The Faces of Khao San | ถนนข้าวสาร

“We are coming up on Khao San Road. It’s a crazy street. There are a lot of tourists there. It’s very busy.”

        Raindrops started to form on the window as the car rolled slowly through traffic in Bangkok. When we finally pulled up to the curb, we were met by what looked like a Thai version of the Las Vegas strip, except condensed and filled to the brim with wandering bodies. The rain continued to pour, but that did not stop the crowd of locals and tourists from flooding the bustling road. I was glued to the pavement, awestruck by the scenes I was witnessing.

        The humid air felt thick and smelled of fried meats. The clouds had rolled through and the storm had ceased for a moment, leaving puddles and debris throughout the city. The aftermath was beautiful. The traffic lights spiraled down into the pavement like colorful veins stretching into the depths of a dark world.

        As I made my way down Khao San Road, I was greeted with smiles and laughter. There were vendors selling tropical fruits and other fresh meals. The steam of the grills danced through the wind. Everywhere I looked there were nooks to explore, shopkeepers to bargain with, dance floors to enter, and travelers to speak to. It all felt so poetic to me. I had to go further.

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        The rain returned, as it always does this time of year, and I was caught without an umbrella. A daunting orange sign looming above provided temporary shelter. It seemed as though every building was a nightclub and that the pavement itself was bouncing to the songs of the loudspeakers. The neon colors and bright lights were intoxicating, the noise relentless. I somehow felt both repulsed and drawn into the fray.

        Behind the front row of buildings on Khao San Road lies a complex network of alleys and spaces. The corridors were full of apparitions; ghostly figures floating into dimly lit rooms. I wasn’t sure where to go or what time it was, and I became tangled in it all. The winding wires and puffs of smoke unearthed a sullen nostalgia for a caring face. The seraphic beach paradise of Phuket was far out of reach both physically and mentally. Its sunlit image became just as lost as I in the dizziness of the world around me. Bars and clubs formed in the space where white sand and palm trees once stood. A discount disco ball replaced the sun. Shady men sold produce, pottery, and people.

        But I was not in danger. I was, in fact, the intended customer, the one who indulged, the one who robbed, the one who ruined. I was the young white male who was meant to arrive from a far away place and spend my money, fueling one of the most sinister industries in Southeast Asia. I felt disgusted by this game and the role I was expected to play in it. The night became more menacing as the situation became clearer. The Thai girls around the club are not brought there by their own free will. The warmth of the bar owner is a façade reserved for the customer. The police van parked down the road is not there to protect, but to take part. The stories were real, except no longer just stories to me. They became images and facts engraved in my mind, never to leave.

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        I left Khao San road late that night, accompanied by friendly faces, yet the road still stays with me. The twisted harmony between the beauty and madness of it all never ceases to astound me, and I can still see the speechless mouths and longing eyes of those who watched the frenzied madness that reigned over their home.

. . .

Words and images by Luke Netzley

As seen on The Culture-ist: https://www.thecultureist.com/2020/02/10/the-faces-of-khao-san/

Isolation: Observations from a Lahu Hill Tribe Village

        Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, a certain invulnerability, that I feel in this place. I take in a breath of fresh air. We are hidden in a small bamboo village, sitting perched on the edge of a large jungle valley. There is no easy way to get here. If large-scale development were to try to reach this place, it wouldn’t stand a chance. Ja Bu Si is a secluded oasis. We are buried in the northern mountains of Thailand, making conversation with the children who call it their home.

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        We watched the children climb fearlessly through the dense forest they call home. Astonishingly, these children are not actually Thai citizens. What’s more is that, even if they were to grow up seeking citizenship, there is a very small chance they would ever be granted it. They were born in Thailand, but belong to a hill tribe that came from the Tibetan Plateau. The Lahu people settled in northern Thailand centuries ago, yet have been shunned by most of society. Tribal people are stereotypically viewed as poor and uneducated, less than human, and have been blamed for problems like deforestation. However, there is truth in some of these stereotypes, but not at the fault of the Lahu people.

        It is true that, on average, tribal people are less educated than other Thais, for without Thai citizenship a child cannot attend a government-funded school. The older kids in our village did, in fact, go to school, but only because it was one built in another tribe’s village. They would make a long trek through the jungle to the school and stay there for days, coming home on the weekends. It is true that, on average, tribal people are poorer than other Thais, for it is almost impossible to get a stable job without education or an ID. And finally, it is true that tribal people have had to clear away forest areas in order to build villages, for it is difficult, as you could imagine, to secure land rights anywhere else without proper documents, such as identification papers. With little money, dodgy education, and no rights, the people of the hill tribes are of the most marginalized in the country and have become prime victims for the human trafficking industry.

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        Despite prostitution being illegal, Thailand is known as the sex tourism capital of the world. The Thai legal system can be described as faulty at best, as little to no arrests for sex trafficking are made. This can be attributed to both corruption and gaps in the system.

        In Thailand, there are certain bars that cater primarily to white male tourists, although locals sometimes frequent them as well. Within the bar, a customer will be seated at a table and immediately greeted by a girl or two. While at the table, the customer is allowed to do whatever they wish to the girl, such as touching or kissing. The girl’s job is to convince the customer that she adores them, with the end game being that the customer approaches the bar owner. They then pay a bar fee to take the girl away with them for the night. Herein lies the loophole in the legal system. Because the customer is paying the bar owner for the girl and not the girl directly for her services, coupled with the money not being explicitly paid for sex, it is not legally defined as prostitution in Thailand. On top of all of this, policemen can also sometimes be seen lounging in and around the bars. They are not there with the intention of making arrests.

        There are countless stories of hill tribe girls being taken from their homes and forced into the sex trafficking industry, as this group is of the most vulnerable to this situation. The way it typically plays out is that a man will come to a village and tell a girl’s family that there is a job opening in Bangkok. The man explains that their daughter will be working as a waitress in a restaurant and will be sending home around 600 Thai baht a week, the equivalent of around $20. This prospect is near irresistible to the parents, who are struggling financially. The practice of filial piety, which is essentially the belief of duty to one’s elders, is prevalent in many countries that hold Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, including Thailand. The girl is expected to do what her parents say, placing their needs above her own. This helps fuel the side of sex trafficking that is most difficult to combat: psychological slavery.

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        When she arrives in Bangkok, the young girl will be forced to work in a bar, selling herself to strangers. She becomes caught in a trap of guilt and humiliation and cannot stop working. Even if she could physically escape the establishment, the idea that the bar owner knows the location of her family is enough to quell such a plan.

        What would her parents think of her if she came home? Some parents are oblivious and do not know what is going on or where their daughter is. Others know exactly where their girl is and are satisfied with the money being sent home.

        A tourist usually pays 6,000 to 7,000 baht for a girl, the equivalent of around $200. The money is paid to the bar owner and only a tiny percentage trickles down to the girl, who is suffering physically and emotionally. That completes the cycle of internal destruction of a girl for the production of wealth and male sexual pleasure.

        Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, but there are shadows creeping around us. I have come to realize that the invulnerability I once felt was simply an illusion. We are hidden in a small bamboo village, sitting perched atop the edge of a large valley decorated in dense forest. But beyond that forest lies a road, a paved pathway leading to the heart of a scornful society. We are buried in a jungle in Thailand, making conversation with the children who are told that it is not their home.

. . .

Words and images by Luke Netzley

SAṂSĀRA: Remnants of Disaster on the Andaman Coast.

        In the height of the monsoon season, an old silver Toyota bounced back and forth down the dirt path. The wheels struggled to find a stretch of solid ground as the rain thundered on the van’s metal roof. I peered outside to get a sense of my surroundings. To my left was a small collection of misty islands rising out of the dark grey sea. To my right lay a labyrinth of mangrove trees stretching for miles before reaching the jungle-clad mountains. Small storm waves broke soundly onto the sand. The gloomy water looked peaceful, easy to forget its deadly potential. There was history here.

        The small seaside village of Ban Talae Nok rests on the shore of southern Thailand’s Andaman coast. The “Village by the Outer Sea” – an English translation of its Thai name – is home to a largely Muslim population, a rarity in a country that is almost entirely Buddhist. Sadly, discrimination against Muslim groups within Thailand is not uncommon. The religious tension occurs primarily in the south, around where we were staying, due to the proximity to Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country.

        In the summer, the men are drawn out to sea on their long tail boats to catch jellyfish for harvest. Wielding their massive nets, these fishermen can bring in hundreds of jellies per boat with each excursion. The catch is then taken to a large wooden mechanism on the shoreline to be harvested and prepared for export. This has historically been Ban Talae Nok’s largest industry. Meanwhile, on land, the women weave bamboo roof shingles, mold herbal soaps, and take care of essential housework.

        The town is a small, yet lively, place, a community situated around a paved road that runs through its center. Gravel back streets shoot off from the asphalt into the adjacent neighborhoods. During the afternoon, it became clear that the paved road was rarely used by motor vehicles, occupied instead by cows, carts, and children at play. At night, the residents return to their homes. Smoke pours out of candle-lit windows as religious hymns echo across the street. A dense mist pushes inland from the shore and snakes though the jungle valley. The evening sky turns into an ever-darkening shade of blue before inevitably falling into the endless black of night.

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        After finishing a late dinner of spiced chicken, pumpkin, and rice, the owner of the house joined us outside on the patio. She was an older Thai woman, yet spoke with youth in her voice. We were able to communicate through basic translations. Using my phone, I showed her images of friends, pets, and adventures from back home. She pointed, smiled, and laughed, showing genuine interest in who I was and what my life was like. I found it amazing that I could so easily connect with someone who spoke a different language, followed a different faith, and lived in a different country. We are all just people, after all. My friends and I told her that if she had any questions for us, anything in the world, we would be happy to answer. The first and only question she asked, relayed through loose translations, was this:

“Why would you choose to live in these conditions when you have a comfortable life back home?”

        Looking back, she had a point. Why would anyone travel from a place where they are happy and stable to a place they have never been before? It is true that change can be uncomfortable. However, change can also bring immense growth, and this is especially true with villages like Ban Talae Nok.

For two nights we stayed with a lovely family of six on the South-eastern edge of the village.
For two nights we stayed with a lovely family of six on the South-eastern edge of the village.

        As the night became darker, the wind grew stronger, carrying with it the patchy rains we had grown accustomed to during our stay in the village. From where my friends and I had sat that night, we could still hear the faint sounds of the small waves breaking onto the sand. No matter where you are in Ban Talae Nok, the shore is never far. However, the village’s relationship with the sea is as complex as the maze-like swamp between them. It has brought the people life by providing sources of food, pathways for transportation, and a gateway for trade. That being said, it has also brought them immeasurable hardships.

        On the morning of December 26th, 2004, the village was decimated by a tsunami. According to a survivor who witnessed the impact of the first wave, the water came higher than the trees, which were roughly 7 meters in height. The brunt of the damage came from the second wave that hit, however, as it carried with it the debris from the first. Out of the 200 residents of Ban Talae Nok, 153 survived. The most severe physical damage was done to the thirteen beachfront houses that were used as stay-over destinations for the fishermen during the jellyfish migrations. Ruins still dotted the sand bar as we floated past. Cruises through the mangrove swamps on long-tail boats as well as other tourism-based activities have become important streams of income for the community. The people have had to adapt to the spotlight put on them by both charity and travel organizations, as community-based tourism slowly becomes the new central industry of Ban Talae Nok.

Ruins on the sandbank where fishermen used to live during the jellyfish migrations.
Ruins on the sandbank where fishermen used to live during the jellyfish migrations.

        Through organizations like Andaman Discoveries and other tour companies, foreigners are permitted to stay in the homes of local residents, work in the workshops of local residents, and learn from the experiences of local residents. “I am happy you are here,” our host told us, “but the only problem is we can’t speak.” She was right. Even with the aid of our translator, we were only able to ask relatively simple questions. Our translations would not be exact, for our guide and our host spoke different dialects of Thai. However, we were able to grasp the essentials of each conversation and grew more and more enlightened as the night went on. We asked her about the presence of tourism in her village and how that has impacted her life. So far, she remarked, the industry has proven to have many benefits. Outsiders who come to Ban Talae Nok and meet the people who were personally affected by the tsunami can gain a new respect through understanding and bring the stories from the Village by the Outer Sea back home.

        However, tourism can also have its drawbacks. She explained, “Everything is so much more expensive in Thailand now, but the income is still the same.” Our translator knew the number, “15,000 baht, divide that by 30, that’s a good 500.” What he said was that 15,000 baht a month is a salary of roughly 500 baht a week. That’s equivalent to fifteen U.S. dollars every week. “That’s the local income of a Thai,” he said, before quickly adding, “if you have a degree, that is.”

Well, what if you don’t have a degree?

        “The construction workers get approximately 500 baht a day, but…the work is not steady. You don’t get a contract. Pickup trucks… In the morning you see them everywhere. They just pick up people who can work for the day. If you’re lucky, you receive a project for a couple of days.”

        Prices in Thailand, especially in southern areas like the resort-filled Phuket, are heavily catered to tourists. What about the local people? What about those who cannot even work? Our host answered, “For villagers who don’t ever work, the government will pay for a Medicare-like [program]…when you go to the doctor, you pay 30 baht as a deductible. So you pay and the government forces the hospitals to accept you.”

        As we were talking, two young twins, no older than 3 years, ran out to the table and climbed atop their mother. She smiled and shooed them away. The two giggled and stared at us, the foreigners, in fascination before disappearing back into the house. Our host looked off into the night. “The kids on Saturday and Sunday go to study Arabic.” It was getting late and nearly time to head back inside ourselves, but not before we were taught an Arabic saying:

Alhamdulillah.

        “It’s an Arabic blessing. May God be with you.” The saying can hold many meanings and is used within many Thai-Muslim communities. After our brief lesson, we bid farewell and retired to our mosquito nets.

Boys running back home in the rain.
Boys running back home in the rain.

        The people of Ban Talae Nok have had to be resilient and strong. Although they have had to adapt to the new and rising industry of tourism, these people are making the most of the resources at hand and are steadily rebuilding their lives. It is a truly remarkable sight to see children dancing down a village road that had been demolished by a tsunami just over a decade before. The future looks bright for this vibrant seaside community.

. . .

Words and images by Luke Netzley