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Volunteering In Mae Hong Son With Amigo Vision Thailand
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Jan 05 2015

The Small World Festival: Volunteering In Mae Hong Son With Amigo Vision Thailand

This year we didn’t spend Christmas with our families, but we were far from alone. We made the drive up to the northernmost province of Thailand, Mae Hong Son, to help at an eye clinic run by Amigo Vision Thailand in partnership with Toys for Thailand. Every year, Toys for Thailand organizes the Small World Festival to celebrate the rich local traditions in the area. Villagers convene in the city of Mae Hong Son for a two day celebration, some from remote hill tribes hours away. This was the first year that the eye clinic was held in conjunction with the festival. All these people together in one city created the perfect opportunity to provide free eye care.

Mae Hong Son is consistently the poorest province in Thailand and scores the lowest in education. Many families live without electricity or cars. They have no phones and are thus isolated most of the year. For many, this is the only time they come together with people outside their village. The Small World Festival is a wonderful opportunity for children to meet each other, share their traditional dances and customs, and raise money by selling handicrafts and food.

The Eye Clinic

We woke up each morning and began greeting patients at Wat Chong Kham, our office for those few days. Unlike the clinic in Mae Na Chon, the central location made it possible for more people to drop in. We were expecting around 250 patients and saw 369 by then end. Most of the patients had never had their vision tested. One ten-year-old girl had -7.00 vision and will now receive her first pair of glasses, undoubtedly changing her life forever.

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The spirit of Amigo Vision Thailand is really a beautiful thing, and the pure mission to help people is a wonderful thing to be a part of. There are no questions asked, no need to prove that you are in need, and nothing asked of the people who come to the clinics. We saw children, monks, villagers, young and old at the clinic. A group of police officers even came in, and good thing they did! It’s certainly beneficial to everyone for policemen to have good vision.

Some of the older children and adults could speak english, but with the rest we were glad to have volunteers from the town as translators. My favorite part was helping those who needed glasses choose frames. Everyone was so excited that sometimes it was difficult to explain that they would need to wait for the lenses to be cut, fit into the frames and then sent back to them. We had a few eager patients try to walk away with frames with no prescription.

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Small World Festival

Toys for Thailand has been around for 10 years. The organization started by bringing toys and supplies to children affected by the tsunamis in 2004. Their current efforts have expanded and focused on assisting tribal schools in Mae Hong Son. Children often live at these schools for most of the year and many suffer, and even die, from malnutrition and diseases caused by poor sanitation.

The Small World Festival is a cultural fundraiser that raises awareness for their situation, gets the Thai and international community involved, and celebrates their rich cultural heritage. Booths are set up around the Chong Kham lake at the center of town where tribal children and their supervisors sell handmade jewelry, scarves, art and food. We made several passes through the rows and bought more each time. The children were irresistible and they had some perfect gifts for us to bring home. Not only does the money raised go to supporting the villages, but the children get to see that their creative efforts pay off.

In the evening, groups of children began taking the stage to perform dances in traditional costume. Different villages each have distinct customs and dances and the children were bubbling with excitement to show off their talents. Throughout the day we saw groups of kids practicing their routines  in front of their booths, giggling and playing the entire time. The festive atmosphere was a perfect way to spend Christmas, and Santa even made an appearance.

The Small World Festival has become a staple in the town of Mae Hong Son and if you have plans to be in Thailand over Christmas, you should try to include it in your visit. Not only are you able to see traditions from remote areas of the country, you are supporting children and families in need; helping to fund their education, put money back into their businesses, and allow them to purchase more and better food.

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Read more about the missions and projects carried out by Amigo Vision Thailand and Toys For Thailand. Please consider donating money or supplies to these worthy causes! T4T takes donations of clothing and school materials year round.

A HUGE thank you to Yvonne Bouma for letting us include her beautiful photos. Even travel bloggers forget their camera chargers sometimes…

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Evanne Allen
Evanne.allen@gmail.com

Evanne co-founded Poplar Travels after quitting her job in Washington, D.C. She got itchy feet at a young age and has never lost the urge to explore the planet. A previous museum employee, she is apt to drag travel partners into several cultural institutions anywhere she goes. She wishes she could speak every language and loves meeting new people.

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