PH-bound Swiss child rights advocate Thomas Kellenberger reaches Thailand

Thomas Kellenberger in Nepal

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 16 February) – Swiss trekker, child rights advocate and fund-raiser Thomas Kellenberger has reached southeast Asia and has targeted his arrival in Cagayan de Oro in mid-May, some three months from now.

Speaking in an online interview from his location in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Kellenberger said his intended arrival is timed for the visit of a Swiss television crew that will document his arrival back in Cagayan de Oro, nearly two years after he started his trek “Kuya Thom Goes Home”. 

Kellenberger has walked 519 days since starting out on August 25, 2021 in Wilderswil, Bern. But he still has about 1,4000 kilometers to walk from Chiang Mai to Laos and then to Vietnam, from where he will fly to the Philippines.

And unlike other countries which he crossed laterally, Kellenberger’s plan is to traverse the Philippines from north to south, including crossing parts of the Sierra Madre mountain range,  thus adding some 2,000 kilometers to his long walk.

Kellenberger is raising funds during his walk for the Island Kids Philippines Foundation located in Cagayan de Oro, which he co-founded with Filipinos in 2007 to help children in poverty and in difficult conditions.

Heat challenge

While Kellenberger said that the weather  will not be a problem anymore because it is dry season in Indochina (Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) and will already be summer by the time he reaches the Philippines, he acknowledges that it might be difficult walking in the hot weather.

He said he felt the heat while walking from the Myanmar border to Chiang Mai. “It was exhausting because of the humidity and it was difficult and I felt weak in the first days,” he said. 

He said he was still in the stage of adjusting to the new climate in southeast Asia where he intends to cover up to 50 kilometers in a day.

“I’m still wondering how my body would adjust to the heat and humidity in this region. It’s a different challenge for me,” he said.

He said walking in Asia made him remember the time he spent walking in the dry deserts in Uzbekistan in central Asia where temperatures reached 45 degrees Centigrade, “but because of the humidity here, the feeling is the same even if it is not very high temperatures here.”

“But what is good,“ he said, “is that once I reach the Philippines, my body would have adjusted to the humidity.”

Up, down

Kellenberger noticed that unlike the tall mountains in Europe and central Asia like those in Nepal where he was used to making only one long ascent and then a descent, the mountains in southeast Asia are lower but numerous and require him to make several ascents and descents. 

“I have to go up and down, up and down several times like those mountains in Thailand and that makes the walk more difficult,” he said.

Before starting out in August 2021, Kellenberger had practiced in the Swiss alps which have higher altitudes and temperatures.

His plan to traverse the Philippines from north to south also adds some 2,000 kilometers to his long walk. 

Thomas Kellenberger spending Christmas at a children’s aid organization in India

Kindred NGOs

On his last legs, Kellenberger had visited several NGOs which also promote children rights, among them Bowl of Compassion and Buddha’s Smile School in India; Nawa Asha Grisha or NAG in Kathmandu, Nepal; and the well-known Maiti Nepal in Nepal, and said he has lessons from watching  them operate up-close.

He said that while Buddha’s Smile School started small in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh province and they developed slowly, “I could see their heart for the children, their concern there is very authentic, and they are like a family.”

Meanwhile, Bowl of Compassion founded in 2008 in India by the German Martin Saatkamp, established soup kitchens where the poor can have free warm meals, a primary school and a hostel.

“They have a guesthouse and coffee shop which earn income from the tourists and also from the volunteers who go and stay there. The income that they get go to the school, so they are like best practices,” Kellenberger said.

He said said he is thinking of Island Kids Philippines having a hostel in order to generate income and become less dependent on donations.

From Nawa Asha Grisha, a children’s aid organization started in the outskirts of Kathmandu by a Swiss woman, Kellenberger said he learned the worth of having a full-time medical staff. “They (NAG) have their own doctor and nurse so the children have full-time care. We need that in IKP, especially for our children wards with special medical needs.”

Because NAG also operates a coffee shop to raise self-generating income for their nonprofit service, Kellenberger said that because it is located in the suburbs, Island Kids Philippines can also set up a store or a coffee shop with the clients coming from the students of a nearby private university and a residential subdivision.

From Maiti Nepal, founded in 1993 by a Nepalese woman, Anuradha Koirala, who later became well-known as the CNN Hero of the Year in 2010 for her fight against human trafficking,  Kellenberger said he learned the value of practical skills training for its wards. 

“Maiti Nepal offers courses in sewing and dressmaking and manicure and pedicure, among other things. These courses are intended to help them become self-sustainable,” he added.

He said Maiti Nepal also has effectively deployed teams along the borders to seek out and try to rescue trafficked children from Nepal to India.

“It might be useful to have a booth in the bus terminal or the local port or in the red-light shops of the city to identify child victims of trafficking. We can do this in Cagayan de Oro because IKP has good relations with the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development), the local police and immigration,” he said.

He said he has invited the leaders of  those NGOs to visit Cagayan de Oro so they can exchange ideas, do benchmarking “and to continue contact in some sort of a network.”

He said after he ends his long trek hopefully in May, he plans to take a short break in Switzerland to give updates to partner groups and to share his travel experiences with the public.

He added that he also plans to write a book using his detailed travel notes and his posts on social media as his draft stories. (Brady Eviota/for MindaNews)