More on the Mae Sot rubbish dump

The last post, 2 days ago, was a very short look at the Mae Sot garbage dump in Thailand. The problem with the people living on the dump (when I say “on the dump” I really mean it literally – most of the homes are actually on the piles of trash) is that they have no documents permitting them to be in Thailand. They live on the dump for a reason: it’s better than the life they left behind in Burma.

For a number of reasons, which are far too complex for me to explain in a concise blog post, the Thai police regularly arrest ‘illegal’ Burmese migrants in Thai cities and deport them back to Burma. The dump has not been the regular focus of police efforts, until recently.

On January 23rd, my friend and I found out that the police had raided the dump site early in the morning and arrested any inhabitants who weren’t quick enough to run away. They took the arrested people to the police station, where they sat them down in rows outside, and eventually drove them in a caged truck to the border crossing nearby where the migrants were handed over to the Burmese authorities. They were given no food during their detention in Thailand, and we found out later that they were also given no food during their detention in Burma, despite many toddlers and young children being among the hundred or so people arrested.

Here’s a scan of the photo that was put in a national Thai newspaper the next day. The caption reads “Aliens: On the 23rd of January, 200 members from the Mae Sot police force, volunteer forces, municipality of Mae Sot, and Tak immigration department arrested illegal immigrants in the Mae Sot area. They arrested 116 people in total, made up of Burman, Bangladeshi, and Karen people.”

Of course, there was no news story to go with it, just the caption. The official story was that they were illegal migrants who had crossed into Thailand and were working in the city, whereas we had met a number of the people recognisable in the newspaper, so we knew better.

The following are a few photos of what the dump looked like on the afternoon of the 23rd, after the police had left and a few of the migrants had returned from their hiding spots. As I mentioned in the last post, the Hyundai excavator normally used to keep the trash organised, was used for something else this time around: to destroy their homes.

Here’s the “theatre” that was demolished. The dump residents had saved up to get a generator to show videos on occasion, mainly for the children, a huge expense to try and add some normalcy to their lives, and something of which they were immensely proud. The police stole the generator, fuel, television, etc.

Homes partly demolished. The excavator simply punched them in from the top, causing them to collapse. Of course, that was after the police kindly stole any food items, electronics, cooking equipment like pots and pans, from the homes.

Some of the homes in this row were left standing, supposedly because of confusion over a property line nearby, not wanting to upset the owner of the land.

The home in the foreground and some of the homes in the background were demolished, and the residents’ few belongings lay strewn about, left in the frenzy of trying to run away.

This man was able to avoid arrest and is disassembling his home, to take the useful parts with him back to Burma. He will try and start over again in the jungle there, and hope for the best.

More destruction:

This man has loaded up everything he can salvage and is walking back to Burma. He’s tired of the treatment in Thailand, but doesn’t know whether life will be any better in Burma, which he left because of the impossibility to earn a living and the danger ordinary people face at the hands of the Burmese authorities.

We talked a lot with the few people who were around in the afternoon, and they asked us to return and spend the night, in case the police came back (they threatened to burn all the houses, and had even brought a fire truck with them on the first raid), to witness and perhaps moderate the potential for excessive use of force by the police. So we left, bought some food for ourselves and the small number of people who would be staying on site at night (most of them went into hiding at night), and returned. We slept for a few hours in someone’s home that hadn’t been destroyed, though the family wasn’t there. At 4am we got up and went to the ‘central’ area of the dump to sit around and wait, and hoped that we were waiting for nothing to happen.

This young man woke up and started a fire around 5am to warm up (it gets very cold at night in Mae Sot in the winter). There’s no shortage of old tires, which burn very well once you get them started, though the black rubber tire fumes are probably terribly unhealthy. He kept the fire from getting too big by throwing water on it occasionally.

One of the few homes left standing:

Another fire close-up. The wires are from the tire. The dump is littered with these fine metal wires which tried unsuccessfully to trip me constantly.

Two 30-second exposures. The second one is me with my headlamp, and my friend pushing the shutter release on my camera which was resting on the Hyundai excavator track (the linked plates on which it rolls).

Our friend warming his hands (it was really, really cold)

As daylight slowly arrived, people began to straggle back to the dump site to start searching for recyclables to earn money for food. Before starting, they generally sat around various tire fires to warm up a bit after a long and cold night. These are by far my two favourite photos from my visits to the dump:

Tire fire smoke and morning fog ensured the air
was not clear in the morning…

The dump residents’ pigs managed to evade the police quite easily the previous day. The people at the dump don’t eat the pigs, as it’s better for the community to sell them to local restaurants and use the money for cheaper food, which can feed more people. So, if you’ve been eating pork in Mae Sot recently, it might be one of these guys. What’s the best thing about them, according to the dump inhabitants? There’s almost no work involved in rearing them, as they don’t stray too far and they don’t need to be fed – they get very large by finding their own garbage to eat! Everybody wins :-)

Normally, when a garbage truck arrives, there are quite a few more people to sort through the new delivery, but many were still in hiding. The good news is that the women and children held in Burma were released later the same day. Most of them then walked back to the dump, which took quite a while. The men, however, remained detained, and I don’t know even now whether or not they were all released eventually.

Working hard to help themselves, rather than joining the beggars in the streets of Mae Sot:

Everybody works. This is the same boy from the background of my two favourite photos above, a very nice kid:

The sun rising in the east, while dogs scavenge for scraps of edible trash:

There’s a long and complicated story that follows this event, but you’ll have to ask me in person to find out the details, as it’s not really suitable at this point in time to be telling the whole story online.

The Mae Sot Garbage Dump

In a previous post in January, I posted a downloadable large-size photo of the dump in Mae Sot, Thailand. It is/was (the ‘was’ is the subject of a post to come in two days’ time) home to many migrants from Burma, who pick through the trash to find recyclable plastic and certain types of metal, which they take to a depot to earn a minuscule (and I really mean minuscule) amount of money. My friend is making a documentary film about the situation, and he asked me to join him to help out a bit and take some photos as well. We met many of the dump inhabitants who shared their stories and the problems they encounter with the Thai authorities, as they are undocumented migrants. They want their story shared, even though there is a risk that more attention will increase Thai authorities’ efforts to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of Burmese migrants, as they see it.

A man and his child at the dump:

There were a LOT of people living at the dump, around 300 according to many estimates.

After trash has been delivered by garbage trucks, the Hyundai excavator moves it onto the massive piles of garbage that rise skyward.

In the next post on this site in a couple days you can see another, far less innocent, activity the excavator was used for…

Umphang and a Round of Migrant Schools

On January 10, I was going to go from Mae Sot down to Umphang for a look around. I found out the night before that one of my motorbike buddies (Hans) from the roadtrip to Mae Sariang was heading down to Umphang the same morning, also alone, so I called him up and in the morning we met up and set off on our ride. It was a good drive, 1219 curves in the amazing Highway 1090 up and down mountains and through jungle, really beautiful. We chilled out in the tiny town of Umphang that evening, had the best fried rice I’ve ever had, and the next day we set off to see Thailand’s biggest waterfalls at Thi Lo Su. However, when we arrived, they wanted to charge us each $15 to drive us down the 25km forest road, as they wouldn’t allow us to take our motorbikes on the road, saying it was too dangerous.

We turned around, and on the way back to Umphang we visited a free, and big, cave. I’m no good at cave photos, but here’s proof we were there:


Hardened (very hardened) mud, where water fills large areas of the cave during rainy season. I wouldn’t venture into this place at that time of year, you’d be taking a big risk…

I had to be back in Mae Sot for other engagements the following morning, so I took off on my motorbike alone for the 1219 curves and 164km back up to Mae Sot while Hans stayed another night in Umphang to look around and relax. On my way ‘home’ I stopped for the first time to get a closer look at a pagoda and waterfall I’d seen several times before, but I never did figure out how to get up there.

The next day was a visit to a Burmese migrant school often called the Monk School because there’s a monastery associated with it, and the monks help the children with some teaching and some support in terms of food. The children monks attend the school with the other children. We took a big delivery of vegetables and spices for the school, as the children were not getting a balanced diet and needed veggies badly. We also arranged for several weeks’ worth of deliveries, and a trusted friend agreed to try and round up funds to continue this in the future.

Here are the kids:

While we were there, a World Education truck drove up and out jumped a friend of mine, Hongsar! This is the guy who taught me to drive a motorcycle back in November, and he works for another organisation that oversees many migrant schools. He was helping World Education deliver big boxes of items for a number of migrant schools in need, stuff like stationary and soccer balls. He asked me to join him for several more school visits, so I left my motorbike keys with James, who had hitched a ride with the truck of veggies, and he drove my motorbike home later while I jumped into the World Ed truck. We visited 4 more schools, quite distant from Mae Sot (the farthest was 48km away!), and it was really nice to see some new areas.

This is what we had to cross to get to one of the schools:

And these are some of the younger children of that school, excited and confused at the sight of a foreigner:

At another school, we arrived as a number of local women were returning home after a long day working on the farms:

The last school we visited was run by a rather ancient, but apparently devoted, couple. This is the main school building (more than one class, they don’t have walls to separate them).

A few days later, I was back on the road to Umphang! More on that in the next post…

Children’s Day in Mae Sot

After a VERY long delay, caused by a lot of travelling, computer problems, and time constraints (I’m writing my thesis now, so I have to prioritise), finally a few blog posts with a whole bunch of photos are coming this way. I’m back in Uppsala, Sweden now, but this post is about Mae Sot, Thailand in January. Yes, January.

I spent Christmas in Vancouver, and a week later returned to Mae Sot to continue my activities of thesis research and having fun. The first shot is a random – two Buddhist monks crossing to Burma on the Moei River Bridge that separates Burma from Thailand just outside Mae Sot:

On January 9th, the day before Thai schools celebrated Thailand’s annual Children’s Day, I was invited to check out a big Children’s Day celebration for Burmese migrant schools in a big field in the outskirts of Mae Sot. One of the first things I noticed was a man jabbing a bamboo pole into the ground. This seemed just a little bit strange, and you’ll find out soon enough what it was for.

These boys were looking happy in their rarely worn traditional clothing. I forgot to look at my camera settings and took a ridiculously overexposed shot, so this is what I got out of it, after some editing:

The celebration brought 5 migrant schools together, all primary schools, which means there were a LOT of little children running around! Many of the girls performed dances on stage for the parents and other children:

This toddler was more interested in me than the dancers:

In case you haven’t seen my previous photos of kids from Burma hanging out in Thailand, the stuff on his cheeks is called thanaka; made from sandalwood, it’s used as a skin cream by children and young adults, and by women, and also acts as sunscreen (often it’s seen covering the whole face).

Right, so that bamboo pole we saw earlier…. It turns out it’s a game – two boys work together to get the 500 Baht note (about CAD $15 – a LOT of money) on a stick at the top and, if they succeed, they get to keep it. The pole is coated in wine, though, which makes it extremely slippery!

They’re given the wine-soaked rag which they must use, and they chose to tie it to the one boy’s legs, not sure why…

He didn’t manage to get high enough up to grab the money, so he came down and they rethought their strategy. They switched positions, and this time the boy climbing chose to use the rag with his hands, wrapped around the pole.


The crowd was quite happy to see the boys succeed!

Another game being played involved some hand-carved wooden pins and three tennis balls. There was a very long queue for turns to play (all the games were free, of course, as the attendees wouldn’t have the money to attend a fair with paid games), and most of the children managed to knock at least one pin down.

One of the most exciting games for many was the balloon-popping-wrestling game. I’ve seen this at other events with Burmese people as well. The children all tie a balloon to their ankle (sometimes one to each leg), and they run around trying to pop each other’s balloons. The last person standing with an unpopped balloon is the winner, and they’re allowed a fair bit of body contact! These are the last two standing in their match:

One of the schoolchildren taking care his baby brother:

A number of races were organised as well, about 75m or so in length:

Spectators for the races had to protect their heads, and their younger siblings’ heads, from the strong midday sun:

The winner! The motion blur is deliberate, and I kinda like the way it turned out.

Well, that was children’s day for migrants from Burma. They’re a terrifically poor community, but they try to maintain a semblance of normalcy, especially for the kids, and I think this celebration was particularly fun and beneficial to the kids’ happiness.