Our Great Escape
By Sao Noan Oo
It was a beautiful evening in May. The moon had just come into
view from behind the sky line as my sisters and I had just returned from
a long walk. As we sat on the veranda drinking fruit juices we could
feel a gentle breeze filled with soft fragrances, blowing over our
faces. It was very pleasant and relaxing!
At 7 pm., we went into the dining room to join our parents and brothers
for dinner. Mother was not there: not feeling very well she had
gone to bed. After dinner, while we were playing card games Liyama, a
Korean working as a junior partner in the Japanese firm came to visit.
We were surprised that he had come alone, because he and Kamei San, his
senior partner had always come together.
"Where is Kamei San?", Noan enquired. He told us that Kamei San
had a lot of work and had stayed at the office to finish it. There
was something about his expression that was not very convincing but, at
that time we did not attach too much importance to it.
Having found out that Mother was not well, Liyama asked Father whether
he could go in and see her. "Of course", Father replied, and led
him into the bedroom. This was not unusual: one of the company's
personnel had often visited and examined us, when we were ill. These
were not trained medical doctors, but they had enough knowledge to
diagnose common illnesses and to prescribe appropriate medications.
We children continued playing games until we were bored by them and it
was nearly time for bed. It seemed that hours had gone by and
Liyama was still talking to our parents. We became uneasy and sensed
that, whatever they were discussing, was very serious and important.”
"What can they be talking about?” Noan wondered, putting into words the
thoughts of the rest of us. The inner lounge adjoined our parents'
bedroom. Sai Kham cheeky as ever, walked to the door to eaves
drop. Kyeo rushed to join him, but announced that she could not
hear a thing, and they both soon gave up.
When Liyama finally came out of the bedroom, his expression was so grim
that we were not sure whether we should speak to him. However, he did
wish us 'sayonara' before he left. Mother and Father remained in the
bedroom and we did not see them until the following morning.
The next morning we were still in bed, when Sai Kham bounced into our
bedrooms, and pulled off our blankets, 'Get up, you lazy bones. Mother
and Father want to see all of us, “Why do they want to see us?” I asked.
“I don't know. Hurry up;” and he pulled me out of bed.
We hurriedly washed and dressed and assembled in the front lounge where
my Parents were waiting. Mother looked lovely, but worried and
tired. Father was quite composed, but he too looked tired. When we
were all seated, Father rubbed his hands, something he usually did, when
he was about to introduce a serious topic. He told us that the
previous evening Liyama had come, not on a social visit, but to warn us
of imminent developments in our State: the Japanese were losing the war,
and the Americans were speedily advancing into several parts of the Shan
State. They had taken Laika, an adjoining state north of ours and,
with the help of the Kachins and Karens, had set up an army base camp.
Our state would probably become a major battle ground between the above
combined forces and the Japanese soldiers. Liyama had advised that
Mother, we children and other women relatives should leave home
immediately and travel north towards Laika.
“What about you, Father? Are you not coming with us?” I interrupted.
Mother tried to reassure us by explaining that he and Uncle would catch
up with us, as soon as they could. For them to leave at that time
would be too risky: Father's absence might cause the Japanese soldiers
to become suspicious of our plan.
As we were to leave that night Mother had instructed us to go and
pack our cases, and to take with us only the essential and our everyday
clothing. Too shocked to ask any more questions, silently and
obediently we went to our bedrooms to begin packing. I remember I
sat on my bed and wondered where this escape would take us. Would
we ever see our home again?.
At midnight we softly climbed into the lorry and soon the engine roared
and gradually took us away from home. Our Mother’s plan was that
we would stop at our house in a village twenty miles away. She had
hoped that before we had travel further Father and Uncle would be able
to join us.
Dawn was breaking, and as we approached the village, we saw thick black
smoke rising, as if something had been burning fiercely. We drove
on into the village where some people were waiting for us. Amongst
them was the Village Headman, who greeted us with the bad news that our
house had been burnt to the ground. A group of Japanese soldiers
had been in the village the previous night and had set fire to our
house. We had no idea whether the Japanese soldiers knew of our
plan, or whether knowing that they were losing the war and in
desperation they had set off on a path of random destruction.
The village was no longer a safe place so we continued our journey until
we came to a stony cave. The cave had a wide opening shaped like
an arch which looked as if it had been artistically carved. It was
quite light and big enough to let air into the interior, where we found
an area, which was quite roomy and high enough for us to make it into a
living area. The men immediately got to work and erected bamboo
stages to give us some dry area to sit and lay our mattresses. Two
lines of ropes were fixed to the walls of the cave at the upper and
lower ends of the mattresses so that we could put up mosquito nets.
We had not eaten since we left home our stomachs rumbled with hunger,
but we had to make do with the cold minced meat and Kao Larm which we
brought with us. For other meals we bought raw food from the
nearby villages, while the surrounding woods and forests provided us
with ample vegetables and mushrooms. Water was drawn from a nearby
well, and there was no shortage of logs to keep the fire burning all day
to cook food or boil water.
After lunch we often sat outside the cave, when one day, to our
amazement, we saw a huge monkey scrambling to sit on the hill just above
us. He was followed by three or four little ones, jumping from tree to
tree. When they had enough of play they came and sat next to the
leader. Gradually the others followed, until there was a group of
fifteen to twenty. They stared inquisitively at us and we at them
until they decided to leave. This became a daily occurrence.
In the evenings we would sit round a fire, eating roasted potatoes and
chestnuts and, watch the sun sink behind the hills, painting the blue
sky with wonderful colours of purple and red. Flocks of birds
would be flying home to roost ad we would listen to their songs: the
nightingales, the doves, the cuckoos and the pigeons, all singing their
own tune: and together producing sweet melodies that echoed through the
trees and beyond the cave. The world seemed so free from trouble
and care: totally different from the reality of our situation.
At night, I had often lain awake for hours and sometimes it was a bit
scary, because it was so quiet that it was possible to hear everything
that stirred, even the humming of mosquitoes. Now and again, the
loud and clear hooting of an owl or the howling of wolves would pierce
through the silence of the night.
Each morning we rose with the sun to wander and climb the forested hills
surrounding the cave. We discovered numerous species of wild
flowers and orchids. The orchids were the most interesting, very
beautiful and delicate. We watched brightly coloured birds so still in
the tree tops that looked like flowers in bloom. We would have
liked to wander further into the forest, but we thought our long absence
from the cave might add to Mother's many worries. We knew that
Mother was very concerned for Father and Uncle although she had tried to
show exterior calm and be strong for us.
Early one evening as we were wandering near the cave waiting for dinner,
we saw three villagers in the distance walking towards us. I
called to Mother who was inside the cave, 'Mother, come quickly'.
She was out in a second. We all clung together, our eyes focussed on the
three men, until Sai Kham, with the instinctive intuition of a ten year
old, suddenly shouted, "Father" and ran towards them. It was
indeed Father and Uncle but we still could not recognise the third man
as we all ran to greet them. It turned out to be Kamei San, one of
the managers from the Japanese firm.
After the initial greetings, Kamei San told Mother that he was at peace
with himself now that he had brought Father and Uncle to be reunited
with the family. “What about you, Kamei San, what's going to
happen to you?” she asked with concern in her voice. Kamei San
evaded the questions, but there were tears in his eyes as he told Father
that he should get his family to Laika as soon as possible. Father
acknowledged the warning and thanked Kamei San for what he had already
done and for being a good friend. It was Father's hope that they
might meet again in better times.
At this point the reality imposed itself on Noan and me. The
Japanese were the enemy, the Japanese soldiers, some of whom had lived
peacefully in the main alongside us, were now the enemy and Kamei San
was one of the same race. However, he had been our teacher and
friend and we had felt sad and at the same time grateful as we waved
good-bye to him.
There were no motor roads from the cave to Laika and the heavy
cumbersome bullock carts would be slower than walking, so Father had
dispatched for some men to nearby villages to acquire some horse while
we settle down to wait.
The following day, however, as we gathered for lunch as a family again,
Amart Singh, one of Father's officers, suddenly appeared. The
Japanese soldiers knew about the cave and were on their way. There
was no time to wait for the horses.
No sooner had we climbed clear of the cave than we heard gun shots.
Firing was non-stop and we assumed that the Japanese were firing at our
men. We quickened our pace and tried to leave the gun shots and mortar
It was, nearly dark before the sounds faded, but Father and Amart Singh
were still not prepared to stop. Although we were visibly
exhausted and desperate for rest they continued to push us on. My
two brothers and Jeanne were being carried. Mother, out of breath and
very tired , declared she could go no further, Amart Singh, who was also
our parents godson carried her. When it got too dark, the men
chopped down and lit bamboo poles to light up the tracks overgrown with
brambles and bushes. At times these had to be cut down before we
could walk through.
Exhaustion began to take its toll on the remaining walkers: some of us
were limping and trailing behind. My mind and body were equally
numb and my throat was dry. Finally I could contain myself no
longer and cried out, “Please, Father! Can we rest for just a few
minutes' and Father gave in. It was heavenly just to rest our aching
feet and exhausted bodies, but it was not for long. Soon Father
shouted, “Get up, we've got to go on”. I pulled myself up and
walked, but kept wondering how much further. My feet were moving
automatically, my heart beating fast, and my stomach was hungry for
food. We dragged ourselves along, hoping that we would soon reach
the village where we could lie down for the night.
Finally we arrived at the village, "Wan Yang".. This was where Father
had planned for us to spend the night. It was not to be. No
sooner had we arrived than we heard gun shots again. The Japanese
soldiers still were on our heels.
With our strength ebbing, we pushed our bodies on, until we came to
another village," Nam Wan" or " Sweet Water", noted for its pleasant
tasting water. We were not bothered about what the water tasted
like; we were so thirsty that we drank mugs of it and would have done so
whatever the taste. At long last we had some food too and, with the
kindness of the village folks, beds for the night. Noan, Kyeo and
I slept next to each other and just as we were falling off to sleep Noan
sat up and scratched her body, she had been bitten by fleas and her body
was covered in red spots. The fleas were obviously in the
beddings. We had no choice, but to continue to use the blankets
and we were so tired that the thought of fleas did not keep us awake for
In the morning we were relieved to wake up and find that the horses had
arrived. Other than our parents, none of us had had the experience
of travelling on horse-back, but we did not find it very difficult to
control the horses. About 3 in the morning we arrived at the a
village called "Na Deit" or "Quiet Field" on the edge of Laika State.
At the entrance to the village, a group of voluntary Shan soldiers,
patrolled the area. Father introduced us and explained the
circumstances of our unceremonious arrival. Would they direct us
to the home of the village headman. The soldiers responded loudly
and rudely refusing us access and pointing guns at us. We were all
shocked by their manner as much as frightened of their guns: it seemed
impossible that any Shan could treat us without any compassion.
Obviously the power of the gun had gone to their heads and had affected
their judgement and cannot differentiate between friend and foe.
Our parents looked defeated. They were too tired to argue or to try to
insist on the village Heeadman being called. Moving us a little
way from the village to the bank of a stream, Father's men tethered the
horses and Father encouraged us to settle on the grass. We had no
way of knowing what the next day would bring and, possibly our parents
did not get much sleep, but we children, curled up and were soon fast
asleep. I have no recollection of whether we had any rugs to sleep
on or blankets to cover our bodies.
When I woke up the next morning my limbs felt stiff, every bone in my
body was aching and my stomach was rumbling with hunger. The
soldiers were still at the village entrance and our position still
seemed hopeless. However, like the rest of my family, I needed to
relief myself and so we had to muster enough enthusiasm to find private
places, before we could even think, what to do next. We had
reassembled and were starting to discuss where we could obtain one, when
we heard a commotion near the soldiers' check point. Walking
towards us, with a small entourage, was a figure, whom we recognised as
the town Officer who had also evacuated from the town to the village.
Never had anyone been greeted more rapturously: after days of
disappointment and despair this was our first glimmer of hope.
Following a brief exchange the Officer lead us, our servants and horses
past the soldiers, no longer aggressive or waving their guns, to a place
in the village, where he was camped. We were given breakfast and
lunch and somewhere to rest. One of the servants was dispatched to the
house of the village headman, where it was arranged that we should stay.
The Headman and his family made us very welcome. They fed us wholesome
food and gave us a comfortable place to sleep. During the five
days that we were there, our body and spirits started to recover from
the anxiety and deprivation of the previous three weeks.
At the invitation of the American/Karen Officers we moved to a wooden
house in the vicinity of the 101 Base Camp. The officers treated
us with friendliness and showered us with canned corn-beef, tomatoes,
cheese and, chocolates, the latter delighted us immensely. They came to
visit us daily and paid so much attention to us that Mother became a bit
wary of their intentions. We were instructed that while we must be
polite, we must not be too friendly or encourage them in any way.
The officers were just being sociable and friendly. However,
Mother was adamant that she must protect us. Like mothers of teenager
girls the world over, she was anxious for us and she knew the ways of
the world better than we did.
After we had been in the camp for a week we were told that we were to be
air-lifted to Bhamo, at where the British Government had its temporary
base. At Bhamo we were taken to a wooden building occupied by two other
families. Bhamo had its share of bombing and parts of the town
were still in ruins. The accommodation was far from being homely
or clean but after all the terrifying experiences we had been through we
were grateful that we were safe and had food and shelter over our heads.
We had all come through unharmed. Whatever the future, we could now look
forward to our return journey home, our home, sweet home.
(This is a shortened and slightly modified version of one of the
chapters of “My Vanished World” which I hope you will enjoy reading. “My
Vanished World has been translated into Japanese and Thai. I was
wondering if any one would be interested to translate it into Tai
language? If you do please let me know.)
If any one has been through some unusual experience please let us share
your story. We will be pleased to publish it on our web-site: S.C.A.N.