The Road to Nu Pho

The road to Nu Pho is not just one road, nor is it only a surfaced or non-surfaced area. For some the road to Nu Pho started in 1988 with the demonstrations in Burma, for others the road started in a burned down village in Karen State, and for more fortunate ones it might have started with a backpacking trip in South East Asia, a volunteer placement hunt on-line or the desire to find an alternative route from Utrecht to Amsterdam. In the end all these people at some time or other came together in Nu Pho and created a diverse and vibrant community.

As far as physical roads are concerned, Nu Pho is accessible from two directions. From the west comes the road out of Burma and the Thai town Paung Klain, and from the north-east comes the road from Umphang and Mae Sot. The road coming out of Burma is a dirt path that is hardened and dusty in the dry season; muddy and wet in the wet season. Travel time during the latter period can be twice or four times as much as in the dry season. The 45 minutes that it takes to get from Paung Klain to Nu Pho takes the traveller over a surfaced road, heavily potholed and littered with gravel that causes multiple accidents with motorcycles and other transportation modes.

The road coming from Mae Sot and Umphang has been surfaced for quite some time, with some stretches in need of some repair. The early stretches just outside of Mae Sot are 4 lanes wide and offer an uninterrupted view of the fields as all shade giving trees have been cut to make way for the road extensions.  The view of the rice paddies is also fading as rice fields make place for concrete constructions as is habitually after a road has been build or widened.

The 4 lane road later turns to 2 lane although some stretches are 4 lane again. It took some time to realise this was not only bad planning, as are many things in Thailand, it was and is also a method to keep local traffic in villages separated from through traffic.

After village 48, suitably located 48 kilometers after you have left Mae Sot, the road makes a turn of 90 degrees to the left and 12 %* skyward. (*this is a non-scientific guess by someone who once cycled this road and matches muscles ache-speed-tiredness-cursing to establish a percentage for an ascent.) The road then changes from great to fabulous. It has been calculated, not by the same person who came up with the percentage thing, that there are 1219 curves in the road between Mae Sot and Umphang, and most of those are incredibly beautiful or horribly vomit inducing, depending on the personal experience.

Umpiem Mai

Standing in front of KLJC, this is the view of Umpiem Mai.

Standing in front of KLJC, this is the view of Umpiem Mai.

It is 38 kilometers more before there is a pleasant stop at an ever increasing rest place. Thirteen years ago, the same place was an area with two toilet blocks and a 4 square meters little office with a small counter where a hot thermo and a stack of three-in-one coffee gave the first glimpses of what was to come. The entrepreneurial spirit of a government worker, responsible for safe keeping the area and the road behind, later gave way to several eating places, a small market and the first coffee shop in what soon will be a world dominating coffee chain serving coffee that is grown in the hills around the area. With a mug in hand, standing on the edges of the parking spaces you can have a look at Umpiem Mai, a refugee camp that was established in August 1999 to house refugees who had just seen their second camp burned down, and for some their third house.


The road in the middle is the main road through the camp.

The stop is usually about 20 minutes after which the road goes on, although a few minutes later there is a stop to allow those who wish to disembark in Umpiem Mai to do so, while others might get on. So far the car might have been the transportation vehicle for up to 25 or 30 people, sitting on the narrow benches, hunching and hanging in the narrower aisle, hanging on the back or sitting on top. Although the prices are the same, some people see the rooftop as VIP, hanging on the back as First Class, sitting on the bench Second Class and sitting on the floor Third Class. This might some how be edited during the rainy season. And others disagree with these classifications.

After Umpiem Mai it is a further 76 kilomters to Umphang, a lovely little town in a gorgeous valley full of rice paddies, and surrounded by hills. In many occasions, the traveller to Nu Pho will not enter Umphang as a few kilometers before the town, the road to Nu Pho starts and a line-car exchange is set up at the crossroads. The stop can take two minutes or half an hour. Nu Pho is then a further 65 kilometers away and the road is good for the first 17 or so, as this brings the travellers to the entrance of one of Thailand’s most venerated waterfalls: Thee Lor Su, which is the Karen name for: Big Water Fall. The fact that the Thai have adopted the name is a clear proof that the Karen have occupied an area that is greater than what they actually control now. On both sides of teh border.

After Tee Lor Su, most travellers are Burmese going home, locals going home and refugees and the aid workers who come assist. And ESC teachers. Therefore the road now gets more adventurous. Every year big machines come to flatten and harden the road, and every year big chunks of road are re-tarmacced and otherwise repaired, however always in such a way that it is needed again pretty soon. And although it would be easily possible to surface the road in one year from Umphang to Paing Klair, it never happens.


Leaving Nu Pho, this is the situation just outside the camp. The water can be half a meter deep.

Leaving Nu Pho, this is the situation just outside the camp. The water can be half a meter deep.

Especially in the rainy season, the last few kilometers before Nu Pho can be very muddy, with walls on either side of the trucks up to a meter and a half high. Despite these barriers, people keep travelling up and down, and ESC has never been out of teachers because of the road situation. This shows how dedicated the teachers are, how rewarding it is to teach a group of knowledge craving people.

These men use their elephant for transportation and work horse. In the muddy-rainy season a better option than anything else.

These men use their elephant for transportation and work horse. In the muddy-rainy season a better option than anything else.


The Start of ESC

English Speaking Course

In 2006, some activists in Nu Po noticed the need for English education for adults who had the desire to resettle to a third country. After the USA announced it would accept almost 100,000 refugees from Burma as new citizens, many applied or started to have hopes for a future in that country. Other countries would also increase the intake of refugees so the mood in the camps changed dramatically.

Up until then camps were mostly occupied by Karen escaping civil war and repression by the Burmese government. Education in the camp was organized by the Karen and supported by several organisations, like ZOA and World Education. This meant that for children and teenagers it was possible to have 12 years of formal education. In addition some programs provided further education, however these programs could only offer this to a select group of students.

John Glenn and another member (should get the name, Ton), in front of the office of the Thai Commander.

John Glenn and another member (should get the name, Ton), in front of the office of the Thai Commander.

In 2005, the Thai authorities started to motivate refugees who stayed in Mae Sot or Bangkok, to move to the camps, and the resettlement program gave them a carrot and a stick in one. In order to be eligible for resettlement, a refugee had to live in one of the camps. For Nu Po that meant that in a short time the population grew from around 13,000 to 18,000. Not just with Burmese from Mae Sot, but also new refugees from fighting in Karen State and those who were active in the Saffron revolution.

Several committee members discuss a plan of action.

Several committee members discuss a plan of action.

Most non-Karen ended up in a new section of the camp, called the PAB section. A High School was established and several kindergartens and primary schools. For adults, there was nothing. After several meetings, a committee was formed and plans for a special program were created. Some activists had contacts out of the camp and with those contacts a curriculum was chosen and two volunteer teachers found.

Through the whole camp, posters were hung and flyers distributed.

Through the whole camp, posters were hung and flyers distributed.

On a day in June 2007, flyers were hung all over Nu Po camp and people were asked to sit a placement test for the new school. The driving force behind ESC was John Glenn, a former political prisoner with an abundance of energy and plans. A day after the flyers were hung he would walk around telling everybody who wanted to hear, and everybody who didn’t want to hear that 100 people had applied. A day later he would tell the same people that 200 people had applied. And as days passed by and the testing day drew nearer, the numbers of applications would grow. On the day of the test almost 700 people showed up.

With a large committee as organizing entity, the testing day was an example of the benefits of collaboration. The applicants would do the test in groups and the whole atmosphere was more like that on a summer music festival than like the anxiety of a testing day. The last groups had to do their testing in the evening, using candles for illumination.

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As this was a placement test, even those who couldn’t answer one question would be accepted into the program. The idea was to have classes ranging from absolute beginners to intermediate to advanced students. Marking the tests happened at the same time, and within one day the students knew what classes they had been accepted to.

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The curriculum was selected by Hugh Cory, and he also gave some teacher training to the 5 local teachers who would be part of the staff. With vast experience in teaching English as a foreign language, he showed ESC the direction in order to be successful.

Burma Volunteer Program (BVP) searched for two volunteer teachers, using their extensive connections. Typically a volunteer for BVP would come to Mae Sot for three months, Michelle and Ryan had other plans. Instead of a honeymoon they wanted to volunteer for a year, and ESC was the grateful recipient of this gesture. Leaving the beginner and starting classes to local teachers, they divided the remaining classes, using the books that Hugh had recommended. The other volunteer residing and teaching in Nu Po, Ton, would take the advanced class.

BAP high school offered their classrooms before 8.30 am, and after 3.30 pm. Not all 600 students would show up on the first day, and from those who did, not all would stay on. Within a few months a stable group of 250 students would remain.

Soon after ESC opened its doors, the official day is July 7, 2007 or the auspicious 7-7-7, another program started as well. This was funded by the UN and implemented by ZOA, with the same aim, offering English for those who wish to resettle and who aren’t going to another school. Many ESC students would visit this program as well, showing their eagerness.

Teaching Hours

This first year, each student would get 1 ½ hours of English per day, 3 days a week. The levels were Beginner A and B, Starter A and B, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate and Advanced. The first two groups, Starter and Beginner, were taught by local teachers, the rest by the foreign volunteers.

Soon teachers started organizing out of class activities and Michelle and Ryan soon were immersed in camp life. As Nu Po is over 6 hours away from Mae Sot, it is not worthwhile to leave the camp too often. Besides that, the interactions with students take place inside and outside the class rooms and that is what makes ESC successful and special.

Summer Break

At the end of the first year, Michelle and Ryan went home. Reviewing the first year, John Glenn and Ton came up with the idea to build ESC’s own classrooms. Some money was found and while Ton went home for a visit, John Glenn started construction. When Ton came back he saw a building that was 4 times bigger than the first plan. In fact John Glenn had made a copy of the students’ building that was destroyed by the Burmese authorities in 1962, on July the 7th!.

Since then over 30 teachers have come to Nu Po and taught at ESC. The program has changed, a library and badminton court attached, but the idea behind the school stayed the same: offering quality teaching to those who want to improve their English skills.


Welcome to this blog where I will try to create a history of English Speaking Course (ESC) in Nu Pho, a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Burma. Since the start I have been involved with this school, although it was not something I started, that honor goes to a group of dedicated people who resided in the camp in 2006. All of them, I think, have by now moved on to greener pastures, as have many of the students that joined the program.

Those who went to countries like the USA, Australia and Norway, from time to time express fond memories of the time spend in Nu Pho and at ESC. Others went on to find employment in the camp or in Mae Sot, often with an enhanced confidence that was nurtured at ESC.

Hundreds of students called ESC their home during its existence, and it is still running, and over 30 volunteers came from all over the world to teach for 3 months, often staying longer.

It is my hope to show through this blog what a group of people can do if they have a shared objective and the willingness to aim for something higher. Several individuals made the difference between talking about a plan and executing it, the whole group made it all work.

To be part of this is humbling.