Down the river, along the tracks

Fortified by a breakfast of banana pancakes (which are just as good as everyone says) and a lunch of street-cooked pad thai, I just might be able to work through my lack of sleep to get this out on the wire.

I had an extraordinary set of experiences yesterday. I wandered up to another neighborhood to check out a guest house that had come highly recommended, only to find it almost identical to the one where I am staying, slightly more expensive and much further out of the way. As I left, I ran into a fellow American who was walking in the same direction. His name is David. After a few blocks, I thought it only fair to point out that it being Sunday, the Indian embassy (his destination) would not likely be open. So he decided to come with me to the zoo. Which was also closed. And so the adventure began.

Part 1

For lack of a better idea, and for my part with the general hope of catching some of the Gay Pride festivities in Lumpini Park, we kept walking east across the city, chatting about travel, politics, education, music distribution and whatever else came to mind. Our vague destination was Siam Square, the Times Square of Bangkok, where arctically air conditioned bars and cafes beckoned. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat, but the city is a lot larger than it seems, and walking it is a daunting prospect, even for a die-hard like me. Overheating already as we neared the train tracks leading south towards the square, we saw what initially looked like a market had sprung up alongside. Deciding to check it out (it looked shaded, at least), we soon discovered that it was not a market at all, but a neighborhood. Kids ground dried chilies in enormous mortar and pestles, standing in the doorways of the tiny shacks that lined the way. Women washed laundry in aluminum tubs, dogs and cats and their progeny scampered about. The way was narrow, we were weaving through throngs of residents who smiled and greeted us as we passed by. Nobody asked us for money. At one point, we made a turn that would have led us to a dead end. A man stopped us and corrected our direction, saving us probably quite a long retracing of steps. We followed a group of neighborhood residents across a rail bridge, walking on the wood slats between the rails, looking through at the Khlong beneath. On the other side of the bridge, the pedestrian traffic thinned and we eventually cut back through a maze of Sois and out into the trafficked world. Not long after we were in Siam Square, sticking to our leather chairs and drinking Red Bull and tea.

It didn’t strike me until much later how extraordinary this experience was. We must have walked at least half a mile, probably further, through this makeshift town, past some of the poorest people in the city, and not once did I feel the least bit threatened. Nobody glared, nobody shunned us. A few – mostly children – looked at us with curiosity, but most everyone treated us to a smile. Nobody asked us for money. Nobody tried to sell us anything. Directions were volunteered and were accurate. Where else would this happen? I remember my experiences in Jamaica, where walking a half mile along the road between my guest house and my friend’s was an adventure in fear and diplomacy. I think about my office in the Chicago Loop, where every morning in the two blocks between the bus stop and the door I would be asked for money by no less than eight different people. These people here were clearly poor, but they didn’t expect us to do anything about it. They saw us neither as threat nor opportunity, rather just passing curiosities, unusual visitors. To say it was refreshing is an understatement. To say it was moving may be trite but it’s true. It’s a memory that won’t soon leave me.

Part 2

On the way back to Banglamphu in the river taxi, we noticed that the banks of the Chao Praya river – land which in most western countries would be considered prime real estate – were largely lined with shanties of a different variety, more like floating shacks, some with the docks as their porches and all with the river as their garden. Laundry was hanging out to dry, pink towels and flowered dresses. I thought, the houses by the river should be big and bright. Breezes are best down here, next door to the Oriental and the Sheraton where the wealthy cool their heels in a world well beyond our means. But here are shanties, cobbled together, inches from collapse – and yet bedecked with richness of flowers. By the taxi stop, a pretty blue house, windows all flung wide, children swimming in front. One would almost think, “don’t they know they’re poor?” But that’s not a fair question. Our poor is not theirs, and to judge them by it is to do them wrong.

Between the houses by the river and the shanties by the tracks, I think I’m beginning to understand something important about the way of life here. What we consider wealth – fast cars, lots of money, expensive whatever it is you like – isn’t as important here – at least not to the people I saw yesterday. Sure, everyone wants a piece of the tourist action. Sure, every tout and orange juice vendor on the street will try to sell you what they’ve got. But I’ve only had 2 people ask me for handouts, and I’m in prime begging territory most of the time. The other side of life here is wealthy in community, in family, in a society that works together so that all can live as well as possible. They may not be rich, but they’re not hungry either, or angry or afraid. They’re smiling.

So who’s poor now?