Despite recent talk of free WiFi and iPads for all school children, is life really that simple for young people living in Bangkok? Sure your younger brothers and sisters might have all the trappings of modern life from their iPhone 4 to their designer handbag, but what about the kids who don?t get to hang in the high end malls, who in fact don?t even have a roof over their heads?
Earlier this year, Ohm Phanphiroj?s exhibition, The Streets of Broken Dreams, focused on street prostitutes and raised plenty of controversy and reaction. More recently, fashion photographer turned documentary maker Chardjakaj Waikawee is the latest to shine a spotlight on this forgotten section of society in his recent exhibition, Youth. As he returns to the streets for a new documentary film project we went with him to find out the reality of life for many of Bangkok?s young and homeless.
We drive to Saphan Phut and despite the lateness of the hour the streets are packed. There?s a club like atmosphere except all the kids milling around are way too young to go to bars. In fact, most are still wearing their school uniforms while busily getting drunk. We approach one group of especially loud kids; the boys are wearing oversized shirts and the girls have on short jean shorts and tight tank tops. When we try to speak to one guy named Boy (17), wearing a hip-hop sized shirt and knock-off Crocs, the crowd of about ten heckle us. Still, Boy seems keen to answer when we ask him what the best day of his life was. ?I was with my girlfriend,? he says, leaning against the bridge rail. ?We went out to Bang Saen, and drank some alcohol. Just us. We kissed and watched the stars all night. It was romantic.? It sounds pretty innocent, a rite of passage all young people go through, but he also reveals a darker side to life on the streets. He?s been arrested in the past for racing his bike at night and doesn?t have to think long when asked what his biggest fear is.
?I?m scared of getting stabbed by a bunch of people.? His friend interrupts our conversation to explain that Boy actually got stabbed today. ?But the blade didn?t go through because he has a sak yant [protective tattoo].?
Boy nods his head proudly, and takes off his shirt to reveal a large tattoo he has on his back. Another friend comes up and takes off his shirt, to show us a scar on the side of his ribs. He wasn?t as lucky when he was knifed.
While Boy runs off to get more beer, a small boy ambles over to us, asking for change. We ask the boy what he?s doing here and he agrees to tell us only if we pay him. A few baht later, Nu (14) explains us that he spends most nights hanging out on the bridge begging for change. ?It?s ok, sometimes it?s even fun,? he says, shrugging.
Nu ended up on the street after his parents left him on what he remembers as the worst day of his life. Now he either stays at a friend?s house or, as he puts it, finds a place to sleep. While he can remember the worst day of his life quickly enough, he struggles to think of a best day. He squints his eyes trying to search deeper into his brain before coming up with the answer. ?I don?t think I?ve had one. I can?t remember.?
Nu might only be 14 years old but he?s already aware of the dangers of being out on the street. ?Someone could kidnap me and sell me somewhere,? he says. ?Maybe they?d make me a child prostitute or something.? He obviously knows a thing or two about this sort of thing. ?Some of my friends got taken away,? he says. ?I?ve never seen them again.
At this point, the crowd of teens are becoming increasingly intrigued by what we are doing. They urge Goy-Ty (16), who is constantly adjusting her makeup and clothing, to do an interview with us. For someone so young she seems pretty world weary, as she announces that she?s given up on school. ?The good days have passed already,? she says, laughing. ?It seems like every day is just tough lately.?
Still, unlike some, she?s still in contact with her parents, even if she only goes to see them when she needs money. It?s money she uses to pursue her favorite pastime. ?I love going to pubs,? she says, cheering up a little bit. ?My favorite is the Regent.?
We leave Goy-Ty but quickly run into 14-year-old Pete, who is busy making stabbing motions and pointing to our cameras. Like Goy-Ty, he likes to hang out at pubs and remembers his first time drinking there as the best day of his life. ?I went to the pub at a full moon party,? he says, chin raised trying not to break eye contact. ?It was super fun. We got in by giving the bouncers B90 and got really drunk.?
Pete might be only 14 but he?s also had to deal with the more violent aspects of life out on the streets. ?I was chasing some guys and they started chasing me back with a knife,? he says with a cocky smile as he recalls the day he almost got stabbed. Still, despite the tough man exterior, there?s also a hint of the child he still is as he tells us his biggest fear: ?Girls!? he blurts out before disappearing for more beer.
We sense the kids are tiring of our presence and want to be left alone to their vices because they start to inch away from us. Pete comes back with a couple more beers and they fill up their glasses. It?s around 1am and they?ll probably do the same thing tomorrow and the day after. As they refuse to talk further, we decide to pack it in for the night to go back to the comfort of our beds?not a choice many of these kids have.
Boy (17) says he escaped death because of his Sak Yant tattoo “We went out to Bang Saen and drank some alcohol. Just us. We kissed and watched the stars all night. It was romantic.” – Boy, 17
“All I want for my birthday is for my whole family to be together.” – Gop, 8
Prieow (19) loves the thrill of speeding on her boyfriend?s motorcycle.
“I love hanging out where there’s fast bikes, and people racing each other.” Prieow, 19 Nu (14) was abandoned by his family. “I spend most of my nights begging for change. It’s ok, sometimes it’s even fun.” – Nu, 14
Goy-Ty (16) hasn?t seen her parents for a while. “The good days have passed already. It seems like every day is just tough lately.” – Goy-Ty, 16
14-year-old Pete?s greatest fear is girls. “We got in [to a pub] by giving the bouncer B90.” – Pete, 14
Daeng (20) is coping with heartbreak by hanging out at Saphan Phut. “The best day of my life was when I was with my girlfriend. The worst day was when she dumped me, yesterday.” – Daeng, 20