With a picturesque backdrop of the mountains and jungle, you could – in places –almost be forgiven for forgetting that this is one of the nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.
Having been established two decades ago, along with its population, the camp’s economy and size has also expanded significantly. Inside, you can find shops, tea shops, restaurants, hair dressers, a hospital and a large market. If you have money, you can buy almost everything you need, from clothes and shoes to books, paper, mobile phones, kitchen utensils and DVDs. There’s an internet café and there are even motorbikes, bicycles and one or two cars, as well as a motorbike ice-cream seller.
Yet if you don’t have money, you’re left to live on the meagre rations of white rice, yellow beans, oil, charcoal and, approximately once every three months, some soap. And I can’t even begin to describe how bad the ration rice tastes. I didn’t realise rice could taste quite so bad; this was like eating white gravel.
Although for much of the year water is readily available and is piped through the camp, it’s not drinking water; it can only be used to shower with and to wash clothes and dishes. I was lucky enough to be living where donors have provided a UV water filter, but even so, I arrived at the end of the rainy season, so we didn’t had any fresh water to put through the filter. That wasn’t a problem for me – it was easy enough to buy bottled drinking water and I had the money to do so – but my students told me that they don’t really drink anything when it hasn’t rained.
One day, one of my students took me to visit her dormitory. It was a 55 minute walk/hike away, sometimes along busy, wide, flat mud roads with shops and houses on each side, and sometimes climbing on narrow, slippery paths through jungle. It was a typical dormitory, housing around 40 students. The buildings were typical bamboo buildings, but they were nicely built and fairly sturdy. I was cooked a nice lunch and then I asked where the toilets are. Initially, I couldn’t understand why that question had caused such a fuss – there are toilets built by the French NGO Solidarités throughout the camp. But then the students showed me their toilets. The building had been dismantled and the squat toilets were covered with planks of wood. They are full, I was told, and they had been for a couple of weeks or so, but they were going to start making new ones on the following Saturday.