Chromacoma back at it again this month with a guide of a more serious and gritty nature. Following some recent requests, I have dedicated this month’s entry to the slum area of Khlong Toei district (also often seen written as ‘Klong Toey’).
You might recall my saying back in the Chinatown guide that you don’t need to go to Chinatown to shoot pictures of Thai Chinese people. Likewise, you don’t need to go to Khlong Toei if you want to see and take pictures of a real Thai urban slum, they are everywhere. Just look out from many high up vantage points anywhere in the city and look for the tiny little areas featuring tightly packed, wooden-walled lean to shelter type homes with corrugated tin roofs and dogs running around everywhere and that is just as likely a slum by any other name. It’s just that the Khlong Toei ‘slum’ is MUCH, MUCH worse than anywhere else. It has long been known by Bangkokians to be very much the epitome of the word and is perhaps most often cited as a typical worst-case example of such an area in Bangkok. It is famous for its extreme poverty and resulting issues such as high crime and drug abuse, which is off the charts.
That said, I believe that (at least in the case of men) it’s not especially unsafe in broad daylight as a Westerner as long as you conduct yourself humbly and with some respect for the inhabitants of such dwellings. For women, you probably would also be fine but I feel that I can’t quite recommend it to a solo female photographer in full conscience. Either go with a guy or at least go as a group of women together, I am genuinely sorry if that upsets any female readers but I want to be fully responsible for the quality of the advice I give here so that would be my honest gut feeling about it. I couldn't feel entirely comfortable recommending any woman I know to go there on a solo tip. I'm sure there are lots of Western women volunteers who have worked at many of the charity foundations in the area and found no problems roaming around there whilst they were doing their bit as volunteers or whatever but I personally think that a little caution is needed, especially once you get off the busier main routes and head deeper down into the less travelled parts (by farangs) of Khlong Toei.
With all of the above out of the way, you might feel that this is gonna be a really scary venture into a dangerous ghetto and it CERTAINLY can be (especially at night when I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anybody really) but in many ways it can seem a deceptively different scenario. For starters, due to its relatively close proximity to the Sukhumvit (especially Ekamai and Thong Lo areas) and Rama 4 roads (mainstream Bangkok) and also perhaps because of its infamy, you do actually get some more adventurous Westerners here on their SE Asia adventure trip of a lifetime deciding to go and walk around the area. There’s also sometimes a volunteer worker or ‘voluntourist’ to be found doing their bit here and there as well, fair play to them. So, it’s not as though you are going to blend in any time soon but the locals there have definitely seen the odd backpacker with a camera before, believe me. As with anywhere else in Thailand, if you approach slowly and calmly with a smile, some people will even be a little smiley and friendly in return, despite the obviously huge gap between their lot in life and yours. This can be humbling.
HOWEVER, in more than two decades in Thailand, this is the only place where, when trying to walk down random alleys and walkways, the locals have politely tried to stop me…not to prohibit me from entering per se but rather to try and advise me that it really wasn’t perhaps in my best interests (from a personal safety point of view) to do so. That is something I hadn’t ever really experienced (or can at least remember experiencing) in Thailand before. So, think about doing your own risk assessment for this maybe because it's very much real life, not some reality TV show.
On this trip, I saw used needles and syringes lying around discarded as rubbish on the floor (again, I have never seen that anywhere in Thailand) where children were playing. I saw some of those children playing with rubbish as their toys, some of them were stinking to high heaven as they had soiled themselves and their clearly drunk or high mother right next to them didn’t seem to want to clean them up. I walked past people openly smoking either 'yaabaa' or 'ice' methamphetamines in front of me in broad daylight, as the sickly sweet chemical smells wafted into my face, they carried on like zombies regardless. People are shooting up drugs here with needles any time day and night. This is not a 'nice' place.
All of the above seems more relevant when you consider that to see the real Khlong Toei slum, you need to be off any of the main roads and waaaay down these alleys and back streets and train tracks (!) wandering around and going as deep as you dare into the labyrinthine networks of poverty stricken walkthroughs. You might well find yourself standing on top of the old train line which runs almost right through people’s little shacks (in the main photo at the top of this post, those tiny wooden and cardboard boxes on the train lines in the photos are where I found people living and sleeping!) or you might get stuck up a dead end and need to follow a local to see whether their route will bring you back out to some kind of civilization again. It’s fun but in all honesty, it’s not perhaps for the faint of heart. This is also a time to watch out for any rabid, and diseased soi dogs that might be on the attack. The potential danger from the locals also extends to those with four legs! It’s best to be confident if you turn a corner and find yourself in the midst of a pack of them as the local Thai strays often smell fear, and then things can get tricky very quickly. Make like a local Thai and keep on pushing dead straight ahead and show them who’s boss. It can take a bit of nerve at times, if you panic and get stuck, wait for a passing Thai and walk quickly alongside them, they know which dogs can be easily brushed aside and which ones you might want give a wider berth to.
It’s not the best place for normal lenses. It is certainly doable but you can really benefit from a 35mm or even a 28mm for this mission. There is a lot of shadow play and contrasting bright and dark scenery to deal with. In terms of equipment and technique, it has a lot in common with the Chinatown approach I guess. Zone focusing is highly recommended. Film shooters need ISO 400 flexibility at a minimum I would say and take an extra roll or two beyond what you might be expecting to use. Also be forewarned that one problem I have had is that in certain parts of the slum, the sheer smell of all the litter and refuse and waste can be a little overpowering at times. It’s quite an assault to the senses in more ways than one. People are basically living right in and on top of a huge, rat infested rubbish dump. In this shot below where the young woman is salvaging something from the large open skip, she was (I believe) trying to collect up old aluminum drinks cans for money but I couldn’t get any closer as I was already dry heaving, I mean quite literally convulsing and looking to get away from the stench and sheer squalor at that point as I had been in the area for about an hour longer than I had anticipated.
I did find some people who seemed quite happy in their humble little slum homes as they worked away doing some sewing or running a tiny little shop that caters to the residents of their particular little alleyway. It’s not all sad people. This is the kind of place where you’ll easily stumble on a crowd of guys having an afternoon heavy drinking session of whisky or beers around a table, perhaps whilst an illegal card or dice game is going down. Just be cool and make like Dionne Warwick….walk on by.
Of course, you could opt to sit down and take the drink offered to you but it can all get a bit sticky when you later wish to untangle yourself from the mess you might end up in. Of course, many backpackers do this and then take photos of their newfound ‘Thai drinking buddies’ and go home with tales of how they personally found the ‘real Thailand’ etc. Hey, who am I to judge? Whatever you wanna do and at least it’s as a result of going your own way and meeting people and seeing places that are not part and parcel of the standard tourist package, right?
Also, in terms of culture shock (and especially if you are on holiday here), you’ll likely be needing a steely resolve emotionally when you see how people (especially kids) are living their lives in such an area. As with many capital cities in ‘developing countries’ (whatever that means anyway), this slum area is within a fairly close proximity to huge, high end shopping malls and ‘the haves’ living their comfortable lives. This little photographic mission is more of a photojournalistic opportunity in essence really. It’s very much the gritty and certainly shitty end of the stick and it’s out there for anybody to go and see and record with a camera. I highly recommend black and white film for this kind of thing but then again I would say that of course. Use whatever you’ve got with you (the best camera is always the one with you, or so they say) and really try to squeeze the best out of it and yourself.
By the way, ‘Khlong’ means a canal, and ‘Toei’ is a flower sometimes used in Thai food and drinks, I think the English name is ‘Pandan’ but don’t hold me to that 100%. I know what it looks and tastes like, I just don’t know for sure if I’ve got that right or not. The ‘T’ in ‘Toei’ isn’t really a ‘t’ sound at all but rather a combination of what it would sound like if you tried to say ‘t’ with more of a ‘d’ sound. I am trying to make it simple for non Thai speakers to at least attempt to say it correctly.
Taxi drivers know it, assuming you can say it correctly. Nearest MRT station is Klong Toei. The slum itself is actually in several areas and so really should be pluralized into ‘slums’. Generally however, when people talk of the Khlong Toei Slum, they are talking about the biggest, most concentrated area of it and this is where you can also find a charity or foundation or two. Here below is a map cutaway for you to use on a device and show to a taxi driver, it has both English and Thai on it. Anywhere within the red arrows outer perimeter is pretty much different shades of full on Klong Toei ghetto but you should explore randomly within that area as much as possible, it’s almost different every time you go. There are some key landmarks also in English on that map in case you are very ‘directionally challenged’ (or your taxi driver is!), for example Bangkok University. I hope that this blog entry proves useful and that your day there goes well. I never normally say this but…good luck!
For those that don’t make it there, this post at least features some of my work from a recent trip there to give you just a glimpse. For anyone who is bothered, these were with a Rolleiflex and Ilford Delta 400 as I recall.