State of impermanence
Children and families find shelter from the Thai floods at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok
Twelve-year-old Tang sits with his sister Ice, 13, in a ‘child-friendly space’ at Laksi Temple evacuation centre, in Bangkok. The children are making necklaces from beads and thread. They are surrounded by a mixture of squalor and beauty. Dozens of families sleep on mats on the floor of the temple, surrounded by their few possessions, while the stench of contaminated water drifts in through the windows. Yet above them, ornate pillars rise up with elaborate designs etched in green, red and orange, while golden Buddha statues look down from their pedestals, smiling enigmatically.
Although he’s the younger child, Tang is more talkative than his sister. “When our house flooded we moved to a school, but there were no supplies there so we came here,” he says. “The temple has given us some blankets but they’re not enough. Our family sleeps on the roof. We don’t have any mosquito nets so we get bitten a lot at night.”
Before the floods, Tang’s father drove a motorcycle taxi and his mother worked as a seamstress. “Neither of them have been able to work since the floods,” he continues. “Before we left, we packed all our things up to the second floor, including our school supplies. But then the floods reached there too and we lost all our belongings.”
Tang’s cheerful smile disappears for a moment. ”I feel sad because I know our parents worked hard to buy these things, but my mother says we have to let it go.”
Tang and Ice are among nearly 3 million people affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in more than 50 years. Twenty four provinces are now inundated, and more than 520 people, including over 70 children, have died due to the floods. As the flood waters flow relentlessly southwards, people are being moved from evacuation centres in northern Bangkok to other centres both inside and outside the city.
Don't go in the water
We arrived at Laksi Temple in the afternoon, after our morning visit to Phranakhon Rajabhat University. I was travelling with Napat and Vicky from UNICEf Thailand, Ann from our local partner Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in English), and photographer Chum. Our aim was to assess the situation of children, to distribute UNICEF pamphlets on children’s health in emergencies, and to look at setting up more ‘child-friendly spaces’ to provide play and education activities.
Once again, we were forced to abandon our SUV when the water started coming in through the doors. We hitched a ride on a larger truck, then waded through waist-high water to get to the shelter. A solitary, orange-robed monk stood on a raised platform at the temple gates, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Unlike the University, where the water was relatively clean, here it was evil-smelling, oily black water that had flowed through a nearby industrial estate. “Just don’t think about it,” advised my colleague Vicky as we plunged in.
The situation at Laksi Temple was more challenging than at the university. The ground floor was completely flooded, with just a few wooden planks providing a rudimentary bridge over the troubled black water. The toilet and washing facilities were basic and clearly insufficient for so many people, with long queues forming outside. Water supplies were intermittent. Because of the situation, the district authority had already stopped managing the centre and moved around 500 people to Chon Buri. Another 200 people including 38 children remained at the temple, either unwilling or unable to move.
On the second floor, we met Jew from local charity Foundation for the Better Life of Children, who was providing play activities for the children living in the centre. “Since the district authority left, the centre has been run by the evacuees and the monks,” she told us. “There have been some disagreements but no violence so far. Two of our staff come here every day to run the child-friendly space. We make arts and crafts, tell stories and draw pictures. We have to keep children occupied so that they don’t swim in the dirty water. The boys are the most trouble. We’ve even told them there’s a crocodile in the water but they keep on doing it.”
The charity, which normally runs shelters for street children, was also helping local people who have chosen to stay in their flooded homes. “We have another staff member who rows around the area in a boat handing out food and milk for children’” Jew added.
The evacuation centre was also home to a few migrant children and families, who had even more to worry about than the local evacuees. There are tens of thousands of migrant workers in Bangkok, who cannot access services or get information in their own language. Some are unregistered and can get into trouble with the law. Even those with ID are only permitted to live in the area where their employment is based.
Cambodian mother Suporn was at the child-friendly space with her two-year-old daughter Maesa. One of the Friends staff spoke Cambodian and helped us translate. “We’ve been living in Bangkok for a month,” she said. “We came by bus from the border to stay with my husband. He works nearby as a security guard. We used to rent a room near IT Square. It’s difficult for us because only my husband can speak Thai. I’m scared that the police will arrest us. We’d go back to Cambodia if we could but we have no money.”
After talking to us, Suporn took her daughter downstairs for a rudimentary shower with a hose and bucket. Maesa stood on a wooden plank over the inky black water and held out her arms for the clean water from the hosepipe.
After we’d finished at the child-friendly space, Tang and Ice took us upstairs to meet their parents on the roof of the temple. There were two families living beneath a small shelter in a corner of the rooftop. Their clothes and bedding were hung out to dry on a railing, interspersed with statues of golden Hussadee Birds, their beaks lifted up towards the sun. These mythical creatures, part-bird part-elephant, are believed to be a vehicle to heaven. I looked out over the glimmering red tiled roofs of the temple, then down to the dirty water below, where men and boys rowed past on homemade bamboo rafts.
The children’s mother, Saengjan, was sitting under the shelter for shade, eating a bowl of instant noodles. “We have to live up here because of our pets,” she said, indicating the family dog – a white furry animal now on Tang’s lap. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave them behind, but they were keeping the old people awake at night. I’m glad there are activities here for the children to do. It keeps them away from the black water.”
“We lost everything in the floods,” she continued, with tears visible in her eyes. “Our house was rented so we won’t get any compensation from the government. Even though it’s difficult here, we didn’t want to move to Chon Buri. Our community is here and we have no money for transportation. How would we get back? It’s so far away.”
Saengjan paused for a moment to compose herself. “It does help a bit staying in the temple because it reminds me of Buddhist teachings about impermanence,” she added with a sad smile. “Everything in life changes and we should not get attached to material things.”
Andy Brown is Regional Web Coordinator for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific
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