Beggars and Choice
Every morning and afternoon I walk about the streets and do my rounds. One thousand sets of eyes most likely follow me in my travels, as is the way for every foreigner or new face on the streets. I enjoy this every day. It is why I come here and spend about four hours each day on my feet, on buses and every other mode of transport.
I carry about one hundred baht’s worth of small coins in my right pocket – these are invaluable for everything from cut fruit vendors through to bus fares and the sky train. The other purpose of all this silver is to hand some amount to the parade of mendicants upon the streets of the City of Angels. This could be anywhere though – New Orleans, Sydney, Port Moresby, Jakarta to Kathmandu…
Beggars are often localised, seldom stray and if on the job will be in the same area every day – as if they have their place of employment. They also see me coming and are happy too. They are like buddies of mine and I feel happy too. To the other able-bodied sorts the act of handing over such coins every day shows jai-dee and songsarn; two qualities which are regarded well and receive such lip service. I do not kid myself that I truly possess either quality. After all, many of the locals (and not necessarily wealthy ones) do the same. And not to forget all those eyes that are upon me. Maybe it works like an insurance policy; after all these times in the badlands I’ve never been shot, run-through or held up. Yet…
There is the caterpillar man, a fellow who has lost one leg at the hip and the other above the knee. He drags himself around through rain and shine. The next chap has suffered a tragic deformity, possibly congenital but his English is outstanding with a distinctive “pukka” shine to it. Two blocks down is an ex-working-lady who has possibly lost it a bit. She still has her makeup and dignity, sports a tattoo of a rose on her arm and the memory of an elephant, too. Countless others depending upon the location.
There are exceptions – I will not have anything to do with youngsters (or those carrying infants) and I most certainly do not give to down-and-out farangs – those guys should be ashamed. In my own homeland I may hand a cigarette to somebody or a coin if it ensures my safety but in the west we have a safety net; in Krung Thep not so.
This is an act of free choice on my behalf and I am well aware of the pros and cons. When I was a twenty-something on my first trip we were all advised against this, the cash went to the mafia, the donations should go to a charity and so forth. But no donation to any charity upon the face of this earth ever makes up for the smile and look of thanks upon the fellow’s dial. And there is one other really good reason, something I cannot let go of :
Some years back I worked as a hard-hat in Oz. We used to do shut-downs and contracts right over the east coast and into the mines, sugar mills and power stations of the north. I worked with a motley crew – site-sheet metal work was highly paid but an insidious occupation.
Most “Anglos” wouldn’t do this work, hence my colleagues tended to come from other backgrounds – Vietnamese, Kiwis <Most Kiwis ARE Anglos so I assume you received predominantly Maoris or Polynesian Kiwis! – Stick>, some old continental tradesmen and notably a bunch of Cambodians. I’d get to chat with these guys and found them interesting. They had some things in common with Thai culture, religion and even language. All these guys and their families had survived the regime of Pol Pot in the ‘70s.
One chap – let’s call him “Sokh” was a bit older than the others and well educated. He spoke more freely than the other Khmers who tended to be less open. He recounted how in the old days he had lived in a beautiful mansion in Phnom Penh with his family. His father was a registrar in the hospital, very senior and all the family comparatively well-heeled. Sokh’s youth was one of middle class privilege, servants and comfortable surroundings.
Between 1973 and 1975 the situation in Phnom Penh became precarious as war enclosed the capital. The once peaceful land was falling apart and likewise for the city, an ill wind was blowing for Cambodia as a whole. Refugees flooded into the city confines seeking sanctuary from the anarchy which reigned all around. Many were homeless or state-less, some maimed and all traumatised – a result of either Kissinger’s B 52s or the more devastating Khmer Rouge.
Sokh told me how, about 18 months before “year zero”, a lame man came to his part of town and set up camp outside the gate to his colonial mansion. This beggar was a kindly and sweet-eyed gent who seldom spoke, about 50 years old, walked with difficulty and mostly was confined to the pavement. He quickly became part of the scenery and was accepted by all – Sokh and his siblings loved the man. The residents and even the yaam enjoyed his presence – they gave him water, shelter from the rain, offered him coins, allowed him to use the downstairs hong-nam and he was always there, in a strange way part of the extended family in that street. Even the faithful family pooch got on well with the fellow. But he never missed a trick; Sokh told me as the city of Phnom Penh became more dangerous, more besieged, all residents counted on seeing a sense of familiarity and the beggarman was part of this.
In early 1975 the city had begun to unravel as Chinese made rockets reigned down from the skies and spontaneous terrorism erupted at previously secure locations. Sokh’s family did not have the connections to flee by the time it was too late and in any case his dad was duty-bound as a government doctor; if he had cut the scene who else would care for the hordes of war casualties?
The lame beggarman disappeared one day and as Sokh recalled this was an omen for all in the street. Only days later Phnom Penh fell and year zero had begun. The anarchy quickly ceased as the K.R. entered and occupied the city. He remembered how glad the survivors were that peace had come but everybody was scared; shit-scared… The city was being rounded up and marched out overnight with the clothes on their backs.
Sokh talked of how they were hustled into a section of town and marshalled together, how the K.R. were hell-bent on payback. They were vicious armed thugs, many just kids or teenagers sporting AKs, tribal-tattoos and a bad attitude. He and his family, along with thousands of others began the long march out of town.
Somebody in the family recognised the beggarman; the same guy, their friend at the gate, only he had changed. He still was obviously lame and hobbling around, but this time he was in a uniform of sorts and he was very clearly the man in charge. The beggarman spotted Sokh and the family. He approached them, muttered something to a cadre and withdrew his sidearm (the only sign of rank). He pushed the family group into a quiet area, the doorway of an old building. When they were alone the beggarman spoke, gesturing with the 45 ACP: “Take off your eyeglasses, give me the wristwatches, empty your pockets all of you and give me everything right now.”
He collected three pairs of glasses from the family members, ground them up under his sandals and kicked the debris into a gutter. He stuffed all the documents and cards into his pockets. He the put his face up against that of his father and whispered: “I can tell you, never speak French, never speak English. If somebody asks you, tell them you are a driver and you cannot read or write. Say you came from the slum. Be quiet and do what you are told. If you do as I tell you then maybe you will be OK. Go now, we will never see each other again – go!”
They now knew that this lame gentleman had been a highly placed mole the whole time. He squatted by the gate for those 18 months memorising every single truck, every soldier, each tank and movement in that part of town. He was a senior K.R. officer, and once the homeless bum, on that first day of year zero he held the power of the Gods – he could grant life or mete out death to anyone, or hundreds in a second.
That was in April 1975.
I met Sokh in the early ‘90s and he told me that he had lived in Australia since the beginning of ‘82. He had two sisters who got out, both had married. One lived in Paris and the other in Canada. His mother and father didn’t make it. He had walked out over the Cardamom Hills and spent ages in Khao-I-Dang before the UNHCR got him his passage in 1981 and he didn’t make contact with his sisters until two years after that. Sokh told me although he had some Thai friends down in Sydney he did not like the Thais so much – he regarded them as cruel and had suffered terribly in the camp. He had tried to tell everyone in his new home what had happened but they all thought he was crazy. That was until the “Killing Fields” was released…
It would take a much braver soul than I am to call this bullshit. His story only would show a person can either ignore or entertain all those beggars but sure as hell – you’d better be polite to ‘em. You just never know who their friends are or who they might actually turn out to be.