Ng Meixi was 17 when her best friend, nicknamed Da, told her that she would soon be sold off as a bride.
The 16-year-old Thai teenager was sold for 40,000 baht to the 19-year-old son of a farmer as her family needed the dowry to survive.
Meixi, now 23, who has been volunteering in Chiangrai with her family for the last 10 years, had made friends with Da during her volunteer trips.
She has been returning to Chiangrai every year with her parents, brother and sister to help out at a youth hostel since her first trip there in 2000.
She was so affected by her friend’s plight in 2005, she decided to do a degree in education and social policy. Last year, she graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago.
‘What happened to Da was always on my mind. Issues such as trafficking and the necessity of education became personal and real,’ she said.
For a while, she lost touch with Da but continued to be involved in non-profit organisations, even starting one in 2008 called the Amber Initiative to conduct awareness talks with schools in Singapore on issues such as child trafficking.
She started another in Thailand this year, called True To Life Foundation, which will start a learning community centre in Huey Sak province in northern Thailand to conduct training courses for villagers to help them make a living.
Her younger sister Meizhi, 17, is also involved in True To Life.
On her most recent trip to Thailand three months ago, Meixi bumped into Da, who was working as a cleaner at a restaurant. She found out Da was working to support her own family. She said she was still married, but Meixi learnt from mutual friends that Da might be separated from her husband.
‘Her dream was to study but she hasn’t finished her education. I want to give my life to make sure people have equal education opportunities,’ said Meixi, who will soon be travelling to Mexico on a scholarship from Princeton University to do research and work with teachers in rural communities of Mexico.