Lives On The Line In Bangkok : A Photo Essay

In a recent trip to Bankok I descovered a community of people living on the rail line. This is a short picture essay on Lives On The Line In Bangkok.

Lives On The Line In Bangkok : Rail line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : rail line

A Dangerous Estate

As I walk along the train tracks, the the faint sounds of a thundering horn begin permeating the air. As these grow louder, the deep rhythmic vibrations of wheels supporting several thousand tons over evenly spaced beams send shockwaves through the earth like a thundering metronome.

Steel wheels on steel tracks ring out a wincing screech like a harmonious orchestra of nails on a gigantic chalkboard. As the colossal vehicle approaches, it is time to abandon the trail and take safe refuge in one of the parallel trenches on either side of the line.

What exactly am I doing on a train track in the first place? A perfectly logical question considering the evident danger of such a location. Why am I not walking along a street pavement or road instead?

The answer is simple. Here in Bangkok, there is little distinction between the two. The starkest contrast is that timetabled traffic here will do considerably more damage to a person than a Tuk-Tuk.

Lives On The Line In Bangkok : rail line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : Rail line

Living In The Trenches

But the people that roam these tracks are not simply daredevils looking for their next adrenaline fix. No. They belong to a community of Thai nationals living below the poverty line, that have built lives for themselves in the dugouts.

Having come from the UK, my gut reaction to seeing this community was shock and disbelief. Deep seeded programming from my childhood about the dangers of playing close to these metal beams began to make my palms sweat as I noticed children playing carelessly in between them.

But unlike my chilling British education on the topic, to stay well clear at all times, otherwise certain death will follow. These children have learned to react to the sound of a horn instead. And sure enough, when one reverberates, they retreat like compromised prey to the safety of the sidelines. It is a good job these caravans move sluggishly, giving them enough time to do so.

Lives On The Line In Bangkok : child walking on line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : Teddy on line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : child on line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : child on line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok :child on line

Misguided Resources

Home to roughly 10.7 million people, Bangkok is a densely populated city. And just like any compressed population base living in a capital city, the fight for resources among individuals and communities is competitive.

Unfortunately, unlike other countries such as those in Scandinavia with commendable welfare states that have reduced the gap between the rich and the poor, Thailand’s conservative ruling parties have yet to adopt such ethical policy reforms.

In fact, after the covid 19 pandemic, this now seems to be even less likely as a reform on the horizon, as the country’s public debt is about 52 per cent of gross domestic product – closing in on the 60-per-cent benchmark for fiscal discipline and sustainability.

Some critics believe that cutting government and military spending could be a solution. Furthermore, another way to achieve this is to get the rich to contribute more through inheritance, land, property and other taxes.

According to the Budget Bureau, annual spending on social protection rose to Bt456.7 billion in the 2021 fiscal year, up 10 per cent from the previous year. This safety net covers the elderly, families, children, the disabled and the unemployed and provides low-cost housing.

But despite this extra level of support seen throughout the covid-19 pandemic, there remains little political will to build a sustainable welfare state to take care of those living under the breadline.

Lives On The Line In Bangkok :shanty house
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : shanty  house
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : houses on line
Lives On The Line In Bangkok : man in shanty
Lives On The Line In Bangkok :shanty gate

Dilapidated Dwellings

The specific rail community I visited during my time in Bangkok stretches between Rong Mueang, Bangkok’s central train station, and the eastern stop in Phaya Thai. The total distance is roughly 2.5km long and split into four sections by a river and three main roads.

Life in the dilapidated, shanty ghettos that fill the edges is anything but Gucci. There are a few brick and mortar buildings closer to the central station. However, the majority are crude shacks, thrown together in an ad-hoc fashion with salvaged corrugated iron and wood by individuals with little to no building skills and even fewer resources.

None look like they have the foundations to withstand a tropical storm. And as I begin to walk the length of this community line, I notice that many have succumbed to some form of punishment as I pass multiple razed buildings, as much as 30 per cent in the final section towards Phaya Thai.

Shanty house
shanty house
shanty house
woman walking

Needing More Is True Poverty

Despite the evident struggle for survival here, many people on the line were generally happy. They have indeed built themselves a functioning neighbourhood.

Many things you can find in a regular community, such as restaurants, gyms, convenience stores, tailors, and even a GP clinic, can be found here. Furthermore, they still have access to food delivery services and can receive the post. It is a shame that it is so dirty, but this uncleanliness isn’t novel to this location. Bangkok as a whole is intoxicatingly filthy.

On one of the two days I spent here, I observed a group of litter pickers clearing out some of the debris. And a group of soldiers that looks as though they were doing some form of building/maintenance work. Signalling this marginalised community has not been entirely shunned by the state.

Basketball
gym
Preparing food
Cleaner
thailor

Less Is More

The most positive observation I noticed, and arguably more significant than owning a flatscreen television with surround sound, or having a Mercedes parked in a driveway, is a strong sense of community and neighbourliness.

The people living here interact with one another in a manner entirely alien to my experience of middle-class housing estates in Britain. Places where people confine themselves to their three-bedroom homes and erect 6-foot fences to symbolise their claim on the land and close themselves off from the people living next door.

Here in this community, people gather in large groups to play games of cards, share drinks, and discuss their lives, hopes and dreams with one another.

man holding baby
Food
Young girl and baby
Two young girls
Group of people

Community Strength

Even as a total stranger walking into people’s personal spaces, the welcoming I received was one of outstanding warmness. I was even invited to sit and eat with a group of people in the middle of their lunch. An invitation I would never expect to receive in the UK.

Despite their evident lack of material wealth, the people living here seem to have more. More of a community, a greater sense of connection to one another, and dare I say it, a greater understanding of what it means to be human?

Experiencing places like this as a photographer is what keeps me humble. It helps me appreciate the things and people I do have in my life. I hope that sharing this story with you helps you do the same.

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Lives On The Line In Bangkok, Lives On The Line In Bangkok, Lives On The Line In Bangkok, Lives On The Line In Bangkok

David Davis
David Davishttps://shuttergang.com
Hi, My name is Dave, and I am passionate about photography. I am currently travelling to document the world's most interesting people and places. I have started this blog to share these incredible sights and experiences with you, including all the knowledge I gain as a photographer/videographer along the way. If you share a passion for street, documentary, and travel photography, join the mailing list and stay up to date with the latest posts and resources direct from the field.

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