Set amid enchanting mountain scenery, Mae Sot has the distinction of being
the centre of Thailandís flirtation with Burma, and vice versa. Only seven
kilometers from the Moei River which separates Burma from Thailand, this
city is a multicultural melting pot, best exemplified at the bustling day
market, where a wide variety of ethnic foods are sold by vendors dressed in
all manner of clothing and speaking several different languages. The Moei
River takes an another role as a smuggling route between the two countries.
Just as dusk is approaching, the would-be smugglers are seen dashing across
the shallow river with their load of Burmese craft, jewels, and other
commodities. The friendship bridge, straddling the two countries, sits
almost empty, like a monument to uncertainty, with only a handful of locals
making the crossing. Back in town, jewellers from around the world descend
upon the gem shops with their emeralds, rubies, jade and other precious
stones and deals are made. Tourists mull around the few craft shops where
Thai cloth, wooden Buddhas with inlaid stone, Burmese teak furniture, and
elegant wall hangings, again of inlaid colour stone, usually of an elephant
motif, are sold. One of the busiest spots in town is the bus station, a
gathering of farangs or foreigners heading to Bangkok or north to Mae Hong
Son, or of Burmese refugees heading away from the border area to find work.
Mae Sot is also a jumping off place to Um Phang, further south, a jungle
paradise along the border.

Mae Sot is also an area in deep trouble. Close to Burma, it is a beehive of
international intrigue. The oppressive military government of Burma makes
frequent raids into the refugee camps which stretch for hundreds of
kilometres along the border. In February, 1997, Burmese troops crossed the
border into Thailand and burned down several refugee camps. One night I was
there, in the near-by camp of Huay Kaloke, a rumour of such an impending
attack spread like wildfire. The whole population of 7,000 slept in the
rice fields behind the camp.

Number Four Guest House was my headquarters. A not-too-imposing all-teak
structure, with dorms and rooms (I chose the dorm), with squat toilets, and
a small common room, No. 4 is actually the international hub of the city.
This hostel on Intirakiri Road has been visited by hundreds of  backpackers
for many years. Itís not hard to be drawn back to the place with its
amiable owner, friendly staff, and the prices canít be beat. A Danish
tourist operator uses No. 4 as a base for treks to the Um Phang region.
Foreign volunteer teachers in the refugee camps congregate here frequently
as they discuss their experiences and recruit more backpackers to join
their ranks as teachers. When I was there, Seth, from Rhode Island, Ronny
from Israel, and Rebecca, from Australia convinced each other that teaching
in the camps was a good thing to do.

I found myself climbing a hill close to Mae Sot town. Perched at the top of
the hill was a statue of Buddha, the sure indication that a temple was also
at the top. Like the mediaeval church-towns in central Italy, where atop
each mountain is a monastery or church, so too are the various hills of
Thailand crowned by a Buddhist temple. Invited to swim at a lake at the
base of the hill by some of my missionary friends, I couldnít resist being
drawn along the narrow dusty path as it wound its way upward. My swim could
wait, I thought and left my friends to enjoy their cool dip in the dam-made
lake. The air was somewhat cool and fresh, and as I rounded the final curve
of the path, I was drawn to a virtual Eden of bourganvillas and hibiscus
tended by the monks that lived in a temple adjacent to the Buddhist statue.
A much larger Buddha was being constructed next to the old. In awe, I sat
on the edge of the precipice as the glowing sun slowly set somewhere over
the distant bluish-grey mountains of Burma, the clouds mystically
transforming themselves into a smoky montage of  reds, orange, yellows and
blues. The golden hues of the Buddha statue gradually diminished as the sun
disappeared. The lake far below was beginning to disappear as darkness
swept the countryside. Come, have some coffee, a voice said in broken
English. A young boy, dressed in the brilliant orange robes of a monk
beckoned me to the house of the monks. And some supper with us? I
gratefully declined, but he pressed on, joined now by two older, possibly
full-time monks, stay for the night? A brief discussion followed; no, I
must go back, but thank you. They asked me to pay homage to the Lord
Buddha; hands clasped together they taught me, three prostrations to the


the metal image looking down at me. A third noviciate prompted me to do the
same to the two older monks and the boy-monk as well. It was a strange
feeling, and I felt somewhat hypocritical, having espoused Christianity and
my Lord Jesus. But what struck me was the incredible outpouring of
hospitality and grace, and that in sense we all worship the same Creator,
and desire the same Peace for mankind. The glow of the sunset acclaimed the
two cultures and two religions coming together in the name of brotherly

As I left, I felt warm all over. The quiet walk down the path in the
stillness of the coming night to my waiting hosts below was a time of
spiritual reawakening. In spite of all this, I had an ominous feeling that
all was not well down below.

For over forty years, the Karens in Burma have been waging a guerrilla war
against their  military government basically for an autonomous Karen state.
Since the 1988-9 riots throughout Burma, many pro-democracy freedom
fighters have joined the Karen forces (and other ethnic groups) in their
fight against the oppressive military regime. In 1994, a Buddhist faction
of the Karen National Union, (KNU) the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army,
(DKBA), broke away and joined forces with Burmese troops to overrun the
land base of the KNU in the Moei River area and thousands of Karen
civilians sought refuge in Thailand, joining the tens of thousands already
in camps there. As more persecution takes place in Karen Burma, more
refugees cross the border. The Thai government, as may be expected, has
been terribly concerned about these displaced people being on their soil
and apprehensive at the military might of its neighbour. Raids on the
refugee camps by Burmese forces and the DKBA havenít helped matters. About
a year ago, Huay Kaloke camp was torched to the ground leaving thousands
homeless. Rebuilt soon afterwards amid fears that is was located in a
vulnerable position, the camp has always been under the threat of being
attacked again. 

Huay Kaloke didnít look like much in the oppressive heat, and the wind
squalls that blew the dust through the bamboo slats in peopleís homes. At a
distance, it looked like a village for midgets. The land in the dry season
matched the appearance of the bamboo homes, sandy and grey. The intense
heat was only relieved by the breezes which swirled around each home, and
kicked up a dust cloud wherever they went. There were small stores, several
churches, a Buddhist temple, a mosque and a clinic. In spite of the
uninspiring look of the place, it was home to seven thousand refugees
trying to hold their dignity in check.  I met seventeen-year-old Running,
and his mother, Paw Ray Htoo. They have hopes of going to Canada since they
were sponsored as refugees under Canadaís resettlement programme.

I think of them often. Three weeks ago just a week after I left Thailand,
the mortar attacks from across the border sent the camp residents fleeing
to the rice fields once again; the DKBA troops burned down the camp. I am
trying to imagine what Running and his mother might be feeling. Yesterday
we had so little...a bamboo shack with a roof made of leaves to keep the
sun off, a few items of clothing, a couple of buckets to carry water and a
pole to carry them. Two blankets, two pairs of slippers for each of us to
keep our feet safe and a guitar that allowed us temporary escape. A few
baht for emergencies or to bribe the Thai police, we did not have much. Now
we have nothing. We are not citizens of Thailand, and the Burmese forced us
and our family to leave our village. The rest will join us soon if they can
cross the Moei River safely. We were forced to live like animals in the
jungles. If they donít force us to move, then they force us to work
alongside criminals doing manual labour. We cannot refuse or we will be
imprisoned, tortured or killed. We have little here but its better than
what we had in Burma. We are not called refugees, because Thailand doesnít
recognise displaced people from Burma as refugees; we are simply illegals.
Now we will have no food; we have no water to drink because it will make us
sick without boiling it and now our family has no gas. Our pots and pans
are useless. We have no shelter from the oppressive sun or winds driving
the sandy dust all afternoon. We have no blankets at night when it gets


It was my new-found friend Seth, that e-mailed me from Mae Sot. He
described the scene. I was just laying down to sleep, around l2:30 am when
I heard a woman across the driveway saying something 
about the camp burning and that the sky was red. She said she was going
there in a few minutes. I went down and my friend Tim had an extra space on
his motorbike. He said he was going too. I only had a 
T-shirt shirt and I was shivering on the back of the bike the ride was so
cold. Smoke reached high into the sky and was glowing red illuminated by
the flames. We had heard shell blasts. As we got closer to the camp, the
Thai people were out of their houses standing in the street and on top of
cars to get a better look. Everyone was awake. The sound of the bamboo
exploding from the heat continued unceasingly. At one point we heard
automatic fire. We saw Stephen, the camp leader and stopped. Earlier that
day, after lunch, we were sitting in his house while he showed us pictures
of last yearís fire. Sunshine and Kuler were there too- they taught me how
to play chess.. Now here they were, dressed only in shirts and longees.
They had lost nearly everything. I was feeling emotionally very strange.

The Buddhist temple in the camp was spared, and some, including Stephen and
his family were huddled there. Seth asked him what he would do. Not to
worry, Seth, God will provide. These were not happy people but they were
not bathed in self-pity, Seth thought, admiring that quality in them. When
Seth had been talking to Stephen, Tim, the chap who drove Seth to the camp
left. Stephen asked Seth how he would get home, God would provide, came the
answer, and as Seth later commented: He did, because some Thai people
picked me up ten minutes later and drove me all the way home.

I decided to rent a bicycle at the No. 4 guest house for my final day in
Mae Sot. As I cycled along the highway toward the Burmese border, I felt
somewhat like Leonardo Di Caprio, who with arms outstretched standing on
the brow of the speeding ship Titanic felt the cool breezes flapping at his
shirt, and weaving through his hair. The fields were still lifeless in the
dryness of the season, and the vast flat expanse of the Thai countryside
allowed the winds to blow unimpeded across the road. I felt like a careless
sparrow. But I was unaware of the impending disaster that would befall the
refugees, and for that matter the people of Mae Sot. I passed Dr. Cynthiaís
clinic, the mother Theresa of the Karens. Cynthiaís a quiet dignified lady,
around 45, who has spent these past few years caring for her people on Thai

One of the doctors, Kate, emailed me after I had been home for three weeks:
Last night the Thai police came to the clinic and warned of an impending
attack. They are now coming every day. It would be unlikely that the DKBA
would come as they would have to get through a lot of Thai border police
and the military base. The effect though is significant as the medics have
had very little sleep and are a little anxious. At about 22:30 the shelling
started. We at first thought it was aimed at Huay Kaloke but it was right
on the other side between the KNU and the DKBA. We have yet to hear reports
about this. The shelling could easily be heard from our houses.

On my last night in Mae Sot, someone left me a video. Three gentlemen,
Miles, Brian and Ceri, decided to form Borderline Video to document the
human rights abuses both in Burma and in the refugee camps in Thailand, and
so I watched as the story unfolded. Twenty or so people were travelling
through the woods when the Burmese army came upon them and killed them all,
except one woman who had a baby. The commanding officer had left, the
second in command took pity. The video showed the dead decomposed bodies at
this massacre, mostly skeletons with clothes on by this point. I remember
Sethís comment after watching the video: It really puts things in
perspective when I think I have it bad.

As I left the next morning for Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I felt I was leaving
Mae Sot behind. But the ominous drama continues for that little town and
its refugee neighbours and the memories follow me even to Canada. I can
only be comforted by the words of Stephen, the camp leader, Not to worry,
God will provide.

Lloyd Jones