bangkok homeless

The Precarious Life of a Modern Homeless

In the middle of Sathon Road, Bangkok Thailand, there is a footbridge which I cross on my way to work every morning, and, in the evening, just before the sky gets too dark, becomes a place to take dazzling photos of Bangkok’s infamous traffic. There would be a French couple taking photos with the newest iPhone attached to a selfie stick and, nearby, a beggar who was back in business after a day reclinining under the shade of bus stop or tree in Lumpini Park.
Even though it’s one of the prime neighborhoods in Bangkok. Sathon is lousy with bums. Bums that could come in many forms—a hunchback grandma who goes from table to table of the street food vendors and collect a thousand baht a night in total, or a man wearing a tattered hand-me-down t-shirt sleeping beside a bright ATM machine, or a politely-dressed provicial business man who might approach you and ask, gently, for taxi money. When I first moved here, I usually searched for coins in my jeans if there was a kid sitting beside a beggar or, once, when a homeless man essentially muttering “I’m hungry. Help.” I stopped and thought ‘Well. That’s a very good sales pitch,’ then I searched for the smallest bank note in my wallet.
Sometime in order to get through life you must excell at having your way with words. He could be sitting nearby a strayed-dog, his rotten canned-food swarming by cockroaches and I’d still be compelled to give him something.
On a Friday evening, I was crossing the footbridge and discover a new kind of creature I didn’t expect to find. Joe is a random backpacker who blocked my way asking, “Excuse me, mate. Do you mind taking photo for this poor tourist?” His thick Irish accent made him sound to me like English wasn’t his mother’s tongue. He looked young and appeared to be too short by the European standard. Carrying on his shoulders was an elephant-painted tote bag he’s probably bought it from Cambodia contradicting the sleek and dark Osprey backpack on his shoulders.
After I took pictures for him. He “excuse me, mate” me again and asking for free advice. “Do you know where I can get food? The thing is tonight is my first night in Bangkok. I totally have no clue where to find good food.” He took me as if I was a free tour guide who volunteering to take random tourists for sightseeing. I took him as a blind person who fails to see the abundance of food in every nook and cranny of Bangkok. I was about to decline and suggest TripAdvisor, but then my stomach cried, loud enough to beat the noise from the traffic and scare the cockroaches.
“So you’re hungry, mate! I say let’s go eat something.”
The next thing I know, Joe and I wound up in a dark candle-lit fancy French restaurant. A place where bums are unwelcome. The waiter sniffed when he took Joe’s backpacks and his belongings before we settled at our table.
As expected, we were compelled to talk about travel. I don’t know how we ended up talking about CouchSurfing, a social network platform that allows travellers to find a free accommodation, perhaps I asked who paid for his trip.
He was slightly offended when I guessed it’s his parents or his uncles and aunts. He then proudly presented me his CouchSurfing profile. “This app is my savior. I can travel anywhere and save a whole lot for accommodation. Sometimes food.” He said, emphasizing the last words, while looking at the price on the menu.
“To get a host when I arrived in a new place you’ve gotta get a shit ton of positive references from your pervious hosts so people know you’re not shithead. So you see I have more than two hundred references.”
“Oh, that’s a lot of people.” That’s the only thing I could think of. It’s one thing to say you’re not crazy for staying with more than two hundred strangers and hold on to positive feedbacks as the badges of honor, and another thing when you’re championed at it.
As our conversation progress, I quickly see Joe as that one person who is always losing and making new friends. Connection to him is transient. He’s the type of guy you’ll just have to guess his whereabouts. “Do you know where Joe is?” his friends would wonder. He could be everywhere: Joe in Shanghai, Joe in Tokyo, Joe in New Delhi. No one knows for sure where he is—like a fugitives: he made sure of that. At some point, someone would spread a rumor, “I heard he became a Buddhist monk,” or “I saw him in a Japanese porno.”
“Add me on Facebook.” Joe inviting me to connect on something I valued as a disposable connection. He seemed mysterious to me, but then I thought maybe it was just the light from the restaurant—the low and flickering dimmed lights paired with a couple sip of red wines that made everything he said sound decent and intellectual. I wondered could anything begun at the footbridge become grand.
His recent Facebook photo was the Taj Mahal. “That was last week.” He told me, “Doing my bucket list.” This was like he has his Facebook editorial calendar of his own and it had fallen behind schedule.
It wasn’t his photo at the Taj Mahal that threw me. It was his relationship status publicly shared on his profile. Married.
The thing about people with the bucket list is that they’re all the same; most of them, these days, are in their twenties and are not actually dying. The list would contain flying across the oceans, skydiving, jump off a cliff in Bali, and swimming with whales. The more dangerous activity they put in the list, the cooler they appeal; unaware that these are the kind of things that would put them in early grave.
For Joe, as I later learned, the first thing on the list is to married an American to get the work permit and earn the privileges that come with it. When the U.S. Supreme Court guarantees a right to same sex marriage in the United States, his master plan was to drop out of college, move to the U.S. and married an American man.
“Are you married?” I asked not long after we began eating and I noticed the absence of the ring on his finger. Maybe the married status was just there for fun after all.
“I’m super married, mate.”
Even in my mid-twenties I thought marriage to be a complex process but social network can make someone like Joe—an Irish backpacker who brings no culture to New York City—to quickly meet a man in need for company. Months of seeing each other and years of living together were shrunk to a terrifyingly few weeks. The man would be bedridden and hardly get an erection, but as long as he still manage to sign some papers, the marriage has been made and Joe took the American name. Still there is no guarantee the bucket list is going as smoothly as he had planned.
“I can’t get a hold of my host in Bangkok.” He tapping angrily at his phone when he was sure the person who initially agreed to grant him free accommodation ditched him on his arrival. Joe then turned to me and asked, “Do you live alone?”
Red flag. Travelling or not, asking people do they live alone is the first sign of troubles.
“Can I stay at your place just for the night?”
I had accepted short notice like this from someone I’d dated when she was layover in Bangkok and it end with a fight in an Italian restaurant and she flew to Mongolia and lived there for a year. That scarred me and had left me with an uneasy feeling like I am a terrible person. The night Joe promptly asked to stay at my place was in the week that I had officially separated from my then boyfriend because of the same self-loath persona that has been overshadowed me for months, I wanted to prove myself that I’m still likeable.
By allowing Joe to stay, it felt like I’ve made a dying wish list, and invite a total stranger I’ve just met to stay over at my place is on the top of it. And from there we asked for the check and went from a dark candle-lit place to my dark candle-lit room.
“Is this your room?” Joe was thrilled after he dropped his backpack in the middle of the bed I’d carefully made before I left for work that previous morning. The years of travelling and moving around had ripened off the comfort of being at home. He was looking outside the window to the flickering lights of the city of Bangkok and said, “Wow, this is like a hotel room, mate. What a bloody view you have here!”
Now that someone appreciated the view from my window that started to bored me, it reassured the business opportunity I’d sign up on the week I broke up with my boyfriend.
“I’m Airbnb my room. That’s why I have to prepare my room to be guest-ready all the time.”
“I see. It’s like CouchSurfing but not for free.” Joe scowled. He looked at me with an air of annoyance. It’s like he was entitled by free-for-grab lifestyle he gets from CouchSurfing where hosts in a foreign countries are just happy hosting people for the sake that they could hone their English.
“Well, you know some extra income is nice.” I added.
I meant to let him know that I could charge him and he should be aware not to mess with my furniture and keep my room clean.
“What’s your wifi password? I have to FaceTime with my husband. It’s the morning in New York.”
“Sure!” I gave my wifi password and made an excuse to set up my personal space. “If you don’t mind I have to finish some of my writings.”
“Yeah, mate, make yourself at home. Don’t worry ‘bout me.”
Never have I ever had a guest who told me to make myself at home in my home. When I told him I have to finish my writings, it was actually a couple of emails. Then I listened to his FaceTime conversation he made no attempt to hide.
The voice on the other end sounded tired and obviously angry. I saw the advantages of hosting him. It was that I could get in the front seat and see the marriage dissipating right before my eyes.
The story about Joe began when he married his husband and stayed at his partner spiritual art community in the Lower East Side. When the bills, eviction letter arrived and things get tough, Joe ran away. He found himself in the snowy Chicago, where he was working as an au pair for a few months before decided babysitting wasn’t for him. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the children but he didn’t want to steal the job from the Hispanic women. At that point he has the existential crisis and decided to go see the world, perhaps, finding a place where he belongs.
The FaceTime session was tense and when it’s over we’re back to talk about travel. “Have you ever wanted to move to other countries?”
“Yes.”
“Where would you go if you could chose to be wherever you want?”
“I don’t know. Maybe New York.”
“Do you want to move to New York?”
“Don’t. It’s just a place for bunch of bullocks.”
I had met a few New Yorkers when they’re not in New York, and what I noticed is that they’re telling me the same tale, ‘It’s a fucked up place. It used to be a place for everyone but now it doesn’t.’ I learned that to be one of the timeless fusses like the way people always complained about the behavior of the younger generation. Even Socrates whined about it. I wonder what the Greek Empire would be in 400 BC. Is it New York where people fought over thrones and source of water instead of money in the air in Wall Street? Do young people dreamt of moving to Athens and become a philosopher the same way people dream of moving to New York to be a writer?
Joe is not a writer or a philosopher. He showed no interest in my library and made philosophy out of lyrics from top 40 songs. “Find light in the beautiful sea. I choose to be happy.” Joe was humming this line from a Rihanna song while texting. If the statement he made about people who moved to New York was true, he has no idea that he was one of those ‘bullocks’. It’s almost midnight, Joe told me that he has to go out and meet some friends. It felt merely an order when he didn’t wait for my permission and put on his slippers, walked out of my room. I could have smell the trouble since he asked me to take his photo on the footbridge.
But the next morning I woke up, and smelled something far worse. Like there’s a rotten Ramen noodle in my condominium room. The reeking smell was striking I startled out of bed and saw pieces of masticated egg noodles, bits of dark, flat objects scattered and dried all over my duvet and the white bed sheet. When examined it closely it’s the seaweeds and the head part of needle mushroom from the pre-dawn takeout which supposed to sober you up.
I kicked the vomit-scattered duvet to the floor and folded it like I accidentally killed someone and tried to hide a dead body. Joe was sleeping, facedown, on the couch, looking sick.
I woke him up and did what normal people would do in this situation. “Grab your things. Get out!”
“You no have to work today?” He asked me, his eyes still shut.
“No, it’s Saturday.”
Being on the street long enough you might forget time.
“How do you live like this?”
“What do you mean? Allowing a total stranger I met on the footbridge to sleepover?”
“This place and this room. Fine dinner and you didn’t even shrug. How you do it?” He was trying not to cough before he finished the sentence.
“I work my ass off for it.” I said.
“Me too.” Joe said, sounded dreamy and tired. “But in my life I work so hard but I can only afford to live in shoeboxes.”
I had no idea what kind of shoeboxes he had lived it. Or what shoebox he was talking about. Is it the failing art community that wreaked his marriage in New York?
“Sam… I am bankrupted.”
It’s hard to believe what he said, it seemed, when you compare what you’ve heard in real life with the pictures exhibit on his Instagram. The life that seemed rich and full of adventures has a flip side and I don’t think anyone would ever find out about the mess that he made in my room and the back-story of his marriage.
One thing I learned about the homeless was that you could easily forget about them. You give them some money and the chance for you to remember that you’d done him some good was slim.
When you talk to homeless on the street of Bangkok you would learn that they often claimed to have a successful distant relative thriving in Bangkok. The successful person was like a heroic figure in small villages with the promise they could better the life of the people he’d left behind. They hopped on the train and are here seeking for that legend.
“My cousin is a doctor.” I once sat down and talked to a homeless after I bought fried-chicken for him. He didn’t specific what kind of a doctor his relative is and I assumed his medical vocabulary didn’t advance to be more specific.
I dropped Joe at train station. I gave him a polite hug and smelled his vague alcoholic breathes. I passed several bums on my way back to my condominium. There was a couple sitting by the street that stood out because they were white—the backpackers selling photos on the street. There were Russian with a cardboard sign saying “Fund Our Trip”. It’s an honest sign and I wonder if it works in Thailand. The pictures they were exchanging for small money show where your hard-earn money would wind up. It’s for the man and the woman to cross of their death defying bucket list and satiate their desires. “Don’t you ever feel sorry for us.” I could hear their thoughts when I decided to keep my money where it belongs—my pocket. “Because we do feel sorry for you soul-less office workers.”
These are the people who wouldn’t yield to the nine-to-five and often wondering why other people wouldn’t pack their toothbrush and taking off like them.
Now when I look at other young travellers busy with their laptops. I couldn’t help but think they’re just planning to have a free place to sleep and shower. I thought, “Come on. Take and take what you can have. Have more if you would like.” I would say. “There you go.”
For the first time in two years since I moved to Bangkok, I’ve never afraid of coming back to my condominium room until today. I’m not ready to clean up the mess. I may have places to go, I may have responsibilities, but when I opened the door and the reeking smell of the vomit hitting my nostril, I have never felt such relieve to be back in a place in which I could, for the first time, call it home.

Sam Nathapong is an independent writer and journalist working in Thailand. Twitter@samnathapong
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