Living with the Singing People: Noh Poe Refugee Camp Part One

After spending the night in Bangkok, I flew the next morning to the city of Mae Sot. I was responding to a forwarded email the week before that said medical personnel were needed to teach a class of refugee medics because the scheduled team had canceled at the last minute. I volunteered and it had all been arranged on very short notice.

I was to be picked up by someone, but didn’t know who, and then driven six hours to Noe Poh Refugee Camp. The camp lies in the central western mountains of Thailand and is where I would be teaching the students with a team of others NGO workers like myself. I had been sent via email a short curriculum on Pharmacology and another on Universal Precautions. That is all I knew about what I was about to do. I was homesick and hoping that working with the medical team would cure that.

I arrived in Mae Sot airport but no one was waiting for me. The airport guard, realizing I had no one to meet me and even though he spoke no English, allowed me to use his phone to call Eh Poh…the only contact number I had.

the airport guard

the airport guard

Eh Poh answered and told me he would pick me up in 10 minutes. A Karen (Ka-Rin) Refugee, Eh Poh has made his home in Mae Sot and now works for the Karen Department of Health and Welfare. He picked me up with Marci, my contact from the organization Partners. The two of them were the nicest people you could meet and so thankful for the last minute help. They took me to a coffee shop where they unfolded the plan.

Eh Poh would accompany me to the camp as my translator. I would be the Sole foreigner working in the camp. A driver would take us to the camp, drop us off and pick us up six days later. I would be in charge of teaching 17 students for the week. There was no phone coverage, limited internet and “oh, by the way, take bug spray because there is a dengue outbreak in the camp.”

So I was going. to. be. by myself. With a dengue outbreak at that. Not what I expected, but I signed up for this to help however was needed so….O.K. Go team.

Eh Poh, my translator

Eh Poh, my translator

An hour later I was sitting in a pick up truck with Eh Pow, the driver and another Karen man. All three were yacking it up in the language of Karen, driving us to who-knew-where. We had to pass occasional police check points where the police might, or might not, stop us and ask the Karen for travel papers. If anyone failed to have the proper papers, the police would accept a healthy bribe and let us pass. I was put in the front seat because, they explained, a foreigner would make it less likely that we would be stopped as I was giving our group a legitimate reason to be traveling. I didn’t ask if they had travel papers.

Soon we hit the mountains of Highway 1090. In the 164 kilometers of this road, which is 102 miles, there are 1,219 sharp, narrow curves, a number which was nicely displayed on road signs along the way. Our driver was taking these turns at disturbing speeds unless he abruptly swerved or hit the brakes to avoid pot holes or oncoming cars that were in his lane. Or he was in their lane. Problem was, every lane was everyone else’s lane, as avoiding the pot holes was the main goal. The truck, shocks having worn out ages ago, was not only speeding, slowing and weaving, but also bouncing up and down, creaky on it’s wheels. All of this was doing a number on my stomach. I stabilized myself with both arms best I could and kept my eyes fixed on the road lest I threw up or missed the moment we were all going to die.
After one near crash I looked to Eh Poh for some reassurance.
“I guess everyone is used to all these near misses on the road.”
“Oh not everyone.” He shrugged. “People go too fast and go off the edge of the cliff all the time.”
I swallowed hard and grabbed some mint gum to calm my stomach but was really wishing for some hard liquor.
“How much longer will we be in the mountains?”
“We will be out of the mountains in three hours”.
Bile rose to my throat at this news and I made a plastic bag ready.

Three hours later the road mercifully straightened out. Exhausted from the effort to not throw up, I fell into a miserable doze, just hoping when I woke up we would not be in heaven.

When I woke up we were not in heaven. Instead, we were on a muddy, slick, red clay, pot holed road in the middle of what they called and “ancient forest”. Banana trees hugged the edge along with ferns who’s fronds reached as high as trees. Bamboo, thick as my arm, formed elegant forests. Though the curves had disappeared in the road, the weaving-bouncing-start-stop motion of the truck was back in full and my stomach once again churned. But by now, it was six hours later and we were almost there.

Noh Poe

Noh Poe

I don’t really know where to begin telling about my week at Noe Poh Refugee Camp. The Karen are an ethnic group who are in conflict with the official Burmese Government. They have been fighting for sixty years, when the Burmese Army began mistreating their people. They have horrific stories about what they have been through as they have fought to establish an independent state. Some call what the Burmese government is doing to them genocide. Numbers have fled to countries all over the world including the United States. Thailand has refugee camps set up on the Burmese borders for relief. Many of the current residents were born and raised in camp and know nothing else. They are not allowed outside the walls of the camp without special permission.

It is a complicated issue.

Here are some links if you would like to know more.

Free Burma Rangers Report
The Museum of Karen History and Culture

My job was to teach advanced medic students. These young men and women had left their families and traveled long distances from different parts of the Karen State, many walking for days, to participate in a 9 month training. When they have completed the training, some will be the sole medical personnel in their villages. Special permission from the Thai government was required for me to live there. It was a great privilege to know them, teach them and be among them.

My class of medics

My class of medics

I have so many memories of that week. My favorite is this – the Karen of Noh Poe are a singing people. Living in open air, bamboo houses, I could hear the community activities all around me all the time. At night I drifted off hearing soft murmurs of my neighbors voices mingled with the night sounds of crickets and frogs. I woke up to pans clanking and fires being built. But, the thing that struck me the most was the singing. Teenage boys with guitars or women at work. Tiny tiny children happy at play. Young girl’s melodies weaved through the forest like ribbons of colored sound. The songs of the people drifted in and out of daily living like a soothing cloud. I wondered why it was missing in my culture.

I will tell more but, for now, I am going to let the pictures speak for themselves. To see more go to my album on Facebook by clicking HERE.

No Poh mainstreet


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<To see more go to my album on Facebook by clicking HERE.


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