Bangkok's gentrification

The many faces of Khlongtoey

Bangkok's fabled Khlongtoey slum has long been regarded as a 'no-go zone' in the city by many. But now, facing destruction as the latest victim of the government's city-wide sanitising project, British photographer Tim Russell shines a light on the much-maligned community's vibrant characters and warm spirit

Tim Russell
January 6, 2020
The many faces of Khlongtoey
Khun Lem is tattooed from head to toe. Photo: Tim Russell

As part of his Faces of Khlongtoey project, British photographer Tim Russell has captured the residents of Bangkok’s fabled Khlongtoey slum over the course of more than 40 visits spanning four years. “I’ve never been welcomed with anything other than warmth and hospitality, and have lost count of the number of residents who’ve invited me into their homes to share food and drinks. What started as a one-off visit [in 2015] to explore the area and take a few photos has become a four-year project to capture life in Bangkok’s most maligned and misunderstood area, and to show its residents in a new and more accurate light than the common perception,” he told Southeast Asia Globe.

Like many male residents of Bangkok’s famous Khlongtoey slums, Khun Lem proudly sports sacred sak yant tattoos. But Lem takes it to a whole new level – every inch of him, or at least every inch he’s prepared to show, is covered in tattoos, from his scalp, ears and lips, via his palms and fingertips, right down to his toes. 

Shirtless and sporting the look of a man who has seen things many wouldn’t believe, he’s the kind of guy most people would cross the road to avoid. Yet stop for a chat with him and to take his photo – and there can be few more photogenic subjects in Bangkok – and he reveals himself to be a friendly, gentle soul, always happy to talk, pose and share a swig of whatever he happens to be drinking at the time.

Meeting Lem on a first visit to the slums in 2015, and then encountering and photographing him on numerous occasions since, the disparity between initial perceptions of him, and the somewhat less intimidating reality, is the perfect analogy for  Khlongtoey. 

  • Retired muay thai (Thai boxing) fighter at the market. Photo: Tim Russell
  • A street barber taking care of an old lady. Photo: Tim Russell
An old man in a typical one-room Khlongtoey shack. Photo: Tim Russell

For most Bangkokians it’s a case of here-be-monsters, a no-go area they drive over on the highway en route to somewhere nicer. Tell the average middle-class Thai you’re going there and they’ll look at you in horror and mutter darkly about crime and drugs. For Khlongtoey has a reputation which, despite a huge reduction in crime and violence in the last decade or so, is proving hard to shake off. 

Candidates with a Khlongtoey address find it hard to get jobs, and employers in the area struggle to find staff. “We can’t get teachers from other parts of Bangkok or Thailand to come and work here” the head teacher of a Khlongtoey primary school said, asking not to be named. “They’re scared to come here, and don’t want ‘Khlongtoey’ on their CV. Most of our teachers are former pupils who’ve come back”.  

  • A boy in a football goal. Various charities ensure that the local kids have access to sports facilities. Photo: Tim Russell
  • Tattoos are not a solely male preserve in Khlongtoey – this young woman is also inked from head to toe. Photo: Tim Russell

“I have lived here for 40 years … I have a two-storey house for my family. My kids go to school here. I work at the port. I don’t want to move. Nobody wants to move

Khlongtoey resident

But those who are prepared to visit and meet Khlongtoey’s residents find that the reality differs considerably from the common perception. Yes, there is poverty, alcoholism, drug use, and in some places squalor. Kids with dirty faces and hand-me-down clothes play in grubby alleyways. Semi-feral dogs guard tumbledown shacks. Illegal cockfighting rings abound. People live very tough lives in desperately poor conditions. 

And yet there is a real spirit, a sense of community, fostered by families living in the same narrow alleyways together since the 1950s, when the slum area first began to grow up as migrants from all over Thailand – and beyond – flooded into the area to work at the nearby docks. 

Currently, another plan to clear the slums – the latest of many since the 1960s – is on the agenda. The land, owned by the Port Authority of Thailand and sitting plum in between the glittering shopping malls and skyscrapers of Sukhumvit Road and the city’s underused riverside, is extremely valuable, and the latest plan would see the area razed and replaced by shops and condo developments

Down and out in Khlongtoey. Photo: Tim Russell
A charity giving free haircuts to local residents. Photo: Tim Russell
  • Twin boys playing outside their shack. Photo: Tim Russell
  • Despite their environment, the kids of Khlongtoey are invariably cheerful and friendly. Photo: Tim Russell
A tender moment between a tattooed man and his daughter. Photo: Tim Russell

Residents, some of whom constructed and own their own houses, but not the land they are built on, have been presented with three choices – 30m2 condo, a patch of land on the outskirts of the city, or relocation to their province of origin.

For the residents of Khlongtoey, the isolation of a condo or a move out of the city away from their jobs and social networks holds little appeal for people who have lived in the area alongside friends and family for decades.

“I have lived here for 40 years,” one long time resident of the slum said. “I have a two-storey house for my family. My kids go to school here. I work at the port. I don’t want to move. Nobody wants to move.”

Residents have said they expect to be moved out within the year. Others think the area will still exist in ten years’ time. But whatever the future holds, Khlongtoey’s residents, at the bottom of the social ladder in Thailand’s class-conscious society, are unlikely to have much say

A one-legged old man with his granddaughter. Photo: Tim Russell

Some residents have said they expect to be moved out within the year. Others – perhaps optimistically – think the area will still exist in ten years’ time. But whatever the future holds, Khlongtoey’s residents, at the bottom of the social ladder in Thailand’s most class-conscious society, are unlikely to have much say in it.

But for the moment, Khlongtoey is still standing, providing a fascinating contrast with a city that, in the last decade, has lost much of its edge and character as it moves out its street food vendors and market stalls, running headlong into a Singapore-shaped future as the Thai government looks to sanitise the city.

Even Bangkok’s historic China Town, it seems, is not entirely safe from the looming spectre of gentrification.

The faces seen here are in all likelihood going to be the next victims of this sanitising project. But they are the soul of Khlongtoey and – as they work at its docks, its markets, its hotels, its schools, its shops, its restaurants – the soul of Bangkok. 

More information on Tim Russell and his photography can be found on his website here

Read more articles