At half past five in the morning, the monks have begun their rounds across the city of Bangkok.
Shoeless, penniless, these holy men march slowly yet steadily along the warren-like urban maze collecting donations from the laypeople who have come out to donate from the houses and apartments all across the city.
At six in the morning the number 507 bus snakes down Sukhumvit before taking a sharp left at Phra Khanong and heads along Pra Ram 4 all the way up to Silom.
Past the markets of Klong Toey, the market that never sleeps, we traverse; bodies are strewn across the sidewalks sleeping off the night before.
There is always one man, usually Burmese or from the Indian subcontinent, who looks as if he has just washed up in the city. Each morning it is a different man but one who always has the same expression: a look of dumbfounded shock and surprise.
I wonder if he had paid a handsome fee to a broker to arrange transit, accommodation, a job. He now realizes the dream that they promised isn’t to be; at least not yet.
For now all he has are the streets.
Back down lower Sukhumvit on the number 25 at nightfall, the begging heats up.
Yes, we’ve all seen the crippled and mutilated foreign beggars, normally run by mafia gangs, the child beggars, the beggars with puppies.
But all the beggars here aren’t run by gangs.
There’s the woman who paints herself blue outside 7-Eleven, the man who whittles items out of wood and straw outside the Japanese bookstore. The man who drags his legless body down Sukhumvit, and the other one who has begged enough coin to buy a skateboard. Or so it seems.
Many of these beggars are independent entrepreneurs who have worked on their pitch over many years.
I see the same characters using the same pitch fifteen years after first arriving in the city.
I hear stories, fact or fiction, about their acquired wealth, a sports cars and a pad in a gated community housing project in the suburbs of Pak Chong.
Who knows if there is any truth to these stories? We like to think there is.
There are hundreds of characters getting by day by day across the city, making a living because begging is their trade. Some play musical instruments, some sing, some mime, some act, and there are those who have simply mastered the act of looking homeless and destitute, eliciting charitable feelings of guilt and shame from those warm hearted passers by.
If rewarding these people with a coin makes their day easier and installs a feeling of goodwill in the benefactor then is not all well in the capital?
Back in Victorian England, we had beggarly professions. Lampboys lit the road, Brushboys swept the path, Ballad Singers, much like Bangkok’s blind singers, sang songs in the streets. Like Bangkokians today, Londoners gave a little change in the belief that both their own and the luck of the beneficiary would change for the better, for that one day at least.
So take away our old bars, destroy our amulet markets, but leave the beggars alone and the beggarly profession alone, for not everyone wants, needs to, or should, join this capitalist circus.
Leave the industry alone, apart from those gangs who control the beggars. Go after those guys. The buying and selling of humans and profiteering from their begging is deplorable behavior and should be addressed if the persecutors are touchable.
But there is one particular type of beggar who I’d like to see change professions.
He works in the most private of places, he greets us with a broad smile from in front of a range of toiletry items in the men’s room of a bar or disco. Smile and turn your back on him and he may just creep up behind you while you’re emptying the beer Sing into the porcelain and discharge a back massage. This guy needs to be gone.
But apart from that guy, leave the beggars alone.
Leave the street beggars alone, because every man or woman must have the choice to make a living from the streets if that is what they want to do.
I stopped once and spoke with a foreign beggar who claimed that his current occupation paid more than teaching English in a government high school. A beggar with a good pitch can make several times more than that in a week.
And then there are those who feed from the public trough, hold positions in office, and tell others that they mustn’t do the same.
Well, that just beggars belief.
Featured image is by Transformer18 and used under a CC BY 2.0 licence