The Durian Orchard Squatters
Bangkok Noi, Western Bangkok

"Oh yes, we have clean water," an old wiry man smiles as he caresses his shiny head. He points to strings of skinny PVC pipes hanging across the canal like raw spaghetti.

"We simply hooked them up to the nearest water source," says the man. He is the handy man who supplied the squatters with water and electricity. "We self-connected everything in the past 30 years!" he smiles. Folks here called him by the name of Tawin.

"People here can't even tell what breed of Durian we have here anymore; they're too young," says Tawin. "We also have local breeds of rose apple and mango. Have you heard of Sak Grabae Rose Apple? Or Bang Konsri Mango?"

Next to the squatter settlement is a small canal, but it also serves as a drainage swale and a sewage pit. The garbage dump is neatly positioned right in front of the settlement - at the entry - where the stinks, the trash, the raw sewage, and the plastic bottles congregate. The private dwelling area, however, is positioned in the backwoods; turning away from the streets in a tranquil oasis beneath the shadow of a Durian orchard.

The squatter live on this land for over 50 years, it belongs to the Railway Authority.
Tawin tells me that the Railway Authority used to allow the squatters to rent out the land for a mere 80 baht per Rai per year. (1 Rai = 1600 square meters) Since it was a vacant piece of land, the rent was cheap. But they cut off the contract 10 years ago so a community of "renters" became a community of "squatters" overnight.

"We've had it," Tawin shakes his head. "The living conditions are so deplorable. We are now making a proposal to the Bangkok Governor to turn this whole area into a canal-side market with new housing; it's a place to live and make money at the same time."

He tells me that the squatters want to turn it into a commercial market in partnership with the city and other private entities because doing improvement to housing alone doesn't create jobs. "The governor's office told me to contact CODI, so that you guys could help us layout the master plan and get us start on the saving group for the Collective Housing program," he says. "We want to create both the residential zone and the commercial zone."

"Have you started the saving group?" I ask.
"Yes, we started a month ago. Now we have 87 members with the collective saving of 32,800 baht. The lowest level for each member is 300 baht per month; most put in 500 baht, and some put in 1000 baht."
"You know, you will need to get your group to save up to 10% of the housing loan amount, if you plan to take any."

Tawin nods silently. Then he blurts out: "We're planning to register our saving group soon so that it could operate as a legal person. That's what one of the organizers from CODI told me. They told me to register it as a co-op."

We come across a newly constructed concrete bridge over the canal; it has no railing nor steps to get up there - only a steep sloping ramp. "We build this bridge ourselves," says Tawin proudly. He squats on the bridge and unrolls a piece of paper on the hot concrete. It's the existing plan and layout of the houses along the canal. I manage to count up to 36 to 40 households in total. The configuration of the houses spreads out all the way to the Taling Chan Market. It's a rather disperse squatter settlement.

"How are you going link the houses together in the new plan," I ask.
"It's not difficult, we have approach this private landowner," he points to the blob in the middle of the plan. "The owner said that he could let us cut a small 1-meter walkway at the edge of his land so that we could get to the market area."

I look at the existing site plan and notice that there seems to be a general area where some of the houses tend to congregate.

"Perhaps we should start with this area," I point to the site plan. "It seems to be the area with the highest density."
"Yes, we plan to have this area as the new entry point for the community actually," Tawin stresses. "The Railroad Authority tells us that we're going to need a guard at the front gate of the new community."
"A guard?"
"It's for security purposes; the entryway is also serving as a shared road for people who are going to the temple in the back. The guard will simply live in his 'office'; we could ask one of the renters to volunteer - he can get a free place to live while we get a free service!"

I suddenly recall that in the old days, this area used to be a center for forging gold and making Buddha statues. There is a famous Buddhist temple here - the Jao Arm temple.

Tawin points to the long stretch of railroad tracks. It runs parallel to the squatter settlement. The Railway authority also tells him that he needs to position the new houses no closer than 10 meters away from the center point of the tracks.

"Those soldiers who were fixing the railroad tracks also help us constructed the walkways and this bridge here," recalls uncle Tawin. "They were very kind." He invites me to walk through the squatter settlement. The houses vary in quality of construction; some are in exceptionally good shape, but some remains dilapidated. The construction of most houses is usually consists of corrugated tin sheets and recycle wood boards of various colors - they create an unintended unique pattern, almost like an abstract painting.

Tawin calls on his son to take me back to the city with a brand new Toyota pickup truck. "My daughter bought it for me as a present for my 60th birthday," says uncle Tawin. He told me that he has 5 kids, all boys except the youngest one. His youngest daughter married a rich German bachelor - the only son - who is now the heir to a great wealth of inheritance.

"It's a very funny incident! They just met in a bar right here in Thailand," he laughs wildly showing all his missing teeth. "The man is well over forty now, never married before. But merely a month after they met in Pattaya, they got married," Tawin shakes his shiny head as he continues laughing.

Like a good Buddhist, he says that he must have done some good Karma in his past life. The fate of the rest of the squatters here, however, remains uncertain. They do not have any access to the financial source of "good Karma" as Tawin's.