In a sleepy town in northern Thailand, North Korean refugees walk the final legs of what they hope will be a 2,500-mile journey to a better life. From a 2011 story originally published in The Diplomat.
Of all the people who have passed by Tu Sanaroon’s riverfront guesthouse lately, it was the man who knocked on her door in the middle of the night, carrying his elderly mother on his back, who she remembers most.
The monsoon rains had drenched this sleepy town for hours and the group of migrants, their clothes soaking wet, had come looking for shelter.
"This other old woman, she cannot walk. I think she was his mother. And he carried her by the back like this," Tu said, hunching over as if shouldering a heavy load.
Tu says she turned the group away, afraid she would get in trouble with local authorities for housing undocumented migrants. Instead, she gave them blankets and showed them to a nearby pagoda. When she checked on them in the morning, they were gone.
To most in Thailand, it’s not Chiang Saen’s temple ruins, or its ancient city walls that draw the visitors. Rather, it’s the closest hub to one of Thailand’s kitschier tourist attractions, lying a few miles south of the so-called Golden Triangle. Once a moniker bestowed on an area notorious as a major center for global opium production, here it refers to the tourist photo-op situated near the point where Thailand meets Laos and Burma at the Mekong River.
Chiang Saen’s place in the triangle has also made it an unlikely transit point for a thriving underground railway of refugees that begins 2,500 miles to the north. For many defectors fleeing North Korea, Chiang Saen has become a key gateway on the long journey to freedom, fueled by an established network of brokers and Christian missionary organizations.
Tu says she started seeing small groups of North Koreans, no more than a handful at a time, a few years ago. These days, a new group arrives almost daily.
"I feel sad for them because this is not their country," she said. "I don't know how much money they have. Enough to get to another city? I want to help them but I can’t."
Late one afternoon, after days of unbroken rainfall gave way to a spot of hot, dry weather, a group of 10 North Koreans found themselves sitting in the shade by the side of the road.
"North Korea," one woman said in rudimentary English when asked where she’s from. "DPRK."
She says she spent the last five years in China. She came here with her elderly mother and a two-year-old child. Another two families are part of the group. But she changes the subject when asked about her journey, or her time in North Korea.
She just wants to go to Bangkok, the woman explains. But the last bus has left for the day. She pulls out a cellphone and calls a contact — a friend, she says, in South Korea. After several minutes of heated discussion, she decides it’s time to push onward. She hunches forward, carrying her two-year-old on her back. Then, as cars and trucks rumble past, she leads the group on a steady march into town.
As evening falls, the pace has slowed. The elderly woman can no longer walk on her tired feet. The people in the group discuss what to do as a restaurant light silhouettes their bodies against the fading sky.
They won’t be heading to Bangkok tonight. The families walk into a police station, and turn themselves in. Now, they hope, they’re one step closer to home.