You may not believe it, I certainly didn’t at first, but Umphium Mai refugee camp is cold. I’m a Canadian and during the cold season, which is going on right now, up in those green mountains of Northern Thailand, I sleep with at least five blankets each night. It doesn’t help that in the refugee camp, everyone sleeps in bamboo houses with thatched roofs and enough spaces for wind and mist to enter freely. There’s hardly any difference between being inside and outside, really, which means its cold every where.
On February 4th, I headed up to Umphium in the back of an NGO truck with a pile of blankets to distribute amongst the children in our various dormitories. That, in itself, is a story, but it’s a rather boring one. The important thing is that I found a truck to take me, and the blankets, to the camp.
Depending on who is driving, the road from Mae Sot to Umphium Mai takes between an hour and 15 minutes to three hours. The worst way to go is in the back of a songthaew, the public truck which packs people and their luggage into the back and drives slowly and dangerously between towns. The worst way to get to camp is in the back of one those trucks, pressed tightly against someone holding a baby that’s likely to spew all over you at the earliest opportunity, with no place to move in the likely event that you, yourself, have a need to spew.
The best way to travel on the long windy road through the mountains to the camp is in the open back of an NGO truck with a driver you know is a good one, with the wind in your hair and the whole green world rushing by just beyond your fingertips. In this case, I was crammed between piles of blankets up against two other people sharing the small space with me, but that didn’t diminish the magic of the day. The sunshine spilling from the bright blue sky burnt my face but it’s -25C in Canada right now, so I’ll take the back of the truck any day.
I was greeted at the office in camp by Saw Eh Say, our In-Camp Coordinator. He was pleased to see the blankets. We had six large stacks of them on the floor in the office and a long way to go to get to the dorm. Umphium Mai is built on a hillside. There is one road which runs through the camp but everything off that road, everything located above or below it, must be reached by foot.
Saw Eh Say shouldered a stack of ten blankets and I shouldered another. We set off along a windy road through the sunshine to the dorm.
Kyaw Kyaw’s Dorm is located among the highest buildings in the camp which means it gives you a great view but it makes you work to get it. Panting my way step by step up the dusty slope with sweat poring off my bright-red face, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What on earth am I doing with these thick blankets anyway?”
It’s a school holiday and as soon as the children at the dorm spot us toiling up the hill towards them, they run to help, alleviating us of our burdens. A shy girl shows us over the building where Kyaw Kyaw is waiting and goes to fetch tea. I kick off my shoes at the door and settle into the darkness of the bamboo building, sitting cross legged opposite Kyaw Kyaw.
Kyaw Kyaw pours me a much-needed glass of water and then settles in to make himself a betel-nut pouch. This is a lengthy process involving crushing betel nuts, placing them inside a dark green leaf smeared with pink paste, rolling it all up and smashing in into your mouth to chew. Kyaw Kyaw spits red juice through a hole in the bamboo floor as we talk, clearly enjoying the treat.
We discuss many things, from the repairs we will be undertaking this month on the dorm’s toilets, to the best way to spend food money to ensure good nutrition for the children. While we talk, more and more girls quietly enter the room, sitting along the wall watching me, whispering to each other and giggling. I can hear the boys playing games in the field outside. A few girls occupy themselves with crocheting.
When Saw Eh Say tells them that we have hygiene supplies for them which we will be bringing next week, I see faces light up. The girls talk amongst themselves excitedly and there is a lot of giggling and laughter. Eh Say tells them we will be bringing soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.
“And washing powder,” he says, “so you can wash your clothes.”
A girl in the corner sniffs the armpits of her shirt and smiles with glee, making me laugh. The girl catches me watching her and becomes shy again but I can’t stop smiling.
Eh Say helps me hand out blankets amongst all the smiles and laughter. Though it’s hot, even in the shade, and the heavy woolen blankets only make it hotter, by far the warmest thing in the room are those smiles.
When the day is done and I climb in the back of the truck, that’s what I take away with me and what stays the longest: the light in those smiles and the reminder that such small things can make such a large difference .