Sorry for the radio silence, folks! I’ve just returned from the most amazing, ridiculous, and humbling trip to the Thai-Burma border. I have so many stories and pictures I’d love to share, but I’ll keep it concise because I have hot Indian food waiting!
If my nine-day trip to the border had one theme, it would be the testing of my fears. Poisonous caterpillars, vipers, spiders, seafood, wet clothes, Burma Army soldiers, and the ultimate horror of no mirrors or make up.
By some miracle, I survived. Even thrived, thanks to the liberation of the jungle and the great appearance equalizer of humidity. But I should first explain exactly what I was doing, and where I was. My organization regularly sends relief teams to the Thai border and inside Burma to provide medical care. This particular trip was led by Dr. Bob Arnold of Alaska, a pediatric ophthalmologist. Along with three Alaskan students, a refugee eye surgeon from the Mae La Refugee Camp, and volunteers from various organizations in Thailand, we made our way to Bung Klung, a Karen (kuh-REN) village. After a harrowing 17-hour drive through the mountains, we arrived at this gem in the jungle.
Eliya, a Karen medic and superhero, provided the space for our eye clinic and we promptly began working as patients from Burma and Thailand flooded in on Iron Buffalos and by foot. Dr. Bob and Nay Sher fitted glasses, provided hearing aids for the elderly, and performed eight cataract surgeries in the course of a single day (in this room, no less!) It was astounding to watch. Patients who hadn’t seen in decades were afforded sight and grandparents cried as they understood what their grandchildren were saying for the first time. Yet despite my interest in the clinic, I struggled to identity my purpose there. I wasn’t interested in medicine, eyes, or the study of health. I didn’t speak Karen, and thus couldn’t contribute enormously to the administrative side of patient care. But I could listen and observe. Through our translators, I gleaned the stories of our patients, many of whom had undergone trauma at the hands of the Burma Army. My passion lies with human rights awareness, so I made it my duty to observe and record the stories and sentiments of the Karen people I met.
Our host, Eliya, is a champion of human rights and the rights of the Karen people within Burma. Though he resides in Thailand, he said, “I am borrowing Thailand for now, but to not live in my own country is not freedom.” When we were visiting, Eliya had malaria (for the seventh or eighth time – he couldn’t remember), but it hardly stopped him from serenading us with the guitar at dinner or chasing me with giant pincher beetles. His spirit of service, passion, and humor typifies the best human rights leaders on the ground.
Midway through our trip to Bung Klung, we temporarily suspended eye clinic operations to visit a rural general health clinic in Lay Tong Ku, a border village nestled in the mountains. The sheer amount of rain made the red dirt road to LTK impassable by car, so we hiked… and hiked… and hiked. By the second hill, I was regretting every fried noodle dish I’d eaten since arriving in Thailand. We crossed rivers, wading through in some places and utilizing spindly bamboo bridges in others. By the fifth hill, I was virtually crawling. The locals called it the Hill of Death, notorious for its Grand Canyon-like ruts and impossible inclines. I could reach out at a 90 degree angle and touch the road. Dizzying. I finally crested the hill only to find some members of my entourage violently whacking at the undergrowth. I attributed it to Karen vigor until I saw it: a 10-foot long, lime green viper. Recently beheaded, but still moving. I so wish I had a picture, but the monsoon rain prevented me from getting out my camera. That, and the fact that I was hyperventilating.
Lay Tong Ku village was a welcome respite from the hike. Already soaked to the bone, we hit the famed waterfall on the border (the other bathing option was a rather rudimentary shower overlooking Burma). Lay Tong Ku is situated on a porous section of the border, allowing people inside Burma to cross into Thailand to reach the LTK clinic. No hand-washing station or formal facilities yet, but the care is better than most found in Karen state.
After a night on a bamboo mat, we made the hike back to Bung Klung to wrap up the eye clinic and put on a Run for Relief. A 5K run that provides humanitarian assistance to millions in Burma, RfR got its start in Bung Klung. RfR is a worldwide movement to promote awareness of human rights abuses in Burma and the desperate need for reform. We held a flip flop race, partly to best represent the conditions under which ethnic minorities in Burma must flee, but largely because most of our contestants didn’t have running shoes. It was an overwhelming success. I’ve never seen happier runners than the kids in Bung Klung, loping down the village center hill with abandon.
On our final day, our team visited Nay Sher’s family in the Mae La Refugee Camp outside of Mae Sot. Established in 1984, Mae La is one of the oldest camps in Thailand, and certainly the largest. Regarded as a permanent institution, it has become a center of study for refugees and people within Burma. Nay Sher served as a medic in the camp before being trained in surgery and beginning his work outside of the camp. Now, he works under the tutelage of Dr. Bob Arnold and a Scottish ophthalmologist, improving the lives of countless people inside and outside of Burma with his remarkable surgical skill.
Whew. That was a marathon post. I want to give a final shout-out to Cat, Eliya’s wife, for the astounding provision of food during our stay: crazy fruit, scary-but-delicious desserts, thirst-quenching drinks, whole fish, and wonderful dinner spreads. Karen food is awesome. Try it.