How Unexpected Turmoil Became Ordinary Bumps on the Road: Ban Nai Soi Refugee Camp

It’s my third time in the camp, and true to the saying, third time really is the charm. Either the weather or the road or the conditions have improved or I have grown a thicker skin. I no longer feel as if my heart is breaking with every conversation I initiate or with every question of mine that’s answered. I no longer wince at the wobbly road or the slippery river – even as it was covered in pig’s blood this afternoon. I remained calm. Pensive – clearly lost in thought and tired from camp politics and introspective analysis – but calm and without the heavy feeling that my heart will implode at any moment.

It was that heavy feeling that drove me away the second time. That caused me to leave before the festivities and the excitement of Karenni National Day had even began. That alerted the introvert in me to arrange a motorbike back to Dokita, and closed the door to the world.

It was a bad experience. A truly heavy experience. It was filled with anger that my students had to live through these conditions and have very little in the way of freedoms (Sen 1999) and self determination – all because of the circumstance of their birth and the racist politics that dictates our world. It was also one of anxiety and of fear as I again entered without the guarantee of safety. It was also not just me who was alert, cautious, and afraid. My students were in the same boat, concerned that the men in ‘Thai BNP Security’ shirts would ask me a question for which I have no reply to in Karenni or Thai. They were afraid that I would be found out. That they too would be found out as my accomplice. Their protective cloak – made out of fear and anxiety – smothered and suffocated the strength in me. Every murmur of “Teacher, don’t speak. Thai Authorities”, stabbed at my bravery. And so I ran. I ran out of camp, through the low laying security bar, through the muddied, slippery path, and through the narrow swerving mountain road to arrive back in the safe confines of Dokita.

Now, my third time back, brought in by a man that I barely know but who possess the kind of eyes that demands of trust, my nerves have been calmed. He glided over the mountain road and slippery clay path with confidence on his motorbike. He entered through the gates with his eyes looking straight ahead. And he drove through camp without the hint of uncertainty, turning what was before unexpected turmoil into ordinary bumps.

So this time, I entered more relaxed and less battered, ready to experience what I ran away from before. And although the photos and descriptions below is an escapist ending from verbally conveying the complex realities and politics that runs ‘camp life’ – It is all I can muster after a 48 hour immersion into camp/Thai/Karenni/Burmese politics.

Camp Ban Nai Soi 2

Making betel nut – the popular, carcinogenic combination of an areca nut and tobacco that many in camp chew.

Camp Nai Soi6

Turning Karenni – Karenni clothing and jewelry are meticulously placed on my body in a 2-hour dressing ritual

Camp Nai Soi2

A Karenni grandmother walking through camp with her grandchildren. The carrying sash over her shoulder is made by hand, by the women in camp

Camp Ban Nai Soi 1

My student’s grandmother dressed up in traditional dress. When I asked my student why she doesn’t dress in the same manner as her grandmother, she replied “Fashion changes, tradition changes. We have choice now”.

Camp Nai Soi1

A stunted tree – The camp is situated in the break of the forest. To prevent trees from falling into homes, they are cut short. Some regrow into stunted tree-bush


‘Temporary settlement’ means only building with bamboo, regardless if you have lived here for 20-30 years.


Refugee Camp 1 - Ban Nai Soi3

View of a small section of camp from the hill. Ban Nai Soi Camp 1 has nearly 20 sections, each with its own identities and local administrators

Camp Nai Soi4

A woman sells her pickings from the forest to a local shop in camp

Camp Nai Soi5

The many pieces of clothing and jewelry that make up Karenni dress

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