Sunday, June 29, 2008

A visit to Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu.

Last summer, on August 8th, I had an opportunity to stop by the Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu, which translates to 'the temple of Buddha's footprints'.

At least one million Thais have been infected with HIV/AIDS since the first reported case in 1984. The rate was increasing at an alarming rate in the 1990s, however, with the society at that time not well aware of what was becoming a major social issue, those affected were cast aside and left to die. Situated in Lop Buri province, 120 kilometers north of Bangkok in central Thailand, the temple was turned into what it is now, an AIDS hospice, by a Buddhist monk named Alongkot Dikkapanyo back in 1992. Since then, the facility has expanded to accommodate 400 beds from an initial number of eight, thanks to the temple's extensive public relations strategies bringing in donations amounting to the equivalent of millions of dollars. Photos of the temple’s sick and emaciated patients adorn posters and donation boxes across the nation and television stations from around the globe visit to film documentaries. Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu is currently home to over 200 HIV-infected adults, and has been for a number totalling 10,000 over the past, most of whom died from the illness.

The temple's activities have always been controversial in recent years. Tourists from mostly western nations visit in thousands every week, taking tours that are guided by some of the relatively-healthy AIDS patients. They go through the wards where the relatively-weak AIDS patients are, without much explanation, and continue on to the 'Life Museum', a collection of dozens of mummified corpses of dead AIDS patients, who according to the staff, agreed to be put on exhibition prior to their death. That is followed by the crematorium, which is surrounded by what seem to look like sculptures or other pieces of art made from the bones and ashes of those who have been cremated here. Then they walk to a hall which houses a Buddha surrounded by piles of sandbags, or 'ash-bags', which contain the ashes of those who were cremated but have not yet found relatives to take it home. Visitors also have an opportunity to see a dance show done by AIDS patients too. And after all that, they leave behind tons of donations.

Yes, the hospice provides care and 'protects' those suffering from AIDS, but what is it doing to how people see HIV/AIDS patients? Dead AIDS patients whose bodies are not taken back by their relatives become sandbags or pieces of art, or part of the exhibits in the museum that has little explanation of the bodies. Those who are weak, and in their twilight of their lives, simply lie on the bed as tourists pass by giving them that look in the eye. You can often see the visitors covering their mouth upon entering the ward, then swiftly moving through wordlessly. Many don't even say hello. Those who are still relatively healthy host the tours or performances for the visitors, helping to attract more donations. I can't help myself from feeling that all of these together only exacerbate prejudice.

In Thailand, more than 400,000 have died from AIDS, however, it is also one of the few countries to have successfully curbed its epidemic with awareness campaigns, and later pioneered the widespread distribution of anti-retrovirus drugs (ARVs), which slow the progress of the incurable disease. In the 1990s, up to 100 patients died at the temple every month, but now, that number has been reduced to about 10. According to UNAIDS, fewer than 17,000 infections were reported in the country in 2006, compared with 143,000 in 1990, but officials are worried that the rate could climb again. HIV prevalence among intravenous drug users and sex workers remains high, while condom use among Thai teenagers is shockingly low. No time should be spared to come up with a new way to spread awareness.

In Thailand, generally speaking, monks are highly respected. Much more than the government, to be sarcastic. I believe that when it comes to bringing social awareness, they have a vital role to play. :-)

No comments: