New Internationalist

Snapshots from shantytown

Issue 386

The people of Bangkok who fight for space and a way of life in the face of top-down planning and skyrocketing real estate.

I owe my soul to the company store

Put Hi Pong works on a casual basis for the Bangkok Port Authority. He also lives on Authority land in Klong Toey. This makes the Authority both his boss and his landlord. But in October this past year – when Put fell into debt with a criminal moneylender – the Authority decided to demolish his house. He shows what’s left.

Hanging in there

Joopjang is 15 years old but you’d never guess it. She was born HIV-positive and both her parents died from AIDS-related diseases. After being handed around by various distant relatives she made to ‘the safe harbour’ of the Mercy Centre - too late for retroviral drugs to do much good. Her nickname is ‘sweet sixteen’ although they say she probably won’t make it. Nevertheless she makes every breath count, convincing others to celebrate her birthday twice last year.

How to catch grasshoppers

Pimjai Pa-Ta explains how you use big sticks to knock grasshoppers and cicadas into nets. One of the ways Pimjai and other members of her small community, Rim Klong Pai Singto, survive is by frying up these and other insects and selling them throughout Bangkok. She says they are delicious!

Small change – big difference

Thousands of Bangkok’s squatters live beside the city’s klongs (canals). Porntip points out how high the klong water rose when it flooded out the homes of those who live in the slaughterhouse district of Klong Toey. Building this simple restraining wall has changed people’s lives. It costs about 90 per cent less to upgrade a shantytown community than it does to evict, demolish and provide housing elsewhere.

We shall not be moved

Deng lives in Pom Mahakan, a squatter community in the centre of Old Bangkok. Many of the 300-odd people have been there for six generations. They currently stand in the way of a plan to put a park in this area to attract tourists: a plan that would destroy their colourful community of old teak houses. The families of Pom have been fighting for years to protect their community. With the help of local architects they have put forward an alternative plan to become an eco-tourist village in the heart of the city. Stay tuned.

Racing granny

Juk’s nickname means topknot. This 75-year-old is known locally as the ‘racing granny’. She runs a coffee cart on one of Klong Toey’s main street, where at any one time half of population seems to be preparing food for the other half to eat. Juk works 10-hour days. She reportedly drinks like a fish and dances like a wild woman.

A rock and a hard place

This woman makes her meagre living collecting garbage for recycling. Evicted twice, she has been granted new housing. The problem: the new housing will be much more expensive and there will be no place for her to run her garbage business.

Railway slums

This child lives right beside the railway tracks. It is important to know the train schedule before you go out to play. There are 20,000 Thais in 190 settlements living in conditions of danger, uncertainty and squalour on land owned by the country’s state railway. It’s a similar story in dozens of other Southern cities from Manila to Nairobi. In Thailand these communities have formed the National Railway Community Network to fight for their rights.

All photographs by Richard Swift

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