Tag Archives: mae sot

Leaving mae sod

Up at dawn,and I can hear the dripping residual rainwater ticking onto the roof below. Morning has that fresh glow of promise. A silent hour when the URL almost dreamlike sweeps the fallen leaves from the yard. I sit in the soft fuzzy light, all foliage in the garden seems a dense green blur. I eat yesterday’s fritters and sip a tea. I’m in no rush, though do have an appointment for a change. T catch the chiang mai bus. My plan had been to walk the mile and more along the road, but logic, desire and the need to take things easy persuade me toget a tuk tim. I wai and thank the owner who is manicuring in her window, and the housekeeper waves me off. The road is sleepy. It’s Sunday. Two young novices of around 12 are pacing dozen the road. Orange saffron robes, one with a green sash beneath, the other a yellow one. Hey are not together, maybe 20 yards apart. Each carries himself with he nobble detachedd dignity of something other. Erect perfectly balanced, slight figures but with an air of confidence, modesty, humility. Shaved fuzzy heads, pale yellow tan skin. smooth facesthat carry no expression. They are barefoot, each cradles a silver coloured bowl which they prefer no doubt to the same selected households, and into which is donated a quantity of food. Could be fruit, a ball of rice. This is to be eaten by midday. Monks fast until the next morning. These kids are not lolloping around, not listening to their smart phones. I wonder what goes through their mind. How they feel when they wake, and prepare themselves for this un changing ritual of centuries. They are ageless. They are ancient. They are somehow infused with the spirit of what makes this place so exotic, so intangible at times. Inscrutable, sublime.

It feels like a dream, a trance. Like a memory from deep in the past, like a vision of a. Future. A permanence. It’s something I. All never understand.

At sukhothai all those centuries before the same rituals were enacted. I am going to chiang mai where I will see the same once again. I will meet men who have lived these lives, played these roles. A duty. T bring merit to their family. I will meet boys who will become novices. I will go places where such temples and monasteries where they carry out the day in day out identical regimes of waking praying collecting food, eating, sweeping, learning, and playing have stood for centuries. Ones which are still being built, being painted. Ones which people go to for medical purposes, steam saunas, ones in which the town comes to buy and sell food. Ones which are thoroughfares, kids going to school, tuk tuks passing through. A short cut from one gate to another. Ones where all the stray dogs from the town come to rest in the shade of the prayer halls. Ones which were built on the tops of mountains and were abandoned 600 years ago.the forest. Reclaiming hem, the locals reusing the collapsing stonework to build houses and roads. Where the gilded buddhashave been stolen, yet where nowadays people still light candles, burn joss sticks, leave offerings of fruit, coca cola, whatever they feel the Buddha would like.

Yet what does it mean? This is a country with underlying tensions that often manifest he selves violently. The red shirts stand offs in bkk being a good example. The terrorism in the south,the. Muslims fighting for independence. A country which deliberately avoids any involvemnt in international conflicts, preferring only to adopt positions that are beneficial to trade. Take the Burma refugee. Sitaution. Compare with how reluctant he Thais were to shelter the many hundreds of thousands who fled the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the displaced of vietnam. They were often sent back, sometimes robbed, sometimes raped or murdered. Een the local Red Cross workers being reproachable.

Final afternoon sortie

Very interesting ride to the edge of town which took me across muddy tracks with streams, purple water flowers, huts standing in flood water. I see a 16 year old girl struggling with a cart full of plastic bottles collected to recycle, it’s an effort through the ruts and puddles. A Bangladeshi farmer ies me and ushers me into his muddy farm yard, full of ducks and hens and a shed which contains his prize asset…It’s this he wants me to photograph. Not him, not his 10 year old son in the traditional Islamic skull cap and silk tunic. It’s his fawn coloured bull. His prize. I oblige with the pic and I ascertain through gesture that he wants the picture. I use the iPad to write his phone number. His son types his name and his father’s and his small friend’s. quite a clash of technologies and cultures. The ol man with broken teeth standing in this primitive hovel typing on this device.

Further on I encounter youn boys herding cows across the fields, women with snacks in baskets balanced on their heads calling door to door at the water stricken houses. A stream where 2 mothers are scrubbing the laundry while their naked kids frolicking in the water. The sights go on and on, and these refugee encampments are literally a couple of minutes from the centre of town. Across the files are the golden domes of a mosque, a man with a white rice farmers hat is fishing next to his bicycle. Brooding grey clouds drift over the wall of corrugated iron shacks. It spits with rain and the call to prayer from this mosque and the one on the opposite side of this open space begins its call also. A different voice, a different tune. It’s like they are in competition. Why do people bother with religion when there life is as poor of this. What does Allah fix?

I hit a paved road that in comparison is a veritable highway and head away from town, past some pools where more boys are playing with a ball in the water, and back flipping in. God knows how dirty the water must be. On the banks of a stream is a little crooked cow herder of around 70 . He calls me over and we do another cow and owner shoot!

I’m unable to go much further up the road as it is flooded, the water being around 1,5 feet deep. Traffic is passing, including bikes, some even carrying several people, but I decide to stay dry. I dismount to watch the vehicles crossing and a guy on a scooter pulls up. Around 35, white vest, gold chain, a faint tattoo on his shoulder. He has stopped to chat. He is Burmese and now lives in Finland. Married with a Burmese. His teeth are red from betel.

Back into town for a mint and pineapple smoothie. Strange how distant my life is from what I have seen. Strange how physically close it is.



Saturday, last day in Mae sot

I have developed a routine, habits and locals. It has been nice to feel settled here. A few more engaging people to hang out with would have made it perfect.

I intend to have a slow day, which only gets going after a leisurely tea and chat with Peter..I’m keen to move him away from talking about teaching, but it’s all engrossing for him….

I cycle out of town toget my Chiang Mai bus ticket, but the bus station from which it leaves does not sell tickets. At least, I am given to understand after 10 am! I’m told to buy it in town, but I have no idea where, and cycle round in circles, which involved trying to snap pictures of the cage once more. The prisoners have visitors. On my third lap of the town I come across a DHL office where I’m welcomed by a stocky smiley Burmese who runs the place and via a phone call, and delivery by motorcyclist my ticket is procured. Meanwhile and for another hour we talk. His English is quite strong. He left Burma 20 years ago and has worked in ticket agencies in Khaosan Road. He now has this company at which he tries to employ as many people as possible. All Burmese. Currently 25. We talk at length about the Burma situation. About the in-fighting between ethnic groups, the govt playing one off against the other. We are both critical of religion and monarchy. How will Thailand fare when the king passes away? This is a question the Thais will not entertain. He is the one shared pillar of unity. Perhaps because he is unique it blinds Thais to the big problems, or they put too much faith in the spirit of the king. Just like religion, with places like Thailand and especially Burma there are big temple building projects in which money, labour, time are lavished to the detriment of proper housing for the people. You cannot live in the temple. You can pray, make merit, but this is all for a next life. If there is such a thing. Jo, the DHL guy, and myself are more pragmatic. He wants to address real issues. He does so by providing a living for people. He feels lucky, but there is also a sense of guilt that he has left others behind, including his parents.

He too has an arrest story and of spending 2 nights of discomfort, heat, airlessness in the cage for which a 6000 baht release fee was required. The only food and drink you have is the stuff you bring with you. He talks about being shipped around by the police in a cattle truck, covered with onion sacks. The Thai police do not speak Burmese. They exploit this power over the Burmese and extort money in bribes. Jo has a friend who was arrested in Burma by the secret police and tortured. His crime being involved with the student freedom movement. The tactic is to scare you into passivity. He is now in Thailand.

We talk about Thailand’s interest in Burma being primarily one of trade. Teak. Export of food stuffs. China has similar interests. I ask Jo about his DHL shipments. Mostly food, dried fish, from Burma.

I have an awesome lunch at a place behind the minibus station. It’s all vegetarian, Burmese, unusual dishes such as mashed jack fruit, tamarind curry, many ingredients that I cannot identify. Back at the market I buy 2 kg of fruit!!


Wade is a Burmese restart rant opposite the golf driving range, the 25m high nets of which I can see from my window. It’s a small place with three tables under a roof, a bar and an inside space, the grandmother seated at the back. It’s dead when I arrive this time. A cluster of staff around the middle table texting or playing on mobiles, who come alive o me, their only customer. On the end table there is a couple of local guys chatting in a languid drunken way over a bottle of local whiskey which they drink with a lot of ice, procured by tongues from a bowl of meltwater. The staff move inside and continue online activity around a couple of laptops. Two of the girls look very similar and they come and discuss the menu with me after I have grilled it for 10 minutes. Khao soy is off no mangoes….the one who seems in charge, who I later learn is called sunni actually remembers me from 2 nights ago and even what I ordered. We discuss my options and I settle for fried suki, which is glass noodles with carrots, beans, greens and tea leaf salad. I had read about this as a famous Burmese dish. It’s fermented green tea leaves, shredded, mixed with shredded onion, peanuts, roasted broad beans, crushed, some other crunchy pulse. There some chilli in it to taste, but generally Burmese food is not. Spicy. It strikes me that I have never had or seen Burmese food in uk.but Thai, yes, of course. I begin to wonder why, and I reckon it’s due to the key ingredients being the dish itself, and ones that cannot be substituted. We can’t get water spinach,fairy mushrooms,fresh bamboo shoots in uk, so we cannot make the little dishes I haven’t here. Thai food is more about the flavours and the meat or vegetables can be substituted for what is available. Kaffir lime, galangal, lemon gras, even holy basil can be o trained in uk,so making the base of a curry is simple. The difference would be that the uk curry doesn’t contain pea aubergine, wing beans etc. the food is nice, interesting. My lychee smoothie also refreshing.

While I eat the staff are all engrossed with YouTube or whatever. The thai boy who works there is wearing as amusing galaxy mini t- shirt and is some kind of expert on mobiles. A local guy arriveson a motorbike to ask for some help.

After eating Sunni comes and sits and we chat. Her family are Burmese and own the business. That is she, her sister, her grandmother, her brother.her you gets broth is the guy from Brian’s class who asked me if I was short or long…. She is 32, though looks around 20.theother girl in orange is actually her niece! She tells me what is coming quite a common story of leaving Myanmar and leaving behind some family and friends. The problems of keeping in touch, with telephones and Internet not being so widely available I’m Burma, calls costing a lot too. Se has a sister now in Australia, married to him, and she has been there, but now she no longer has the one year passport, that costs and is not free to travel outside of the Mae sot region. She asks me about other Asian countries, I trellis her about the ethnic differences in Malaysia and the way Singapore is setting itself apart from Asia. By chance tiziano’ s next chapter is also about this….

I go for my habitual night time saunter by bike.its Friday but town is shutting down. People now replaced by marauding packs of dogs, giving no heed to. Traffic, chasing cyclists.

School and sauna

Today I went to peter’s school, which I would never have found had Kaye, 27, a volunteer administrator not taken me there. Amidst the back streets behind the hospital, in a poor Burmese area on the due of town. The school is a concrete building with 3 teaching rooms, a library of very soiled second hand or hand me down books, each room giving onto the next, no doors. To the rear is a long area that serves as a kitchen, and where lined up are small plates of fish in sauce, the students’ lunch. On entering the building I find myself in a class, and also there is a long table which seems to serve as an admin desk. His is where Kaye works. Peters class numbers 16 and the students are an even mix of 17- 21 year olds. The boys mostly wearing longyis. They converse amongst themselves in English. Peter is rather paternal in manner and the students are called in turn to stand and address the class. They seem confident, expressive and imaginative, and are not fazed by my initial presence. Brian is another post 60 year old Ozzie and has a lower level class. He is doing a rather clumsy and pointless exercise in following instructions. A drawing dictation which doesn’t really go anywhere. I place my finished cup of tea on a flappy table chair top and it slides of crashing and smashing on the floor. How embarrassing, but nobody is perturbed. Peters lesson is about creative story writing, involves drama, characterisation etc. he doesn’t frame it very well, and the students that I talked to wre not entirely sure what it entailed. They act these out hen he gives them a similar task for homework. There are no language aims, but the fun element is there and the students seem quite content. I spend some time with Brian’s class and never have I sweated so much in a lesson, my salmon shirt is dark with perspiration.They are invitee ro ask me questions. you would expect them to ask the standard ones like : are you married? whats ypur name? but the first one was from a little boy with short hair, white shirt and purple longyi whi asks me “are you sort or long? ” he is talking about height…! what a strange opening gambit…anyway i explain that or a european im not veryfall. i ask him how tall he is and he replies “5 inches”! i ask him to to stand up. obviously he means 5 feet. interesting how the burmese use feet and inches.I discuss with them where I’m from. Their world geography is unsurprisingly minuscule. They know I’m a native speaker but they are guessing I’m from Spain. They think paris is a country in the uk etc…..


After break I talk at length with Kaye and learn about his life here. He is studying psychology at university, but finds it tough going. Critical thinking is a challenge, so too are very new and difficult concepts. He has been here for 7 years as a refugee. Most refugees have I’d cards issued by he Thai authorities and are restricted to the Mae sot area. There are immigration road blocks. In fact I encountered one on the way in. He is able to travel all of Thailand if he wishes. He tells me more about the cage, where he was once locked up, for not having his papers with him. There is no food provided there. He bailed himself out with 6000 baht. Twice a week the detainees are transported by boat back to Burma, and many of them just keep coming back. It’s like a yo yo. I learn from him about the Chinese food aid. This happens once a year. A few years ago it was so hectic that a baby died in the crush. There is also a yearly Muslim aid hand out too. I hear about the occasional antagonisms between local and Burmese workers and sporadic killings off migrant workers and hushed up burials. I tell him about my experiences in Burma and he acknowledges the inequality of the society, the self- interested power borking, the useless and corrupt police.

Brian’s second class is about business and trade. He models a transaction and introduces vocabulary in the context of trading mangoes for chickens. Interesting that when role playing the kids do not have much desire to make profits…..

At lunchtime the classroom is cleared out and 2 tables positioned for the 3 teachers, Kaye and myself. There are 3 simple dishes and rice prepared for the staff by the administrators and a student. We sit and eat,the students mill around the other rooms and eat their fish.

After lunch I circulate with my bags of longans and mangosteens, and sit with a group of boys and chat about English football. They ask my views on Alex ferguson, and why Liverpool and man utd hate each other. I get a a group photo then begin to show them pics of Brighton, not conscious that I’m cutting into their next lesson!

I make a gracious farewell and depart, getting lost on the way. It was nice being in a school where nobody is feeling under pressure to learn, where the mood is so relaxed, where the students are so open and smiley. I’m not sure about the methodology nor the language content. It’s all how I imagined an expat volunteer school to be. But, these students are producing English, are motivated and its a nice environment.

Cycling back I come across the end of Friday prayers at the mosque. Many cultures here, many religions! I’m now going to get out of my sweat soaked clothes, relax, then probably hit the sauna again.

On the way to the sauna I buy another half kilo of longans. The stall holder mimes to me how to eat them…as if I don’t know already! I’m an experienced longan eater now!

There are already 2 guys in the sauna. One has many boils or similar all over his back. The other talks to me through the fog. He is a police officer with Chinese blood. He has two grown up kids,his wife has a banana stall. He asks me if I’m married. I hate that question actually. It’s expected of me robe married at my age….anyway he says see you tomorrow as he leaves. Soon after the big guy who I saw last time arrives. The one who rocked around flapping his arms. He speaks quite good English. He is Karen, has been in Thailand 45 years and doesn’t want to go back.he has a Thai wife and 2 kids. He Gets changed into his coloured sarong again and begins once more the same pacing, flapping routine. Although he has put some money in the box, I don’t think he goes in the sauna.

After 5 or 6 ins and outs from the steam room, I’m done, I take some photos and wander the temple grounds. Back to base, where the mosquitoes are active this evening.

Rainy morning

The heavy rain crashing down on the corrugated roof wakes me. I think this hasscupperedmy planned trip to the Burma frontier today. Regardless I think it would be interesting to see how mae sot carries on in the deluge.many roads are once. Again reduced to almost streams. That need fording. Strangely cycling is a better option than walking. Your feet stay dry. Life goes on, just less to-ing and fro-ing and more bright capes and brollies. I’m at the brilliantly named vegetable restaurant, which is rather jolly and lively and also quite popular. A whole team of contented workers cutting, mixing, stirring, assembling. Adjacent is a wok stall under a. Briht red and green umbrella selling corn fritters and fried banana. Ihave palate of rice and 2 half dishes, one with green beans and tofu, the other greens and tofu. It costs a meagre 25 baht.

Not sure of today’s plan..but actually it doesn’t matter much. If the rain eases off, then Burma is an option.

Last night I had a tranquil cycle around the back streets of the town, yet still ended up by the Chinese temple. On the outdoor theatre stage some historical opera/ play was being acting out. Formal rigid backdrops, heavily painted men in silk with shrieking voices both in song and speech, that overdubs to a live performance were most disruptive. All this accompanied by gongs and shrinks and percussion, so complex that it seemed to have no rhythm or pattern. The audience amounted o no more than 10 bemused Thais. Incomprehensible to them probably. It certainly was to me and brought on a headache!

I’ve changed my mind..I’m going to cycle to Burma…


Slow day, herbal sauna

Lunch was at the vegetarian Chinese place I saw last night. Only Thai menu, but with pictures,and I understood enough from those plus the owners speech to grasp that he recommended laab, and that it would be good with rice. An iced herbal tea arrived and then the laab, tie and a refreshing soup flavoured with lemon grass. Laab is basically a warm salad with a predominance of mint leaves, this one also with sweet basil,and spiced crispy cubes of possibly tofu,maybe gluten, accompanied with raw vegetables: green beans and Chinese cabbage leaves. It came with tasty chewy red rice. It was very good…aroy aroy.

I spend some more time in the peace of the garden at he guesthouse reading, dozing, then chatting with peter as he returns from work.

Later in the afternoon I head for wat mani for the herbal sauna. It’s not apparent where it is, yet obvious when the monk points it out. It’s a shack roofed with corrugated iron in the corner of the temple compound. There is a low wall surrounding it with space to stretch etc, I guess. Some rudimentary wooden exercise benches with roughly hewn metal weights on bars…and an inclined sit up bench. Gym equipment! On the left is a counter and behind it a large man in his forties wearing a sarong swaying from one foot to the pt hand swinging and stretching his arms. I think he works here. Maybe a masseur. In the centre is a table with a donations box. 20 baht! And a water cooler. Around the edges of the space are stone benches, the floor is concrete and covered with sand and grit. The sauna itself is at the back of this space. It is a green coloured little house with 2 doorways coved by tatty curtains. The right hand one is red and I learn it I’ve men’s entrance. The lefty and for women, and this has a kind of antechamber, probably for changing. There is no changing room. You come prepared. Past the little sauna house on the right is a metal drum with a scoop and cold water. The furnace is behind the house. It’s burning freshly chopped wood, which is prepared by 2 dark skinned guys. One in Welles. I actually see him rinsing our the in nerds of these. Music is broadcast through the tinny speaker of a mobile phone balanced on the donation box. On the whole the experience is a serious and solemn one. There are more men than women coming and going. All are around my age and with some fatty deposits.one guy nets wearing a vest, the others in shorts. A one point a monk joins us removing the top part of the garments they where. The sauna room is small. 2 benched facing one another, large enough for 8 people, though the max I experienced in any one go was 5 of us. That was full enough. The walls are tiled and the ceiling is just about high enough for me to stand. The flappy now sodden curtain is a poor door and on each entrance and exit it needs to be red draped, it’s weight and moistness allowing it to be stuck to the sides of the doorway. It’s hot, of course. I’m wringing wet with a minute. It feels great, and the herbs are powerful, the one I pick out most clearly is lemon grass. I come and go five times, each time feeling ennervated and refreshed. It’s also hot outside, but strangely cooling..it’s still 28 or so degrees. It means my sweat and damp shorts dry quickly and my body cools down from the 40 degrees of the sauna. As I’m preparing to leave,ore people arrive. Locals, I guess, a lot of chit chat. Sme small kids run through. One takes a drink of water, another plays withhe curtain and is not quite sure whether to go in or not.

When I do leave its rush hour. I see kids boarding sawntaewns. I must have seen both ends of their day.this morning I watched some squashed, both standing and sitting, and over spilling onto the step, like cattle in a truck. It looked really uncomfortable. I wander he market on my bike and buy some more mangosteen. I’m eating a kilo of fruit a day. Love it.

Mae sot, teaching and prison

I’m going to hang around here for a few days more. It’s easy going,hassle free, cheap, stimulating, slow. But today I must stay put of the sun. I went for a breakfast. Time cycle around the town..it’s very small, and the breaking sun felt hot on my covered but singed shoulders.

I spent last night at the guesthouse over beer chat.ing with a fellow encumbrance, peter, 65, Australian, working as a teacher for 3 month on and off stretches at a school for Burmese. I learn a lot from him, and it’s quite inspiring to hear of kids (he teaches 17-19 year olds) who have real desire to learn and achieve and make something of their lives. It’s an interesting contrast with the students I work with, many of whom don’t recognise the fabulous opportunity their parents’ money has bought them, nor havethedriveor the realisation that an education can change their lives. Petter’s students are refugees, some using false names, some experiencing harrowing pasts. He told me of one boy, who he described as the happiest person he has met, a previous slave worker. This boy’s work was acting as a human shield for troops crossing potentially mined land.

His school scrapes by. The staff are volunteers, getting in recompense a lunch and a bicycle. They are undermanned, and resources are ones they cobble together through material donations back home, Catholic Church money and pillaging the Internet. I can see how rewarding the work is from peter’s immense pride in spite of he superhuman efforts he must put in. As he says,he is exhausted and will be going back to Australia for downtime to walk and swim. He lives in what he describes as a beautiful and natural environment.

Beyond here, I learn he is a very determined and focused person. He tells me of his walking of the camino. De Santiago de compostella. 34 days walking….physical, mental and spiritual battles, and days of crying. This is a walk that you do alone. Nobody else can walk your pace. His is a walk on which you learn about yourself. He tells me of his waking dreams and the. Battles through the near constant rain.once again, I sense him filling with pride as he tells me of this accomplishment.

I learn more about where I am through him too. The floods of several weeks ago forced him to relocate to this guesthouse.his former one being swamped with 40 cm of water, destroying clothes, the fridge floating away….

He tells me more about the precarious sitaution most of the refugees experience. The police spot check for pork permits, identity documents etc. those unfortunate to be caught out are stored in a place he ominously describes as “the cage” , near the abandoned project that is/was robe the new police station. My breakfast cycle takes in this place. And it is an apt name. Through an open gateway, so plainly visible to anyone passing, you can see a 2 storey wooden house. The ground floor is in fact the cage. Behind the bars I can see dozens of. Men and women, maybe even children. I didn’t have enough time to scrutinise, as, unsurprisingly, a coupled of immigration officials waved me, not aggressively, away. I don’t think they liked my camera. The conditions look pretty disgusting. How long they are kept there, I don’t know. As I pass by again I see a police prison truck back into the yard, the cage unlocked and a number of brightly dressed women shaparoned into he back. Evidently to be repatriated to Burma, where their fate Is probably not a promising one. Arrest, prison..or worse. I can only watch.

Breakfast is a bag of Burmese style pakora. 2 types. The most interesting contains pungent lime leaves. My bagful are freshly cooked on the road and cost 10 baht.

My local shop, Mae sot

The shopkeeper is hidden behind the fridge. Each time I have been there I have startled him. Last night he was watching bullfighting on tv. This time he was watching sport again but swinging dumbbells doing arm curls. We have a quick lesson in Thai and English numbers. Further down my road I get excited as a spot a restaurant labelled vegetarian. That’s a priority port of call tomorrow for sure. On the same road are some fancy looking resorts, an Italian pizza restaurant, and of all things a golf driving range, floodlit. Kind of puts what I’ve seen today into some harsh perspective.