It’s time for monks to support the people: a survey of the urban poor through almsgiving (online)

Story: Mutita Chuachang
Cover photo: Kittiya On-in

The temple is scheduled to give out food at 6 pm.

People line up even before 4 pm.

At 5 pm, there are three to four lines several hundred metres long.

500 boxes of food ran out at 5.30 pm.

Some who came at 6 pm had to go back empty handed.

Line for free food, Wat Lat Pla Khao (20 April 2020)

Luckily, Wat Lat Pla Khao has chairs for people to sit and wait, while many other temples do not. People have to find somewhere with shade to rest or stand in the heat but the one thing that happens at every temple is that the lines continue to get longer and longer.

There are 452 temples in Bangkok. Most of them are surrounded by poor urban communities. The monks in the temples we randomly visited explained that the people around the temple are often people who “live from hand to mouth”, selling odds and ends or taking odd jobs. When they have no work in the capital, no farm back home, and they cannot access state relief, another centre of resources, like the temple, becomes the place to rely on.

In late March, the Supreme Patriarch made an announcement for all temples with the capacity to help the people according to their powers. Most temples complied through the easiest means – by giving away food, whether fresh or dried. Even so, we found that many places had started earlier, while a large number of other temples (that look capable) have not held such activities yet.

Uraiwan and Kan, husband and wife, carried their 3 young children to line up for free food at Wat Lat Pla Khao. Uraiwan used to work cleaning in a condominium, earning 300 baht per day. She used to work every day, but now she can only work 1 day per week. She was also transferred to somewhere far away. When the transportation costs were not worth the pay, she stopped working. Kan used to hire a taxi to drive. Now there are no customers, he is delivering food instead.

“It’s terrible. Now, I get money from driving, we need all of it just to pay the rent, the children’s milk, and diapers. Luckily, school hasn’t opened yet,” Kan said.

Their family has to be extremely frugal by trying not to buy food, by going to any place that gives out alms and then trying to divide the food up into as many meals as possible. Any money received from taxi driving, other than for the children’s necessities, also went to buy instant noodles and canned food.

We had great difficulty talking to him, because he was not really interested in answering our questions as much as asking us about the 5,000 baht in the Rao Mai Thing Kan (No One Left Behind) Project. “Why did my wife and I not get any? We’re both workers.” “They say they will look at it again. Is it going to take long? When will we know the results?” “Why don’t they come and check how we’re living? Look at how small our room is.” “I really need it for the kid’s diapers and milk.” “Why did our neighbour, who has a pick-up truck, register as a joke but get the money?” “What is the system like?” etc.

He wore a pink shirt that stood out, carrying his youngest child who is less than 1 year old while waiting in line, his face sweating and tanned because the sun was sizzling hot. His eyes were red, likely due to lack of sleep.

When asked about any work opportunities in other provinces, Kan said that if the worst comes to the worst, they will have to go back home. But even if they return, they will not have any work to do. His parents back home are in debt with the cooperative they were working at, so they are already in quite a difficult spot already.

“Maybe I’ll look to borrow some money. I don’t know yet,” Kan said.

Prasan Kunsombat, a taxi driver, is another who had lined up since 4 pm. He told us that the whole day today he only earned 200 baht from driving customers around. He had been depending on the temple for food for many days now. “I’m not embarrassed. At this point, we’ve got to survive.” Prasan is from Ubon Ratchathani and has been a taxi driver for more than 10 years. He had only bought the car around 2 years ago, paying in instalments at 21,000 baht per month. Luckily, he was able to negotiate with the finance company because he had paid a lot of the instalments already. They agreed to halving it to 10,500 baht for 3 months, then after that they will need to negotiate again to see how much they can allow, and see if he will be able to keep the car or not.

“There aren’t many passengers. At around 4-5 pm people have already gone home. I rely on listening to the news, going anywhere they’re giving out free food. If I’m passing by and see them giving out food, I’ll stop. There’s one at Hua Chiew today but I didn’t make it in time. At least it helps me to survive one more meal. Normally one meal is already 40-50 baht,” Prasan said.

Prasan is another person who did not receive the government’s 5,000 baht. “They say it’s in progress.” Another taxi driver who was also in line nearby heard and told us, “I didn’t get any either. They said I was a farmer. I did farming 10 years ago, and never registered for anything anywhere.”

When we asked Prasan if he has any work opportunities back in Warin Chamrap District or not, he told us that at home they have a small piece of land used for farming, but it is part of military land. They don’t know when they will be chased out, so the provinces do not seem like an easy way out like many tend to think.

Wat Lat Pla Kao is considered a ‘hi-tech’ temple in terms of DIY ‘disinfection screens’ with a good system, setting out chairs for the people with spaces between each seat, a screening process, providing hand sanitizers and giving out masks to those that don’t have any.

Phra Maha Khemanan, the abbot, comes down to oversee the almsgiving by himself every day. At first, the temple used its own funds, hiring the temple cook to make food and having the monks pack food, set tables, organise the people and give out 100 boxes of food each day. Now, it has become 600 boxes per day, but the temple does not have to use their own funds anymore because some of the more well-off citizens as well as local politicians have donated, both cash or 200-300 boxes of food. It can be said that the temple is the centre of administration. This all started on 26 March and will probably continue into late May.

Abbot of Wat Lat Pla Khao

“We’re thinking of expanding by taking food boxes to distribute in the communities. Right now, we’re doing it in 2 communities in the Lat Phrao District by giving out 200 food boxes to each community leader who manages it because they know who’s going through difficult times. We’re planning to keep on expanding,” the abbot said.

Let’s move on to Wat Lat Phrao, located on the border of Huai Khwang and Lat Phrao districts. There are many slums. Phra Khru Palatnikhom, the abbot, said that they started the almsgiving on 29 March and will likely continue as well. They first started with 100-200 boxes. Now, they are at about 500-600 boxes.

“At first, the ones who came for the food were members of the communities around the temple, all the ‘hand-to-mouth’ workers around here. But lately there are people from other places as well,” the abbot said. It is similar to other places, once the temple started, people also contributed by giving out food every evening, and sometimes also in the morning as well.

A group of 6-7 girls aged around 8-12 years old sat waiting for food in front of the building. They look like ‘big shots’ in the area. The girls told us that they have been here since 3 pm because there are lot of people who come to wait in line.

Getting free food is not an easy thing. The numbers keep on increasing, and you have to wait for a long time in the hot weather. The food is limited. Wat Lat Phrao has not provided chairs for the people to sit yet, so the people have to think of ways to line up themselves. The monks had painted spots along the ground to set spaces between people who are waiting in line. Those who come earlier place shoes on the spots as reservations then find somewhere with shade to wait until they start giving food out, and avoid moving around since the concrete is hot.

“Once you put your shoe down you have to keep watch nearby. Otherwise others come and kick your shoe away. Some like to cut in line. I have to talk loudly for the monks to hear that someone is already queuing up here, so they can come and deal with it. I’m not telling on anyone, I’m just talking loudly.” This is the strategy of an 11-year-old girl.

The girls look clean and are wearing clean clothes. Their homes are close to the temple and they are not so dirt poor as if they are about to die, but they are also going through difficult times. Some of their parents still have jobs but have less work, so they allow their daughters to get free food to help lessen food expenses.

“We take the food and eat until we’re full, so they don’t have to worry and find food for us,” another girl said.

At Wat Taphan in the Ratchaprarop area near the Victory Monument, there are concentrated slums with more homeless people than other districts. There are also foreign labourers. Phra Maha Aphichat, assistant abbot, said that the temple started to give out rice and dried food 2 days a week but they could not announce it and have people come to collect the food at the temple because a lot of people would appear and the temple would not be able to manage it. To have community leaders give them out would be difficult, because the communities around the temple are not registered and are true slums. And so the temple relied on people who know the community well to help distribute the goods. At first, the temple set aside some funds for the almsgiving, but after they started and spread the word on their page, some people have pitched in with donations and now the account contains several tens of thousands of baht. 

“Some of the goods we distribute ourselves. Because the goods are limited, we want the ones who are really in trouble to have them first. I once followed one child who came to get handout to look at their home, which is in a slum just near the temple. I’ve been here a long time but didn’t even know that there are people living in that tiny space,” the assistant abbot said.

“Now we’ve expanded and started to give out coupons. We would give them out to people in Soi Mo Reng, where thousands of people live. We only have 200 sets so we rely on local people to distribute the coupons out to troubled people in their alleys. They would know who is really most difficulty and have them come to get the goods from the temple. In this wat, it won’t get too crowded.”

“The people help the temple, the temple helps the people. We rely on each other. If the people are in trouble, then don’t hope that the monks will be okay,” Phra Maha Aphichat said.

At Wat Sikan in Don Mueang, Phra Khru Phothisutakon, assistant abbot, said that the inspiration for the almsgiving came from the people who brought food to distribute from the back of their pick-up trucks in front of the temple. Phra Khru thought that the temple should also do it, in addition to what the Supreme Patriarch had said. The temple then set up a proper almsgiving project. The number of food boxes increased from 200 to 1000, which they give out every Wednesday and Saturday, 9.00-11.00 am. Recently some people have also donated food and money to the temple, like at other temples.

“In times of happiness, the people can rely on the temple in terms of dhamma. In times of suffering, we cheer them up and make them calm. If we can do more than that, then we should do it. Monks should have some engagement, not ordain as monks then escape from the world aiming only to achieve nirvana and become arahants, but should be part of the world, part of society,” the assistant abbot said.

The highest in terms of numbers would seem to be Chiang Mai’s Wat Chedi Luang. Phra Khru Kittiwimon said that since 26 March they have been giving out around 2000-2500 boxes every evening. They give them out to the people who come to line up, about 100 from the forest firefighting teams, personnel from the hospitals who request them, etc. Initially the smaller temples nearby also gave out some in the mornings but they have stopped, although it is uncertain why. It could be because they had run out of money or it could be due to the official announcement forbidding them to give out goods unless they request permission in writing. But Wat Chedi Luang has not been prohibited from giving out goods yet, so the temple continues. They have spent around 1 million baht already. The abbot said that if they continue on this scale, they will only be able to continue to the end of May, then the rest will have to depend on donations.

Picture by Phonphit Phakmai

Chiang Mai is especially interesting. Phonphit Phakmai, a social activist who has been there for a long time, said that at present she makes sweets to help fundraise with the Ban Toem Fan organization, which gives out food to the homeless in Chiang Mai city. “Someone who works there said they used to look after 50-60 people, but now there are 120-130 people who are sleeping rough,” Phonphit said.

Ponphit said that in Chiang Mai there are many migrant workers who are general labourers. Some rent rooms and live there alone. After the lockdown, there were many cases of “dorm abandonment”. Some may have places to go to, some live off the temples and sleep in public places in order to survive past April and hope to find work again afterwards.

“Some dorms have already decreased their rent by half, but people still can’t afford it and had to just leave,” Ponphit said.

For the originally homeless, there is an NGO that brings them food and snacks. The side benefit is that they can live and do not need to struggle by moving out and the people do not need to worry about their sanitation.

Ban Toem Fan website

“Showers are very important. Men don’t really have a problem, but women have difficulty. The homeless include women. They sometimes use bathrooms in petrol stations, but they get chased out if they go too often. These days I see people using the Ping River. The project to find them a bathroom hasn’t succeeded yet. The temples have already closed off the shower rooms, leaving only the toilets because the temples can’t deal with this either. Even so, the toilets can only be used until 6 pm. After they finish giving out the food, they close the doors,” Phonphit said.

Temples are not like 7-11s – they have opening and closing times, and 7-11s do not have bathrooms. Petrol stations can be used for time to time, but they have to keep changing from place to place. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security announced a relief policy, but people working on the ground have not yet seen any officials coming down to solve these problems. People who tried to give out food have been barred from doing so and arrested because the authorities are afraid of the virus spreading but are not afraid of people dying from starvation. The situation is still uncertain. Will help flow into temples more? It is still an unanswered question.

But even if various temples have started to help the people, there is still the issue of accessibility and sustainability, not to mention human dignity.  

“Getting food from the temple feels better, I think. Because the temple is a public place. It belongs to everyone. When we have, we give to the temple. When we don’t, we rely on the temple. Getting food from elsewhere feels like we owe each other something,” Phonphit commented.

One model that may destroy various limitations could be online almsgiving.

Phra Maha Phraiwan is a famous monk on social media – many may have already forgotten which temple he is from, but people do not need to visit him. They can send their troubles to him directly, in real-time, through social media. That is why he has received a great number of messages asking for different kinds of help, such as people asking him to support their products or even asking to pawn their hand planes.

Image from the Phra Maha Praiwan’s Facebook page. The sign says "Online almsgiving. Phra Maha Praiwan Worawanno. Free garlic chicken rice and cap cakes. FB: Cheap, delicious cupcakes."

At first, Phra Maha Phraiwan accepted donations to buy dry goods and distribute them, but there were limits to what could be done, and after the government stepped up their measures, the ‘online almsgiving’ was born.

All transactions occur online. Phra Maha Phraiwan accepts donations from people who have the money and the heart, then selects people in trouble who have sent him messages. They are mostly small-time vendors selling food and other goods. Then Phra Maha Phraiwan allocates an appropriate budget to bulk buy food and snacks from these people, asking them to give out the food to nearby communities in difficulty.

In other words, he bulk buys food from troubled vendors but on condition that they give it out in return. The vendors then take photos of their activities and send them to him.

This model can be spread far and wide very quickly, and can be done by both monks and non-monks. Other monks and laypeople have started to apply this model in many other areas.  

“Poverty is complex. Monks or life coaches often like to say that the poor are weak, they don’t fight, and don’t have any ideas. Going into the field and meeting them allowed me to know what hardship is really like. Actually, they are really strong. I met a woman who drives a motorcycle taxi, looking after all her children and parents, which adds up to 7 people, by herself alone. She earns 70 baht per day. I went to give out some rice and she told me her motorcycle has a puncture. Then she laughed. She can still laugh about it,” Phra Maha Phraiwan said.

All of this is hardship at the surface level of some poor people in Thailand, as well as the efforts of monks in various areas that can just about help them out day by day, meal by meal, amidst the especially large number of major issues that are waiting in the future.