Phrabatnampu temple in Lop Buri, Thailand, specializes in treating last-stage-HIV patients and it was the first organisation offering free AIDS treatment in Thailand. Alongkot Dikkapanyo, a Buddhist monk, had the idea of turning a temple into an AIDS hospice in 1990 when two young HIV-positive men came to Phrabatnampu temple. The AIDS hospice opened in 1992.
Patients are bought to the Buddhist temple by their families, who are no longer capable of looking after them or who don’t want the burden of caring for them or who fear that a family member with AIDS will bring dishonour to the family. Many patients are abandoned at the temple gates.
The temple has also become a monument for the patients who’ve died there. A museum space, in which the mummified bodies of former patients are displayed, is open to visitors, in the hope of promoting HIV awareness and the “zero new HIV infection” message. There is also a large and growing collection of small bags containing the cremated remains of those who died here. According to Thai custom, the ashes were sent to the families of the deceased, but, because of the continuing stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, most families rejected the ashes and returned them to the temple.
In the mid and late 90’s Phrabatnampu temple was known as “the temple of death”, but since the improvements in anti-retroviral treatments in recent years, it is now referred to as “the temple of hope”. The monks and the members of staff are working hard to encourage early detection of HIV in the community, in the hope that starting antiretroviral treatment as early as possible can lead to “AIDS getting to zero”.
Phrabatnampu temple, like most HIV and AIDS facilities in Thailand, is well funded by the government, the Royal Thai family and the Royal Thai army. Cash donations mostly come from within Thailand and the material donations that are made by companies and individuals are delivered in trucks on a regular basis.
The temple and the homes in this community are set in lush green gardens and are surrounded by forest. It is calm, quiet and beautiful and the air is pure. There are small houses for the patients who don’t need constant care. Patients who are strong enough are encouraged to work at maintenance jobs or to care for those who are too weak to care for themselves. In the AIDS and tuberculosis wards, the patients who feel well enough chat softly to each other, read or listen to music on their MP3 players.
Almost every patient I approached, agreed to let me take their photograph. They seemed complicit in the role they are playing in controlling HIV and AIDS and in promoting the work done by the monks and the staff at Phrabatnampu temple.