Settling In

My first week in Mae Sai has been eventful as well as a bit of an adjustment.  I finally got situated into a 700 square foot apartment.  It’s new, clean, spacious and will function just fine for my time here. I have a bedroom (with a great bed, which is a total score), a balcony, private bath, hot water and wifi. All for $90 per month. The only thing I’m missing is a kitchen.  A girl must make due.

The volunteer coordinator has been my right-hand man.  He’s from Chester, England and has been showing me the ropes.  I find myself picking up some of his British slang.  He’s informative, helpful and funny. He gave me a tour of DEPDC headquarters, introduced me to the other volunteers, directors, Thai staff and many of the kids we serve who are Thai, Burmese, Lao, and hill tribe. He’s shown me the best places to eat. Mae Sai is authentically Thai so there’s not much available in terms of Western food. We had pizza one night and it was a disgrace. He also introduced me to a hip coffee shop in town which serves coffee akin to rocket fuel and amazing baked goods.  Add free wifi to the mix, and I’ve just found my new hang out.

Mae Sai is a strange town indeed.  The shops close by 8 p.m. and I found out the hard way the other night that public transit is few and far between.  I was just finishing up a magnificent bowl of tom kah goong (perhaps one of the best dishes I’ve had so far) and was ready to head home.  I couldn’t find a taxi to save my soul.  Taxis come easily in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but in Mae Sai, not so much.  I wandered into a hotel and with my terrible Thai asked if they could call me a taxi. “No have.  No have.”  The next thing I knew a 16-year-old boy was summoned to take me home.  I told him I could lead him if we took the main road. Unfortunately he took a short cut and I was immediately lost. I was on the back of his bike, he was driving 70 kph on the back roads and neither of knew where we were.  In these moments, you just surrender, find the humor in it, and trust you’ll end up there eventually. Riding a motorbike with a kid who doesn’t look old enough to have a license and drives like a bat out of hell, neither of us wearing helmets, definitely lends itself to some jaw clenching moments but it was also liberating – the wind in my hair, the stars up above.  Finally, I spotted a landmark I recognized and was able to guide him to my hotel.  I offered to pay him some money but he insisted I didn’t.  “Kop kon maak ka.”  “Thank you very much.”

Many Americans harbor a lot of fear about traveling to places outside of Las Vegas and Disneyland.  Perhaps they are nervous to leave their comfort zone.  Perhaps they are fearful of the developing world.  I am by no means an extensive world traveler – I’ve only been to 16 countries (a small drop in the bucket when you consider there are 203) but of the places I have been, I can tell you this:  people are generally good everywhere you go. And more often than not, they will go out of their way to help you.  Just as this kid with the motorbike did for me.

Mae Sai borders Myanmar and I have seen the border gate but I have not yet crossed it.  I won’t until March 7 when I need to renew my visa.  I’ve visited the only grocery store in town, Tesco Lotus, which is like Thailand’s version of Target minus Isaac Mizrahi.  I can’t say I feel completely at home in Mae Sai yet but the work I want to do is here and the other volunteers have taken me in so that’s been great.  I haven’t actually started teaching yet.  I’m told I’ll just get to know the place for a week or two before jumping in.  I’m applying for a grant from Omprakash – an organization that links volunteers to NGOs and offers grants for projects volunteers want to do. Ideally, I would like to start a photography class with the youth leaders. To do this, I need compact digital cameras and memory cards.  I could do it with film but film is expensive to buy and process and I haven’t shot film in a very long time.  The deadline for my application is February 15 and I’m not sure how long it takes them to process the applications and award the grants.  Fingers crossed!

The volunteer coordinator and I met with a freelance reporter the other day who is interested in making a documentary about DEPDC.  He contracts with Al Jazeera and the documentary would be one in a series about humanitarian work being done in Southeast Asia specifically around human trafficking.  The series will showcase some of the heavy hitters – Muhammad Yunus, Kailash Satyarthi, and our very own Sompop Jantraka.  It was incredible to sit in on this meeting being it was my fourth day here. We are also able to meet with MTV Exit as we are trying to get a media spot with them to raise awareness about human trafficking and further expose prevention work in the region.

There are several programs within DEPDC.  There is the BYLTP (The Border Youth Leadership Training Programme) and the MYU (Mekong Youth Union) and the CLC (Community Learning Center) and the HDS (Half Day School) and the DEP (Development Education Programme).  I’ll explain more about these later but suffice it to say, I’m back in Chiang Mai for a few days with the BYLTP.  They’ve been invited to be a part of an exhibition on alternative education.  They are here to perform, raise awareness about human trafficking and network with other grassroots organizations.  I’m incredibly moved by these kids – their strength, their leadership skills, their openness.  It hasn’t taken long for them to warm up to me.  They are very curious about who I am and where I’m from.  It’s incredibly heartwarming.  I don’t know their stories and I will not post their names on the blog out of respect and confidentiality, but I do know many of them are from Burma and Laos.  They lack ID cards and do not have access to education outside of DEPDC.  Many come from impoverished families, broken homes, or parental abuse.  I still want to work on the rehabilitation side of sex trafficking at some point, but I think working on the prevention side will be equally rewarding.

“We are asking people to understand that slavery still exists today; in fact, according to the New York Times, if you count the number of women and children in bonded labor, domestic slavery or sexual slavery, there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in history.” Charlotte Bunch


One thought on “Settling In

  1. Hi Noval, Sounds like you are settling in. So yesterday I go to buy yarn and I meet a woman who has lived in Msla for 5 years. She is leaving for Burma this weekend and will be there in March. She is part of the Studer Trust, Respect the Spirit of Helping. Her name is Chocho. She gave me her card and said to call her. I believe her organization works with women knitting hats and different items. Her website is So when I know there is a greenlight and I’m headed to Thailand I will plan on going into Burma to see her organization. I plan on calling you tomorrow morning. All my love, Mom

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