Phuket – Between slums and five star resorts

Many of the NGOs on Phuket work with children and women. We have met with Roelien Muller from the Asia Center Foundation, who gave us insight into the humanitarian situation on Phuket.

Read our article about the Asia Center Foundation here.

Phuket is one of the favourite tourist destination of many foreigners that come to Thailand. Beautiful beaches, good food, cheap prices and a pulsing night life are why many “get hooked” on Phuket. But Phuket also has its dark sides. While cruising around the island, Lesly and I came across the poorer neighbourhoods on Phuket. Dirty apartment towers and slums co-exist with five star hotels and beautiful villas, drawing a contrasting picture of Phuket.

Roelien told us that when she arrived in Phuket, there was one big slum close to the Patrong area. However, a road has been built through the slum, destroying the accommodations and forcing the families to find a new place to life. Today, there is not one big slum on Phuket anymore, but several smaller ones that are dispatched around the Patong and Katu area. On the spot of the former big slum is now a shopping mall.

After the slum has been destroyed, efforts have been made to build low-cost accommodation for the poor. However, the apartments are relatively expensive, with three to four thousand Baht per month, according to Roelien, which is seventy to one hundred euros. The apartments are not maintained and have started to rot away years ago. Some families don’t even have a bathroom!

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Many of the families living in Phuket’s slums are not originally from Phuket, but come from Myanmar or other, poorer regions of Thailand, like the North-East. The situation of the Burmese in Thailand is a difficult, complex and important topic, which will be treated in a different article.

Many of the Thai migrants that come to Phuket are unskilled. Phuket is an expensive island to live on, compared to the rest of Thailand, and many families struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes the women start working in bars, out of lack of alternatives. From there on its “downhill,” like Roelien said, meaning prostitution. Some parents also recycle garbage to gain money, are motorbike taxi drivers, cleaning ladies, have laundry services or fruit cars. However, the income remains very low.

Further, drug addiction is a big problem in Phuket’s slums. Whether the drug addiction leads to living in the slum, or whether the living and working conditions, as well as the low income and life quality lead to drug addiction is not important. Many people living in the slums struggle with addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

The life in slums is especially hard for children. Often they are neglected because they parents work all day or are drug addicted and cannot take care of their children. Even though school is mandatory in Thailand until age 15, a lot of the slum’s children drop out of school when they are old enough to do small jobs and earn money. Or the parents do not care if the children go to school, or they take their kids out of school on purpose for them to work.

It also happens that the children are abandoned or raised by relatives. Some parents are in prison, others run away because they cannot deal with the pressure. Roelien also talked about a high suicide rate. According to the WHO, in 2002, nearly 5,000 people killed themselves in Thailand. I have, so far, not heard that suicide is a big problem in Thailand and will inquire on this topic.

Conclusion

While Phuket is a holiday island of cheap fun for some, it also is the hard reality for others. There is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, but keep in mind that you are lucky and try to do something for the less fortunate while you are here. If you want to make a donation to the Asia Center Foundation, click here.

Duang Prateep Foundation: Working in Bangkok’s Khlong Toei Slum

This week, we have met with Mr Khantong from the Duang Prateep Foundation which works in Bangkok in the area of the Khlong Toei Slum.
The habitants of Khlong Toei are struggling with several problems:

  • No legal claim of residence and fear of relocation
  • Unaffordable education costs, no leisure activities for the young
  • No secure employments, no fair wages, long working hours
  • Drug consumption and traffic, prostitution
  • Elderly persons living in precarious conditions
  • Fire risk in the slum

Mr Khantong has explained to us several of the issues in detail and we could visit DPF’s kindergarten and a part of Khlong Toei.

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Khlong Toei is divided into 42 different communities which are headed by different “leaders.” Mr Khantong explained to us that DPF has to go and talk to the leaders to be given “approval” before implementing a project or talking to the slum dwellers. DPF has been working for more than 40 years in Khlong Toei and knows the area, the leaders and part of the population very well.

There are a lot of NGOs working in Khlong Toei, many are catholic missions. But according to Mr Khantong there is no “religious problem” between the Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics and no missionary work from neither religion. The NGOs discuss their agenda between them in order to make their work as efficient as possible. There is a division between competences as the NGOs work on different issues in the same area.

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Khlong Toei is situated close to Bangkok’s harbour and thus to the harbour’s industry. The area is a swamp and when we were visiting Khlong Toei we could see than most houses are built on water. When we asked if there are no health problems linked to the proximity of the highly polluted water and the habitations, Mr Khantong said health issues are “under control.” Local health volunteers work in Khlong Toei and during our visit we saw several posters for health prevention.

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Mr Khantong, however, said that many slum dwellers were complaining about stomach problems. DPF researched the origins of the health problem and found that many people drink unclean water. He explained that most houses have access to drinking water of individual or community water filters. One problem, according to Mr Khantong is that the filters are not changed regularly and thus lose their efficiency. A new water filter costs 2,000 Bath (50€) which is a lot of money for the slum dwellers. DPF is working on changing the filters within the limits of its financial resources.

Mr Khantong has talked about several problems DPF is working on.

One main problem seems to be the “selling of fatherhood.” In order to have a Thai nationality when born, the children’s parents need to be domiciled in Thailand for at least five years. Certain men “sell” their signature on the birth certificate to foreign women for 10,000 Bath in order to facilitate the child obtaining the Thai nationality.

DPF also works with elderly people. We were surprised to learn that many elderly people refuse to leave Khlong Toei. In certain cases, their children have managed to leave the slum and want their parents live with them in a nicer neighbourhood. Mr Khantong explained that the elderly often refuse their children’s offer, because they do not want to leave the familiar environment and their friends. DPF supports the elderly of Khlong Toei in health issues and organises gatherings with food, music and dancing.

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DPF also works in drug prevention as the consumption and traffic of drugs are a major problem in Khlong Toei. When we were visiting Khlong Toei we have observed that Mr Khantong was smelling the Pepsi bottle of three young boys. When we asked what he was doing, he explained that the young sometimes put a drug into their drink, so nobody in school will recognise they are consuming. In this case, the bottle only contained Pepsi, but it was troubling to learn that even the young take drugs at school.

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DPF takes care of children which find themselves alone, because both parents are in jail. DPF feeds the children and makes sure they go to school.

Mr Khantong has talked about much more issues in Khlong Toei and what DPF is doing. This article is too short to enumerate them all. In the end, we would like to talk about DPF’s kindergarten which is an amazingly well organised project.

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When visiting the kindergarten we were amazed by the well thought-through equipment and the beautiful and caring decoration of the building. We both thought that we would have liked to be in such a kindergarten. Mr Khantong explained that the kindergarten is a Montessori kindergarten. It prepares the children of Khlong Toei for school, but also teaches them daily customs like growing plants, cooking, sewing, cleaning and so much more.

We were really amazed by the kindergarten. Check the pictures below, they explain better than words.

Before ending the article, we would like to say how inspiring the visit with Mr Khantong was. He really took a lot of time to show us around and explained a lot of things. DPF’s work is truly amazing and even though, the visit of the slum was a little difficult, we could see that Khlong Toei’s community is organised and fights for its rights. This is thanks to the work of DPF and the other NGOs.