We sat around a long wooden table that took up most of a thatched-roof bungalow nestled in the hills of Chiang Rai province in Thailand. Barefoot, a dog curled at my feet, I stared at a large computer screen, engrossed in P’moo’s video presentation. She spoke passionately, gesticulating with her hands, then waited as our guide translated her words into English. While she talked, I recognized one she used repeatedly: trafficking.
“The situation has changed,” she said. “Now, many go knowingly.”
Parisutha Suthimongkol, who goes by P’moo, was talking about human trafficking, a lucrative business that takes advantage of illiterate people in desperate circumstances; solicits girls with promises of a better life; and persuades parents to sell their children. Ms. Suthimongkol is a founder of the Mirror Foundation, a grass-roots group in Chiang Rai.
This was not a work-related meeting. I was on vacation, visiting Thailand on what was billed as an advocacy journey, one that, along with sightseeing, provided opportunities to learn about the sexual exploitation of children in a country known for sex tourism.
“The intention is that everybody will walk away with a deeper understanding of the issues and the work done on the ground as well as what’s special and unique about Thailand,” said Malia Everette, the founder of Altruvistas, a tour operator that had organized the trip in partnership with ECPAT-USA, an advocacy group based in Brooklyn.
Sarah Porter, a former director of development and partnerships at ECPAT-USA and a leader of our trip, said that the group wanted to show people “that how they travel and where they choose to stay really does make a difference.”
Our other leader was a local tour guide from Altruvistas, Adisak Kaewrakmuk. He took us sightseeing in Bangkok — the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha — and to night markets in the northern provinces, but also doubled as a translator during our meetings with government representatives and aid groups.
We were a diverse group of nine women: I was joined by a nurse from Nevada who had not traveled outside of the United States (“not counting Cabo” in Mexico, she said), a retired prosecutor from Long Island and her daughter, two members of the travel industry from St. Louis and three advocates working on the issue, including the chairwoman of Ecpat-USA, Jackie Shapiro.
I had booked my trip on the Altruvistas website. Of the $3,500 fee, $500 was a tax-deductible donation to ECPAT-USA. An additional 10 percent of the tour fee was distributed to the groups we visited.
This was ECPAT-USA’s inaugural advocacy trip. (The organization offers another one to Thailand in October and to Cartagena, Colombia, in July.) Other trips that are educational in nature and support local communities can be booked through Altruvistas or companies with similar missions, like Crooked Trails, Meaningful Trip and Responsible Travel.
An advocacy trip meant that instead of spending our days lounging by the pool between visits to tourist sights and attractions — although we did find time for some of that — we attended meetings with government representatives and local organizations involved in the fight against trafficking.
In Bangkok, we visited the offices of ECPAT International and the International Labour Organization. We learned that behind the ornate temples, polite smiles and colorful baskets of fruits and vegetables, there was a grim reality. Scores of tribal people in the highlands lacked citizenship and had no access to education, health services or jobs that paid fair wages; children brought from Laos and Myanmar were begging on the streets; girls were being exploited in the sex trade and men were sold into slavery on fishing boats.
We also visited Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, where we learned about the Thai government’s response to the problem.
Thailand has long been a popular tourist destination. International arrivals have more than doubled since 2000, and Bangkok is consistently ranked as one of the most visited cities in the world. But as travel increases, so does the risk to children of sexual exploitation by sex offenders.
“This massive increase in travel and tourism, along with the rise of the internet and mobile technology, offers new pathways — and a new level of anonymity — for offenders,” said Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, chairwoman of a task force on sexual exploitation of children set up by Ecpat International.
To help combat the problem, in 1998 The Code was created by ECPAT Sweden, UNTWO and a set of tour operators as an industry initiative, which provides tools and support to travel companies to build awareness among their employees.
In partnership with ECPAT, AccorHotels, a French multinational hotel group, set up an employee training program in 2001.
“In Southeast Asia, hotel managers were frequently confronted with child sex tourism, not just in the hotels, but especially in their daily life,” said Arnaud Herrmann, AccorHotel’s director of sustainable development. By the end of 2015, 38 of the countries in which the company operates more than 2,700 hotels had signed on to the initiative.
Also, 88 percent of the AccorHotels network (nearly 4,000 hotels) had enrolled in the company’s own program to help protect vulnerable children, he said.
About 50 companies and associations have joined the Code in the United States, including AccorHotels, Altruvistas, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, Delta Air Lines, Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Uber and Wyndham Worldwide.
Between 2013 and 2015, some 170,000 hotel employees were trained to respond to human trafficking and child exploitation as a result of ECPAT-USA’s efforts.
“We are reaching a point where this is now becoming industry standard,” Ms. Porter said, “and the majority of major brands are proactively addressing the issue.”
Travelers, too, can make a difference by patronizing hotels and tour companies that are members of The Code. During our trip, we stayed mostly in Code hotels.
But with the proliferation of the internet and social media, sex offenders are finding new methods for exploitation. They find children via the internet and “disguise themselves as volunteers in orphanages and child care centers and arrange temporary housing in distant communities where they commit their crimes,” said Dorothy Rozga, the executive director of ECPAT International.
The increased popularity of peer-to-peer rentals facilitated by online services has raised concerns because of the lack of oversight. In response, a spokesman for Airbnb, Nick Shapiro, said, “Our trust and safety team works with safety groups around the world to help train our hosts and our employees.”
The company works with the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign, which provides education about human trafficking, and with No Traffick Ahead, a Bay Area coalition for combating human trafficking, he said.
After three days in Bangkok, we left for the lush northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. In meetings with local groups — Childlife, the Daughters’ Education Program, ECPAT’s local office and the Mirror Foundation — we learned about the underlying causes of human trafficking and saw the schools and shelters run by the groups.
Ms. Suthimongkol, who is also the director of the Mirror Foundation’s ecotours program, explained that the main problem in the hill tribe villages was obtaining citizenship. Babies are not issued birth certificates and grow up stateless. “Getting registered is a moneymaking business,” she said.
Ms. Suthimongkol told us about a 15-year-old girl who had been forced to sleep with the village elder to receive the signature necessary to obtain an ID card from the Thai government.
“But we stand in the way of the corruption,” Ms. Suthimongkol said, explaining her group’s efforts to change the country’s laws so that it is now easier for hill tribe people to acquire citizenship.
A large component of the Mirror Foundation’s work is preventive. Its handicrafts project (making clay whistles, bags, handwoven scarves, bracelets and bookmarks) provides local women with a safe work environment and an independent source of income. Ecotours and home stays offer visitors the opportunity to experience life in the hill tribe villages, trekking through the national forests and boarding with a local family. The income they generate helps villagers build wells and send their children to school. The foundation also has a large volunteer program, runs free schools and has established a scholarship fund for advanced education.
Ms. Suthimongkol took us to a village inhabited by the Akha, an ethnic minority group. The van driver left us at the bottom of a hill and we hiked along a steep dirt road, passing wooden huts with thatched roofs and laundry hanging over fences.
We ate lunch sitting cross-legged on colorful bamboo mats. The wooden drumlike tables were piled with food, including bowls with highland rice (the staple of Akha cuisine) and laab moo, which is minced pork. During the meal, the head of the village told us more about the Mirror Foundation’s work there and introduced us to a young man who had been sent to college on its scholarship fund. He now leads the village’s ecotours.
After lunch, we saw the home-stay lodgings equipped with floor mats, mosquito nets and Western toilets. A one-day hiking trek and home stay ranges from 6,900 to 9,000 Thai baht ($200 to $260) for one person and 8,600 to 10,600 baht ($248 to $305) for two people.
On the village square we met a dozen elderly women dressed in traditional costumes: colorful leggings, black skirts and jackets with embroidered cuffs and lapels and headdresses decorated with silver coins, monkey fur and dyed chicken feathers. They rushed up to Ms. Suthimongkol, taking turns holding her hands in gratitude. Soon we were all shaking hands, conversing with gestures and laughing, overcome by the power of humor to make friends in the most remote corners of the world.
But unlike regular tourists, we knew the hardships these women faced, and I left the village grateful that I had contributed — however minimally — to the work of Ecpat-USA and the Thai groups we had met. Months later, the smiles on the Akha women’s faces shine brighter in my memories of Thailand than its gilded temples.