For Richer or Poorer

April 29, 2002

One of the things that never ceases to strike me as visually bizarre is how a mansion stands neatly next to a chaotic row of houses made out of billboards and metal siding in Thailand. There are no firm and fixed dividing lines going through neighbourhoods, save a few gated communities often built around the more prestigious international schools. Rich and poor live side by side and don’t bat an eye at each other. This is beyond strange to many visitors from the west who are used to more clearly-defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ residential areas.

In Thailand, one family may sit inside their meticulous fifteen-room house while on the other side of the fence another family can be found sitting in their raised bamboo platform living room. Sure, there are some notoriously poor parts of towns where people may hang on to their pocketbooks a bit tighter, but that won’t stop someone from building a dream home smack dab in the middle of it.

Crime does exist in Thailand of course,290402k1.jpg but it is not commonly of the ultra-violent nature frequently heard of in the west. Pickpockets are out there. Televisions go walking out when houses are left unattended. Clothing gets snatched off of lines. Cars get stolen. Repairmen visiting a house might choose to snatch something that will fit neatly in their pocket. Many homeowners have dogs patrolling the yards and an alarm system too, but stealing rarely takes on the armed and bloody fashion so often practiced elsewhere. When one reads about violent crime it very often involves gambling debts, whisky, and an explosion of tempers.

Thailand has never mastered the art of zoning let alone attempt it. Skyscrapers hover next to single story mom and pop stores. Shopping centres are tucked neatly next to low-rise apartments. Forget about residential zones, commercial zones and historical zones. It is a big potpourri zone out there, period. When it comes to residential sections, people don’t feel the need to segregate290402k2.jpg themselves away from others or karaoke clubs for that matter.

Thailand has a relatively small middle class. There is a bubble of incredibly rich floating on top and a whole bunch of working class who head off to low paying jobs in the morning. Interestingly enough, the working class does not resent this tremendously-obvious split in the distribution of wealth. The general attitude about wealth seems to be ‘I have what I have, you have what you have and it is what it is.’

If you drive through Thailand’s nicer neighbourhoods, it might be difficult to catch a glimpse of the much poorer communities that live in them. The grand houses sit on the streets. The shacks are tucked down narrow walkways. They are mostly invisible unless you are up high and able to get a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. If you are driving on the elevated expressways in Bangkok or happen to be up in a skyscraper, it is interesting to look down and search out all of the communities neatly290402k3.jpg tucked away in the strangest of locations.

A simple muddy path heading off a main road very often leads one to hundreds of houses made out of every conceivable leftover building material in every size, shape, and angle and all of the residents that go with them. Now, if this community were perched somewhere other than Thailand, I might have a sense of foreboding and not wish to take one step in its direction. That is not the case here.

A haphazard stroll down a path results in all of the neighbourhood children screeching with delight that a visitor is coming through. Soon you will be walking with fifteen children in tow and before you know it you might find yourself sitting on someone’s front porch staring at all of the curious and smiling faces that are staring at you. All of the children will walk with you back to the main road and you can be sure the little neighbourhood will be talking about you for weeks to come. I have never felt the least bit unsafe anywhere in all the years I have lived here. Amazing Thailand indeed!

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