In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog August 8th, 2009

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A Special Weekly Dedicated to the Myanmar/Burma Orphans

Weeks back I made a plea to the readers to help support an orphanage located on the Thai/Burma border, Safe Haven. A friend, Gary Van Haneghan, who is a major fund raiser for this orphanage and several others asked me if we could ask the readers for images of the regions (SEA) children which could be made into prints and auctioned at fund raising events in the states. I asked and told you at the time I would try to do something special with the images and show them off in a special weekly.

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This is it. Below is my first attempt at making a collage of the images you sent in and a few I added of my own:

Amateur Collage

Not that great, is it? I was disappointed with these results and I promised something special and this is hardly special.. So for weeks I'd look at the above image and feel disappointment, and at the same time ask myself how I could do it better. I think I've come up with something.

Now this is special!


I must admit this isn't an original idea. I saw something very similar in the US Embassy in the form of a statue of liberty mosaic in the American Citizens Service section. I was immediately taken by the novelty and looking around noticed many people were noticing this framed image on the wall. I had to learn how to make my own!

At first I didn't even know to call it a mosaic. I was looking everywhere for details on how to make a "collage" and getting frustrated. Finally Craig Lamson who reviewed the Helicon Focus product for us a few weeks back pushed me gently in the right direction.

wonderland clinic

We Need More Images!

This isn't a finished mosaic. It's only a sample. We need a great many more images of the regions children to make this truly unique. I'm hoping that those of you reading this column will search your archives and send in every image of a SEA child or a child in their environment as you have. I'm hoping to get hundreds more. The final number of images will help determine the size of the overall image and the size of the small images making up the main image. The more the better.

See how not enough images dictates the need to use the same images over and then vary their intensity/color/contrast?

Once I have these images I'll make a set of three mosaics worthy of a large print of at least 11×14, hopefully 20×24. I'll carefully prepare these files and send them to Gary for reproduction and I bet he'll be able to sell hundreds of these sets and make a huge amount of money for the orphanage. I'm going to match the subject, color theme, and quality so the three images make a compelling set. Printed on a heavy cotton matte stock and properly framed, they'll be appropriate art for even the nicest homes.

This particular image is of a young boy looking out past the barbed wire at the Mae La camp. As his eyes met mine, his hands on the wire, I had the feeling he had already been at this camp for years. Indeed some arrive as small children and are still there are adults. No home which to return to, no where to go.

Why am I so up on this? Why do I feel the need and urgency to help raise money for the orphanage? Because after hearing about this orphanage and the general plight along the border north of Mae Sot I decided to go see for myself. I loaded up the SUV and headed north for a week of experiences I'll never forget. I'd like to share my trip with you below:

Prelude, a New American Family

I attended my best friends wedding in Nashville a few years back. He was marrying lovely Laotian woman who was born in Laos and raised in the United States. Beautiful and educated, I knew he was making the perfect choice. The wedding was held in a huge Marriot and was a splendid affair.

The evening reception dinner was great. Without dropping names I was meeting some special visitors. One obviously from SEA origin greeted me and we shook hands and chatted a bit. I was surprised by this mans polish and knowledge of world events. He was warm and genuine. Later, we were formally introduced. He was Crown Prince Soulivong Savang, the grandson of the last King of Laos and the pretender to the Laos throne. Once a refugee, and now exiled.

A year later my best friend and his in-laws come back to SEA for the first time in over 30 years. It's an emotional trip for them. They arrived in Bangkok and everyone stayed at my place. During dinners stories were shared and this is when I learned how the Prince was a refugee, exiled to France and was now visiting America and was an influential figure in the local Lao community.

The family back in SEA in Chiang Mai

The brides father was a privileged officer and pilot in Laos. Right before the communist purge in 1975 he took a huge chance and gathered up his pregnant wife, small girl who was just a toddler, and headed out of Laos and into the relative safety of Thailand.

During the day they hid in bushes, and walked during the night. They were hunted and had little to eat or drink. On the 5th day they arrived at the Mekhong river and after carefully scouting for military troops made their way across the river and out of Laos and into Thailand. For the father, mother, and toddler, they wouldn't see Laos again for over 30 years.

Identities were kept secret from everyone. After crossing the river they encountered a refugee camp and were made to stay there for next three years. They told me stories of this camp, no where to sleep, nothing to eat, forced labor, and more.. but even though I listened carefully and tried my best to imagine what it must have been like.. I came no where close to really understanding.

After three years they escaped the refugee camp and boarded a rickety old boat bound for America. They were one of the few boats of "boat people" who survived, landed in America, and went on to start new lives.

The father is now a respected head of his community and his family lives in a beautiful home. He's a retired auto worker. The daughter not yet born is a real beauty and with her southern belle accent charms the pants off just about anybody in her sales job. The toddler, now my best friends wife, is highly educated and has spent years in Washington DC providing help to other refugees in SEA.

The toddler grown up, the unborn grownup, and the newborn

She escaped the purge and became a refugee in 1975. The problem has never been solved. Today there are many more refugees and only a handful get to come to the states or other western countries. Barbara Bush personally made the visit to Mae La on the Myanmar border in August of 2008 and brought several families back to the states with her. Barbara Bush was always doing things like this.

30+ years and there are still refugees with no homes, and no life. Only a lucky few ever leave the camps for anything better.

I am about to finally understand their stories.

Mae Sot

I must admit I very much like Mae Sot. The drive is about 6-7 hours from Bangkok. Arriving in Mae Sot I immediately noticed the temperature was about 10 degrees cooler than in Bangkok. During the entire week I was there the temperature didn't exceed 27c and was often 25c. It also rained the entire week I was there, almost non-stop.

A Public Park in Mae Sot

The town is small and clean by Thai standards and I immediately checked into a guesthouse recommended by a friend. The guesthouse is called the "Wattana Village" and is located about 3 km from the towns center. Very nice rooms were 450 baht, the restaurant was very good and reasonable, and it was a nice place to relax and enjoy.

The food at the guesthouse was excellent, but if you'd like to enjoy some good old fashioned American food then I recommend you head into town and look up a place owned and operated by "Canadian Dave" and his family. Reasonably priced, easy on the palate, and comfortable. You can't go wrong.

I'll be showing some images of Mae Sot in future columns. For now I wanted you to know a bit about Mae Sot and that it's the gateway to the refugee camps and orphanages along the Thai/Burma border. The river winds along the border separating Thailand from Burma and the camps are virtually at the river's edge.

The Situation

It's impossible to talk about the children without discussing why the children are there in the first place. Considering that I'm a guest in Thailand and the political sensitivity of the situation I expected that I'd be regurgitating some nonsense I didn't agree with. However, the more time I spent in the area and the more questions I asked, the more I realized, much to Thailand's disadvantage, the entire story wasn't being told.

Please keep in mind I've only spent a week in the area. A week filled with meeting and chatting with interesting people who have been working in the area for years. I'm sure I missed a lot which is why I'm up there again this week.

The Myanmar soldiers on instruction from their government have been engaged in genocide against the Karens and others for decades. They routinely burn down their villages and kill the people forcing them further in the jungle or across the Thai border. I've listened to some horrible stories, but one story that hit home was told by a western aid worker.

She and two others were volunteering at an orphanage. They live, sleep, bathe, and eat with the children. This means bathing in the river, eating the same food, and sleeping mostly outdoors in mosquito netting. The night before I arrived she describes how machine gun fire and explosions could be heard coming from across the river. The three volunteers gathered the children and sat there in darkness with machine gun fire not even a few hundred meters away. Explosions rocked the ground. All the while the children sat stoically knowing it was their parents, siblings, and other relatives who were being attacked and forced to flee. They were in Thailand, and this took place last month.

Three Volunteers

I could go on for pages on the atrocities committed by the Myanmar soldiers but I'm saving that for another time. For now knowing that the refugees live in camps directly on the river and are refugees because they're being hunted to extinction is enough.

A view of the concentration of huts

Huts built from bamboo with leaf roofs

Why is the Thai government so sensitive about this situation? It's simple. By western standards it appears the Thai government isn't doing nearly enough to help these refugees. By Thai standards, and any standards in SEA, the Thai government is doing a lot! They're doing as much for these refugees as they do for their poor in rural areas of Thailand. The administrative costs alone are hellishly expensive. The costs for the manpower at the checkpoints are huge, schools and medical care while limited are also provided.

There are an estimated 300,000 – 500,000 individuals in the nine camps at any one time. This changes with the seasons and political unrest. Mae La is the main camp (pictured above) and holds an estimated 40,000 – 80,000. There are over 200 NGOs in the area trying to support the refugees and some have small camp headquarters directly in the camp.

Typical NGO Camp HQ

Perhaps it's more important to know that the Thai soldiers and other officials I observed treated these refugees with kindness and respect. They give and expect trust in return. They operate at the imposed limits and beyond. There just simply is not enough to go around. Anyone who has traveled in Thailand knows the Thai government has trouble feeding and caring for its own citizens, so this generosity on the border is truly indicative of the Thai kindness of old.

Karen people looking out towards the road

Two Karen people with missing limbs from land mines

This is a very brief look, but this weekly is about the orphans so let's take a look at the orphanage.

Safe Haven Orphanage

The entrance to Safe Haven

When you think of an "orphanage" did you think of an outdoor camp build on rocks and mud? I sure didn't. Before arriving I had a mental picture that included a bare minimum of a few buildings and supporting facilities. I was surprised to find the orphanage was nothing more than a mud flat with huge boulders and a few makeshift structures. This orphanage has served the children for over 20 years.

Cows and goats grazing on weeds growing between the boulders

The terrain dictates where any buildings might be, the livestock eats, water drawn, and of course snakes and other wildlife creatures are everywhere.

They grow many of their own vegetables

The kids play simple games with nothing more than the sticks and rocks they can pick off the ground. Toys of any sort just aren't available. Any available resources go to food, medicine, and the very basic necessities.

The beauty of the terrain is stunning.

Despite the austere living conditions the kids get along great. They love and care for one another in a way you wish your western children could manage. Easy smiles and an excellent nature characterize these children perfectly. Older children help and guide the younger children.

The young girls of the camp dress and take a walk together

The camp director Tansanee who founded and directed this orphanage for 25 years lives on the site and this is her home. You can rest assured that "administrative costs" are kept to an absolute minimum and in fact such items are often donated.

Often the directors home is shared with adult aged ladies searching for lost children

There were several boys aged 15-17 which made an interesting comparison to my own 16 year old son who came with me on this trip. These boys have more responsibility at 15-16 years old than most western men have at 30. They care for the small children, cook the meals, carry water, clean, and repair just about anything. Asked to come out and join the others one boy declined saying he had to finish the dishes and clean the refrigerator before they lost the sunlight

The oldest boy in camp at 17 cares for one of the youngest

In the weeks prior to my visit the Myanmar military had stepped up operations causing a huge influx of refugees. This orphanage went from 60 to over 200 children almost overnight. When this happens any sort of makeshift shelter must do.

A simple tarp and a piece of bamboo make a desirable shelter

This building was going to be the church. Surprisingly most Karens are Christians. Funding was never received to finish the structure so a tarp was used as a roof and this is their main meeting place, school, or play area when its raining.

Tasanee the director with long stay children

The children gathered and sat very still. I couldn't help but feel they'd been coached to show respect to visitors as if their next meal depends on it. Often it does. Tasanee led the children in several songs in Thai, the Karen dialect, and English. Tears in Heaven was sung with class and emotion.

This small girl was outgoing and a natural leader

Every now and then a certain child would catch your eye and perhaps remind you of a relative, or maybe it was just the look. So many unique personalities, all the same plight.


It was interesting to watch the groupings. The long termers stuck together, yet helped the new arrivals without prompting. Boys of the same age grouped together, girls did the same, and the older kids took on parental roles of responsibility.

I'm not sure the clothes are very 'clean' as we define clean Beautiful child

This 12 year old was washing clothes for the camp

You've got one in every crowd. A small child with attitude. Refreshing

This boy watched from a distance for hours and then popped out from behind this boulder to stare me down

After the introductions and singing I was able to walk around the small camp and check out the buildings and living conditions. It surprised me to see 20-30 kids sleeping almost on top of each other without the benefit of beds or even a cover for the dirt floor.

One of the nicer structors. About 25-30 sleep here.

A fish pond was dug by hand and stocked from the river. Wild turkeys walk around free.

The teenage boys were very curious of my son. My son is half Asian so maybe they felt they could relate a bit more and somehow I doubt they get many teenage visitors. They really wanted to do something to thank him for their visit and my relatively privileged son was humbled when they approached him with a handmade bracelet as a gift and tied it on his wrist. For the first time in weeks he was speechless! A month later my son is still wearing the bracelet and I can see in his eyes that he remembers Safe Haven every time he looks at it.

This 16yo boy tried to be helpful and friendly.

More huts used for sleeping

Some structures serve as a sort of mess hall, some to store supplies, and the others for living quarters. No one has their own space and there is no privacy. Want to shower? Shed your clothes and jump in the river with everyone else.

And amid all this despair and boredom you'll find some of the most beautiful and scenic landscapes in the Kingdom. The contrast is startling at times.

The directors house from another angle

Food preparation and service

A loser look inside

Some visitor came back with this sign "Welcome to Big Mom's House on the Rocks." The kids call the director Tansasee "Big Mom."

After I left the orphanage passed I drove down past Mae La on the way back to Mae Sot and there were friendly faces along the entire route. As I passed the more heavily populated areas I slowed down and sometimes stopped to get out and take pictures. Some of the captures will stay in my mind for a long time if not forever.

A trading post of sorts

Young girls trading on the road side

A boy behind the wire at Mae La

All told I had a great experience in Mae Sot and along the border areas. I'll never forget my first visit to the Safe Haven Orphanage and my first glimpse of the Mae La refugee camp. Somehow my modest room at the guesthouse seemed like an extravagant luxury on my return.

I've yet to wrap my mind around this experience, too many unanswered questions and far too many young faces. Because of this I'm traveling back to Mae Sot this week and as you read this I'll be somewhere along the border with my camera and notebook. I'll be sharing more with you soon.

If you have any images of children, even ones you think might not be that good, please send them in. I'm really looking forward to making a proper mosaic and getting it out there in the right hands.

Gary Van Haneghan was very thankful for your images and has already put them to good use. Below you'll find a email he send me.

Until next time…


Just a short note to thank you and your readers for their response to my request for photos. Last weekend we just completed a very successful fund raiser, thanks in large part, to the photos donated.

Everyone loved them! I tried to use at least one photo from each of the photographers. The quality of what was submitted was excellent and I am more than pleased.

As you know we are a small grass roots New York State registered Non Profit Organization. Money raised will go to help orphan children in Thailand, with a portion being used to help children that go to school at the Stung Meanchey Dump in Cambodia. Every dollar that we raise goes directly to help the children.

We all know that money can be difficult to come by so we also work with a variety of other NGO’s to try and fund projects that we are unable to fund ourselves. Many people are helping, but it is never enough and the needs are so great.

The generosity of your readers will help us to make a brighter future for the many children that we try to help.

My very deepest thanks to all.

Best Personal Regards,

Gary Van Haneghan

Thailand Orphanages Foundation, Inc.

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