You are never short of amazing places to eat in Chiang Mai. The range of restaurants and the quality of the food is wonderful, even for vegetarians and vegans. However, there was one cafe that we returned to a number of times, not only because of its delicious food and friendly staff, but because of its wonderful ethos – Free Bird Cafe.
Free Bird Cafe is part of Thai Freedom House, a not-for-profit community education, arts and learning centre for refugees from Burma (Myanmar) and for disadvantaged minority groups in northern Thailand.
No one is free while others are oppressed – Thai Freedom House
Burmese Refugees and the Indigenous Hill Tribe People in Northern Thailand
The ongoing violence in Burma has left over 220,000 people displaced. Over 100,000 (up to 300,000 in some reports) of these refugees live in nine refugee camps in Thailand. These people face an incredibly uncertain future.
A lack of human security is replaced with workplace exploitation, gang violence and police harassment – Thai Freedom House
Burmese refugees have limited rights. They are mainly employed in the fishing and construction industries, where poor safety standards result in unsafe working conditions. An unskilled Burmese worker earns on average between 50 and 80 percent less than their Thai counterparts. Also, a lack of access to formal education means that it is nearly impossible for Burmese refugees to break the cycle of poverty they find themselves in.
There are also an estimated 1.2 million indigenous people living in hill tribes in the mountains of Thailand. A significant proportion of these people are not registered as Thai citizens and consequently, they are unable to own land, vote or access healthcare. Most Thai schools will not accept hill tribe children and those that do are unlikely to assist with schooling costs. Therefore, most hill tribe children have no choice but to remain at home and seek out work to support their families. This has left many vulnerable to exploitation; it is estimated that one in three sex workers in Chiang Mai are from hill tribe communities.
Free Bird Cafe and the work of Thai Freedom House
Thai Freedom House is trying to help these refugees and hill tribe people escape the cycle of poverty by providing them with the education that they are unable to access. They run classes, both on site at Free Bird Cafe and off site at construction camps, to teach people Thai and English. This can open up many opportunities for them. Some children may be able to attend free temple schools if they speak Thai and there are lots of potential opportunities within the tourism industry for those who speak English. They also run arts classes with local and visiting artists, teaching people new skills and helping them develop self confidence. These classes range from sewing to yoga.
However, running these classes, providing students with learning materials and daily snacks and transporting students to and from classes costs a lot of money.
In the past we have had to close our doors for a month at a time because of the lack of stable income and we don’t want to do that again. We have a commitment to our students to provide them with a constant education and we do not want to let them down – Thai Freedom House
An easy (and very tasty) way to support the amazing work that Thai Freedom House do is to visit Free Bird Cafe. The cafe serves a wonderful range of vegetarian and vegan organic food and specialises in Shan cuisine and vegetarian versions of traditional Thai dishes. The food is reasonably priced and the portions are a good size – but most importantly, it is absolutely delicious! The cafe also provides work for some of the Thai Freedom House’s adult students, giving them the opportunity to become more confident and practice both Thai and English.
At the back of the cafe, there is also a pre-loved shop where you can buy second hand clothing and books. So, if you are travelling in Chiang Mai and want to lighten your load, please consider dropping donations to Free Bird Cafe. Everything that they are unable to sell in their shop will go directly to Burmese refugees in need of clothing.
All profits from Free Bird Cafe, and their preloved shop, go directly to supporting the work of Thai Freedom House. So, go grab some delicious vegetarian food, buy a book and know that your money is going towards helping Burmese refugees and indigenous hill tribe people get the education they need to escape poverty.
How can you help?
$25 per month will provide soy milk to all young students every day. $100 per month will cover the costs of student transportation. $400 per month will cover rent expenses.
Visit Free Bird Cafe and their pre-loved shop
Donate clothes / books / any unwanted items to the Free Bird Cafe charity / preloved shop
Donate money to support the ongoing work of Thai Freedom House
Volunteer at Thai Freedom House – there are a range of specialist roles needed (such as English as a Foreign Language teachers, Thai teachers, accountants, photographers etc) as well as more administrative roles. If you are an artist or musician, you can also volunteer your time to teach at the Friday evening art classes. Apply here.
Address: Manee Nopparat Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday, 9am – 5pm (closed other times for classes)
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