BANGKOK — Ton Boonmee was begging on the streets for survival when a donation from a Good Samaritan changed his life – by pushing him to start his own sandwich business, “Tonbua Sandwiches.”
“Vendors would chase me away and people would look down on me. But I thought of begging as a job, a way to make a living,” he said. “No one can choose how they’re born. No one chooses to be born a beggar. But we can choose to do good.”
Today, Ton sells sandwiches from a basket, walking with crutches from car to car at the same intersection (Kaset Nawamin Tor Mor 251) that he frequented during his begging days.
Ton was diagnosed with polio at the age of three, and a year later began begging on the streets with his mother. He is still illiterate from never attending a day of school. From then on, it was a childhood of sleeping under bridges and at markets all over Bangkok. He even travelled to Pattaya and Phuket in search of new begging areas.
He would make around 120 to 150 baht a day and give all of it to his mom, save 10 baht for himself. Eventually, he began renting a 550-baht-a-month room in the Saphan Mai area on Phahon Yothin Road. He begged in the area until he was 23, frequenting the Kaset Nawamin intersections, especially the one at Tor Mor 251.
Back then, a businessman named P’Jeab regularly gave Ton 100 baht donations. One day, P’Jeab didn’t have to go to work and invited Ton inside his car for a chat.
“I told him everything about begging on the streets since I was four,” Ton said. “His last question was, ‘Do you want to stop being a beggar? Do you want things to change, or things to stay the same?’”
When Ton told P’Jeab that he wanted to start selling things rather than begging, the businessman gave him 2,000 baht. Ton used the money to set up an orange juice shop at the intersection.
“It was a promise between men. He said, ‘If I give you money, I don’t want to see you begging anymore.’ We shook on it,” Ton said. “2,000 baht might not be a lot to many people, but for me it changed my life.”
Although the orange juice sold well at first, customers trickled after five years. Ton took up a job at a sandwich shop instead and began saving up money to start his own sandwich brand.
Initially, he was met with scorn when he started asking shops if they would sell his sandwiches. Some shops even splashed him with water to chase him away.
The first media outlet to interview Ton was Wongnai in July, Ton said, which prompted more press to follow.
Ton on an episode of Mommtanaddak food blogger’s show.
“More and more people know me. I can feel my life getting better,” he said.
When asked what he would say to people who look down on the homeless, Ton said that many just lack opportunity like he did.
“If they had an opportunity and didn’t take the chance, then that’s up to their karma. But I got my opportunity and I’m walking in P’Jeab’s footsteps. One day, if I have enough money, I will help beggars and homeless people, like he did for me,” he said.
Ton seems to be a family man, recounting with fondness how he met his girlfriend. Today he has a 7-year-old daughter, Bua. His son, who passed away from heart failure, would be 10 today.
“My girlfriend used to be my roon p’s girlfriend. After they broke up, I started regularly going to Bang Na to flirt with her,” he said. “I was still homeless then and I asked her if she minded. She said I was still better than those bad men who go around raping and committing crimes.”
Tonbua Sandwiches offers seven sandwich fillings: chicken floss, pork floss, imitation crab sticks, baloney, chicken ham, pork ham, and tuna salad. Each box sells for 30 baht, but orders of 200 sandwiches or more are sold at the wholesale price of 17 baht a box.
Those interested can look for Ton selling sandwiches at Kaset Nawamin Tor Mor 251 Intersection, or buy from his house at Soi Khu Bon 32. If you can’t find him, call him at 090-273-5202.
Kaset Nawamin Tor Mor 251 Intersection.