Past the endless fields of sprawling corn stalks; past the hillsides which overstate their humble height against the flattened surrounding landscape; past the ornate temple gate; past the hand-carved wooden dining gazebos lined against the hillside as if awaiting a fireworks show; past the rows of quaint white bungalows with clothing drying on porches that nearly double their size; past piles of construction materials heaving under the heat waiting to be actualized into functional structures; past the small golden image of the Buddha flanked by red-lettered “AIDS” and “HIV” on each side; past the hundreds of stray dogs fawning, yawning, scratching and scurrying in the afternoon’s languor; we wind our car through Wat Phra Baht Nam Phlu’s impressive grounds.
Tanned men in yellow polo shirts aid our arrival in various ways. This one with the pot belly gives us directions. That one with the sallow cheeks helps us park. The third one missing his front teeth walks stiffly around the grounds as our tour guide. They are the able-bodied patients of the temple—victims of a virus vastly misunderstood who are determined not to allow their illness to relegate them to a cot.
Our first stop was the donation center, where we inquired whether we could look around. They welcomed us to, asking that we only agree not to take pictures of the patients. The idea that a person’s suffering could somehow be a tourist attraction to some visitors tied a knot in my stomach. Of course not, I said.
We visited the patient wards. According to a chart in the window of the hospital nurses’ office, there were 104 male patients, including nine monks, and 40 female patients, for a grand total of 144 patients. As we approached the entrance to the hospital, an adolescent boy in a wheelchair and orange monk-like robes was laughing as a man in his forties, who appeared healthier than most of the other patients, was teetering the boy’s wheelchair rapidly back and forth. Beyond them was another teenage patient sitting on a bench. As we approached they stopped playing and wai’d us, saying, “Sawadee klahp! (Hello!).” We smiled and returned the greeting. The boy in the wheelchair looked at me and said, “Thank you for coming!”
We went into the male ward. There were about eighteen to twenty hospital beds in the room. Each bed resembled a private nest lined with personal possessions—blankets, baskets with pens and medicine, books, notebooks, bottles, and other items of personal importance. These beds were where most of these patients spent their days. Many of them hadn’t the strength to leave them. Every man wore a diaper. Their legs were shriveled and their stomachs bloated. A few of the men were blind. Others were discolored. On one side of the ward were refrigerators, a large flat screen TV, and other community appliances like water kettles and cutlery.
After standing in the room for a minute, we suddenly became aware of their awareness of us. Feeling as though we were treating them as zoo exhibits, we wai’d and left the room.
We went into the female ward. Their room was smaller. A larger proportion of the patients were up and about. And their beds were more elaborately decorated. One woman had a giant Winnie the Pooh sitting atop her pastel mountain of personal possession. I paid closer attention to what these patients had to call theirs. One woman had a small film camera. Another had a heating pad to sit on. Their clothing was more varied and more neatly organized into their bed-homes.
Pao talked to a few of the women. She verified that there are a few nurses and a couple doctors on site. One doctor was a foreigner, said one woman, smiling enthusiastically at me. Another woman talked to Pao about what her day to day life was like. She explained that the temple provides them with plenty of food and opportunities to earn a small income. At the same time, it is a limited life, especially if you don’t have the energy levels to work for the temple. She has to go to the local hospital routinely for medical treatment, and likes to buy fruit and other food outside the hospital—food which the temple doesn’t usually have. To buy these, she needs her own money, which she often doesn’t have. She explained that many of the patients appreciate a small amount of personal donation so that they can enjoy these little “luxuries” on their excursions outside the temple.
We asked her, and other patients, a bit about their story—how did they end up at the temple? One lady had gotten AIDS/HIV from unclean tattoo needles many years ago. Our toothless tour guide got it from his mother at birth. So did the boy in the wheelchair. In fact, many of the patients did not get it from sexual promiscuity—an assumption often associated with AIDS/HIV.
Throughout much of Thailand, AIDS/HIV has a stigma that stems largely from ignorance. Many people, especially from older generations and from rural parts, believe that it can be contracted from the air, that merely being around a person with AIDS/HIV puts you at risk of getting it yourself. Many people don’t know how it is spread, nor that free medication is available to treat it. When a Thai person gets AIDS/HIV, they are too often an outcast—they are put out from their home and shunned by their families. Wat Phra Baht Nam Phlu provides a loophole: family members feel morally justified in leaving their undesirables because the temple will provide a spiritual cleansing before death.
Therefore, the patients we met were victims not only of a terrible disease, but also of an obstinate stigma surrounding that disease. They were at the temple to die alone, with no one to visit them or support them emotionally or financially. That’s why many of them lit up when we came into their ward giving out small amounts of cash to each person. We approached each patient and gave him/her a small allowance of 40 baht—not much, but enough to bring light and gratitude to their eyes. Some of the patients lacked the strength or eyesight to reach out for the money, so we gently wedged it between their feeble fingers.
We owe a huge gratitude to our friends and family for helping us make the donations we made. Between the individual patient donations and a lump sum at the donation center, we were able to give a little over 20,000 baht. We gave a little extra to our tour guide and the forty-something man for assisting us. Then we climbed the stairs to visit the large buddha at the top of the hill. With our descent, we ended our visit and left the temple.
From our observations and interviews with patients, we feel satisfied that they are getting the best possible care and support in spite of a stigma that makes them social outcasts. We hope that the temple can also start making efforts towards educating the community about AIDS/HIV, especially with regards to how to treat its victims with dignity.
Thank you to everyone who supported this effort!