<< Continued from The Boatman and His Canal

The Pradon Settlement, Songkla

The Boatman drops us off at a large culvert where we climb onto a bank. We have arrived at a strange place. Brightly colored houses with elevated steel platforms mushroomed alongside the abandoned railroad tracks.

Human societies often make surprising adaptation to their surrounding environment. This is the “Pradon settlement,” says Taew. At Pradon, it is not by accident or luxury that most of the 348 houses in this community are supported by steel. They are, in fact, the bullhead steel rails that had once supported large fleets of locomotives; carrying fresh loads of seafood up north. After the construction of a well-paved highway between Bangkok and Songkla, the railway was abandoned - so it seems. Today the tracks are being revived for new usages. Several popular ways in which the inhabitants make use of the old railroad tracks are listed below:

1. The tracks as steel girders:

This is a very common usage. The continuous steel tracks serve as prefabricated girders for an entire row of houses in this community. Some people hollowed out the earth beneath the track so that they could have extra space under their “elevated” house. Some simply placed their houses right above the track; using it as grade beams.


2. The tracks as roof rafters:

The earth from below the rail tracks could be removed allowing several small motorcycles to be parked beneath. Concrete is poured as a retaining wall to keep the earth in place. Tin roof is usually placed on top of the tracks; completing the makeshift garage. The house could then be placed behind the garage in a more private realm.

3. The tracks as playgrounds
and planters:

The kids in the community play on these old tracks as if they were their playground. Several households are also using the tracks as elongated planters. They grow many types of vegetable of household consumption. It is an urban farm on rail.

Not all squatters are equal. Some houses are finely crafted to a high standard. Some are makeshift shacks; an assembly of tin, dirt, mud, and railroad steel tracks. Some shacks are even rented out to new squatters – the ‘new boys’. The socio-economic portrait of railway squatters is just as complex and dynamic as its housing construction.

The older settlers – ones who have arrived at Samrong Canal some 40 years ago as fishermen – are wealthier. They can now afford to send their kids to school or even universities. They are more or less related as a family; a close-knit group of people who have managed to save some money over the years. Then there are the ‘new boys’ who have just arrived at the settlement because they were evicted from other nearby slums. The Pradon settlement is a fairly new settlement along the railroad track. It emerges in the last 10 years; adding to the collection of 15 squatter settlements along the phantom railway of Songkla.

The UN has estimated that there are now over 1 billion people in squatter settlements world-wide. The squatters is indeed an important genre; making up a large part of the human species. They reproduce much more successfully; multiplying at twice the rate of their wealthier counterparts. A serious biologist would have made a definite study as to how this genre of humanity evolves and builds its habitats; what material and method it uses; what structure exists in its social networks. When such a large sector of a given species is creating a particular pattern – with success - on a global scale, it becomes a norm rather than an aberration. It is an evolutionary process.

Yet we see architectural magazines that are filled with images of buildings that represent the stories of a tiny specimen of humanity – a class consists of less than 1% of the world’s population. We see young architects greedily assimilate the style and tastes of this rapidly aging genre of humanity; one which indulges in zest, wastefulness, and artificial splendors. The youths of the world live in slums, ghettos, favelas, factory housings, and tenements; their playgrounds are the alleyways and railroad tracks. But only a small number of architects are interested in studying them.

It is now 4:00 pm and Taew needs to go. We part ways for now. Earlier, the Boatman has invited me to go see a festival with him in a nearby village tonight. I am supposed to meet up with him at the Rim Klong cooperative where he works. On the way there, I take a bus (a pickup truck with a canvas covering and two rows of wooden benches on its bed). Its wooden floor boards – as found in old Thai houses – are providing the necessary shock absorbent cushions for the much anticipated potholed streets. It has several small fans hanging from the canopy so that sweat could evaporate before settling down and rusting out the vehicle. The sound of school bells can now be heard simultaneously. Students start packing the vehicle as they leave their classes for the day. The bus attendant moves around like a squirrel collecting fares. The ‘bus doors’ – the truck’s tailgate - could be closed, but they were kept opened just in case someone fails to pay the fare and is being invited to leave on a moment’s notice. The sound of playful laughter and giggles can be heard on regular basis; providing melodies to the background of motorized percussions. There is a youthful spirit in this rusty sardine can.

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* The Pradon squatters have now formed a saving group; they start to make improvement to the problem of sanitation and health-related issues. As of October 2008, the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI) has also given them financial assistance and is helping the squatters negotiate a land lease from the State Railway.