Saturday, 3 January 2015

People of Banglumphu sois

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring the backstreets or ‘small sois’ of Banglumphu, where the UNICEF office is based. One of the things I love about Bangkok is this maze of alleys, just wide enough for a motorbike to get down, that exist a few blocks back from the main roads. Here, the din of traffic fades away and people sit around outside their houses chatting or playing chess during the ‘cool hours’ before sunset.

Thai people generally love having their photo taken and I’ve got bolder about asking them. As my Thai language has improved, I can have longer conversations, although I still rely on Thai friends like Kay, Nutt and Audrey for more abstract discussions about history, drama and ghosts. Here are some of my favourite local characters:

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
At 53, P’Jeap is a trendy Grandma. She looks after nine-month-old Porpeeang during the day, while her son works at a bank. “I’ve lived in Banglumphu all my life,” she said. “It used to be traditional Thai teak houses around here, but they burnt down in a fire 40 years ago. When I was a girl I saw ghosts all the time. But now they’re emptying the cemetery to build a new development and the spirits have gone. The only one left is a farang (foreigner). We don’t know who his relatives are.”

Belief in ghosts (known as ‘phi’) is common in Thailand and dates back to pre-Buddhist folklore. In the modern world, these beliefs fuel a massive industry in graphic Thai horror movies. However, unlike in the West, Thai ghosts are not necessarily evil and can also be benevolent and protective spirits.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Porpeeang’s playmate, 18-month-old Boat, who lives on the same soi. He was eating a desert and spilling half of it on the ground. “Boat is Porpeeang’s boyfriend,” P’Jeap joked.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Khun Kun (in white) and Khun Nhum playing checkers on a built-in board in a public seating area. Kun is a retired statistician and Nhum is an electrician. As well as checkers, people use these boards to play ‘makruk’ or Thai chess, a board game descended from the 6th-century Indian game of chaturanga. “We often play in the afternoons to relax,” Nhum said. I asked who wins. “Khun Kun usually does,” he replied, laughing and pointing at his older opponent.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
People doing aerobics in Santichai Prakarn park by the Chao Praya river, to a soundtrack of loud disco music. The sessions, which attract mostly middle-aged Thai women, are free but most people leave a tip for the instructor at the end.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
 A boy learning to play badminton in front of Phra Sumen fort, in the same park. Badminton is a popular game in Thailand, often played outside during the ‘cool hours’ of late afternoon.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Wanna is a maid for a family living in Banglumphu. For the last 12 years, she has also made elaborate costumes for a performance of the ‘Ramayana’ to mark the Queen of Thailand’s birthday. Along with the Mahabharata, this is one of the two great Hindu epics, which was the religion of Thailand when it was part of the ancient Khmer Empire. “I have to make new costumes every year,” Wanna told us. “They get damaged in the performance or the actors get fatter.” I asked if she’d ever been to a performance. “No, but I watch it on TV and try to spot my costumes,” she replied.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
P’Ae also embroiders costumes for performances of Ramayana and other traditional stories. “I’ve been doing this work for ten years,” he said. “It’s unusual work for a man but I really enjoy it. I want to help preserve our traditions. Lots of older people in the community do this. We tried to train young people but they have less patience. They gave up after two days.”

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Mer Pong Sri, 86, is known as grandmother of her community. “This area used to be palace grounds,” she told us. “We rented our homes from the royal family. When I was young the streets were made from packed earth and stone, and lit by old-fashioned light bulbs on wooden poles. There was one area for women to live in, and another for the palace guards.”

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
P’Eid was surprised when we gave her a photo of her granddaughter dancing with other children, from a few weeks before. “When did you do this?” she asked the girl, laughing.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Auntie Kai sits outside her small shop selling snacks and household products. She lives in the same neighbourhood as Mer Pong Sri. “We only have one spirit house in this community,” she told us. “It’s for the former landowner. He was a member of the royal family and he has a very powerful spirit. We feel very safe here and don’t need any other spirit houses.”

In Thailand, a spirit house or ‘san phra phum’ is a shrine to the protective spirit of a place. Most homes and businesses have one in an auspicious spot (our office also has one). Typically it is a miniature house or temple mounted on a pillar, containing tiny figures of people and animals. The house is intended to provide a shelter for spirits that could otherwise cause problems for the living. People appease the spirits with regular gifts of food and drink.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Khun Bang fixes his motorbike in a small soi. It’s common to see Thai men and women with these kind of tattoos. Called ‘sak yant’, the designs are normally tattooed by a shaman or Buddhist monk, traditionally with a long bamboo stick sharpened to a point. I asked Bang about the meaning of his tattoos. “They’re verses and pictures from sacred texts,” he replied. “I believe that they protect me from harm.”

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Khun Jom (left) sits outside his house before sunset. His wife Sawana stands in the doorway with their pet cat. Like many of the people who frequent the sois at this time of day, Khun Jom is retired. “I used to work at the local school just down the road,” he said. I asked if he had been a teacher. “No I was an administrator,” he replied.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Khun Jom’s neighbour’s pet dog. They have two near identical huskies which look beautiful but must struggle with the Thai climate, which is very different to their native arctic region.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
Khun Tawachai is also retired. He used to work in a gold shop in Chinatown. “I have bad circulation, but it helps to put my feet in a bucket of warm water,” he explained, before asking where I was from. “I’m English,” I replied in Thai. “English people are very high-soc (upper class),” he observed. I assured him that, in my case at least, this was not necessarily true.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2014
A security guard left this set of belongings on a table by the entrance to a gated property near Khun Tawachai’s house.

© Andy Brown/Thailand/2015
Further up the river in Nonthaburi, Khun Rangsan, 83, works at a Chinese temple. "I'm Thai but my parents were Chinese," he says. "My Chinese name is Im Por. A few years ago I was very ill and my family thought I was going to die. They said I should come to the temple. Afterwards I got better, so now I work here all the time."

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