Written by Pandita Suthamporn
Shanty old series of houses so densely packed side by side surrounded by the infrastructures of the modern times is not an uncommon sight to see, especially in the heart of Bangkok–a city that in each and every inch, huge skyscrapers, large shopping complexes, and commercial buildings are clustered together along the street. Within the same block, there are many alleys that run like vessels deep into the living quarters of the lowly commoners as they buzz around like bees hopping from one vendor to another about their day just like any other day.
Taking a stroll down the alley is almost like opening up a whole other dimension that I often take for granted as an urbanite who has witnessed these sights for over twenty-years and grew a blasé attitude towards it. A middle-aged man wearing an oversized t-shirt and short khaki pants was carrying in his hands the source of daily sustenance of the entire family wrapped in small plastic bags. Another middle-aged aunty holding up a colander overfilling with noodles, hot steam covering almost her entire face, swallowed an entire bowl of exhaustion. Drops of sweat running down her face from the escalating temperature radiating out of the burning charcoal and the unpredictably hot Bangkok weather. Across her shop, a woman stationed behind a metal cart that she uses to sell pieces of fried chicken and sticky rice every day. Even in the tiny speck of people swarming around in one of the alleys in Bangkok there could be so many people from all walks of life with a multitude of trajectories, stories, and backgrounds sharing the same space and time.
A few blocks later, situates a tall and luxurious condominium – far-fetching for many who can barely afford food on their plate and roof on their head. In the front entrance of the condominium where we stayed for a short time, there were construction workers drilling holes into the road in front of the condominium and making loud noises from their drilling machines every morning as we left the place to get breakfast. Dirt and wet mud were stained on their clothes and shoes under the burning hot sun that is right above their heads. While we were enjoying the comforts of the modern-day amenities, these people had to work countless shifts all day to drill holes in the road for a living.
This is a parallel world where we co-exist yet widen apart with each passing day – wider and deeper is the rupture of our society. In the deepest parts of a bustling city, the alleys and roads live the humble folks trying hard to make ends meet. They are not standing still; in fact, they are working very hard to change their predetermined fate that has always been so hard on them. They are people, who, despite so much adversity and discrimination, still put a smile on their faces as I greet them in the morning on my way to a shop to have breakfast. They do not cease to work. In fact, they cannot cease to wake up every single morning to set up their stalls and start boiling their noodle pots. They wake up with the mentality that if they do not work to earn money, their parents or their children may not be able to live a little better and breathe a little deeper. This the hot and steamy Bangkok that I used to take for granted.
Bangkok does not lay in an ivory tower, or in shopping malls, but Bangkok definitely is living and breathing between these alleys facing the inevitable uncertainties and harsh realities of life with a fighting spirit. As I witness and experience with my own eyes, we are in the middle of an urban tragedy – which is that of a deeply engraved social inequality manifesting itself in the asymmetrical distribution of wealth and resources. Consumerism is taking a toll on everyone’s lives, but the impact is much more for the vulnerable populations working to make ends meet.
The article was originally submitted as an ethnographic vignette for Urban Sociology. The photos belong to Pandita Suthamporn.