Ahka girls in Thailand

Reprinted from “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel

It’s almost 9 p.m. and Chiang Rai’s Night Bazaar is still swarming with people. A group of young girls perform a traditional Thai dance in the market square, their lithe arms swirling in graceful chorus. Most locals don’t bother to watch, too busy with friends and catching up on the weekly gossip.

Dozens of vendors line the walkways, hawking everything from iron cookware to traditional Thai clothing. They raise hopeful eyes to my daughter, Kirstin, and me, as we worm our way through the market’s narrow aisles. The melodic tones of the Thai language are an unintelligible, yet soothing buzz in my ears, and for a moment, the English thoughts running through my head seem foreign.

Ten-year old Kirstin doesn’t seem to notice the newness, the strangeness of it all. She giggles with excitement, holding tight to my hand while she marches ahead, as if in search of some great treasure.

Here in this tiny square of Northern Thailand, our lives in Colorado seem distant, opaque. In the warm night air, I sense something I can’t quite identify. A slower pace of life, perhaps? A feeling of safety? Whatever it is, I am starting to relax, intrigued with the world around me.

I can nearly forget that this is not just a simple vacation; ignore the fact that I have come here to write about the sex trade.

“Come on!” Kirstin says, pulling me toward the rich smell of spicy food,

The colorful dishes, neatly displayed, all look so appetizing, except for the plates of grilled crickets, beetles and grasshoppers.

Tasty treats in the marketplace.

Tasty treats in the Thai marketplace.

“Wanna try some, mom?” my oldest daughter asks, a mischievous tone in her voice.

“Maybe later,” I say. “Right now, I can’t stand the thought of eating bug legs.”

There are limits, after all, to one’s adventurous spirit.

Kirstin and I are obviously outsiders, the only blonds in the market. But the Thai are kind and welcoming, and Kirstin mirrors their pleasant grins. We stop at a jewelry stand where I look over several gold necklaces.

“It’s so cheap,” Kirstin exclaims, after asking the prices.

The American dollar is strong here, making our purchases quite affordable. And while all economic strata are found here in Thailand, the majority of people live comfortable, simple lives.

While I pore over the necklaces, the middle-age saleswoman smiles and admires Kirstin’s golden locks. We don’t understand her words, but the stroking of the hair and friendly pat on the head is universal. A complimentary child’s bracelet is tossed in on top of our purchase. Kirstin hugs it to her body as we walk away.

“The Thai seem to like children,” I remark to my friend, Nancy, who joins us later at the market.

“Of course,” she replies. “The Thai love their children and the children of others as well; kids are something to be treasured here.”

I nod my head, deferring to Nancy’s wisdom. She has, after all, lived in Thailand for several years, raising two sons with her husband.

Visiting a Karen village in northern Thailand

Still, I am confused. Her take on Thailand’s purported adoration of children seems at odds with its thriving child prostitution. I open my mouth to ask about this paradox, but Nancy turns down another aisle.

When I reach her, she is speaking with four young women resting on a blanket, their handcrafts in neat rows in front of them. They are wearing dresses covered in intricate beadwork, and vibrant headdresses adorned with coins and beads sit atop their heads. Shy smiles reveal red gums and teeth from chewing betel nut leaves, a popular habit.

The women speak to each other and Nancy in clipped sounds foreign to my ears, quite different from the Thai language.

“They are Akha,” Nancy says.

Instantly, I’m intrigued.

The Akha are one of six distinct hill tribes living in the nearby hills of Northern Thailand. Each of the tribes has its own language and culture. Considered outsiders in their own country, the tribes lead remote, primitive lives. Village homes are often made of bamboo and thatched roofs, most without electricity or running water.

Rejected by the Thai, many of the 540,000 tribal people do not possess Thai citizenship, as documenting births in grass huts, far from modern hospitals is difficult. Lack of official status denies the villages fundamental rights, like education, voting and land ownership.

As an agrarian society, the inability to own land is problematic for the Hill tribes. As soil is depleted, tribes migrate between the steep hills of Thailand and neighboring countries. Recent government mandates force those who stay in Thailand to cultivate the same plot of land over and over, a distinct change from former ways.

The pressures of modernization have intensified hardships for the Akha, the level of poverty making the villagers more susceptible to the social ills of civilized cultures. The least educated and poorest of the Hill Tribes, the Akha maintain the highest rate of drug addiction and infant mortality in Thailand. Opium addition, and sadly, child prostitution are huge issues for the Hill Tribe.


I’m here to write an article for a Chicago paper on child prostitution. It’s a problem that has plagued many nations, but in Thailand, it has reached endemic proportions.

“Why would you want to write about that?” a friend back home had asked before I left.

My reasoning is not exactly logical. I’m hoping that more media exposure about the consequences of prostitution will shrink the allure of this social blight. Personally, I’m searching for a glimmer of hope, a fine shimmer of light that illuminates the goodness of humanity.

But that won’t be easy to find. Young children are prized commodities in the sex tourism trade in Thailand. Despite the government’s efforts — they’ve spent millions of dollars on programs and law enforcement– relief agencies estimate that there are over two million prostitutes in Thailand, 800,000 of them under the age of 16. New laws allow for foreigners who use prostitutes to be punished in their home countries, but few of the thousands of sex tourists who come here each year worry about such possible consequences.

Glancing at my daughter, her fresh face shining with innocence, I am sickened. What kind of person willingly takes that away from a child?

Across the border in Burma, a mere half-hour drive from Chiang Rai, the situation is even more complex for the Hill Tribes. A coup de tat in the 1960s obliterated Burma’s once prosperous society. Taking the name “Myanmar”, the military shut down universities and plunged the country into poverty and civil unrest. Now, refugees from Burma stream across the Thai border.

Another country known for poverty and conflict, Laos is another half-hour drive to the north. The three countries meet in a fertile area called the Golden Triangle; it was once the opium-producing capital of the world. Many of the children in the sex trade come from Laos or Burma, Nancy had told me earlier. Living in severe poverty, they cross the border believing they will find jobs as waitresses or dishwashers. Instead, they are forced into a despicable profession, deceived by malicious, greedy adults.

“Can I buy this, mom?” Kirstin asks, holding up a doll clothed in the same Akha dress of the women merchants.

The porcelain doll feels cool to my touch.

“You’ll have to be careful with it,” I say. “It’s very fragile.”

The word resonates in my mind. Each child comes into the world a delicate flower, unsullied and buoyant with dreams so easily crushed, lost to unchecked compulsions and incomprehensible cruelty. I look at Kirstin, hoping she will never encounter the violence and hardship so many children here have. An intense feeling of protectiveness overwhelms me; I want to keep all of the evils of the world from my child. So once again, I question.

Was I wise to bring Kirstin along on this trip? Child prostitution is a challenging subject for an adult, and even more so for a ten-year-old girl. Though I knew the trip would be challenging, I selfishly wanted Kirstin with me as our busy lives—school, sports, church—leave little opportunity for one-on-one time with my kids. I wanted to spend time with Kirstin away from her siblings, the normal distractions of life, and beyond the normal “mommy” role. And I was tired of traveling alone in search of stories. Thailand, I had been told, was a safe and wonderful place.

“Why not bring the family along?” Nancy had suggested. While there weren’t funds for five airplane tickets, there was enough for one more.

Although Kirstin won’t be privy to the interviews, she knows the topic I’m here to research, and about some of the girls that we may meet. We’ve had simple conversations, at her age level, about what we might see, but Kirstin is still struggling to understand.

“How can they stand to do that, mom?” she asks when I try to explain the sex trade.

I have no answer.

I have the same questions myself.

How do I explain that there are parents or aunties and uncles who willingly sell their children into sex slavery? That other children, with no parents or means of support, take to the streets to fill their empty stomachs? That others prostitute themselves for drug money or to fuel a lavish lifestyle?

Rooted in poverty and primal human behavior, child prostitution seems an insurmountable problem. How can it be addressed?

I pose this question to Nancy, who thinks a moment before answering.

“By helping one life at a time,” she says.

Nancy has spent the last ten years doing just that. Originally an interpreter for the deaf, she spent several years working on Christian social welfare projects before moving to Thailand.

“When I first saw Bangkok, I thought, ‘I can’t love this dirty city,’” says Nancy. “You would see the sidewalk moving and realize it was cockroaches. It was awful.”

But then Nancy was sent to the picturesque hill country of Northern Thailand, where she spent several months working at a new girls’ home.

“The first time I read the reports on child prostitution, I went to bed and wept for an hour,” Nancy says. “It just broke my heart. I had never felt a burden like that before. But I couldn’t figure out what I could do about it, because the whole subject scared me. I had always been a good girl, and never got in trouble or been around it. Still, I liked the idea of some kind of preventive approach.”

That’s why, when Nancy was asked to return as the home’s “house mother”, she gladly agreed.

“I had always been a born mother,” she says, laughing. “As a child, I was the one reminding other kids to zip their coats and keep their hats on. My mother used to say to me, ‘Nancy, they already have mothers at home.”

It wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t speak the language, and at times I wondered what I was doing here,” Nancy says. “Because of my hearing loss, the doctor doubted I could ever learn a tonal language. But I kept trying. The girls would have an argument and I would use a dictionary and pictures just to figure out what they were fighting about. In the end, we’d all end up laughing anyway.”

“Within a year,” Nancy continues, “I could hold my own in Thai. I spent time comforting girls, making sure they did their homework and meeting their needs. The main thing is that the girls knew that someone truly cared for them. For many of them, that was a new experience.”

Nancy was working on a village project when she met a handsome young Akha man named A-Je, the man who later would become her husband.

“When I saw A-Je with his people, I was so impressed,” she says, a smile inching from her lips. “I turned to a friend and remarked that if he were a westerner I would marry him in a minute. I just never imagined I would marry a man from the Hill Tribes.”

But the two worked together on several social projects, eventually falling in love.

“One day, A-Je went down this list with me,” Nancy says. “He said he came from the lowest tribe, and that he owned nothing but a bike, a degree and a heart to serve God. Though he wanted to study in America, he felt called to help his people here. That meant if I married him, I would have to give up my country and my ways.”

I consider the difficulty of that decision – one that Nancy easily made.

“Since A-Je’s father was the tribal chief of a large village, over 1000 people came to our two-day wedding,” Nancy says. “I had to prove myself as a wife, cutting down a tree and feeding chickens during the event.”

I can hardly picture that one.

“The American ceremony in Colorado was just as hard on A-Je,” Nancy says. “We had to kiss in front of the whole congregation, and he about passed out.”

As the first Akha ever to graduate from university, A-Je, a Christian minister, works full time for his people. He and Nancy run a children’s home for tribal child rescued from the sex trade or are at risk of being lost to it. I can understand why he is compelled to help. But I’m curious to see how A-Je, with his jeans, sunglasses, and fine education, blends with the tribal villagers.

Finished with our purchases, Nancy directs Kirstin and me down a side street. It is dark and shadowy. Such places in the States are not always safe, so my senses are heightened to danger.

“Is this okay?” I ask, referring to the dark alleys and the red lights of the Go-Go bars up ahead.

Three young men walk in the shadows behind us. I can’t help but wonder if they plan to do us harm. I pull Kirstin close. But this is Northern Thailand, and Nancy assures me that we are safe. She stops in front of a bar, and I turn to see what she sees.

Young girls, some in their early teens, others approaching twenty, congregate outside the bars. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, a few wearing short skirts, they look like average teenagers.

“They’re prostitutes,” Nancy says, a sad note in her voice.

The announcement shocks me. The girls don’t look anything like the prostitutes I’ve seen in American movies.

But the girls are rooted to their spots in front of the bars, a dead giveaway, Nancy says. We walk down further, passing dozens of young girls – and boys – who make this their profession.

As we walk past one bar, the girls out front notice Nancy’s Akha bag with its recognizable stitching. It’s a slow night, so they call out “hello” in Akha. They are shocked when Nancy responds in their native tongue, since very few people can speak the Akha language.

There are three young prostitutes, the youngest possibly 13; the oldest about 19. They admire Nancy’s bag, and then turn their attention to Kirstin.

One strokes Kirstin’s locks, the other drapes an arm around her and looks into her large blue eyes. Kirstin can’t understand their words, and at first, she pulls away from them in fright. But Nancy shows no fear or disgust, only kindness and compassion. She continues to exchange pleasantries with the teens. My daughter picks up on Nancy’s calm manner and grins shyly back at the girls.

“She looks like a little doll!” the oldest one exclaims.

Nancy tells them that we are visiting from America. They smile. Why are we here? Do we like it? Does Kirstin like her straight blond hair?

We end up taking pictures of the girls with Kirstin, posed and smiling in the middle. The girls smile too, perhaps sadly, and I wonder if they sense our meeting has made my heart heavy. I wonder about the dreams each of them has given up.

Eventually, it’s time to move on. We wave goodbye and continue on down the sidewalk. Here and there on the streets, I notice foreign men who seem to have local “girlfriends”. These men buy their “girlfriends” clothing, Nancy tells me, and shower them with gifts. Still, it is a business arrangement – a girlfriend for the week. As I pass one such girl, who has an Australian’s arm draped possessively around her, I look into her face. She is trying look happy, but the sadness fills her eyes. I can’t help the matronly feeling of protectiveness that wells up inside me. I want to run back to the Australian and yell and scream and kick. “Why are you doing this?” I want to cry. “Can’t you see you’re hurting her?”

But I push the anger down and move my eyes away and back over to Kirstin, who is clinging to my hand in silence. There is a somber look in her eyes. She seems to have sensed the gravity of what we’re seeing; still, I don’t think she truly grasps all that has transpired here tonight.

“Why don’t they just go home?” she asks of the girls we spoke to. “Why don’t they stop it, if they don’t like it?”

I try to explain that some may not have good homes to go home to; that maybe this is the only way they think they can earn a living.

A look of shocked realization crosses Kirstin’s face. It is, perhaps, the first time she has considered what she has—a family, a home and parents who support her.

I’m struck by the strange dichotomy of Thailand: in a country where child prostitution is a huge problem, those children born into stable homes are loved and well provided for. It’s obvious from looking around at families on the streets and out shopping, that children play a vital role in Thai society. Their innocent manners seem to delight those around them.

But those who are born into poverty or to drug-addicted parents face a different fate. The lure of wealth from prostitution is strong, even if it is a child who is forced to be the bread earner.

When we return to our hotel room an hour later, Kirstin and I call home. She speaks with her dad, regaling all of our adventures so far. The sadness that had covered her face has disappeared and now she is her usual, happy self.

“Should I tell him about talking with the prostitutes,” she whispers to me, holding her hand over the phone mouthpiece.

“Let’s wait till later,” I reply, not wanting to shock her father.

That night, I dream of the girls with sad faces.


Ahka woman with her baby in Thailand

Ahka woman with her baby in Thailand

The next morning dawns bright, a perfect day for heading upriver to the Karen tribal village of Ruammit. We plan to explore the village and pursue one of Kirstin’s dreams—riding an elephant. A-Je is busy at the children’s home, so Nancy is our guide for the day. We hire a boat and driver in Ban Thatorn. Nancy’s boys, 7-year-old Zion and 4-year-old Silas, come along.

The long, slim craft doesn’t look very steady, but we’re soon skimming up the Mae Kok. Within minutes, the city is behind us. Tall mountains covered with green trees and thick grasses rise from the riverbanks, no people or animals in sight, except for one lone hawk circling overhead. Our driver keeps his eyes straight ahead. We come upon several men in their underwear fishing rocks from the river to sell later in the city. They ignore us completely.

The hum of the motor is soothing, like a lullaby, and Kirstin puts her head on my shoulder. Nancy’s boys do the same with her. We are a contented lot, pleased to be together, the lush river banks passing by.

Eventually, the hills grow larger and I see my first tribal village high up on the mountainside. The huts, most of them on bamboo stilts, look like little wooden dots in the emerald-forested land.

A few minutes later, Kirstin sits up and points with excitement.

“Mom!” she exclaims. “Look!”

Following her finger, I see several elephants in the river, playing in the water. At least ten of them huddle together near the bank, paying no mind to us.

Scrambling ashore, we’re immediately greeted by two men struggling to hold onto a 15-foot boa constrictor. Smiling, they ask if I’d like to have my picture taken with the snake draped around me. I glance at the massive creature writhing about on their shoulders, and shake my head no. Kirstin walks far around the big snake.

Behind the men, several elephants are walking around freely. It’s unnerving when they reach out their massive trunks, looking for a handout. One animal reaches its trunk to Kirstin, who shrieks and grabs my hand.

Nancy, who has clearly been here dozens of times, pushes the elephants’ trunks away and makes her way past. Kirstin clings to my hand as we follow cautiously behind, while Zion rushes to buy a bunch of bananas to feed the beasts. This is a treat for the boys, who are happy and at ease here.

Nancy speaks to the Karen villagers in Thai, who also speak this as their second language. “It’s 150 baht for an elephant ride,” she says. “Give it a try!”

Kirstin takes a determined breath, and walks over to the elephants. We purchase a ride from the villagers, and then mount rickety stairs to a high wooden platform. Gingerly, we crawl onto a rough chair that has been tied to the elephant’s back. The handler hops on the creature’s head, and we’re off.

Not prepared for the creature’s jilted footsteps, I support myself with both arms to keep from being thrown into Kirstin. She giggles.

“This is hard, mom!” she exclaims. “It’s kind of bouncy!”

As we make our way down the narrow lanes of the Karen village, chickens dart in front of us, and dogs run about. Occasionally, the elephant handler stops to talk with an acquaintance; at other times the elephant halts to pull at a grassy snack. Nothing hurries here.

I can see into several of the stilted huts, where women are cooking or stitching. Kirstin looks as well. Does she notice there are no lights or toilets? How different this must seem from our home in Colorado. Do the straw walls and dirt floors shock her? My daughter says nothing, but I can see she is deep in thought.

Settled in the foothills, the Karen tribes depend on farming and hunting for game. The women dress in colorful blouse-sarong combinations, their long hair often pulled back in buns or covered with white scarves.

Elephants in the Karen village. Photo by Janna Graber

Elephants in the Karen village. Photo by Janna Graber

My body is stiff after the elephant ride, but the soreness is forgotten when we stop at a local village store-restaurant. Aside from the rice, I have never seen most of the food we are served. A tad spicy and quite delicious, at $2 a plate, it’s a bargain. Kirstin and I smile at each other over our plates of food.

“Wasn’t that cool?” she asks, still thinking about the elephant ride.

Perhaps this will be one of those memories that will linger in the back of her mind, resurfacing years later when she has children of her own. I’m grateful to be a part of that memory; to have this precious time with my oldest daughter.

We walk around the dirt roads, looking at shops and talking with villagers. I watch one young woman set out chilies in the sun to dry, while her son plays in the dirt beside her. A contented look consumes her face as she cares for the little one. Further down the lane, we pass men standing outside of their homes, looks of boredom on their faces. Pieces of unmatched clothing are hung on bamboo lines behind them.

Many of the homes seem empty; others have a chair here, a table there. Kirstin’s eyes are wide as she soaks the scenes in. This is her first glance at the unrelenting grip of poverty. She is quiet as we head back to the riverbank, where our driver is waiting.

The ride back to town is chilly, and I’m glad I have a jacket. Kirstin snuggles close for warmth, and within minutes, is sound asleep. Zion and Silas are fast asleep too. Smiling at each other, Nancy and I pull our children close. My mind plays back the scene in the village. I wonder what it is like to raise children there.

Is it harder to raise children when you don’t have all the comforts that materialistic goods can offer? Or it is simpler without the distractions of having to provide stylish clothing, constant entertainment and a lovely home? A child’s happiness does not come from things bought with cash, but from the love and support of a caring family. Perhaps, like mothers everywhere, Akha women simply try to make the best possible life for their children; meeting their basic needs, protecting them from harm, and loving them as only parents can. Aren’t these common bonds of motherhood, whether lived out in a stately mansion or a simple hut, universal?


A few days later, Nancy, Kirstin and I make our way to the Thai city of Tachilek, just across from the border in Burma. Dozens of vendors line the streets, offering tea and clothing at rock-bottom prices. There is plenty to buy, but we are here to visit the Akha in Burma.

“Sometimes, it’s not safe to cross,” Nancy says. “There is often shooting and fighting between the Karen and the Burmese military. Sometimes, whole villages are wiped out.”

Today is a good day, however. In a border procedure I don’t understand, we leave our passports with the Thai, and carry copies over to the Burmese. We pay US$5 each to cross, and we must be back to Thailand by 6 p.m.

“Keep your eyes straight ahead, don’t talk to anyone, and just look like you know where you’re going,” Nancy says as we cross the bridge joining the two countries.

But it’s hard to keep our eyes straight. There are dozens of children, tiny bodies thin and dirty, begging on the bridge.

“We’ll give them money when we cross back,” Nancy says. “Don’t do it now or they will keep following us.”

A child of about six follows us anyway. A young baby, barely old enough to hold its head up, is tied to his back. My heart can’t stand the sight, and Kirstin, who is holding my hand fiercely, has a shocked look on her face. Her grip on my hand is so tight that it hurts. I glance at Nancy, who looks like she wants to weep.

“There are just more children than we can help,” she says, as if trying to explain.

Burma seems like it is from another long-past era. Donkey-pulled carts piled high with hay amble up the road. A few old cars are parked on the streets, but there is little traffic. An ox-drawn cart moves slowly past us. Villagers in sarongs and large straw hats pass us. I look for stores and signs of commerce, but only see one such place, about the size of a 7-11. There is little to buy in the window.

It is dangerous for the Akha here to meet with us, but Nancy’s friends, a family of four, welcome us with open arms. Several young Akha friends, dressed in sarongs, have joined them.

Inside a plain two-story house, home to over twenty people, we are spirited to a long table piled with tasty food gathered from meager rations. There is little else in the room. Yet everyone smiles and laughs. We can’t understand the Akha chatter around us, but Kirstin and I feel welcomed.

“Eat more!” one of the older mothers motions to Kirstin, then piles more rice on her plate. Throughout the day, this same mother looks out for Kirstin’s every need, even cracking a pile of sunflowers for my daughter when she can’t do it herself. Touched by her thoughtfulness, I try in stumbling Akha to thank this kind woman.

After lunch, the young people move the chairs and gather in two lines. Nancy translates for us as they sing and dance Akha songs. Obvious joy covers their faces. Kirstin and I are silent, for the experience is overwhelming.

“Mom, they had absolutely nothing!” Kirstin later says as we cross back into Thailand. “But they still seemed so happy.”

So happy. With nothing but each other, a roof over their heads and a few meager belongings.

My daughter has learned an important life lesson. For that matter, so have I.


Later that week, Nancy drives me to meet with Kusumal Rachawong, a Thai woman who is the local director for End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT). I like Kusumal, who is in her mid-30s and passionate about her work, immediately. She offers me tea and we sit down to talk.

Kirstin has come along, but Kusumal reads the look on my face. I don’t want my daughter to hear more than she has to.

“Kirstin, why don’t you come over here and have a look at these books,” Kusumal offers.

While Kirstin reads, Kusumal reports the facts.

“Formal reports claim that prostitution numbers have gone down in Thailand, but that’s not true,” she says. “Brothels have been shut down, so prostitution has gone underground. You can find young girls and boys at karaoke and go-go bars, massage parlors, and hotels,” she says.

AIDS is a constant threat, she says. There are 14,000 children under age 15 living with HIV/AIDS in Thailand. “But many child sex workers are not tested for AIDS,” Kusumal adds with a note of gloom. “This generation is in denial. I fear they will die young.”

ECPAT has also found formal links with the tourism trade. “The pimp will bring a photo album of girls to hotels for the customer to choose,” Kusumal says. “Then, the girl goes to the customer.” Thailand’s sex trade reputation has become so well known that men (and sometimes women) from America, Australia, Great Britain, Asia and other developed countries come to Thailand specifically for sex tourism. That creates even more demand for the sex trade. It is a vicious cycle that the many feel helpless to break.

“It’s difficult to do prevention if we don’t know where the children are,” Kusumal adds. “They are easily hidden at go-go bars, massage parlors and behind photo albums.”

I look over at Kirstin. She is looking at the book, but I know that she is straining to hear our words. A lump forms in my throat as she turns the pages. Is it just me? Or does she seem to have matured during this trip? Recently, I have begun to see glimpses of the young woman she will become; the words and comments that seem to come from a girl much older than she is; the times when she jumps up in exuberance, only to pull back in sophisticated restraint. Kirstin seems to be changing, turning away from the child toward the young woman inside her, hovering uncertain somewhere between.

Kusumal’s voice grows weary as our conversation continues. She talks of children who have been rescued from prostitution who require great amounts of therapy, long after the last trick. The sex trade leaves deep scars on the innocent lives it taints.

“The real truth is that we have no alternative to offer them,” Kusumal adds. “Many are so desperately poor. Prostitution offers good money.”

As Nancy and I slide into the front seat of her truck later, she mentions Kusumal’s comment.

“How sad,” she says. “When there is nothing better to offer.”

“But you wait,” Nancy continues. “When you meet the girls at our home you will see that they have something much, much better now.”

Kirstin perks up at the mention of the children’s home.

“Finally,” she says, “I can meet someone my age!”

When we pull into the children’s home later that week, we see dozens of girls outside playing basketball. Nearly 80 tribal girls live at the home, ranging from age 7 to 23. All of them attend Thai school, and take courses in English and their native Akha. They are dressed in worn, but neat clothing. I can hear laughter and quick chatter.

“They built that court themselves,” Nancy says, pointing out the large, slightly uneven concrete court. “We told them we could only pay for the materials, so they put in the concrete themselves.”

A group of girls comes to greet Nancy, their faces beaming. They hug her when she gets out of the car. Kirstin looks at the girls through the car window. The girls stare back.

The children have come to the home under varying circumstances. Some were rescued, like the 8-year-old whose father tried to sell her into prostitution to support his opium addiction; others have lost both parents to AIDS and were at risk of being sold to the sex trade by relatives.

“And that girl,” Nancy says, pointing to a 12-year-old, “came to us when the house was full. Her uncle brought her in because her parents had died of AIDS, and said he didn’t want the girl. She was hiding behind him, crying. I just melted and I took her anyway.”

Nancy turns her attention to the group of girls, speaking in words I can’t understand.

“These are our girls,” she says, with obvious affection and pride.

“Nice to meet you,” one ten-year-old says meekly, holding out her hand to me. A few others come toward me, grinning. One little girl with short black hair and mischievous eyes slips her arms around my waist.

“Hello!” she says brightly.

The girls immediately surround Kirstin, giggling and covering their mouths with their hands.

Kirstin tosses me a questioning look.

“They like your hair,” Nancy says.

One of the girls bravely reaches out her hand to stroke Kirstin’s hair and soon there are more tiny brown arms stroking her head. I search for concern on my daughter’s face, but she senses the girls’ kindness, and laughs.

Another girl motions for Kirstin to come play basketball with them. “Can I go with them, mom?” she asks.

“Of course,” I say, shooing her off to play.

Nancy and I walk into one of the simple eating rooms of the house. There are no screens on the wide open windows, the chilly night air wafts in. The home has no heat or hot water, so I keep my coat on like everyone else in the room.

From my perch near the window, I can see Kirstin and the girls at play.

There are happy shouts, and playful teases coming from the court. A peaceful feeling permeates this home, a contrast from the streets.

I look over at Nancy, who is holding one of the little ones on her lap. A-Je and Nancy are surrogate parents to over 80 girls, living out their Christian faith by pouring their love – and lives – into these young women. This is not a “typical” family, but it is indeed a family. There is an inner strength instilled in those who come from a loving family, no matter what its composition.

A lovely young woman comes into the room, two small girls holding her hands. “This is Marla*,” Nancy says, as the young woman smiles back. “She is one of the reasons we do what we do.”

Marla offers me some warm tea, which I gladly accept, and sits down across the table. In a quiet voice, with Nancy translating, she begins to tell her story.

“When I was 14, I came home to find my 16-year-old sister gone,” she says. “No one would tell me where she went. But I saw from the sad helpless look on my mother’s face that something terrible had happened.”

Marla pauses, as if the story cuts too deeply. “Later, I found out that my father, who is an opium addict, had sold her into prostitution. She died of AIDS five years later.”

Nancy reaches over and puts her hand on Marla’s.

Trying to help her daughter the only way she knew how, Marla’s mother brought the 14-year-old to go to the home. “My mother was happy that I would have an education,” says Marla. “My father did not even notice I had left.”

Now 25 and a college graduate, Marla has decided to give back what she has been given and is assistant house mother here at the children’s home.

“I have been there,” she says. “I know what it’s like not to have anyone care about your needs. Here the girls find that care. Akha people live in such hopelessness. You constantly hear of disasters– this one into prostitution, that one died of AIDS. When they come here, the girls get some of their childhood back and they have hope that maybe they never had before.”

Hope, faith and a sense of family, ingredients that have helped hundreds of lives, including this once-wounded young teen, who now bestows love on other girls in the same situation.

Nancy gives me a knowing look. She sees that I finally understand.

Kirstin and her new friends in Thailand. Photo by Janna Graber

Kirstin and her new friends in Thailand. Photo by Janna Graber

The door opens abruptly and several younger girls spill into the room. Kirstin is in the center, hair now in two neat braids.

“Molleigh did my hair for me,” she says, nodding to the girl beside her.

“And look what Molleigh made me,” she adds, holding up some beautiful needlework.

“Can we come back here tomorrow?” my daughter asks.

I nod, and she heads back outside with the girls.

Through the window, my eyes follow these girls who will soon become women, hopeful futures spreading out before them. Kirstin’s arm is linked in Molleigh’s. Several other girls skip alongside them. Language barriers, economic and cultural differences don’t seem to matter; tonight Kirstin has found a kindred spirit.

A sense of gratitude washes over me, and I’m grateful that I’ve brought my daughter to Thailand. For it is here that she has began to grasp truths that some take a lifetime to learn.

Further out into the night, I know there are other girls, girls who weep in pain and disgust or whose hardened eyes no longer cry from the brutality of their world. I think of the girls at the Go-Go bar. Do they ever dream of different lives?

I look back at A-Ga, whose laughter betrays a genuine happiness, a sense of purpose from giving, and I know there is hope.

Tomorrow there will be more girls to interview, more heartache to see. But tonight, in a place where money is scarce but love abundant, I have seen the smiles of contented lives.

As the moon rises into the cloudless sky, I hear more giggles. The girls, most with straight shiny black hair and one with locks the color of honey, are playing basketball again. I look at Kirstin, whose petite frame has seemed to grow on this trip, and wonder if she knows how proud of her I am.

A whispering breeze sweeps through the window and into the room. I catch the smell of wild flowers. I stop for a moment and make a mental memory. It is a beautiful night to be in Thailand.