There was no door on the building, just a cement wall to walk around. Inside, the compound looked more like the wing of a prison than anything else. There was a hallway of doors, each spaced about 10 feet apart. The only way to lock the doors was by padlock. In the center, the hallway opened into a large room bordering another hallway, showing the structure to have an “H” shape. The middle of the large room served as parking for a few mopeds, as well as space for a large cement trough. Adjacent to the trough were three bathrooms, which looked like permanent port-a-potties—but nothing most Americans would ever want to use. Overall, the facility was dark, dirty, and depressing.
My guide knocked on one of the doors. We were here to find one of the street girls—Ami. This was her home. But not just her home, the home for probably 40-50 Akha people. This was a giant cement dorm for the poorest of the poor in Chiang Mai. In the U.S., we might call it tract housing or projects. And the giant cement trough: a woman now using it allowed me to identify it as a sink.
Ami was not there, but another young girl who I recognized from the red light district was. This little girl had been on the street the previous Tuesday. Surprisingly, she recognized me and told my translator that we played together. Other Akha people were around the large room as well—many sitting in the cement hallway assembling handicrafts to sell that evening or just passing the time. Since so few children were around, we decided to move on.
The next stop was a small “house” a few blocks away. The building was in shambles—made from bamboo and sheet metal siding. The structure was maybe 30 x 30 feet, but served as the shelter for four different families. They all sleep on the floor. Total rent is 2000 baht per month (approximately $65). They earn this money by using the children to sell flowers in the night market or red light district. Each flower goes for about 10 baht (about 33 cents), so even with four families, they have their work cut out for them. I found the kids playing around this house—not on slides or swing sets, but in old rusted ductwork.
So is the plight of the Akha. They have had a very difficult life in Thailand, and even time has yet to heal the injustice done to them. The Akha are a tribal people that migrated many years ago from the Tibetan region of China. They are expert farmers. In the past, their cash crop was opium, but since the crackdown on the drug trade, they’ve struggled to replace the income loss. Rice just doesn’t sell like opium, I guess. In Thailand, they’ve been fairly oppressed—getting pushed off their land. However, migrating to the city has not made life much better. Many of the Akha don’t have Thai citizen cards, so they can’t get a real job. It also leaves them without access medical care. These Akha explained to me that a lack of a citizenship card was largely the problem they faced. It was apparent in one of the children with a large cyst or boil on her forehead, which they couldn’t afford to do anything about.
Our final stop appeared to be literally the slums of Chiang Mai. I rode my bicycle down a narrow path into a cluster of bamboo buildings. As the path veered right along a small creek, a wretched smell of human waste drifted up from the water. The creek was black and lined with trash. The path continued another 200 feet and was lined with identical bamboo homes built into the creek bank. We stepped into the ground of one of the homes, which was really just a cement pad underneath an elevated bamboo room. On the ground level were three Akha women and a child, all sewing handicrafts to sell in the night bazaar tonight. The women were working in somewhat of an assembly line fashion, with one women sewing shells and beads onto fabric and another woman stitching the side of the bag together.
In the night bazaar, there are many Akha women walking around selling these handicrafts. They typically play this little wooden frog with a stick, which makes the sound of a frog croaking at night. It’s sad because I get really annoyed with them in the night bazaar because every 20 feet is another woman putting a frog in your face. But, this is all they live on. They told me about all the foreigners that say, “NO, NO, NO” to them. I usually say, “Hello, how are you” in Akha and then they move on.
Overall, it was a really interesting day to see how and where the children I have met on the street live. It is also difficult because their problem does not merit an easy solution. There are many systemic problems that have contributed to their current state. I will say this though, despite what they have gone through and difficulties that they face, they are some of the kindest and most beautiful people I have ever met.
I concluded my last post by saying that I would post about human trafficking this week. I wanted to share today’s experience while it was fresh in my mind. I was going to add the trafficking topic, but this post would have become incredibly long. However, I am working on the trafficking post and will have it up soon.