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Having and being: a lesson from the poor

Many factors keep us from being able to imagine what the streets of Asia are like, and just how different they are from our European streets, because of the climate, the culture… To get a clearer picture, I tried the experience and lived for a day in one of Bangkok’s biggest shantytowns: Khlong Toei.

Text and pictures by Antoine Besson.

It’s 5:30 AM when I enter the narrow alleys of the Saun Oy district. A slaughterhouse a few meters away has given a bad reputation to the area: in the eyes of the Buddhist community, it is a place of death. An impure, unclean place. On the other side of the district is the old harbour on the Chao Prayat, a busy areal of trade and traffic. And, in the middle, hundreds of flimsy dwellings, made of plywood or cinder blocks for the luckier ones.

Although it is early in the morning, the people of the area are already up. Along a khlong, which what a canal going through the historical centre of Bangkok is called, the pale light of the neon reflects in the water. Yet the most beautiful golden sunrise is shining on the sordid shantytown landscapes. Here and there, a few saffron-coloured dresses seep in and out of the alleyways. Huge noisy trucks drive back and forth between the city and the port.

A lesson from the poor

The women are cooking the first meal of the day, some of which will be given to the monks as an offering. Kru Suni, a mixture of fabrics and wrinkled skin, woke at four o’clock to prepare these offerings. Other people clean in front of their houses. Living in misery doesn’t mean living in filth. Dignity is paramount when one must survive on very little. Being is independent of having, it is what poor people teach us.

In front of a small house on the main street, the one through which the shantytown can be entered from the port road, two children can’t stay still. Their parents arrive looking weary while the children are wide awake. Today they are going to watch the spectacle of the elephants playing football in the biggest park in the city centre: the Lumphini park. They are already giddy. The pleasure and wonder remain intact even in their tough living conditions.

Walking along the tight alleys, a happy coincidence has us land in front of the house of Dam Long, who is the district’s chief. We get talking. He invites me to stay and share his meal. Although he doesn’t quite understand why I am here, he offers to be my guide for the day. A few blocks away, on the harbour, a fish factory is already in operation. The local people who work there left at five this morning. Dam Long is worried: the managers have announced the factory would move to Chon Bury at the end of the month. One more hard blow for the community.

A stranger

Time has come to a standstill, all are waiting. It’s like life has stopped so long as the monks haven’t come by. Dam Long takes out a chair and we seat down in the street to chat. The rustling of a robe reaches us, meaning a monk is waiting in silence for us to open the way for him. A woman is making her offering and receives a blessing from the holy man. Another woman comes forward and the same ritual goes on. Dam Long grabs his bicycle to “go get some exercise” he tells me. In truth, he is off to the market to get bits to add to the omelette and rice we share. I feel quite sorry for the trouble, but he shows such joy from welcoming me that I understand I must not fret or be reluctant. Learning to accept what you are given is a way to show gratitude. You allow the one giving to flourish through this gesture, to reveal himself. There is still this balancing act between being and having.

The street is under a meter wide. The houses stuck to one another have openings in the walls to allow airflow. In such promiscuity, the whole neighbourhood is aware of my presence very quickly. Some children sneak up to me. A small football team is going to train on a football field goes by us. They say ”Farang ma” and laugh as they come by me, “there is a stranger!”.

The sacrifice

«Farang ma» echoes in the laughter of my passage

In front of a small house still drenched in darkness, two women surrounded of a swarm of children are busy while an old lady is waiting in an armchair. On a table in front of the house of spirits, a feast stands out in such a poor area. There are many fruits, a bottle of whisky, a whole chicken and trays full of delicious dishes. The children cry in front of such abundance. These are offerings to the spirits to thank them for having allowed the matriarch to get out of the hospital and make a full recovery. The women light incense sticks and wholeheartedly pray. When the sticks are completely burned, they will be able to dig into the feast.

In an alley smelling strongly of alcohol, a poster indicates it is forbidden to drink alcohol in the district. A little further there is a mountain of empty beer and whisky bottles. Dam Long cracks a smile “Beer is fine, it’s ok!”. Dam Long insists on me tasting a Thai speciality: “kanom crok” which translates to “half sphere cakes”. They are traditional pastries made out of flour, coconut milk and sugar, made in terracotta moulds. According to the old man, these are one of the oldest culinary legacy of the country. He insists and talks about the pastry at length, explaining to me that the Thais believe it is against customs to eat a kanom crok alone… One is easily convinced! Once again, this mindset of relationship, sharing and interdependence strikes me.

Dam Long, whose name hints at a distant Vietnamese origin, is nonetheless proudly wearing a yellow and blue polo shirt with the royal family’s coat of arms and in white embroidered letters “LONG LIVE THE KING”. Well combed hair, tanned skin, elegant, he looks great in front of the little estanco where he trades useful trinkets: washing up liquid, feather dusters, small stools, cold drinks, hangers, lighters, clothes pegs, staplers… During the afternoon, Dam Long is off to the market to replenish his stock and sell the products he makes at home and packages himself.

Idleness

Noise from nearby construction soon took over the district. The shantytown is growing and getting denser. Hammer blows and squeaks from saws echoes on the walls. Out of the plaster dust, once in a while, a worker emerges. Sometimes, charities come all the way here to give out the used items they collected. Some also help building sturdier houses. A man crosses the railway track leading to the harbour to feed his roosters. As everywhere else in Thailand, cockfights are very popular and can be very profitable. Sat in a corner, I observe the scene without being seen. The children play while the adults, often divided by sex endlessly discuss. It is total idleness. Suddenly, the conversation turns to a neighbour in debt. Each of the women makes a comment. All attempt to find a way to help her. Can they even afford to be in solidarity? To have and to be…

Everywhere, garments are laid out to dry in the sun. Women with little to no resources cumulate several small jobs. Some wash and iron clothing.

An old lady with a towel wrapped around her neck walks down the street going from one house to the next, conducting a mysterious business. The day goes on this way. In anticipation and idleness but also very much in relationship.

The evening

Sitting, a woman waits for the day to pass

A little further, two men are playing a game of chess. They are motorbike taxi drivers, but business is slow this afternoon. One of their colleagues is having a nap on a wooden bench. The women are sweating in front of the buckets of embers: despite the overwhelming heat, they are preparing kebabs to sell later. The night is drawing closer and a storm is lurking, spreading in the streets a welcomed coolness. The groups of children come back out of the houses. Everyone is chatting in the streets. It is a social time. Unlikely apparition of a man leaving his house in a stark white shirt: he is going to work. There is not only being and having, but dignity and appearances also matter too.

Rain comes to put an end to this day. Everyone rushes to find shelter. A deafening noise fills the neighbourhood. Raindrops come crashing down on the metal roofs. I leave my new friends with mixed feelings. What did I learn from this day? Life in Khlong Toei is one without a proper framework, subject to an informal economy. Poverty is real. Often the misery burdens these men and women. Yet, I also met wonderful people who have shown me perfectly selfless concern, care and gestures. To be and to have…

 

Antoine Besson