Tucked on the edge of Chinatown and just a stones throw from the Chao Praya River, Hua Lampong Station – Bangkok’s Central State Railway stop – is a heady mix of contradictions. Outside the din of tuk-tuks. taxis. bikes and cars all vying for an inch of road space is deafening, while inside, underneath the ornate glass domed ceilings, the feeling is no less chaotic. Across 12 platforms, trains lurch in and out, passengers rush to and fro as announcements blare incessantly from overhead loud speakers. Yet amongst this, if you stop for a moment to look, there are scenes of almost poetic tranquility. Dishevelled young lovers, slumped across luggage, taking a nap, a young mother, seated on a sheet of plastic, breastfeeding her baby, an elderly man, his shoes tied together with string, quietly smoking. Everywhere, an infinite number of stories.
I meet Nui, 54, at the far end of the station, at Platform No.12. A hairdresser by trade and an established hairdressing teacher, she is here every Thursday and Friday with her students from a local training college offering free haircuts to travellers, locals and railway workers.
“The best part of working down here is the diversity of people you meet. Nui tells me. “Every day is different. You rarely see the same person twice. It’s so much more interesting than just working in a salon”.
Nui’s students are a mix of ages and life experience and pay just 105 baht to do the 3 month, government backed course. Some have already had careers in other industries, working in restaurants and bars, while others might have dropped out of school and found themselves with limited work opportunities. As it happens, Nui herself was a student of the school some 20 plus years ago.
“I came from Phattalung Province in Southern Thailand to Bangkok after separating from my husband. I had three young children, and they stayed with their grandmother while I came to look for work. My brother lent me 4000 baht and it was all I had to get started. I first got a job in a factory and then later a restaurant. But it wasn’t until I did the course that I found out what I really wanted to do. I was always the early bird, I would always get to school before anybody else. I loved it”.
“I did everything myself. All of it”
A year after Nui arrived in Bangkok however, her ex-husband was killed and the children were again in her care. They were tough years, but it was with a steely, single minded determination that Nui found herself able to not only survive but eventually gain financial independence and a solid foundation for her and her children’s future. With great pride Nui tells me she now owns two condos, a small hair salon which she employs someone to run, and a rubber plantation on 15 rai of land back in her home village. “I did everything myself. All of it” she says beaming.
Amongst the triumphs though there has also been tragedy – most significantly, the murder of Nui’s son three years ago, in a gang related incident.
Life had to go on.
“I was so shocked. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t do anything. It was like there was a huge rock in my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I called the school the next day and took a week off work so I could take my son’s body down south, to my home, and prepare the funeral arrangements. But after I had done that I came straight back. I had to get back to work. I had two other children who needed me, who I had to take care of and my students too. Life had to go on”. she says.
Watching Nui with her students it’s clear she has an innate maternal instinct coupled with a calm no-nonsense attitude. Her demeanour is steadfast, strong and yet kind; a warrior of a life fully lived.
As she guides her students with practical tips, a homeless guy appears – dirty, clutching a plastic bag of belongings and ranting loudly. His hair, an out of control matted mess. Stepping in, Nui plonks him on a stool and gets to work, without so much as an eyebrow raised.
There’s never been a problem I haven’t been able to sort out myself.
“Working here has taught me to be very patient. You do get people who are crazy but the most challenging are the ones who are drunk. They can’t sit still and they move around in their seat and it’s hard for the students to do their job. I’ll ask them politely to sit still and most of the time they do what I tell them”. Nui says matter-of-factly.
When I ask if she’s ever had to ask the security guards at the station to help her out, she simply shrugs. “There’s never been a problem I haven’t been able to sort out myself”.
As Nui works the scissors across the homeless guys head, his erratic demeanour becomes calm, his loud rantings from earlier, now just a quiet whisper, his eyes closed. It’s a scenario I see played out over and over throughout the morning – not just the mentally ill, but across the many and varied types of people who find themselves, momentarily, perched on one of Nui’s neon plastic stools. A female monk who comes to have her head and eyebrows shaved, a little boy, earlier boisterous and playful with his twin brother, an old man who has hobbled over using a piece of plastic pipe as a cane, a sleep deprived traveller, and a young Army soldier – all sit calmly, peacefully, their eyes closed, as if in quiet meditation, enjoying the respite that this simple service gives them.
In just a few weeks these students will undertake their final assessments – both written and practical – and then it’s out into the workforce. While for Nui the cycle will start over with yet another new intake. Though eventually she would like to move back south and settle on her rubber farm, for now she says she is happy with life just as it is.
“I work hard during the week and I feel that I’ve achieved a lot and I’m proud of that. On the weekends, I enjoy taking care of my grandchildren, though they can be tiring! And I am now learning to crochet and knit. I’m finally in a good place”, she says modestly.
Meanwhile, all around, the chaos and calm of the station continues. Guards check tickets, passengers haul themselves onto trains, and forklifts whiz back and forth carrying palettes of bottled water as fans whir overhead, spraying cool mist into the hot, humid air.
And, in amongst it all, the young mother from earlier, returning from the restrooms with her baby now freshly washed and wrapped in a faded bath towel. Her husband rises and takes over, sprinkling the babies body with talcum powder and gently patting it across its face, arms, tummy and back. The baby stares up into the domed arches high above, hooked into the vibe of the place – the flashes of light and colour, the cacophony of noise, all countered by the gentle touch of her father.
As the loud speaker announces the departure of the next train, headed north, the family quickly pack up their belongings, including the old plastic sheet, and bundle themselves into a carriage. Another story passing from this moment into the next while here on Platform 12 a small group of customers sit still and silent on Nui’s stools.