Refugee Camps: Part one


This picture was taken in 1979 in a refugee camp in the Thai province of Ubon Ratchanthani


I am in the black dress( second from the right) standing in front of my grandma and step-grandfather 

People are familiar with the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.  There are a dozen story I can tell about the people in this picture. Some sad, some funny, and some uplifting ones.  Some stories I am a central figure to, some I am a bystander, and others I  do not play any role in.  These people’s lives are an integral part of who I am, where I come from, and what I believe in.  Some of them are family members, some are friends and others are people who became a part of my life.  In that refugee camp in Ubon, we were one because of our shared hardship and struggle to make our lives better. When we all had to seperate and make our own way to different parts of the world on that day, it was a sad chapter in our lives.  Having to leave some of them behind until it was their turn to emigrate was necessary.  Fortunately, for my family and I we were able to see some of them again in America.  Some of them like two of my step-father’s cousin ( Ai You ck: fourth from the left, and Ai Yu ung: eighth from the left) would even live with us in Clovis, New Mexico. 

In 1974, my mom and stepfather decided to cross over to Thailand illegally.  They left my older sister, Paramy ( 5), little sister (3) Khonsavahn, me (4) and my oldest brother Vorada (6) in Laos because they didn’t have any money yet to take us.  My sisters and I would remain with my grandmother close to the Thai border until my mom sent for us.  As for my older brother, he was sent to stay with my great grandfather at the Wat close to Pakse where my mother’s family is from.

My mother and step-father would not be able to send for us until almost a year later because of some problems they ran into.  The first obstacle of course was money:  they didn’t have any.  They left Laos with a small pack of their clothing and that was it.  When they got to Kamalaid (I am spelling it phonetically so I’m sure it is the wrong spelling) a village in South Thailand, they sold their nice clothes for 80 baht.  They found a house to rent for 40 baht and the 20 baht they had left, they use to buy a rice steamer and a little bit of food. At the time they did not know anybody yet.  Luckily for them, a nice Thai lady befriended them.  She taught my mom and dad to make fresh noodles and sweets to sell at th bus station.  At first my mom was not a good cook at all.  She said making the fresh noodles and sweets took a while to make, but eventually she got the hang of it.

Image of Sam Lor from

While my mom sold noodles and sweets, my dad decided to rent  a sam lor (three wheeled bicycle) to haul people around to make some money.  Once again at first he was not good at it.  My mom said the first time he tried to drive the sam lor he ran into a thorn bush.  I guess my dad had to adjust from being a soldier in the Laos army to a “taxi” driver.  Eventually, he was able to control the som lor and made some money doing that.  Besides selling sweets and noodles, my mom also did laundry for a rich Thai family.  They would only pay her 50 baht a month.  Another job they took on was shifting rocks that would be used for building houses. They got paid only 20 baht for a big trash can size.  My mom said it was hard work, especially because by that time she was pregnant with my little brother.

Just when my mom and stepdad was almost ready to send for us, someone told on the lady who was helping my parents.  They told the authorities that she was harboring illegal immigrants.  The Thai authorities showed up and arrested my mom and stepdad and took them to jail. 

*** Part two I will continue the story of my parents’ incarceration in the Thai jail for illegally entering the country.


28 thoughts on “Refugee Camps: Part one

  1. omg, i was born in ubon, thailand in 1979. i wish i had a picture like this…. actually i wish i had any pictures from ‘home’. thanks again for sharing.

  2. Laotian Teacher

    That’s crazy! What a small world! I was eight by 1979 by the time my family eventually left the refugee camp. Maybe you should ask your parents if they have any pics while you guys were there.

  3. all of our photos got ruined when i was young. i think i have one photo left of like a mugshot of me as a baby before we left the refugee camp. as a photographer, i know how valuable photos are so not having them makes me feel less… complete.

  4. Laotian Teacher

    I understand where you are coming from because I can’t find the pic of my sister, Paramy the one that passed. Also, there was one pic of all of us as kids and we can’t find that one either. Losing pics is like losing your memory. It is in a way like a tragedy because some parts of your life is gone, but if you have pics then you can have something to remember besides a faulty memory.

    Like I commented on your page, your are an amazing photographer. Maybe that is why your pictures capture your subject so well: you want to preserve that moment of significance in the lives of your clients.

  5. Thei

    It’s heartwarming for me to hear a story from someone that was at the Ubon refugee camp during that time. I envy that you have such a vivid picture of your family’s history in Laos. I have tiny bits and pieces of information about family’s history in Laos. Some of it from the perspectives from my father, some my mother, a tiny bit from my older half brother, but the bulk it is from my older sister.

    Just like your family, my family was at Ubon during that time too. As a matter of fact, I was born in that camp back in December 1978. My family had a decent size brood there that consisted of my family of 6 and my cousins which had 7 members. Also, like your stepfather, my father was soldier of the Royal Lao Army.

    Speaking of pictures, my mother told me a sad story that when Pathet Laos assumed control she all to burn pictures she had of my father. It would have dangerous for her if the communist army discovered she was married to a member of the opposing faction.

    Well, all in all, I thorough enjoyed your story. I like hearing personal accounts of other Laotians’ experiences of Laos during that time. Which reminds me, I got to watch The Betrayal – Nerakhoon.

    1. Laotian Teacher

      Thei, I interview my mom for the story. When you were born I was still in the camp, but left a year later. By then I was almost nine years old.

      I think it is sad that your mom had to burn the pictures of your dad to protect everyone. Did your dad made it out of Laos? You need to keep asking your mom and older sister and write down your story. We all need to do that to preserve our stories.

      I have not seen The Betrayal yet but met the man, Ai Thavisouk who the story is about. I will write about him and post his picture.

    2. Samantha

      Wow…it’s amazing how I ran into this story because this is something I have been seeking! I was born in December 1978 at the Ubon refugee camp and our family came to Washington, DC in 1980. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. lao boy

    Hi Teacher, I saw Nerakoone last weekend in Nashville. What do you think about the film. If your story was told in such a way, would you think it would be something like that? 🙂

  7. For most refugee back then during the war it was tough.but not as brave to forget the nightmare that been
    haunting me all these years which I try to forget.It was a very sunny day in laos.My family was gathering around
    to eat with our portable bamboo table.suddenly there was this loud screaming from one of the village farmer
    who were living next door from us in lao.he shouted the soldier are coming the soldier are coming.At that time
    i didn’t understand what he meant by saying the soldiers are coming.I was only 7 during that time.Suddenly,
    out of the blue heard a hissing whistle sound coming from the sky that it was a bomb being dropped on our
    village.Explosion after explosion it was such horror scence to watch and escaped from.After the first bomb
    dropped my father started to grabbed me and my sister along with my mother to escaped for safety.As we we’re
    escaping to a near by cave i seen bombs on dropped on people and animal as everyone was trying to escape.
    the nighmare i had was so extreme i couldn’t shook it off because i had never seen people died in front of my
    eyes each night i would woke up in the middle of the night and just watch tv until the sun came up.I wish i can
    tell you more about how i we escape to refugee came but it was too much trauma going on in my mind.I had
    a good story and i wanted to shared but i’m good in telling with type at the same time may some other time.

  8. Actually i’m not good in tpying and telling a stories at the same time that’s what i mean.On my last
    paragragh so don’t get confused with not good with good o.

  9. Laotian Teacher

    Donnie, I’m a history teacher so I am always interested in hearing about other people’s story. I am seriously thinking about writing a book about refugees and collecting refugee stories from Laotians. I think it is extremely important that we record down our memories no matter how painful because the younger generations need to know what happened. Your story reminds me of a memory I have when I was in Laos living in the village with my grandma. I have this image of my grandmother, my little sister and other people sitting around eating chicken soup when the Vietnamese soldiers stormed the village. The Lao soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers started shooting at each other and I was too stunned to move, until my grandma screamed at me to grap the bowl with the soup in it and for me to jump into the ditch so I wouldn’t get hit with the bullets. This memory is so real to me, but I can’t confirm it because my grandmother passed away. So, I don’t know if it is something I imagined or not.

  10. Lao teacher,I support you if you are going to write a book about how our people escape from war.I
    absolutely agree 100% that we do needs to get our stories from people who have been all
    lived through those tradegy to be told to our younger generations.In america they don’t really understand
    how hard is was for us to try to survive the bombing.And our youth these day don’t even have clue about
    what our elders are trying to tell them.It is heartbroken for me when I see our younger generations put
    themselves in the catergory so called I’m an american,i born here,and our past was not part of their problem.
    To me pesonally,I take very seriously because i didn’t want to feel that part of me is being lost,taken,or that
    my heritage is being lost.It’s hard to get our youth attention sometime the culture in america is not like it was
    in Laos.In Laos we would teach and tells stories to our kids and they would listen.But here eveyone is on
    their own time and the have to work to pay bills.That I can understand.Each family barely sit down,eat,and
    talk at dinner anymore.In Laos We would see everyone during dinner now it is not the same as it was at home.
    It would be nice if our younger generations would take a time out and as the older folks about our history
    thay have no idea what stories they’re missing.Not that the stories they’ll find is just a old people talk to wanted
    their child or grandchildren to do better it is a treasure that worth more than money and gold can’t buy.IF they
    really really listen for onces to our parents stories and take times to ask they’ll hear the best stories in their
    lifetime not the oscar or academy movies can’t top this.Any teacher,it’s been wonderful to read the feed back from you and hope to hear some from you and all of our people soon.To each everyone who’s been following this you are all welcome to join in no stories are too small or to small too short to be told.Remember what’s makes a good living is a good teacher.

  11. mani

    Thank your for your story. It was very well written and the details shared was so moving. Your story of love, loyalty, and immense strength is inspirational. I look forward to reading more of your story. Thanks again.

  12. Tim

    Thanks for sharing your story. I was born in Pakse and was in the same refugee camp at the same time as you. We left in November, 1979 and settled in Canada. Very similar story to yours. Fortunately, we still have a few pictures from the camp along with all our refugee pictures (“mug shots”). I understand that the camp is no longer there, but I would love to go back to see the area and hopefully some long forgotten memories will come back. Thanks again.

    1. Laotian Teacher

      Tim, I want to go back as well and see what is there now. I have memories of the place, like the flowers we had in the front of our hut, the open air market in the camp, playing in the dirt hill etc. We need to write our experiences. I want to write a book and have a collection of stories and pictures where we have stories like this.

  13. Tim

    I have awesome memories of just playing with my friends. We caught grasshoppers, fought crickets, and just had fun. Just wondering…I’ve asked everyone I know from the camp this question without any luck, but I remember playing with seed pods that grew along the perimeter fence of the camp. The pod would pop when we put it into water. Do you have any idea what those pods were?

    I agree that we should put our stories and experiences down on paper….

  14. Laotian Teacher

    Tim, what you said about the pod sounds familiar. Didn’t we eat it? I will ask my mom about it. One of the games we played was with cigarette packets. We would get the packets and fold it into a triangle and the we would all put in one “pack” and stack it. Then we would draw a line to stand behind and then we would use our flipflops and through it at the stack, hoping that it would hit the pile outside the circle that we had drawn. Any “pack” that was outside we would win. Simple games we kids played but it kept us occupied.

  15. Thavikiet

    wow, i was born in that refugee camp in 1979 and we came to the US by a church sponsorship and lived in the church in NJ. It is so amazing to hear these stories. I have very few pictures from what my mom kept. I’m certain she would love to participate in the story gatherings. She was young when she escaped Savannakhet alone across the river.

    I am on a search to understand so much of the culture I havent learned.

    keep up the great work

  16. Thanks for the picture and article. This brings back memories.

    In 1979 or 1980, I was in Ubon too….a little kid running around. I probably ran past the houses in the pictures.

    1. Life, Love, and Happiness

      Kham, my family and I was there from 1975-1979. It’s great to hear about other people being in the same place.

      1. Kham

        I heard about a big fire before we got there. You must have been there. Was it a big fire? Everything looked fine by the time we got there.

        I remembered this French and Japanese duo teaching kids how to sing row-row-your-boat. Kind of funny with all the accents.

  17. Sandy

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I stumbled upon it as I was googling about the camp where my parents, my older sister, and older brother lived for a short while before emigrating to United States. I couldn’t even imagine the hardship that our families had to endure during those times. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  18. khamsing

    i was there at that big fire in ubon, thailand about 29 year ago it was at nighttime when everyone was sleeping .i still remember a lil bit i dont even remember who woke me up must had an angel lookin over me that night all i remember people was runnin and screamin. it was a really really big fire it was like a domino effect with all the houses built on wood and hay…. so glad to be alive:)

    1. Kamsing when I was there in Ubon, there was a fire around 78 or 79. My mom said she knew the man( Ai Vat) who accudently started the fire. He was frying some fish to go sell and then the fire got out of control. Since the houses(huts) we lived in was made of grass and bamboo, the fire spread rapidly. Ai Vat was thrown in prison for six years for that. When he got out he later immigrated to Argentina with his family only to die about 9 years later because he was sick.

  19. guillaume

    Hi guys! very nice to hear other stories about that camp. A little bit of mine to share.
    My parents born in Pakse escaped to Thailand in 1978. My dad was captured as he had his uniform( he was a an operator in the airport of Pakse) and my mum too. They got in jail both for about a year.
    My dad was fighting over frogs to eat with the other prisoners and my mum hide money in a pillow that she carry it all the time with her.
    After sent back to Laos they escaped again. My mum was pregnant of me by that time and the boat they used to cross the river sunk. At night my dad helped her to reach safe ground by swimming. Please note my mum can not swim even in 2014! They got refuge in a thai family and went to that Ubon Camp.

    The conditions of living were horrible. The rations of food were once a month for the rice and twice a week for the other foods. If anybody did not like you he could kill you and stealing was common. Hopefully my aunt sent them money to buy extra food and my dad knew someone in that camp who was in charge who was doing traffic of the rations of food.

    So i was born in that time. Not inside the camp my mum said but at a hospital.. They were waiting to be sent abroad. Lots of calling to go to the US and Canada but my parents wanted to join another aunt in Paris France. After 14 months of waiting they flew to Strasbourg France where i grew up.

    Now bit of me. I studied Optician in Paris and now is a successful one in London!
    My born name was Somchit so it is bit funny now that i live in the UK. my name changed when my family got the french nationality i was 9.

    Wish all the best to the people who experienced that moment in that Ubon Camp but i am proud to come from there…;)



  20. Hi, Thank you for your story, I also was in Thai refugee camp from 1980-1983.
    but I was in Nongkhai Camp not Ubon. I’ve created a page to share all photos from Lao refugee camps on facebook, just type ‘Life in the Lao Refugee Camp’ in the search box, there are few photos from Ubon camp in there so if you have any please share them.

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