Photos by Nancy Chuang.Mae Sot is a small city of about 90,000 official residents, with an uncounted population of approximately 100,000 more. This includes around 300 foreign NGO and CBO staff and volunteers, working in the city and in the border’s refugee camps. Located in Thailand’s Tak province, Mae Sot is a relatively peaceful place in comparison to parts of Burma’s Karen State just across the Moei River. Burmese people far outnumber Thai people in Mae Sot. The main wet market and tea shops provide the best introductions to Burmese culture, evoking the uncanny sense of having stumbled out of Thailand. Burmese language is heard throughout the city, Burmese restaurants and food stalls are abundant, signs are often written in Burmese, and naturally the people working in the lowest-paid or most labor-intensive jobs are almost always Burmese. In Mae Sot, Burmese migrant workers are often at the mercy of police, getting by with bribes or illegally-obtained legal documents, tacitly accepted by the local government. Opportunities for meaningful employment can be rare, but the chances back home may be worse. Many young people end up in factories, with only one day off per month. In addition, there are fewer factories in Mae Sot than in the past but “financial refugees” continue to stream over the border, increasing the demand for jobs without an accompanying increase in supply.
Despite this existence in limbo, many people create an easygoing life in Mae Sot. All the usual conveniences are available, such as delicious food, plenty of shopping, quality lodging, clean water, 24-hour electricity and wi-fi. Bicycles and low-powered scooters are the preferred methods for getting around. Beautiful waterfalls, mountains and caves lie just outside the city limits and are frequented by locals.