Mae Sot the border town between Thailand and Burma is a weird place. The town, despite being in Thailand, is mostly populated by Burmese. It stands at one of the few international land crossing points, the main crossing being a heavily fortified concrete bridge across a narrow litter strewn river. The crossing is merely a symbol of official recalcitrant between the two countries. It certainly offers no control over the contraband which freely flows beneath it. Smuggling in places as porous as Mae Sot can be highly lucrative. Drugs – heroin, opiates and amphetamines; people – refugees fleeing the troubled border areas or girls press-ganged and trafficked south to the bars and clubs of Bangkok and Pattaya; multi-million dollar shipments of gems and raw Burmese teak, one of the most valuable timbers in the world – nearly all of it comes through here. As a result it’s a busy and often oppressive place which attracts any number of people, for good or ill. The town serves as the nucleus for well-heeled American Christian missionaries working amongst the many Karen hill tribes. You see them travelling around in air-conditioned 4×4’s or checking emails in the internet kiosks, all are well-heeled and appear suitably refreshed in their work. They seem suitably suspicious of scruffy looking film makers and keep their distance. Alongside this there are the usual aid organisations, some small and local whilst others are the usual giant internationals, who distribute food and medical supplies to the various refugee camps around the town. Inside Mae Sot’s clammy streets there are small medical clinics and human rights NGO’s as well as the offices of Burma’s exiled opposition. There are also shelters and safe houses where those who have recently crossed the border can rest or find news of friends and family before moving on. Because of this Burmese spies frequent the streets and the markets, they are easily discernible in well-pressed trousers and dark glasses, standing there with newspapers, smoking cheroots in a menacing highly stereotyped fashion, they stand there and watch everything.
Written by Tim Lewis.