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The Broken Homes of Bangkok // Canal Homes that Are Turning into Driftwood

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

The homes on the canals of Bangkok are breaking - and the situation feels hopeless.

Recently, I had the absolute privilege of accompanying some students to Bangkok and Ayutthaya for a Field Studies trip. For those unfamiliar with Field Studies, it's an opportunity to get out of the classroom and learn while "in the field". When I was a teacher in the UK, we had these similar opportunities - going to the zoo, exploring a religious site, experiencing a working farm, or studying sand dunes on the beach. For teachers, these are immensely valuable opportunities to have practical hands-on experiences for our students and we get to spend time with them outside of the classroom, where we get to experience our students in new ways.

In an International School, these Field Studies trips look very different. My son, who is 9 years old just spent a night at the zoo, hearing the noises when the sun sets. He came home after the trip complaining that someone had been pressing the button that gave an example of a lion's roar all night. We explained that the zoo was closed after sun down and that no one would press a button all night before he realised it was indeed, the lions themselves. As the students at our school get older, they have the chance to go to different places around the world and Thailand was our destination.

The trip was full of wonderful cultural experiences: planting rice in a paddy field; creating fertiliser for the same; exploring a beautiful temple; visiting a floating market; we even managed to cycle and kayak in our 4 days in Thailand. Each of these opportunities were fantastic - my only wish was that we could go deeper into learning about the people, their lives and their culture, but this was just a 4 day trip and we were trying to cram in as much as possible for a rich learning experience for the students. On the third afternoon we were taken on a boat tour of the canals in Bangkok. We boarded an incredibly long boat and, with teachers spread amongst the students, I was placed at the back of the group, next to the rattling engine. It was ear-splittingly loud. Adding to the noise, our tour guide's microphone sent the signal to the back of the boat where there was an old tatty speaker that sent out his voice above the racket of the engine.

We set off. The waters were brown, partly from the muddy sediments from the Chao Phraya river that gushes after heavy rain, partly from pollution. Every now and again we would pass a sizeable fish - dead and floating on the surface of the water. Some looked rotten, left well alone by the 2m long monitor lizards that basked on the banks. Our guide wore a bucket hat with marijuana leaves embroidered on the front - perhaps fitting of the recent legalisation of the herb and smoking it, but not the best choice with a school group of 13 year olds. I asked him about the dead fish. He explained that there were a huge amount of catfish in the murky waters below - so many that when being fed by tourists, the waters almost look like they are boiling, as the surface swells with hundreds of slippery fish, flopping all over each other for a bite to eat. The dense number of fish means that inevitably, some will often get hit with a propeller blade of the many boats that go by and they are left to rot, contributing to the unhealthy state of the canal's waters.

It was early afternoon, and our guide shared that a group of workers had already been through to pick trash out of the canal that morning and so its surface was cleaner than normal. I was surprised to hear it had been cleared - bottles and styrofoam bobbed along everywhere, some collecting in slow-flowing parts of the canal, creating mini-islands of plastic pollution. Our guide also shared with me that much of the human waste from the canal dwellers would go directly into the waterways and recent water samples showed many microbiomes in the water including vorticella - a microbiome that is present in human sewage.

The homes we passed were varied - a few were on concrete posts, looking sturdy and strong, whereas some were stood in the water on fragile wooden legs. One home, in a different league of build quality, had big glass doors, a swimming pool and even a water slide. While this is something we see a lot in Singapore, I felt uncomfortable with this extravagance of wealth in such an impoverished area, the contrast creating the discomfort. We then went past two homes next to each other that had collapsed into the water. Only their roofs were visible and I wondered whether the owners were able to remove their possessions before the house collapsed. Water marks creeping up the side of the wooden slat walls and the panels that had dropped suggested that it had been there for a while - no one clearing it away, no one restoring the home. I then began noticing the many wooden stilts in the water, that were rotting - some were totally eroded away by the muddy, silty waters, leaving a stump hanging like a stalactite over the water, the weight of the home supported by the remaining eroding stilts.

To my left, a home had just dropped: its front left side under water and the wire window grills were all bent out of shape. Curtains still hung in the window and as I peered in, I could see possessions in the home, unable to be retrieved. A yellow warning sign rose up out of the water. I had questions about why the sign was standing strong and the house was in the water. The guide explained that the residents were unable to afford the costs of repair as a simple task of reinforcing their home from the waters below would require heavy machinery to enter the canal. These residents would find it more accessible to move into a house of their own, away from the canal, but even that is out of reach for the majority.

My interest piqued and I began looking for people and looking into the windows of the homes. A man sat on a terrace, legs folded, reading a newspaper. A lady hung out her washing. Through the windows, I was surprised to see televisions, appliances, many houses had bags full of stuff, piled up near the windows at the back of the homes, facing the canals. I considered the floating villages I experienced in Siem Reap, Cambodia - the people there had much less, but their homes seemed in much better condition. In Siem Reap, the residents had the basics - somewhere to sleep, somewhere to cook. The villagers seemed very content - happy with what they had and somewhat house proud. Paint was fresh, decks were swept. Bangkok seemed different. I wondered how the residents were, whether they were concerned or carefree, whether they lived in fear or freedom. From an outsiders point of view it seemed hopeless. It seemed as if mod cons were bought and saving for structural improvements was ignored. It looked like an avoidance of the truth or inevitability.

I wondered what I would do if confronted with the same situation. It's hard to tell and each thought I had was bounced back with remembering that I live in a condo in Singapore - a far cry from the sheds-on-stilts I was experiencing in Bangkok. I wondered whether I would buy more timber to reinforce the legs of my home, whether I would give my home a fresh lick of paint to help to protect it from the elements. I pictured myself climbing down the side of a deck to with a belt of nails and a hammer, with a piece of timber in one hand - I thought about the risks of falling into the polluted water and making myself sick by accidentally drinking some, or getting some in my eyes. So I imagined myself roping up, and lowering myself carefully. If my wife and kids needed to be safe, I'd do all of those things. A bodged job is better than no job, right?

I wondered whether I would have bought a TV and hung it on the wall, whether my love for music would have meant I bought a nice set of speakers - or a good quality guitar - even though the damp would be sure to rot the wood before long. It's a tricky existence.

Many of you would wonder about the government or royalty - there's a rich king in Bangkok, and I understand his obsession with his dogs has cost the nation millions, with national days of mourning when his favourite dog passed away, to extravagant birthday parties for his pet canines. While it his prerogative - and I wouldn't want to suggest how a king should spend his money - I do wonder whether there are ways to be able to support those in desperate need in this city.

Over the past few years I have really enjoyed making a few documentaries through our YouTube channel, WONDERLUST, and more recently started a channel solely for that purpose. Being on a work trip meant that I didn't have the opportunities to explore with the freedom I would have should it have been a trip of my own and so I am now planning to do a very quick visit to Bangkok in June or July to make a short documentary. I'd like to take a sample of the water in the canal and view it through a microscope to see what is in the water and how clean it is. I'd like to take a closer look at some of the homes, too - to see what damage is happening and what can be done to fix and strengthen the homes on the canal. I'd like to see if the local people have taken action to prevent more damage or to fix some of the homes. I'd like to talk with them and find out about their lives. I'd ask if they have hope for the future, or whether they are desperate with no options. People like you and me, living in a difficult - perhaps impossible situation. I'd love to share their story, to learn and to be able to have compassion. Watch this space.

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