Against the trend


The last few years the situation in Nu Po and other camps, has changed a lot. Donors have redirected their focus on working inside Burma, organisations are following the donors, and part of the population either follows organisations or are finding refuge in Thai jobs, third countries or somewhere in Burma.

Not everybody is ready to leave and some people really have no place to go even with rations going down and other services disappearing in the camps. Education is still maintained but at a bare minimum. The community tries hard to keep schools in the camp, but they have not much to offer.

ESC has so far been able to function at the same level as before, this is in part because of the fact that it has always been a very basic idea, bring those who can teach together with those who want to learn. The main asset of the program are the teachers, the main tool is the daily conversation between teachers and students.

What helped was the fact that each student only had to show up for one lesson, for one hour. Nobody falls asleep after one hour. What helped was that each student could follow their own pace. What helped was that the teachers at the program have always been students themselves.

The volunteers from Europe, the USA, Australia, South America, Canada learned about different cultures, the local teachers learned from experience and sometimes from those who came from abroad.

Due to changes in camp composition, ESC has adapted in ways that has not hit the main objective. With a strong focus on the teachers, ESC has shifted some responsibilities and now it is a program that is 100% run by local teachers with support from their students.

Naw Cherry, Aung Kyaw Oo and Saw Peacock each takes some responsibility for running the program. They make sure that new students are recruited. They write the monthly reports and they write proposals when the roof needs repair. They find people to fix the roof, materials and make sure the school is a dry place for the next rainy season. In the meantime they provide the classes.




ESC has never been a free school, although for those who can not afford the fee, a waiver is in place. Joining ESC is for three month periods and each student pays 20 baht a month for one hour of English each working day. The first few years extra money was found by asking visitors of Nu Po and friends in Mae Sot or even abroad.

Then the program found a donor in the family of one of the founders, Hugh Cory. Two times they covered all the cost for one school year, and both times ESC managed to make this money last a lot longer, in total all the cost for 4 years were covered.


For the last few years ESC runs on a small budget that is provided by friends of the school, some who once attended the program and are now living abroad, in America and also in Burma. ESC is very grateful to those friends.

Volunteer Teachers

An important part of funding are the volunteer teachers, who receive a small stipend for expenses in the camp, for food, a cup of tea. The local teachers also donate a lot, their time, their skills and although they do receive a stipend, it cannot be called a proper salary due to the fact that they don’t have enough teaching hours.


The last few years it has been very difficult to convince applicants that teaching in Nu Po is a wonderful experience, both for the volunteer as for the students. Last year our friend Marco taught for almost 8 months and he has already been back as he misses his students, his geckos and the rest of Nu Po.

A new attempt is now underway and hopefully somebody will see that teaching in Nu Po is the same as teaching in Burma, you only don’t need to travel the whole country, everybody can be found at ESC.



A New Session Start

At ESC we do not follow a year long curriculum, we do not have a school where after 2 or 4 years you get a certificate that you have followed a course. Instead we teach several classes, from beginners to advanced with the aim that each student makes progress in speaking English, writing and most of all gain confidence. In order to do so we have 3 months periods and after such a period we have new entrance tests, and new students. Students who feel they can go from Starter B to Intermediate, can do so and many students have gone from starter A to Upper Intermediate or even Advanced.

While you can see who is inside a house by looking at the shoes in front, during the rainy season you have to look at the umbrellas.

In January 2017 we kind of had a re-start and at the end of July, Early August the third session of this year started. This also meant some changes in the working group. Oo San Win, who was our office manager for 6 months and who helped set up student registration and together with Htun Hla made some improvements to the compound, decided to spend more time at home. Therefore teacher Moe Moe offered to combine the two positions of office manager and teacher.

Aung Kyaw is one of the students in the Upper Intermediate class and he also teaches at the PAB high school. Since the third session he takes on one of the starter classes and helps in the office as well. Also new is teacher Cherry. After finishing KEDC she studied at EIP and worked for AMI at the Mental Health department. Now she has taken on the Intermediate class, and is also teaching at CCBC.

Peacock has decided to continue to teach at ESC and we have a new Thai teacher, Khin Kru Dina. She is teaching two classes, one with adults and one full of young children.


The First Week

A first week is always full of surprises, students register on the appointed day, and the day after, and the after and the day after and probably a week after. Classes have started and teachers are asked to be lenient and we are.

The second session started so far with 94 students, of which 37 are new. The students come from every section in the camp, and the majority is female.

Today we also had a small farewell as our teacher Wah Wah Htoo Say is leaving ESC for another future. She was with ESC for almost two years and has been very helpful with setting up the school again in 2017. Her enthusiasm in the classroom will be missed.

And also Tun Hla will focus on other topics. He was the person who started the talks in November to restart the school and he helped clearing the compound and some maintenance of the buildings. Without him ESC might not be the school it is now.

The school compound added to the farewell with being beautiful.

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.


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.