Tag Archives: refugees

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.

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.

Mae sot food project part 2

I really did get my shoulders and neck sunburnt, so I return to my guesthouse to recuperate.

I’m very keen toget back to the food project to witness what happens when the food finally is given out. As I cycle back into town I sense that they have started the distribution as I notice women in colourful dresses and small kids carrying the white sack that were stacked on the platform at the temple. The atmosphere back there has increased from hot patience to excitement, relief and joy. Groups of women, men and kids are clustered round their sacks, or are fixing them onto bikes, or balancing them on their heads and teetering home.i can sense their happiness. Their wait is over. But some are still waiting and thrusting their yellow and red tickets at the guards at the gates around the food platform. There is some marshalling system going on, people being called forward to enter on the left skirt down the side of the platform, around the front and up the right hand side where they hand over their ticket and receive with joy their sack, and exit back onto the road on he right hand side. A this gate their family are waiting anxiously. There is also a group of less fortunates without tickets, sitting in a square, rather squatting, and being carefully watched. They are hoping they will be offered the left over sacks. There is a woman calling people forward over a tangly, the Chinese dancers/ actors have removed their face paint and are watching through a grill. A of duty ain’td worker is sitting in a big hall in the door of his tent eating a bowl of rice. The aid workers are still very cautious to avoid a riot, which happened a few years ago, the marshals look tired. The lucky Burmese are so happy. A be-helmeted traffic cop with sunglasses and a whistle marshals the traffic in front of Canada bar to let the hoarders cross and head home.. I wonder what they will have for dinner….


For dinner I go to ban fern and have a taro basket filled with stir fried tofu and cashews. I wasn’t quite sure how to eat it. It was quite sticky, maybe too much soy sauce. The accompanying pineapple- mint shake was heaven.


I hope my sleep will be better than last night. I have changed rooms. Last night a whole raft of factors caused me an unhappy night. Ther room had an upper window which couldn’t be covered and that let in light from my neighbour. The outside terrace was full of people, mainly Germans, talking and even after closing the windows- which I didn’t want to do- I could still hear them. My neighbour then made a Skype call. Not lousy but the walls are thin…then. When all his had ended there was a low sub bass booming from across the yard. In the end I gave up trying to sleep and decided to get dressed and go for a walk. It was then 12. 30. The guesthouse was silent. I had to unlock the 2 external gates to get out. Around the corner is a place called smile bar. Unusual for Thailand…a bar full of teenagers playing pool and drinking. I walked up the road but nothing was open. A dog followed me, then barked, then the whole neighbourhood canine population began to join in and several more followed me. Better back in bed I thought.i probably got to sleep an hour later. my new room is at the rear, and has no extra window. Also the pillow is less like a bolster. Fingers crossed for a better slumber.


Mae sot refugee aid

It’s blistering hot. I’ve never felt such intense sun, so I’m now back on the corner by Canada bar. Opposite by the police station is the road with the Chinese humanitarian centre. Today is a special day. They a giving out sacks of food, and the street is awash with scruffy kids, mothers with new horns in their arms, men with broken teeth and betel nut stains, kids smoking cheroots, people now squatting wherever there is shade, including under the stage where the pink capped humanitarian workers are sitting on top of and guarding the sacks of food. They have a system for distribution, and it is guarded by guys in military uniforms. It involves a yellow laminated card with a red symbol on it. I gather it is gained by revolving around the stage and passing two checkpoints at which your hand is daubed with a different colour food dye, indigo then green. An overjoyed burman hugs me and shakes my hand, making me green too.


Opposite this stage is a Chinese temple and prayer hall a square with a gazebo in the middle and a stage on the other side. In the prayer hall a group of elderly Chinese monks, dressed in white sing prayers and carry out a ceremony. Inside the hall is a mountain of food bags which a shouldered out in line the crowd held back by an avenue of blue barrels, to the stage. The mountain there is growing, ready to be handed out. On the stage. Is a. Traditional Chinese play. Two large made up men, hooting and screeching. Sounds of Chinese percussion. The Burmese are hot, bemused, but. Patient.

On the other side of town the Thais are at school. In the street across the way the Muslims a being called to prayer. The Burmese temple is closed and full of sleepy dogs.

It’s 2 pm, and I can’t believe how much life I have seen already today.

Video to follow….

Mae sot

Im 5 km from the Burma border. A ride in 2 mini buses full of locals, up and down and round a windy mountain road. It’s misty and raining on the mountain top. Down the other side in the town it’s hot, sunny, the bus station is not full of the usual tuk tuk drivers and taxis and nobody is in the least bit interested in me, which is good and bad, as I am immediately lost and walk up and down in many wrong ways. Some schoolboys point me in the wrong way, probably not understanding what I want. Map reading in another language. Is impossible. Eventually a woman at an upmarket jade store helps me. I’m warned it is quite far,but actually it isn’t so far to locate the place in my guidebook. On a whim I decide to take a look at a neighbouring guest house.the room is big, airy, sturdy teak furniture and a bargain at 200 baht, plus renting a bike is 20. I. Take it, unwind, then cycle into town. The guesthouse is opposite a building site where manual labour is quite intense…I watched lines of young guys passing buckets of cement along a human chain. Later I saw them leaving the site getting paid cash in hand then boarding a pickup sponsored by man iunited’s Asian partner…


I searched for the Burmese restaurant I had read about but it had closed down. There are 2 main drags more or less parallel, I cycle up and down and criss- cross them too, looking for some vege food options. Nothing that seems open. Everything in Thai. There are brooding clouds over the school playing field where kids are gathered to watch some football game…the rain begins lightly then chucks it down for 15 minutes flooding some of the potholed roads. This is the province that experienced devastating flash floods only 1 month ago. . I try a new experience: cycling with an umbrella! I spend a while watching scooters and bikes laden with numerous passengers, holding umbrellas, shrouded in oversize brightly coloured ponchos. It all rapidly dries up, but obviously the bigger puddles are going to last a while


I look some more at the town, an begin to wander through the market. It’s not quite Thai. There are men. And women with white streaks of ash rubbed on their faces, apparently this is a Burmese habit. There are men in longyis, a kind of Burmese skirt type affair. It’s a scruffy town, there are poor looking people. A Burmese man hunched in the doorway smoking a cheroot, a dirty boy dropping a banana skin as he trudges the street. A man on a scooter in a pith helmet.women in head scarfs, Muslim. Chinese temples, Burmese temples; to be checked out later. A big police station which is prominent in the town centre, perhaps not surprising as this place is famed for smuggling of every kind. There is a one way system, and amazingly for a town that seems so wayward, everybody obeys it..unlike elsewhere I’ve been in Thailand. I do not, and feel very self conscious!

I ride round and round looking for the Canadian bar. God knows I must have passed it several times already. Once there I take a pavement seat and order a masaman curry and mango shake. The curry is not really the best I’ve had, the shake is great. This is a faring bar with low prices, and the guys here I think are all working for NGOs here.