18 May 2015

Mae Sot: the border city

In what has become an unplanned, accidental tradition (if that words is applicable to something that happens just twice) I packed my bag and decided to spend the last Christmas in a small village in the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The previous year the chosen one was Sangkhlaburi; this year I went further north to one of the main land passes between both countries: Mae Sot. Technically Mae Sot is the last town within Thailand territory, but in fact it is overflow with Myanmar colors, faces, and smells, more obviously the closer you get to the bridge that separates the two countries (see my next post from Myanmar's neighbor town Myawaddy here). But nowhere the Burmese presence is clearer than in Mae Tao Clinic, a hospital that takes care of a big number of Burmese refugees and migrant workers that has become a key landmark of the Burmese community in this province.

The lady awaits, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Morning gathering, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Chit chat, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
A warm spot, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The clinic is overpopulated and the work the doctors and nurses do is commendable despite the lack of enough material and resources, and around the clinic a whole settlement has sprout to give shelter to countless families that have been forced to leave their country or that come here as their only hope to find health care for their problems. The sights and realities can be hard at times, as one could expect in a place like this, but even in these hard conditions there is room for joy, color, happiness, specially in the eyes and legs of the kids that run endlessly throughout every alley and every corner of this place, and also in the desks of a small school, where education brings some hope where most is needed.

Hide and seek I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Hide and seek II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Hide and seek III, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Eyes of bliss, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Lessons, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
But Mae Sot is not only the land where Burmese refugees seek shelter this side of the border; ultimately, it is a typical Thai small town, and all recognizable Thai flavors and views can be seen and found; one of the easiest ways to realize that, after all, we are still in Thailand, is visiting any of the multiple temples that abound everywhere in this country, with its characteristic red, colorful roofs, its quiet grounds where monks of indistinct nationality meditate under saffron robes, its novices performing very diverse tasks, from the mundane to the exhausting to the festive ones.

On ropes and cables, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Patterns and colors, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The pruning I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The pruning II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Refreshment robes, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
However, one of the temples of Mae Sot, called Wat Mani Phraison and located right in the heart of the town, hides a secret; from the outside nobody would say there is much difference compared to any other temple in Thailand, and actually they would be right in thinking so, since the difference is not in the temple itself, but behind it: discreet and unobtrusive in one small corner of the temple grounds, surrounded by a thin stream and a small forest, there is a very particular herbal sauna. What makes this modest building so interesting is the fact that it is a wooden-driven, traditional steam sauna where locals (both men and women, separated in two adjacent rooms) can go to enjoy a relaxing time every evening. The heat of the fire is, besides, also used to clean the robes of the monks that live just meters away. The entrance is free, but a donation box invites some voluntary contribution, and everybody must bring their own towels since all offered here is the high temperature inside a small cubicle. The shower, not surprisingly, is a big vessel located outside with refreshing, cold water.

Herbal sauna and laundry I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Herbal sauna and laundry II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The king's anthem, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Thailand has enjoyed an incredibly fast construction and development boom in the last decades, and that can also be seen in smaller populations like this, not just in the big cities (where, on the other hand, is much more obvious), and this has a dark consequence that is very obvious and reminds us of the dangers of unplanned growth: abandoned, unfinished buildings appear here and there, completely sank into oblivion, though some of them have found a new life by being inhabited by small communities of people who have made these skeleton buildings their home. But this reality discourages nobody, for new constructions continue appearing everywhere, and the circle continues spinning in this rather messy way.

Relocation, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Stairs to nowhere I, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Stairs to nowhere II, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
The road ahead, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Cooperative work, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
At the end of the day, Mae Sot turned out to be a very relaxing, peaceful place where spending a couple of days full of little surprises and far from the noise and bustle of the city, experiencing two cultures in one and, last but not least, enjoying great food, as is customary everywhere you might travel in this country.

Night market, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm


  1. Awesome photos! Thanks for posting.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Nice photo's! I'm planing to go to Myanmar at the end of this year, so I read your writings with pleasure and double interest. By the way, a great set of lenses . . . .

    1. Thank you Jos, you'll enjoy Myanmar no matter where you go. And definitely I'm enjoying these lenses a lot!

  4. Thanks for posting these great photos. My fave is "Cooperative Work". I just love the diagonal lines created by the workers against the otherwise rectangular lines of the bamboo (?) framework. Happy to have found you via Jason Row's Lightstalking blog.

    1. I was waiting and observing the workers for a while until the arrangement was pleasant, I have a few other captures but this one worked the best exactly for the reasons that you mention, I'm glad that you find it appealing, thanks for your comments and support!