Like Carrboro, with dogs.
I arrived in the border town of Mae Sot last week not knowing what to expect. Having heard so much about the area from my Karen* refugee clients in NC, I had a sort of feeling of returning to some place I've known all along as my minivan pulled into the market last Thursday. In the place of the familiar mix of Mexican immigrants, UNC college students, Whole Foods devotees, and resettled Karen refugees that makes Carborro North Carolina what it is, I found an equally as diverse, albeit significantly more interesting, crowd. Mae Sot is home to not only Karen refugees, IDPs, and illegal immigrants, it is also a place where you find large communities of Indo-Burmese Muslims, Chinese immigrants, Buddhist Thais, Hmong hilltribe peoples, plenty of falang and, unfortunately, hundreds of very unfriendly street dogs who chase me on my bike at night. I would describe Mae Sot as vibrant and pulsating in one moment, and quite sleepy and friendly in the next. Of course, like nearly all trading towns, it is not without a certain element of seediness, but in a way, it works here.
Luckily for me, a friend and one time co-worker of mine arrived in Mae Sot a few months ago where she's been working in the child welfare section for UNHCR (United Nation's Refugee program). She has been my most gracious host and her connections within the vast NGO network that exists here helped me to find a perfect volunteer position within days of my arrival. My first night in town, she took me to dinner with her friends at a favorite ex pat restaurant. I have to admit, I was a little star struck as I dined with resettlement officers and the UNHCR field director (a woman who knows and is known by seemingly everyone in Thailand), surrounded at other tables by relief workers, journalists, and various NGO staff. It sounds silly I know, but honestly this is the kind of work environment domestic resettlement workers like me sit at home in the states and dream about -- and now here I am in this dusty little town and it all suddenly feels very tangible.
I've not had a chance to take many pictures yet, but here's a couple to give you the quirky feel of this place. The first is where I've been staying, affectionately referred to as "the Disney Mansion" by the many UN workers who live here. The second is a random dressmakers shop with their Christmas preparations outside.
- The Karen are a large ethnic minority in Burma who have long been persecuted by their tyrannical military government. For more information on their struggle please visit: