Rebecca and I spent a few nights in Bangkok at the end of the trip. But instead of taking in the sights and reveling in its legendary nightlife, we met up with a friend and spent an hour feeding the homeless on Bangkok’s popular Sukhumvit Road. The experience was eye-opening and better explained to me the intersection of human trafficking, organized crime and homelessness in Southeast Asia.
We began the evening meeting up with Charlie, an American living in Bangkok with New York roots whom we had met a few week back in Bali. Charlie was the one person we knew in Bangkok, and the answer to the nervousness our families expressed when we told them we were headed back to Thailand. (Martial law sounds scarier than it is, coincidentally.) We asked if he wanted to have dinner one of the days we were there, and he in turn invited us along on his weekly mission to help homeless children. Perhaps a little different from the evening we had envisioned, but we couldn’t say no.
Rebecca and I had encountered homelessness on our previous trips to the Sukhumvit, but it didn’t seem extraordinary; seeing homelessness every day on your Bay Area commute makes one numb to that particular type of suffering. But as Charlie began to explain the situation here, it became a little less ordinary, and a lot more disturbing.
You’d have to be blindfolded not to see homeless people begging on the streets of Bangkok. Often you’ll see them sitting on the steps near the Metro lines, or right next to street food vendors — pretty much anywhere that tourists are expected to have loose change and small bills. Children are especially gifted beggars. They’re helpless, they’re persistent, and they’re cute, so I’ll admit that the times I have given money to the homeless on this trip were instances where a mother had a young child.
Sadly, it’s not as simple as giving money to a child or her mother. As Charlie explained to us, the mafia controls virtually all the transactions that happen on the Sukhumvit, including the food vendors, the ephemera peddlers, and yes, even the beggars. Often times, the people living on the street are trafficked in from neighboring nations like Laos or Cambodia, promised a better life, and then sold into slavery. Some become prostitutes on legendary Soi Cowboy. Others beg for money that goes to the mob. Some are simply exploited for money for their families.
And with drugs readily available, children who are in these situations, Charlie explained, are often drugged in order to be obedient or quiet.
“The worst I’ve seen was an infant 5-6 months old, laying on a sheet of cardboard on the sidewalk while her mom slept at her side. Though the mom was asleep, the baby was wide awake with tears in her eyes. She was watching her two older sisters, aged 2 and 3, squatting on the ground, with cups in their hands begging. The stoic look in the baby’s eyes is a strong indicator that the baby was given a narcotic… so that the baby would be too lethargic to crawl away while the mom slept. That’s when I knew that I was seeing the work of the devil with my very eyes.”
Our walk involved arriving at the Sukhumvit neighborhood and going straight to the nearest 7-Eleven to buy milk and sandwiches, then hitting up a few street food vendors to get some dinners for people and their families. Whenever we saw a homeless person, child or no, we’d give them food and milk. That way, they survive, and their exploiters get nothing. Meals and drinks for the five or six homeless people I fed cost a little more than $10.
Charlie’s been doing this since March of 2013, when he saw a heartbreaking scene of a woman struggling to breastfeed her infant. Right beside her was another homeless parent with a 2-year-old, covered in filth and grime from the street. “I decided to go into a pharmacy and buy some powered breast milk and bottles with nipples for the baby. I also bought fortified milk and sticky rice, grilled chicken, and papaya salad for all of them. When I gave this to the 2 year girl in her filthy pink ballerina dress, she looked at me with a largest of all eyes, and flashed me a smile of wonderful happiness, as if she doesn’t know what is really wrong with her situation, because she really doesn’t. She was just happy to have food.”
“I began to weep. I was really caught off guard with the emotional impact this had on me. When I saw the children’s innocent smiles amidst such hardship, it pulled my deepest heart-strings and stayed tattooed in my mind.” So he decided to keep helping the only way he knew how.
On our outing, the recipients of the food and drink were very thankful; the children immediately consumed the offerings, while the parents hid them for later so they were out of sight to whomever might come by. But everyone gave us smiles and looks of gratitude. Despite Charlie’s horror stories, we had a pretty easy night; the looks that stuck in my mind were those of appreciation.
I’ve always known that homelessness was complicated, but until I spoke with Charlie, and did some internet research of my own, I had no idea it could be this horrible. The presence of human trafficking haunts all of Southeast Asia like a ghost; everywhere you go, you’ll see signs warning about punishments for it as governments struggle to prevent children from being trafficked. And with the combination of trafficking and the omnipresent, soul-crushing poverty of many of the Southeast Asian nations, it feels like this situation in Bangkok will never get better. But with the efforts of individuals like Charlie, and great organizations like Friends International and Human Rights Watch, things can get better.
Most of all, it’s important to remember that you can make a difference in the life of a child or a family. Every night someone doesn’t starve is a good one. So next time you see someone who could use a good meal, give him one. In Bangkok, it’ll only cost you a few dollars, and it’s worth it at any cost.