Food calls to Bangkok’s hungry underclass
While scrolling through Facebook earlier this month it was impossible to miss the pic of this giant of a dude with a beard and massive tattooed biceps. He looked like some of the biker crews I knew back in the UK. What had most struck my attention about him, though, was that he was part of a group of ‘farangs’ (foreigners) who were handing out food parcels to little kids and their grandparents, in hidden parts of Bangkok.
In some of the most impoverished parts of the city, home to the cash-strapped denizens of Bangkok’s underbelly, there these guys were … giving out essential supplies to families badly in need of a little TLC – and even more so thanks to the coronavirus-generated restrictions.
OK, game on … I needed to know more about this hombre.
I ‘friended’ him, and within an hour he had got back to me. The guy I had chanced across was Sebastian Bergstroem (Biggie) whose Viking blood had brought him from Sweden to Thailand in 2015, when he had started a security company offering close protection, followed by an events and media company in 2019.
Both these ventures required close interaction with individuals or the public, and Biggie saw quickly that his businesses would suffer because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus. In January 2020 he quickly moved to open up TCB Medik to provide facemasks and 70 percent hand gel, etc. It was this decision that has been able to keep his businesses afloat.
Since arriving in Thailand, Biggie quickly made many friends, both Thai and foreign. “I know a lot of people in Thailand, and some of my older Thai friends had begun to text me, reluctantly asking for food and help because they didn’t have any income and the government wasn’t responding.
I did a bit of looking around online, and I found that posts about three foreign chaps living in Thailand were beginning to be noticed on social media, attracting a lot of attention. They had organised caravans of donations, heading to the poorest areas of Bangkok … the jungle drums had done their job, and wherever they set up their tables there were soon long lines of destitute city dwellers queueing up. Biggie invited me along to one of the giveaways and introduced me to his partners in the donations project.
The three people in question, then, are Friso Poldervaart, Greg Lange, and Biggie. Friso, with his business partner Johannes, had set up Dinner in the Sky, a restaurant hoisted up by a crane 50 metres into the air. After having served thousands of people with five-star meals whilst hanging suspended in the sky, Friso and Johannes wanted to help people, and give something back to the local communities. Greg is a businessman and owner of Sunrise Tacos restaurant in a dozen or so locations around Bangkok, with over 20 years’ experience of living in Thailand.
It was Friso who had started the ball rolling on this project, along with Johannes Bergstrom, Patrich Andersson and Bunyapat Phochailerd, but as soon as it began Greg also offered his help. Friso already knew Greg, but over the last few weeks they have bonded really well, and the same goes for Biggie.
Bangkok can actually be quite a small foreign community, and everyone seems to know each other somehow. These three guys who had unexpectedly found themselves working together quickly formed a strong connection, and are raising the bar on everything they touch to the next level. They seem to feed off each other and keep coming up with fresh ideas, to support the new requests they keep getting.
It was only at the beginning of April that this donations project – which now goes by the moniker of ‘Dinner from the Sky’ – began rolling out. They expected things would grow, but it quickly exceeded all their expectations. For the first outing, they posted a request on Facebook that they needed to use a large kitchen in order to prepare 300 meals for some of the poor in the Klongtoey slum, which is Bangkok’s biggest.
Right away Greg offered his restaurant on Silom Soi 4. Friso, Johannes and a few others arrived at 4am in the morning, and Greg was there waiting. They cooked the hundreds of meals they were going to hand out, and boxed them up, all by themselves. Greg offered to help with distribution through his connections, and he arranged to hand out the meals with the aid of a local foundation based in the slum.
From then on Greg and his staff have tirelessly worked in the restaurant kitchen throughout the nights to prepare the thousands of meals that are still being handed out around the city. And the Three Amigos are there at every giveaway, both supervising and handing out the supplies.
Now, as their fame has spread, they daily receive requests for help from community associations in all parts of Bangkok. Biggie has set up a donations website, and to date the three have collectively raised about 800,000 baht in total. Every single baht goes to buy the food, milk, bags of rice, soap, cooking oil, cans of fish, et al, and hand it out to the neediest in out of the way parts of the city. All the work is done by volunteers, and the teams you see staffing the donation destinations are giving their time and work for free.
By the middle of May this little germ of an idea in the minds of Friso and Johannes had grown, in a few short weeks, into a rolling thunder review that had provided:
And these numbers continue to grow, as they go out to different locations three or four times a week. As I write this article Dinner from the Sky is planning to dispense their reserves to 1,000 individuals in a single day, up from around 600 per outing.
I joined them for three days, to help out, and to see first-hand exactly what was going on. On the first day I was asked to meet them near Sukhumvit Soi 1, where the railway tracks meet the main road. You may have walked across the tracks here many times yourself, on the way to one of the many nightspots on lower Sukhumit, without realising that there are hundreds of people living right next to the railroad tracks, in their little wooden huts, only a few yards away. There are many such places in Bangkok, and you might be surprised just how many.
I arrived at 10 in the morning, and the plan was to start this latest Dinner from the Sky donation at 11. When I got there I spotted Biggie and went over to say hello, and asked him what I could do to help. Within five minutes I was unloading a pickup truck of 150 5kg bags of rice, and putting them on a pallet next to the tracks, ready to be distributed. Soon a few more volunteers and supplies arrived, in new pickup trucks, or loaded into private cars.
When all was ready, the police and uniformed officers (Tessakit) from the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority helped to control the lines. One of the team checked the temperature of the people waiting in line, and another sprayed them with hand gel, before they proceeded onwards, clutching their bags, ready to be filled with stuff to help them get through the next few days, at the minimum.
The volunteers and helpers are now well-rehearsed, and the people waiting for their food and drink pass along the lined-up tables stacked with goodies quickly; the team members, who are a mix of farang and Thai, put the bags of rice into their outstretched arms, or fill their waiting bags with the boxes of food or other goods rapidly and efficiently.
As a new member of the team I was touched by the wais and thankyous of the people. There were the old, there were the young, there were the frail, there were pregnant ladies with young kids, and all appeared so grateful for the help they were getting. Before the handout started I had talked to a few people from the community, and they told me that things were tough for them. They had lost their jobs, were not able to sell their noodle dishes on the street, no passengers for the taxi drivers, or others were not able to collect stuff from the streets to recycle. They said that events like this were a godsend (or maybe a Buddha send).
I watch and read the news, and from this I know that people in Bangkok are suffering. But I did not know how much. Some of the people I saw on this first day were weak, and some of the old people had to be helped back to their shack. Biggie told me he had helped an old lady carry her 5kg bag of rice back to where she lived, and he was saddened. She lived on a wooden pallet, covered by sheets, with not even an electric fan. The only luxuries she possessed were a rice cooker, and a bowl and spoon to eat the rice with. Biggie went out and bought her a fan.
Friso, Greg, and Biggie have many similar stories they can tell. Since they started Dinner from the Sky, they have seen things that have shocked them, and it has increased their resolve to continue their work with the poor of Bangkok. They have a great team of volunteers, too, and together they are making a difference.
I then asked them about the future, and Friso, as spokesman, said, “We did not really know much about these underprivileged, poor communities that exist around Bangkok. We have talked together about this, and we know that even when Bangkok is able to get back to work, that the people in these poor communities – like these guys that live next to the railway tracks – will still be there, and they will still be poor. When we are back at work we will still help, by going to at least one place a week to give out donations, as we are doing right now. We will not just stop. How could we?”
If you feel like you can help, please have a look at the ‘Weeboon’ website. Cheers!