Novice Monks, Thai-Burma border

I take my place on a hard bench in the back of a pick-up truck with ten other people. It’s a squeeze but not uncomfortable. I am aiming for Nu Poe Camp which I’ve been advised is a day trip from Mae Sot. Again, I am not sure what I will find when I get there or if I will be able to enter the camp when I arrive. The possibility of getting to the camp and returning in one day slowly fades the longer the journey takes. Every five minutes the car stops and more people are jammed into the back. I think they are joking when a motorbike is placed down the middle and people squirt out the edges, hanging on to the back of the truck’s tray. Sitting on the roof with five other men doesn’t seem such a bad idea, until it begins to rain. The road winds and dips and a few children hurl. My buttocks are numb, the back of my shirt is wet from sweat and I’m concentrating on staying calm. The dread sets in. After six hours I am told to get out. I fall out of the truck onto a road with one building in sight. I am told I have to take another ride to Nu Poe. I ask the time of the last ride back to Mae Sot and they say I will have to wait until tomorrow. The shadows are starting to lengthen and I have to decide in a few seconds whether I take a risk and head to Nu Poe or play it safe and stay the night in the nearest town, Umphang. I jump onto the back of the truck headed to Nu Poe.

A man hanging on to the back of the truck next to me tells me that it’s another hour and a half to Nu Poe and there are no buses back. The thought of being stuck out at a camp that I may not even be able to get into concerns me but I have come too far. I hold on to positive thoughts. Then I realise I have left my passport in Mae Sot and I start to wonder how I will identify myself if I am arrested. Halfway there a fallen tree has blocked the road. No-one can pass. Trucks try to mark out a route in the paddy fields and get bogged down. A foreigner working for an NGO offers me a lift back to Umphang and it seems like I am being given multiple opportunities to turn around and that the further I go the more trouble I’m going to get myself into. Just as I am about to take the foreigner’s generous offer a group of monks offer me a lift to Nu Poe. I jump in their truck.

We drive straight through the security checks at the camp as religious “VIPs” and perform a monastery tour of the camp from the car. We drop off food and gifts to a number of monasteries and I watch monks play the game of ‘caneball’ in temple grounds. Nu Poe is a much smaller and poorer camp than Mae La. While Mae La struck me as a settled village, the little I saw of Nu Poe made me think of it as a temporary settlement. I didn’t see anywhere near the same amount of investment from INGOs that has benefited Mae La. Due to its isolated location it is off the mains electricity grid. The camp was established in 1997 and according to The Border Consortium statistics (December 2014) has a mainly Karen (81%) population of over 12,000 residents. In the eight years since resettlement began (2005-2013), 7,734 persons have been resettled from Nu Poe, mainly in the USA.

We drive out of Nu Poe that evening to one of the monks’ home towns on the Burmese border. By now I have no idea where we are exactly and I am worried that I don’t have a passport so close to the border. The monks tell me not to worry and that I don’t need a passport to cross the border at this point. Apparently the strict border policies of other regions are quite fluid here. We visit the home of one of the monks: a large wooden house that is filled with twenty to thirty family members of multiple generations. Men are drinking strong liquor out the back by a fire. An old topless woman with no top teeth shakes my hand with a black grin. I sit with two of the monks and family members come to pray to them, or at least that’s what it looks like. We are given biscuits and food and soft drink and everyone watches us eat.

I worry about where I will sleep that night but again the monks tell me to relax. They take me to a monastery and pitch a tent for me to sleep in. I am humbled by their generosity. I wash with cold water out of a bucket and watch the young novices recite their lessons in the wooden hall. The next day the monks see me off with a simple breakfast of pre-packaged sandwiches and a juice popper. Rather than suffer the torment of that awful ride again, I hitch a ride in the back of a ute all the way to Mae Sot.

Monks playing caneball, Nu Poe Camp, Thai-Burma Border
Buddhist Monk
Nu Poe Camp, Thai-Burma border
Buddha statue on Thai-Burma border

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