Watching Myanmar

440km Chiang Mai to Mae Sot

Beautiful mountainsA few nights ago, we sat at a picnic table outside our riverside cabin in the small town of Mae Salit Luang, soothing our muscles after a gruelling day cycling up impossibly steep hills. It was a lot more pushing than cycling, actually. As the sunset colours came out over the surrounding mountain peaks, a family slowly made their way down the mud-coloured river in a long, wooden fishing boat. We were in Thailand. They were in Myanmar. Just a river separated us, with no guards or border posts in sight. Through a crack in the trees, on the other bank we could just make out their simple home: a hut on stilts with a roof of dried leaves.

We won’t be going to Myanmar this trip – not for lack of desire but to really see the country we’d have to fly there. Land border crossings don’t allow you beyond the first district. And, as always, time is running short. But for this evening and the next one that followed we had our own tiny window on the life on one family in Myanmar. We watched them fish, walk to their fields and work by the river’s edge collecting various reeds and plants. At night their hut fell silent, no lights and certainly no satellite dish. It was hard to tell if there was even a dirt track from their home to the main road, although there must have been some way for them to reach the rest of the country. Just across the river in Thailand it was a totally different world with shops, a few restaurants, two schools and a health centre.

The next day we had another view of the shape Myanmar is in, thanks to the useless, brutal and greedy regime running the country. A small part of the crowded hillsideMost of the countryside here in northwest Thailand is lightly populated. The villages tend to have just a handful of houses, thinly spread across the land. It’s almost the first time in Southeast Asia where we can easily cycle ten or 15 kilometers without seeing a shop or restaurant and sometimes not even a house. So it was a huge surprise to round a corner and be confronted with row upon row of thatched huts, crammed next to each other behind a barbed wire fence. Welcome to the Mae La Camp, where refugees from Myanmar have been living for more than two decades, waiting for a chance to go home or be allowed to integrate into Thai society. For now they can do neither and as time goes on the camp gets even more crowded. It’s the first time we’ve seen a refugee camp and this one shocked us in its size. We must have cycled at least 3km before we reached the end of it and always the houses were tightly packed, running down the valley and up the hill on the other side. On one peak within the camp stood a temple, on another a church.

Beautiful terracesWe reflected on our good fortune in life all the way to Mae Sot. How lucky we are to have the freedom to work and live as we like or to throw it all in and hop on a bike to see the world. This is truly a very special thing. We’ve seen so many people on our trip who don’t even come close to that amount of freedom. Every night lately, our radio brings us the next update on the credit crisis in America and Europe. Banks going bust. Governments failing to react. Stock markets up and down like a yo-yo. All that is of little consequence to the people in these camps, living in such close quarters that there’s no room to keep even a few chickens and for so long that their children have no idea what their homeland looks like. “My children don’t even know how to farm the land or what a rice plant looks like. We’ve never had the chance to teach them,” said one refugee from Myanmar in an article we read recently. For us, the gap between rich and poor, developing nations and undeveloped ones, countries with conflict and those with peace, has seemed particularly marked this week.

If you want to read more about the Mae La camp, CNN wrote about it recently. Click here to read more.


  1. Tim Bulkeley
    2nd October 2008 at 1:43 am #

    Thank you for a fine post, between the words and the pictures this one post marks out for me how much more you really see when cycling!

    The Mae La camp is nearly 2 miles (3 KM) along the road, but narrow less than 1/2 mile at its widest point. There are officially around 40,000 people there, with a large number of unofficial residents at present.

    People there are very much affected by the Western economic woes, even before the latest crisis it had cut their meagre food rations – if the seek work in Thailand they are laible to be deported to Burma…

Leave a comment