Making Merit at a Burmese Refugee Camp

by James Drinkwater

At a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, a writer seeks redemption.

“Happy Thingyan!” someone shouts. Splat! Thwack! Just seconds after arriving at the refugee camp, I’m doused with freezing water and someone smears my face with white make-up. “Welcome to Nu Po!”

This is not quite the welcome I’ve been expecting. Wiping a little white sticky powder from my eye, I do my best to answer rapid-fire questions from a group of young people, a dozen strong, all armed with water pistols.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Are you married?”
“Why are you not married?”
“Where are you from?”

The annual Buddhist water festival, welcoming in the New Year, is kicking off. The dry season is also petering out, and the temperature’s soaring. For young Burmese and Thai people, it’s time to cool off and party hard for a few days.

I’ve arrived at the refugee camp on the edge of the Thai jungle from the nearest border town Mae Sot. I’ve spent the previous seven hours sitting on a long hard bench in a small truck, squashed together with about twenty people from local hill tribes.

It’s exactly 1,219 hairpin bends on highway 1090, infamous in Thailand for its high fatality rate, to the pretty market town of Umphang, gateway to the largest waterfall – Thi Su Lo – in the country, about 100 kilometres from Nu Po camp. Thankfully, the mountainous scenery helps distract me from the frequently impending sense of sickness stirring in my stomach.

In Thailand and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), practising Buddhists believe in ‘making merit’ – doing good deeds such as giving food to monks – to increase the likelihood of achieving enlightenment later. While not Buddhist, I wonder if volunteering at Nu Po refugee camp can replenish my own store of merit, or even atone for past choices.

For the past year, I’ve been tutoring a senior government figure in Myanmar. Now, I feel guilty for working with a regime connected to human rights abuses. And, despite recent democratic reforms, there are plenty of Myanmar people who’ve been ill-treated.

Although the persecution of the Rohingya is well-known, there are also under-reported conflicts simmering away in states near the Thai border. Many have fled. And so I’m following them – to one of the camps in Tak province, western Thailand, where a few thousand refugees from mixed ethnic minorities have been living in limbo, many for several years.

Volunteers live simply in Nu Po camp in bamboo huts with outside toilets and electricity that runs intermittently until 9 p.m. Robin, a long-term resident, warns me straightaway about my jungle neighbours. “Don’t worry about the spiders and snakes,” he reassures me, smiling broadly. “It’s the poisonous caterpillars you need to worry about. Make sure you tuck in your mosquito net properly. The rats are a nuisance too, but at least they won’t kill you!”

I ensure my net is snug enough, but, unfortunately, my roof has a few holes in it. So, when the rainy season begins, I put a bucket beside me and place two umbrellas awkwardly on top of the net. But these only serve to collapse it a bit and don’t keep me that much drier. The flimsy structure looks more like a modern art installation than someone’s sleeping quarters.

I’ve committed to a three month stay, the minimum requirement, but many previous volunteers have ended up staying much longer, including the school founder, Ton Baars, from the Netherlands. When he tells me he’s been here five years, I can’t hide my surprise. “I quite like it here so far,” I say, “but five years – really? Wow!”

“I love it here,” he replies. “Everyone makes an effort to get along with everyone else, even though they’re from different ethnic groups. It’s like a mini United Nations at Nu Po.”

Teaching resources in the camp are meagre, so I have to either go on a photocopying mission to the nearest town Umphang, about 100 kilometres away, or create lessons from nothing. I do one based on the George Orwell short story “Shooting an Elephant,” set in lower Burma in the 1930s, which disappointingly gets a mixed reaction.

My students prefer the lesson on the second conditional structure, taught via the Beyoncé song and accompanying video of If I Were a Boy. One of them is a gentle, handsome young monk, always resplendent in off-the-shoulder burgundy robes. He seems to enjoy it very much. Even though the video isn’t one of her raunchy ones, I fear I may have corrupted him a little.

Happily, this isn’t my only legacy. Gradually, the students’ initial shyness fades, and they grow in confidence using English. I also help a young female refugee, nicknamed Snowflake, with her scholarship application and interview prep for a university in Mae Sot. A few weeks after I leave, she writes to me. “Success!” her email heading simply reads. She’s been awarded a full scholarship, the first of her family to go to university.

Maybe, on reflection, after all, I have managed to make a little merit of my own.

Author’s Note: If you’re interested in volunteering with Burmese refugees at any of the camps in Tak province or with an NGO in Mae Sot,
contact Burma Link here:

Our summer Travel Writing Workshops are coming up! Join us live online and learn how to uncover your best travel stories. Highly recommended for new and emerging travel writers.

You may also like


Contact Info