Traveling Through Time in Thailand

By Rebecca Grant | February 14, 2018 | Thailand

There are moments when I’m on my bike, cycling on half-dirt, half-paved roads past farms and homes and temples, that eight years seem to have vanished. It’s like time, which put on a show of being linear,
suddenly revealed itself to be a loop and I’m back where I started, wondering if I’ve gone anywhere at all.

From 2009 to 2011, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. I lived in a small rice farming village in the center of the country and rode my bike everywhere, attracting stares as the only farang. Now I’m
back in Thailand for the first time since I finished my Peace Corps service, here as a journalist with IRP to report on reproductive health along the Thai-Myanmar border.

The focus of my project is the Mae Tao Clinic, which for 30 years has provided free healthcare to Burmese migrants and refugees in Mae Sot. The founder, Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Burmese refugee herself, has been referred to as “Burma’s Mother Teresa.” The clinic delivers 3,000 babies a year, as well as providing antenatal care, family planning services, and Post-Abortion Care to women who live on both sides of the border.

On my first day, I set off on my bike, relying on Google Maps to guide me to the clinic located a few kilometers outside of town. I arrived at Mae Tao hot and sweaty, just like the days of yore. The new clinic compound, which opened in 2016, was a hive of activity. It serves 300-400 people a day and has continuously expanded to fulfill every possible need for its patients. A blood bank, pharmacy, dining hall, and sundry shop are all on-site, in addition to the many health service units.

The free health services are entirely funded and expanded through grants and donations and evidence of the many benefactors are ubiquitous. There’s the daycare facility, courtesy of the Luxembourg embassy, and the new storage facility, funded by the Taipei Economic and Culture Office, which has been a funder of various Mae Tao projects since 2011. Inside the warehouse, there were boxes upon boxes of baby formula, and Annie, my tour guide, told me they go through around 20 boxes of formula a day.

Across from the warehouse is an empty plot of land where Mae Tao’s new training center will go. In addition to direct medical service, Mae Tao also provides training to community health workers from ethnic states in Myanmar who take the knowledge and skills back to their homes. At the moment, all trainings are held at the old Mae Tao Clinic facility, which is just off the main road in town. I was invited to attend an Emergency Medical Obstetric Care (EmOC) training session at the old clinic on February 9th and set off that morning on my bike, again relying on Google. This time, navigation did not go so smoothly.

Google told me the clinic was next to the airport, so I pulled into the tiny airport parking lot on my bike. That attracted some stares. Not seeing any sign of a health facility, I turned around and made a left where I’d made a right, only to find myself faced with a gate. There was nowhere else to go, so I biked back to the airport to ask for help. A guy at the rental car stand told me the old clinic was actually near the bus station, so I ventured over there, but again, no sign of a clinic. I asked a cab driver at the bus station if he knew, and he directed me to get keep going back down the same road I came on and take a right. I followed his directions, but made it most of the way back to my hotel without seeing any sign of a health clinic. I was reminded of the Thai concept of “greng-jai,” by which it is considered less rude to answer a question, even if you’re not sure of the answer, than to say you don’t know.

At this point, I was more hot and sweaty than usual, having biked in a circle and ended up where I started (this time literally, not metaphorically). Then I saw a pickup truck with a Mae Tao insignia turn onto a side road that resembled a driveway. I followed it and found the old clinic with the training underway. It was a reminder that as grateful as I am for AC, WiFi, and Google Maps on this trip, some things never change, and that the skills I gained in Peace Corps—adaptability, persistence, resourcefulness—helped make me the reporter I am today.

View All Posts By Rebecca Grant

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