When writers encounter poverty and squalor, “Dickensian” is invariably the word they reach for. As I stroll around the alleyways of Khong Thoey, I realise that, cliche though it is, what I am experiencing is truly Dickensian.
There’s little squalor here, but considerable poverty; the overall scene itself is actually straight out of Dickens. Shirtless, shifty men gathered around tables swigging ale and laughing; brawny-armed fishwives yelling to each other across market stalls; dirty-kneed urchins playing in the alleys. This part of Bangkok, home to over 100,000 people living in densely packed streets, is routinely described as a “slum”, but that is to do it and its residents a disservice – these people may be economically unfortunate, but they haven’t given up. Their homes and alleyways are kept clean, people (mostly the women) are working, and there are more smiles than frowns or scowls.
As a follower of the local football team, Thai Port FC, I already knew that this part of town was home to Bangkok’s friendliest people, but this is the first time I’ve actually dived into the “slums” themselves, this time as part of a walk organised by a group called Bangkok Photographers. One might think a gang of foreigners wandering around a neighbourhood with a somewhat dubious reputation might be a recipe for trouble, but all of us are made welcome. Morning drinkers offer to share their beer with me; people ask me where I’m from (and what on earth I’m doing wandering around Khlong Thoey at 8.30 on a Sunday morning); and virtually everyone is happy to pose for pictures – only one man refuses, possibly due to police-related issues, and even he does so with a smile and a handshake.
Thailand may be known as, or at least market itself, as the “Land of Smiles”, but often in Bangkok you find that the smile is all there is – a polite, civil surface masking indifference or, occasionally, contempt – the Southeast Asian equivalent of “Have a nice day”. In Khlong Thoey, as on the terraces at Port FC, the smiles are genuine and the warmth is palpable.
You can glimpse the tower blocks of Sukhumvit from Khlong Thoey, but it feels a million miles away from the luxury shops, fine dining restaurants and office complexes. Here, you’re back in the “real” Southeast Asia, and it feels more like rural Vietnam or the backstreets of Phnom Penh. A man wanders along a disused railway track with bags of goldfish tied to a stick; men preen their cocks (ahem) ready for a fight; a woman grills pork ribs on a makeshift barbecue in front of her tiny shack. And the most photographed location in the city remains Siam Paragon shopping mall…
I sometimes feel like an intruder on these walks, poking my camera into lives less fortunate than mine for a brief couple of hours. But not this time. It feels like an essential part of my Bangkok “education”, as unmissable an experience as the Grand Palace or Wat Sakhet. As these pictures show, there is nothing to be feared here, in daylight at least, and a lot to be learned about this city and its people.