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

20150705_122223

‘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

Defined by Contrast: A Growing Understanding of Thai and Laos Culture

Although a contradiction to my years in anthropology, it is difficult to escape the saying that a thing can only be defined by another. You cannot for example, have the concept of wealth, of being rich, without understanding the concept of poverty, and of being poor.

This morning, as I sat waiting for my bus to leave, I thought of what little I knew about Thai culture. This afternoon, after having gone through the appropriate border formalities and arriving 4 hours ahead of my night bus’ scheduled departure to Luang Prabang, I found myself sitting in a café with five daisy dukes and sleeveless wearing females, flaunting their skin in comfort (whilst playing a game of cards). A few other older women sat at a nearby café, drinking beer and speaking much louder than their male counterparts. Their voices fill the otherwise quiet bus station stalls with lively, teasing, laughter.

Only after seeing this contrast am I able to understand people’s remarks of Thai culture and Thai people as being more conservative – conservative in their manner, with their voices, and often in their dress. As my face lights up with this realisation, I am beckoned over by one of the ladies. Their cards had been removed and plates of food now covered the table. “Come eat, come share”, she says with a big welcoming smile.

I think I like Laos.

Ushered On: How I Said Hello to Laos, My 50th Country

The sing-song voices of female attendants yelling out the destinations of their respective buses echoes around the bus terminal of Chiang Rai. Their whimsical voices adds to the rhythm of stomping feet, honking tuk tuks, and humming engines, placing me in a trance as I await the departure of my bus.

This is my fifth time coming back and forth to this station to take the odd bus to that odd destination. The women’s faces are familiar to me now. Their determination in filling their buses and the looked of content on their faces at having flagged down customers, has become more evident.

As I look around, I realise that there are a lot of women here. I begin to wonder if other bus stations in Thailand are as dominated by female attendants as this. “Did I neglect to notice this throughout my travels?”, I wondered to myself.

Continue reading

Culture as a Normalising Factor: Evolving Thoughts from the Jungle Life

It’s been five weeks now since I uprooted my life from cushy, comfortable, café-filled Sydney to the small compound of Dokita. As mentioned in an earlier post, Dokita offers little in terms of Western comforts, conveniences, and choice. Yet, with each day spent, comes a stronger sense of belonging and an even deeper realisation that Western material comforts are exactly that – comforts, not necessities for life nor for happiness. Even with this understanding I cannot escape the fact that I am Western-raised with hidden Western ideas of the kinds of thoughts, the kinds of words, and of the kinds of life that one should lead. When I become actively aware of the contradictions to these ideas, I find myself amused and intrigued by them.

Continue reading

Songkran: Cleansing Sins with Buckets of Water

It was Songkran the other week, the Thai festival of water to welcome the new year. Wild and conservative Thai’s alike put on their daisy dukes and spaghetti straps to party on the streets and throw water at passerby’s and motorcyclists – sometimes rather aggressively and without compassion. Most often though, people are respectful of your desire to stay dry and simply wet your hands and feet. The wetting and washing is meant to signify the washing away of sins from the past year. It is a festival of cleansing that allows one to start anew.

Continue reading

Dokhita – The Beginning

8am on a Friday morning, and I find myself sitting in front of a half finished cemented building in the small compound of ‘Dokhita’. With barely a few wooden huts and semi-finished office buildings, Dokhita is not a common place one would find themselves in. It’s uninhabited, rustic, overgrown, and surrounded by fields of garlic.

A series of events have brought me here, the most significant of which is my desire to jump start a career in development. Development however, is quite a touchy subject, and the deeper I delve into the topic, the more I am finding that it is not quite what I envisioned the field to be. Being young, idealistic, and prioritising aspects of life with immediate gratification, I once found living in a foreign country exhilarating. The language is different, the food is interesting, the people are curious, and an aura of novelty, distinction, and to some degree arrogance surrounds the experience.

Continue reading