Umpium Mai Camp for Karen Refugees

The Bamboo Youth Project asked us to become involved in the development of a ceramic skills training program at the Umpium Mai Camp. The BYP has been involved seeding a number of skills training programs in border area Camps and communities, including, carpentry and computer literacy.

The realization that at least one of the camps was situated on very clayey ground was the spark for investigating whether ceramics/pottery might be the basis of a new program. A small workshop area for clay work was prepared in 2001 and met with a great deal of interest. A chance meeting between Burt Cohen and Curt and Cathy Bradner, the BYP initiators, last year when Burt was working in Northern Thailand led to their request to CESO to come to Umpium Mai to see if we could assist the programmes' development. Burt and associate Kai Morrill arrived in Mae Sot Jan 19th,2002.

The Umpium Mai Camp is the sight of the Burmese Youth Project ceramic workshop. The camp is located in a hilly area about two hours south of Mae Sot, Thailand. The camp is inhabited by some 16000, displaced Karen people located within a security zone controlled by the Thai army. The camp is approximately twenty years old though two years ago it was moved from a less secure area close to the Thai/Myanmar border. Because of the security in effect at Umpium certain limitations were placed on what could and could not be done. The remoteness of the camp alone requires that any programme be able as self sufficient as possible.

Initially on arrival in Mae Sot we were taken to Umpium Mai to gain an understanding of the community in which we would work.

We found that a thatched kiln shed had already been prepared. This shed was located next to a generator as well as a dwelling. The shed was built into a clay bank about ten foot in height.

The workers within the project had already prepared several hundred brick "Thai" sized traditional bricks, made from a light colored clay found in the lower area of the camp. We had already tested this clay and found that it was refractory enough to withstand higher temperatures.

When we returned to the Mae Sot area we immediately began gathering information about materials and fuels that might potentially be used within a ceramic skills training program. Fuel was the first concern because it would influence the type of kiln which might be built within the camp. We decided to see if it was possible to easily obtain waste oil in the Mae Sot area. As it turned out we were able to purchase 150 liters of waste oil at 3 Bhat a liter ( approx. 12cents Canadian) and had little difficulty in arranging more.

When we returned to Umpium Mai a few days later, Kai, Tom Unzicker a potter from the US, myself, and a group of Karen workers from the Bamboo Youth Project workshop excavated the site for a small kiln capable of firing the camp clays. We cut out the bank at the rear of the thatched shed to allow enough clearance for a chimney to vent without fire danger. We prepared the area above the site and set up a waste oil storage. We then cut water drainage channels to direct rain water away from area above the kiln. We were quite interested to see how much plastic clay there was within the ground we were preparing, this lead us to the realization that we might make brick from this ground material.

Over the next few days everyone cooperating together, we made enough cone shaped brick to make a small downdraft kiln. We made the brick in a cone shape and then cut slots in the sides to provide a key for mortar. These were made by hand and were all somewhat different in shape and size allowing them to be matched easily for building. Since we were planning on building a dome shaped kiln this was not problem. We decided to make the whole kiln from unfired brick and fired it in place all at once.

The size and type of kiln was decided based on a number of factors. We wanted to make a kiln which could be fired without requiring too much effort on the part of the BYP personnel. We wanted a kiln which would be made mostly from locally available materials and which could be easily repaired by the staff.

We started by lining out the kiln area. The staff of the program all assisted in making a bamboo arch form for the firebox. Using a mortar made from 60% clay 40% sand brought in from the river below the camp a mortar was prepared. The firebox was next formed over the bamboo using brick that Mr. Ooumoon had previously formed using a higher temp clay from his neighbors garden in the lower part of Zone A in the camp.

After the firebox was completed we began laying the foundation courses of the chamber to the base of the door. Another bamboo frame for the door was installed and the chamber was constructed. Finally the chimney was constructed to about five feet in height. Later, the staff made large brick which Kai and Law Eh Paw used to built a proper chimney. This chimney is attached to the chamber with a short tunnel

and leans onto the bank up to about eight feet in height.

After the kiln was completed it was dried and fired once to bisque temperature (850degC). After this firing we applied a lagging to the outside of the kiln composed of 6clay 3sand and 1rice husk by volume.

Overall outside kiln length from firebox to chimney-10'6" feet
Exterior height of kiln chamber-4' 4"
Firebox tunnel-(outside)-3'
Firebox Mouth-14" width X 14" height- Ashpit- 6" deep- 2' long from front of firebox
Chimney height- 8'
Chimney interior- 12 1/2" X 12 1/2"
Loading door- 28" height X 23" width
Chamber width at base (exterior)- 54"