Trying to get out of the slum

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

Trying to get out of the slum

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Klong Toey slum, Bangkok, Thailand

I’d like you to meet Chai Yo.

The 19 year-old grew up surrounded by drugs, gangs and poverty in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s largest slum. It’s home to about 100,000 people, all crammed together in a pile of ramshackle constructions near the city’s main port.

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

“I didn’t really have any opportunities,” he tells me.

“I wasn’t very brave to try anything new or go anywhere for work. I was pretty much limited to what could happen inside the slum.”

But unlike the majority of residents in the illegal shantytown, Chai Yo is trying to get out. He’s traded the life of addiction and crime (that many of his neighbours are trapped in) for a chance at something meaningful.

“I want to find some job for the slum people and I want to give a change for the slum people,” he says.

“I want to see the teenagers have more confidence to go outside to work, to have friends, to have another life.”

Munjai Cafe, Bangkok

We’re meeting at a new restaurant called the Munjai Cafe on the fringe of Klong Toey. It’s only been open for a few weeks and Chai Yo is one of the managers here.

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

The cafe has been set up by a charity group called Helping Hands to give people in the slum an opportunity to get work experience and be part of running a business. Employers (and even schools) often have a bias against people from Klong Toey and so they can never get a first job, perpetuating the cycle of hopelessness.

One of the social workers who runs Helping Hands in Bangkok is Australian Anji Barker.

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

“When young people from the slum want to get a job outside they’re very nervous, they lack the confidence and they’re looked down on by the broader community,” she explains.

“So what we’re trying to provide is a place where they can learn behaviours and also a way they can explore what they’re gifted at that no one has ever encouraged them about.”

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

Inside Klong Toey slum, Bangkok

Anji moved into the slum herself about a decade ago and is still living there today with her family. She’s seen the horrors of Klong Toey firsthand – the murders, the abuse, the crime. And she’s seen the despair – the lives wasted by addiction, the generations of unemployment, and the mental surrender of the downtrodden.

“When you get up in the morning it often feels like a village, and you can smell washing powder and children are getting dressed in white shirts and going to school.”

“Then by about eleven o’clock it gets really hot, it’s smelly, there’s sewage and rubbish everywhere. And you can just see the depressed looks on the elderly people. There are a lot of disabled and sick people sitting outside their houses.”

“Then by the evening there’s a lot of fighting and violence, and in our area certainly there’s a lot of screaming and yelling and people hitting tin walls that you can hear.”

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

But Anji has also seen the potential in the people of the slum and she’s seen the changes in those she has helped. And one of the most sustainable ways she’s been helping them is with the assistance to essentially start their own small businesses. Handiwork projects, clothes stalls, cooking schools, a catering company and now the Munjai Cafe. They’re all examples of a leg-up, not a handout.

“The slum sort of crushes the hope out of you by the time you’re six years old and so you grow up with no dreams and no vision – just a survival mentality – and this is a way to create dreams and vision in young people.”

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

I spend a bit of time walking through the Klong Toey slum myself. I’m struck straight away with how different it is to what I had imagined and the images I had after speaking to Anji. It’s certainly dirty and haphazard. Homes have been constructed out of anything and garbage fills the streets. There is very little open space and unpleasant smells linger in the pathways.

But I don’t, on the surface at least, get the sense of hostility and hopelessness. People smile at me as I walk through, some even wave and shout a greeting. A few times I ask permission to take someone’s photo and there’s always a cheery nod and a slightly cheeky pose.

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

This is the side of the residents that Helping Hands has seen and is trying to foster.

Second Chance

The organisation runs a secondhand goods store on the main road opposite the slum… and I pop in to see it firsthand. It’s called Second Chance, a name that’s clearly referring more to the people than the donated clothes (which generally come from foreigners living and working in the city). An item of clothing normally sells for about 10 or 20 baht, which is about 30 or 60 cents.

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

One of the people running it today is Oi, a clear-spoken Bangkok local who was born and grew up in Klong Toey and is trying to give something back to her neighbourhood.

“Second Chance is a place that is like a centre for most of the people in the slum,” she tells me, “and I can look at them and talk to them and can learn more about their different backgrounds and the thing that makes me happy is understanding these people.”

“And I’m so proud I can tell them that I too live in the slum, don’t be shy to come here.”

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

As we sit on small plastic stools in the middle of the shop for a chat, there’s a frenetic energy all around us. Women are rifling through plastic bags of clothes, trying to find something they can use; children are running around playing with toys; some girls are pulling shirts off shelves; and a man is drinking a cup of coffee at a table to the back.

Oi tells me this is pretty quiet. First thing in the morning there’s a group of women who pretty much push the door down to get in. They’ve all made a business out of buying cheap clothes here then selling them for a profit in the wealthier areas of Bangkok.

“They buy for 20 baht and they can sell at 90 and support the family, help their family, to have money to buy lunch or dinner,” she explains.

“I think that is the purpose of this Second Chance.”

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

As Oi says, this is considered to be a success. These women are taking control of their own destinies and rejecting the alternative of meaninglessness.

Cooking With Poo

The biggest success story, though, is Poo.

klong toey, bangkok, slum, helping hands, munjai cafe, cooking with poo

Ten years ago Poo (that’s her nickname) was serving food from the front of her home in Klong Toey. She would work from 5am till 9pm and earned about 200 baht (less than 7 dollars) a day. As fate would have it, though, her path crossed with Anji Barker and she encouraged Poo to start her own cooking school.

It’s become so popular these days (partly because of her cookbook, interestingly called ‘Cooking with Poo’) that the class is currently booked out a month in advance. She’s been able to expand the business, look at new opportunities, and even have the ability to move out of Klong Toey.

“I am very happy and my staff and the people living in the slum working with me, everyone happy too,” Poo says.

We’re sitting at a small table at a street food stall. She seems radiant and full of energy. It’s not what you would expect from someone who spent 24 years living in the slum. I guess that’s what having a career, purpose and recognition does for your character.

And, like all of the other slum residents working in these small businesses I’ve spoken to, Poo constantly refers to the people living in Klong Toey and how she hopes her example will be an inspiration. I ask her what she wants to be doing in a few years and her answer just demonstrates this selflessness.

“I love cooking and I love teaching and I want my staff and the people in the slum to have a job.”

Things are certainly heading in that direction. Many of these businesses are aimed at foreigners and at tourists and they seem to be embracing the idea. Perhaps it’s something for you to consider next time you are in Bangkok.

Find out more information here about Helping Hands and its projects

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30 Comments
  • Illumi | Jan 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Very good story.
    It’s very inspiring.
    Illumi recently posted..Kucing Galau Lagi Ngalamun Di AtapMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 2:57 am

      Thanks. These guys are all doing such great work and it’s so nice to see the good in humanity!

  • Ian Ord - Where Sidewalks End | Jan 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Awesome! I was excited to see this story come out, and it was certainly worth the wait!! Love the photo of the women using the dogs as a footrest as well ;) Excellent experience mate – I’ll have to check it out for myself sometime soon!
    Ian Ord – Where Sidewalks End recently posted..The Best Pizza in Bangkok is made under a bridgeMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:02 am

      I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t use a couple of dogs as footrests. They’re soft, warm and you can call them to you. This woman could start another business based around this whole idea!!

  • Forest Parks | Jan 15, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Anji is doing amazing amazing things. People are certainly not bad by nature but life can get you down and slums have a way of beating it out of people! Still as you say the radiance and vibrance in some people despite all this is stunning and this charity is really making a difference.

    I hope I get to visit these businesses one day and help somehow.

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:07 am

      They would love it if you could visit one day. Having seen them for myself, I can assure you that the good of humanity shines through!

  • Marco Fiori | Jan 15, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    This is what travel writing should be about. The Internet doesn’t need another top 5 things to do in Bangkok, it needs more explorative work like this. Stellar piece.

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:08 am

      Thanks so much, mate. I agree, it’s much more interesting to get to the heart of a city. And Bangkok has a lot of heart.

  • Jennifer | Jan 15, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    Great post! I love that you explored a side of Bangkok that no one else ever does. And these slum-dwellers are inspiring individuals indeed!
    Jennifer recently posted..Circumnavigating Iceland: The Wild and Rugged East CoastMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:09 am

      They really are inspiring. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to grow up somewhere like this. They’re showing a lot of courage by going against the grain.

  • Vera | Jan 16, 2013 at 1:18 am

    Paying it forward, are we;)?!! No, seriously, brilliant post. Going somewhere no one else really goes (of the travellers, I mean) and asking people questions and discovering lifes and stories, and then weaving it all together with these clear pictures, transfers a beauty that might not be in peoples’ lifes, but very much in their personalities and spirits. This is a very good piece of work – not only by you, but by everyone!!
    Vera recently posted..The friendliness of the Thai people (& a hostel review)My Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:16 am

      Thanks, Vera. As you say, the real congratulations belong to the people in the slum who are working so hard!

  • T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries | Jan 16, 2013 at 2:26 am

    Excellent post showcasing the better parts of humanity, Michael. Kudos!

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:19 am

      Thanks. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the best in humanity, despite the circumstances fate hands them.

  • Jessica | Jan 16, 2013 at 3:54 am

    Great coverage! We heard all about cooking with Poo from other travelers, but no one went out and got the backstory quite like this. Really interesting read!
    Jessica recently posted..What I Wonder While I Wander: Why Don’t I Want To Volunteer?My Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:39 am

      Yeah, Poo is becoming quite famous these days! But it’s important not to forget the story behind it all.

  • D.J. - The World of Deej | Jan 16, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Great story…the world needs more organizations like this. Loved the way you crafted this in such a personal way…
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..The Top 5 Hotel Pools in Orlando – Fun in the Florida SunMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 17, 2013 at 3:41 am

      Thanks. You can’t tell this story without the personal aspect. Meeting all of these people was quite inspirational. I don’t know if I would have had their determination to turn things around!

  • Caz Makepeace | Jan 20, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    So loved reading this Michael, especially after talking with you about it. What a great organization to spread the word about–these are such heartwarming stories
    Caz Makepeace recently posted..10 Reasons to Fall in Love with TransylvaniaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 5, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Thanks, Caz. I love learning more about groups like this too – and especially seeing the changes they bring about in people’s lives!

  • Sacha | Jan 21, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    Fantastic post michael :-)
    Sacha recently posted..Yi Peng Festival – Loy Krathong Chiang Mai – 2012
    The amazing Yi…
    My Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 6, 2013 at 12:27 am

      Thanks, Sacha. I’m really pleased to be able to share this one.

  • Yvonne | Feb 12, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    Amazing. Travel journalism at its best. Thanks for sharing this story.
    Yvonne recently posted..The BIG BANG Just Travelous Relaunch ContestMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks, Yvonne. The more I can do to spread the word, the better.

  • Travel Junkie Indonesia | May 14, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    wow, I love this post, turtle. what a great story :)

    • Michael Turtle | May 25, 2013 at 5:15 am

      Thanks, mate. It was a really enjoyable one to do. I love finding out more about such hard-working people!

  • Mahesh | Jun 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    nicely covered story! Its inspiring and great that you out it over here for all!
    Good luck!

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 23, 2013 at 12:47 am

      Thanks, Mahesh. I’m sure we are all wishing everyone involved lots of luck!

  • Pong | Jul 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Michael, this is a great and inspiring story. I heard of Poo before from the Internet but had never known her background and how she has become a popular Thai cooking teacher in Bangkok. Keep up the good work!

  • Nicole Webb | May 7, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Great to stumble across your blog Michael via the Best Australian Blog awards. Kudos to you for getting out into the real world. It’s a bug that’s hard to get rid of, I know! Keep on keeping on. Great stories and impressive site. Cheers, Nicole
    Nicole Webb recently posted..Relocating to Hong Kong: What You Need to KnowMy Profile

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