Slumming it in Bangkok

1 in every 6 people on the planet live in a slum. By slum we mean densely packed, overcrowded areas of housing, without access to municipal water supplies and sewerage. Slums come in many different types, some are better than others, but all share the defining feature of existing largely without the permission of the public authorities and without direct access to public services.

Slum housing in Bangkok’s China Town area

Slums in Bangkok

By this definition Bangkok is covered in slums. The biggest of these is Klong Toei slum with some 100,000 residents. It is located near the Sukhimvit Road and adjacent to the Klong Toei river port. It’s been in existence since the 1960. Klong Toei, whilst massive, in fact accounted for only 10% of the the city’s slum dwellers. In 2000 the Thai government estimated that Bangkok had a slum population of 1,099,755 (1 in 5 of Bangkok’s then total population of 5,680,380). The numbers of areas being defined as ‘slums’ in central Bangkok was in the year 2000 was 796, with a further 452 slums in the suburban areas around Bangkok. Slums are literally everywhere in Bangkok. To understand why this is, you need to understand exactly what a slum is in Thailand and how they came about.

Slum Dwellers Pay Rent

The first thing to understand about slums in Central Bangkok is that they occupy land that is not, for the greater part, public land or unclaimed land or land used without the permission of a private owner. The Thai Government has estimated that only 16% of the slum population are squatters. This 16% largely live on publicly owned land. For instance, by the side of canals where planning law keeps a thin strip of land by the side of the land clear of any buildings. Another popular place to squat is on land belonging to the State Railways of Thailand, particularly on area by the train track kept clear for obvious reason. These comparatively small areas aside, the vast majority of slum land is rented from the owners of the land on a profit making basis.

Origins of Bangkok’s Slum Areas

Industrialisation came to Bangkok in the 1960s, as did the first big wave of ‘tourists’ in the form of off-duty soldiers fighting in Vietnam and elsewhere. With it came employment opportunities, and hundred of thousands of people from rural Thailand. Life at the time in rural Thailand often meant living in a wooden house with a tin roof, and having little or no access to public services. Renting a piece of bare land at a very cheap price and building a wooden house seemed the natural thing to do for many migrants to Bangkok at this time as the living conditions where not that dissimilar to the ones in a rural village, except for being a lot more crowded. Land owners in Bangkok were very keen to turn what was water logged farmland into far more profitable 100 square metre plots to be let out to people poor enough to overlook flooding and a lack of sanitation.

Sub-urbanisation of Bangkok Slums

Since the 1980s the  migration trend from rural areas to Bangkok has slowed down, with increasing numbers of people going instead to towns neighbouring Bangkok, such as Samut Prakan, to work in newly built factories. These areas also now have slums. The slum population in Bangkok is though still growing. The original slum dwellers have had families, and they in turn have families and so on. People who live in the slum are, it would appear, for the greater part not looking to move on from the slum. The slums have become a permanent community with generations of the same family now living in the slum from birth to death. Research suggests that slum dwellers are not correctly defined as ‘very poor’. Poverty levels are lower than the average for the Bangkok population, but remarkably the majority of the people who live in slums have a regular income and a significant proportion have formal jobs. It is estimated that around 5% have professional white collar jobs.

Slums Cause Problems For The City

Slums are a problem for Bangkok as a city. Setting aside the effect that the crowded living conditions have on the people who actually live in slums, they have a negative impact on the city. The unregulated nature of slums, and the crowded living conditions, appear to make them a breeding ground for criminal activity. Drug use and dealing of drugs is a big problem in Bangkok’s slums. The problem spills over into the rest of Bangkok as well, with associated crimes like theft and gang violence having their origins within the slum drug trade. The slums also affect the infrastructure of the city. The Railway Land slums impede the progress of the trains, making trains journeys in Bangkok painfully slow. The slums on the canal side have also been blamed for Bangkok’s recent floods. The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority has claimed that it cannot dredge the canals properly because of the canal side slum houses. There may well be some truth in this claim.

Discrimination Against Slum Dwellers

For many non-slum dwellers in Bangkok, people who live in slums are seen as parasites from the countryside who are ruining the city. To my mind this view is narrow minded. Slum dwellers, for the greatest part, pay for where they live in a rent to the legal owners, who are sometimes very rich and important people. There is a profit being made from these communities. Also they nearly always have jobs, more often than not the low paid unpleasant work required to keep Bangkok functioning. Bangkok needs the people living in the sums. The real problem is the failure on the part of Thai Governments through five decades to address the problem. Major European cities all had massive slums until end of the Nineteenth Century. These slums were eventually eradicated – in a relatively short period of time – by a massive programme of public works, focusing on sanitation and the construction of public housing. Thailand needs to do the same. There is no other solution.

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