I have long tried to resist the temptation to give to beggars on Bangkok’s streets, knowing only too well that in many cases whatever they receive – whether money or shockingly even unopened food – is likely to end up in the hands of whoever is pulling their strings, likely the same group of people responsible in the first place for the fact that they remain tied to a life on the street. And the argument also goes, perhaps rightly or maybe not, that the generosity of strangers makes even genuine beggars become reliant on this, unwittingly stripping them of any chance they might have had of escaping the grip of poverty.
But my resolve is severely tested by one particular elderly woman, sat each day outside the On Nut branch of Tesco Lotus. Her slight and fragile frame reminds me of my own grandmother, herself not in great health, and the way she sits perched to one side while appearing to squint out of the one good eye she has, makes it difficult not to feel for her.
She had been sat in her usual spot when I arrived to pick up a couple of things from the supermarket yesterday, but was gone by the time I left. When I queued for the Skytrain hope only to see her just ahead of me waiting for the same ride, my instinct was anger. This stretch of the line isn’t expensive to take, but not is it free like a number of the government-subsidised buses that ply the road below. If you are so devastatingly poor that you are reduced to begging for your living on the floor outside a supermarket, surely you want to get to and from home the cheapest way possible?
But again, it was difficult to maintain the anger and not feel empathy. She still had the same slight leaning nature to her as she waited for the train, as though she had been sat in that position a little too long while begging and now couldn’t straighten herself up. She was still squinting through the one good eye, the other screwed up. And once she had edged into the train carriage, dwarfed by fellow passengers brushing against her with their laden shopping bags as they exited, and as one kind-hearted lady among them held her thin arm to make sure she got on safely, she sat perched on the edge of the hard yellow plastic seat. Above her a plasma screen blared an ad with a pale skinned, arrogant-sounding woman likely making a killing by trying to convince gullible consumers that Ben Ten branded toothpaste is somehow better for their children’s dental health. About three of the little old beggar lady could have fit on that chair, and she looked strikingly out of place in her light pyjama-like clothes and tiny flip flops.
Whether she is a ‘genuine beggar’ – whatever that really means – isn’t for me to judge, but she is if nothing else a sign that poverty is rarely as simple as it looks on the surface.