Maya Bay, a paradisiac beach of Phi Phi Islands that when we see it on the internet we think that we could spend a life there, fishing and singing with friends.

It was a morning trip but even though it gave me more feelings than finding condensed milk in the local market!

We went in one of those wooden boats that officially carry five people, but they put seventeen. Half way to the island the rain started and while I was praying for my life, Fe was having fun filming the waves invading everywhere. The picture captured my happiness.

We went through a lot of places and when we arrived in the beach…Tchãtchãtchãnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn (drums).

According to my calculation there was around 234.345 people and 54.364 boats. Joking. There was no space to walk, swim, neither to see if it was really a beach. But I was strong and entered in the water, even in shock. We jumped into the water and when I looked at Fe, there was a plastic straw in his shoulder. I swear haha sound like a joke, but after that I relaxed and enjoyed the crowd (even because I love crowds, but not during my moment of dream in a Thai beach).

There was plastic everywhere, people shouting, laughing, noises, thousands of boats, people taking pictures of nothing and some people seemed to be the same as me. We were paralyzed, powerless to show the nonconformity of being face to face with the human being’s power of destruction.

But it was not the end. On the way back we stopped at Monkey Beach, famous by its monkeys that are not afraid of people anymore. Again, thousands of people interacting with them and offering everything… chips, fruits, cakes and – take a breath – soft drinks. Fe usually faces better this kind of situation and was laughing (a bit nervous, of course) while I could only observe the excited people doing selfies and feeding the monkeys. It was like those happy hours in a bar. The pictures show it clearly, especially the fact that the tourists were not concerned with the warning that says “Respect the paradise. Please, don’t feed the wild life”.

Arriving back to land I didn’t know what I should be more concerned about. With the young lady trafficked and sexually exploited, with the abused and bad treated elephants, with beaches full of litter and plastic or with the monkeys and their unbalanced diets.

It was when I realized that all these issues are originated in a bigger problem: the ignorance of the human being.

We are all genuinely capable of feeling attracted by everything that is different, exotic, unexpected and new. That’s what traveling is about, but nobody told us that there is a limit for this pleasure and this limit is when someone, some animal or place is being damaged somehow. It seems so obvious, but to who insists to live in his own pod, this limit is very hard to explain.

The rental of a “trafficked” girlfriend, the tour on the back of an elephant, the chips to the monkey and the bottle of soft drink left in the sea are sad pointers that we lost the notion of what is human – or not – and until when we can proceed incessantly looking for pleasure and happiness.

We are the ones who are feeding these atrocities and this statement is not an accusation against you, but to a big part of the population, that we take part on, who don’t care about questioning themselves before making an option. After all, during the travels we can do whatever you want, right? It’s a world of dreams, where we have the chance to have unlimited fun before the deadly day to come back to work. Have you ever tried to think about working with something that you love? It can help this feeling, but this a conversation for another time.

That’s it with almost everybody and this is what gives a kind of endorsement to act with freedom and detachment. But wait! Nobody said that freedom is giving yourself the right to disregard the personal story behind each insincere smile you get from girls wearing bikini at Soi Cowboy, neither feeding monkeys with cheese snacks.

In my opinion, tourism, travels and discoveries brought with them are valuable to go further into questions that during the day to day are unnoticed or that haven’t neither awaken our interest before. Diving in new cultures, leaving the prejudices behind and looking beyond what we are used to.

That’s why travelling is so powerful, but we need to have consciousness and information to stop doing things automatically. There is no need to do a big auditing in the country, in the hotel you book or in the restaurant you go for a dinner, neither transform the pleasure in an anthropology research.

It’s enough to be aware and balanced to be able to identify what smells bad, to choose not to be part of these “experiences” and to talk openly about it. Let’s agree that this is not so hard, right?

It’s only choosing to be part of the team that loves the world, the animals and people, even with the feeling that a meteor is getting closer to Earth every day. It’s about choosing to not be accessary with all that is expressly wrong, even if everybody ignores it. It’s choosing to see these absurd and take them into your bag, so that you won’t forget helping to solve them when you arrive at home.

It’s about choosing to live the best of each experience, place and people, and offering the best of you as well.

Have a good trip!



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