Bangkok at 7pm

April 12, 2006

Bangkok at 7pm is trying. The traffic, piled endlessly beyond one's visual horizons, is trying. The people, setting up roadside stalls wherever they can to sell whatever they can, are also trying. Trying their best to make a living.

I took my first good walk around Bangkok today, first time walking in the city itself, melding into the crowd and pretending not to be a tourist. I wanted to live the Bangkok experience for a day, to just watch life go on in Bangkok for half a day, and not to be one of those Singaporeans who come here just to shop or pray for good luck and fortune.

Indeed, if there was really luck to be had by prayer, then Bangkok should look different.

When I visited Manila back in 2004 on an academic conference, I was overwhelmed by the picture of poverty that Manila was and should be, still. Groups of street children walk dangerously along major roads, cleaning windscreens and hoping for meagre tips that are often refused to them. Bangkok is no different - different services (they sell flower garlands instead of wiping windscreens), but same street children.

One particular child I will forever remember is this very young girl who came around to this street stall we were having dinner at to sell egg rolls: "1 packet 20 baht", she said in a very soft voice (about the price of a bowl of noodles or chicken rice here). Nothing unusual except that this young girl, lovely but with a scared look on her face, was only SIX - the age of the children we spend time reading to every week. At 8pm on a week night, she belonged at home, in the care of doting parents or siblings.

I had intended to give her 100 baht but my auntie (I have distant relatives in Thailand), who was hosting us for dinner, paid up the 20 baht for me. Five minutes later, I pretended to go to the toilet so that I could go after the girl and brighten her day with a stranger's generosity. I had to pretend to go to the toilet because - well, how could I explain to my auntie, de-sensitised to poverty after living in Bangkok all her life, that I wanted to give this little girl more? I don't know how.

Unfortunately, by the time I went after her, the little egg-roll girl had disappeared into one of Bangkok's many dark alleys, eaten up by Bangkok's darkness. I will forever remember her, and children like her.

What might be more surprising is that I saw children worse off than her. Before I came to Thailand, I had read on the Lonely Planet website that there are many young children who are being kidnapped by syndicates, maimed, and sent out to beg in the streets. (This is something I didn't see in Manila.) This piece of information came with a Singapore-style warning: Do not donate to these children because most of the money doesn't go to them. (Reminds one of the NKF saga, huh?)

When I came to Bangkok I came face-to-face with a few of these maimed children. At first, my healthy Singaporean-style cynicism kicked in and I scoffed at the syndicates for I had 'won' - I knew their tricks. But five minutes later, even though you know the money is going to go to the syndicates, how can you walk by 5-year-old children who have had their legs deliberately chopped off, for no fault of their own? I don't know... I really don't. At times like these, you have to suspend that Singaporean cynicism and just give - never mind most of it is going to some syndicate, hopefully at least 10% of it goes to the child, or makes him smile for even that one moment.

Scenes like these have contributed greatly to the formation of my character. When you ditch Singaporean cynicism and open up your eyes to see the suffering that so many people go through, you can realise easily two things: One, that many of our sufferings are easily resolved if we are less self-centred (I don't just mean being 'selfish' - I mean seeing ourselves as the centre of all that is happening, the 'why me' mentality); Two, that individual achievement of wealth and status is really nothing, and if you have either of these, you should please use it to help the young children begging in the streets. When you realise these two things, oddly enough, life becomes less stressful, more purposeful - school exams are put in perspective and you will see they are not everything, not even much. Bear that in mind.

I hope I've depressed you enough. Now to make you smile a bit. There was at least one uplifting observation that I made. Compared to Manila, the faces that I've seen in Bangkok have a lot more hope written on them. I saw it when peddlers who peddled their wares on EXPRESSWAYS came knocking on our car window; I saw it at 7pm this evening, when I was at the National Stadium BTS Station (looks just like our MRT), and saw that about 50 stalls had been set up on the ground floor of the train station, selling just about everything. There was dignity and hope written on every one of those faces that I saw, smiling as they fought back against the odds of poverty. The spirit of the Bangkok people is amazing.

There are no odds worse than in gambling, except in fighting poverty. People in Bangkok are trying. They may live in poverty now, but they are doing their darnest to fight back. What about us? What should we be fighting and trying for?

-- Victor in Bangkok

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