Fourteen people sat in the room, each from a different background, but each with the same goal — to go back to Burma. I sat silently, too nervous to break the icy silence in the room, which smelled dreadful from body sweat, mold and cigarette smoke. The floor was dusty, the walls were damp and stained, and apart from a broken rusted wash-hand basin, there were no facilities or furnishings.
The room had no windows and no air-conditioning, and was located on the top floor of a cheap karaoke bar in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
It was late at night, and we were waiting for a driver from a smuggling ring who was to take us north to the Thai-Burmese border where we would cross illegally into Tachilek. Like me, most appeared to be Shan migrant workers, but some were Burman. About half were women. I assumed that none of us had work permits, passports or travel documents, otherwise they would not have chosen this dangerous (and expensive) method of travel.
Most migrant workers in Thailand earn a salary between 3,000 baht and 9,000 baht per month [US $100 to $300]. According to most data from NGOs in Thailand, at least two million Burmese live illegally in the country, most working in construction, agriculture or in factories.
The cost of the journey is 3,700 baht per person. The bus fare for the five-hour trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai would only cost about 200 baht, but we would face police checkpoints en route. No amount of cash is worth the risk. The smugglers know this, of course; that’s why they can charge as much as they do.
In fact, I’m told the smuggling ring charges 6,000 baht going the opposite way from Mae Sai to Chiang Mai—the much higher fare reflecting the greater number of checkpoints on the road coming from Burma.
One of the organizers finally came to the room and told us to go downstairs. He hissed at everyone to be completely silent. The karaoke lounge was now closed, but some of the bar girls sat around. I noticed that some of them watched us with an element of jealousy. They were probably Shan girls, wishing they too could go home and see their families.
We got into a large jeep that was parked outside. Apart from the seat for the driver, there were just four seats and a luggage space in the back. We had to cram 14 people in. There was an infant baby, and an old woman who was about 70. It was going to be a very uncomfortable journey.
I thought about fish-paste. Apart from the smell, which always reminds me of home, I remembered my grandmother spending so much time cutting and pressing so many fish into one small pot. It felt like that in this car.
I was relieved to see that a pick-up truck, acting as an escort, was to accompany us, driving a few miles in front and calling the driver if there were police checkpoints ahead.
The jeep had tainted windows so nobody could see inside. But the air-conditioning wasn’t working and it quickly became very hot and smelly. I could barely breathe.
Some of the passengers began asking the driver to roll down a window, but he refused saying it was too dangerous. Sure enough, one of the women vomited in the back of the car. The driver rolled down his window enough so that he could breathe fresh air. The rest of us had to put up with the smell, the heat and the overcrowding. I tried to rest, but it was impossible. In the end, I just sat there, squashed, unable to see anything except the passing streetlights and the glow from the Bluetooth clipped to the driver’s ear.
The trip took around 5 hours. When we arrived at Mae Sai it was 4 in the morning. The smugglers drove us to a house quite far from the downtown area of Mae Sai. They gave us blankets and told us to sleep for a while.
Around 5 am, we got woken up and told to get on the motorbikes that were parked outside with drivers. As I got on, I saw some members of the group arguing with their drivers because they had brought too much luggage, including electric items and even a small fridge and an LCD TV.
We went off-road, crossed a stream and made our way to a lorry which was waiting for us. We piled in, and the driver drove us along the bumpy road that leads into Tachilek. He dropped us unceremoniously on the outskirts of the town, then took off. The group quickly separated as each made their own way toward their destination.
For me, I still had a long way to go. But I breathed a sigh of relief that I had made it across the border, and I took a deep breath to take in the early morning air and the smells of cheroots, betel nut, fish-paste and everything else that told me I was home.
author: Sai Zom Hseng
Courtesy of The Irrwawaddy.