Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Social Safety Net

Volunteers help a man balance a basket of food during the annual food distribution at the Poh Teck Tung shrine in Bangkok's Chinatown. 

Many Chinese shrines and temples in Bangkok hosted their annual community food distribution events this month during Hungry Ghost month. Two of the largest shrines in Chinatown, Poh Teck Tung and Wat Mangkon Kamalawat had events just a few blocks from each other. 

Although Thailand is prosperous compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, it is still an emerging economy and the government has limited resources for the social safety nets. Religious foundations and temples step in to fill many of the roles that government agencies have in western countries. 
People wait in line at the Poh Teck Tung food distribution. Traditional Siamese conical hats are distributed and used as baskets.  

Poh Teck Tung is one of the largest of the many foundations that help the indigent in Thailand. They operate a first responder service of medics and ambulances, they found schools, they help people cover funeral expenses if a loved one dies and they operate hospitals. They first became famous as Bangkok's "body snatchers" because they used to race to accident scenes to transport the dead to morgues. (They still do it, but it's become a much smaller part of what they do and to focus on the "body snatcher"aspect diminishes what they do for the living.) Thousands of people lined up for the food distribution at Poh Teck Tung this morning. It was so crowded, city streets in the neighborhood were closed to traffic. 
People wait in the plaza in front of the shrine for their chance to go through the food distribution. It started at 06.00AM and went pretty much continuously until 11.00AM.  

Poh Teck Tung's most famous time came in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 when volunteers from the foundation traveled to southern Thailand and helped with cremations for the thousands of people killed in the disaster. 
A woman takes cooking oil from a volunteer during the food distribution. 

Almost all of the people who work with Poh Teck Tung are volunteers. It's both a social thing - volunteers make friends on the job - and a way to make merit, which is an important component of Buddhism. 
After getting their food, people relax in the street behind the Poh Teck Tung shrine. 

Although I photographed the Poh Teck Tung food distribution today, they are not the only organization that sponsors events like this. Most of the Chinese shrines and temples in Thailand have at least one food distribution event per year. And Ruamkatanyu Foundation, based next Wat Hua Lamphong, also operates an EMT medical service and helps people with funeral arrangements. 

There are more photos from the food distribution in my archive and available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.