First, some photo links:
Mae Sot and its environs:
Second, let me clarify some things.
I have told some people that I am teaching in a refugee camp. This is
not exactly true. I am volunteer teaching for a few weeks with an
organization that provides educational services to "Burmese migrants,"
some of whom are refugees and at this time none live in a refugee
camp. I've started teaching, for instance, but have not yet seen any
of the refugee camps. (I had thought I would be teaching in a refugee camp.)
As most know, the gov't of Burma (Myanmar) is among
the worst in the world and the country is both under terrible tyranny
According to the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand (p. 413) there are
approx. 2,000,000 (two million) Burmese "migrants" who have fled Burma
(Myanmar) for Thailand and many, many others who have fled into
Malaysia, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere that a Burmese can flee to.
(they recommend www.burmanet.org and www.irrawaddy.org for more info. I
have not checked these sources though. No time now.)
Of these (using the same source) about 120,000 are registered refugees
in 13 camps. There are other unregistered refugees who live in camps
The Thai gov't does not classify people as refugees unless they are
fleeing political violence (this is a very difficult distinction to
make in practice however. I most certainly do not believe every
Burmese who has told the US gov't that he is fleeing after his role in
the 1998 protests was actually involved in them.) Many choose to live
outside the camps. These folks are generally politically marginal at
best, illegal or semi-legal in most cases (it's very complicated) and
often take jobs that others do not want at sub-Thai minimum wage with
little opportunity to complain if mistreated. They are often
It seems it is the people of the last category I am teaching at the moment.
The result is the region is something like an Asian version of a south
Texas border town full of illegals save that that "questionables" all
have thanakha smeared on their cheeks and noses.
If I do not see a refugee camp before I leave I will be disappointed
but it is quite possible that I will not have the opportunity to do
Thirdly, Burma is a multi-ethnic country with many minorities who are
quick to point out that they are not Burmese. The Karen are one of
these. They live in the eastern part of Burma and nearby parts of
Thailand (where they are considered one of Thailand's six "hill
tribes.") The Karen have been fighting the Burmese since independence
from England (1948, their independence date from Britain, not ours).
I stay in a building full of Karen with some Burmese. I teach at a
school that is full of Burmese but no Karen. The Karen speak primarily
(Sqaw dialect of) Karen and study Karen, Burmese, Thai and English in
school. Most eventually speak three or four languages. The Burmese
learn Thai, Burmese and English in school..
Many Karen are Christian and the school I live at is Christian. The
Burmese school is run by a Buddhist monk though. They say his toughest
task is to acquire five or six large bags of rice each month to give
the kids lunch.
The kids all seem surprisingly healthy and happy so far.
Many at the boarding house are orphans.
But as for me, weather is cool, cooler than both Shanghai and New York
right now. It rains a lot. Today I'm in Mae Sot downtown. Northern
Thailand is the first place in Asia I've been that does not seem
overpopulated so things are spread out. There's lots of rice patties
but also many, many cornfields and empty fields.
I sleep on a bed in a spare room that is half full of storage. Privacy
is minimal and I'm woken up during the night a couple times by
chickens, ducks and a strange wild lizard that sounds like a bicycle
horn. (Or so people tell me. I've never seen the lizard actually.) But
it's free. (I budgeted about 15-20$ plus airplane for this trip and am
way ahead as I spent zero money on Thursday or Friday.)
For breakfast and supper I eat Karen food and for lunch I eat Burmese
food although honestly they seem so far basically the same to me. I
must, I guess, refine my palate.
A Karen or Burmese meal is mostly rice. I'd estimate 80% rice by
volume. By contrast a Chinese or Taiwanese meal is around 20-25% rice
by volume. Meat, vegetables, sauces and strongly-flavored pastes are
used to flavor and stretch the rice and leave you with a satisfied
palate. For instance, a smidgeon of very spicy or very salty tomato
paste or fish paste can leave you feeling full and satisfied much
faster than bland food.
Vegetables are often strange (by USA-ian standards) and include bamboo
shoots, scallions, pieces of banana sprouts and things I can't
identify that probably serve to add bulk and fiber to the food.
Meat is eaten, like vegetables in very small portions, One will note a
series of photos of some frogs. Now, assuming one eats frogs, an
American would normally eat half a frog (of this size) minimum,
perhaps a full frog, for a meal portion. Here, instead, one eats about
half a leg only and thus these frogs will last several people for
about four or more meals.
But I feel full and healthy. (I also started eating stress vitamins
daily in China and continue.)
I like everything I've tried except for one dish that was made with
sour fish (fish left to rot for a few days before preparation.) I
quietly did not eat it --and since I only had a spoonfull or so on my
plate, another advantage of small portions was revealed.
One thing I have never gotten used to about the Burmese and karen
though is that they eat with their fingers, not forks or chopsticks or
anything, and wash their hands carefully before and after each meal.
(Obviously I've enjoyed my time, overall, with Karen and Burmese
people or I would not be here, but it still seems strange.)
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