Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bangkok From The Moon

This is what Bangkok looks like from the moon. No, not that moon, but the Moon Bar and Vertigo Restaurant, atop the Banyan Tree Hotel in Bangkok, 61 floors above street level. The elevator takes you to floor 59 from there you walk up a series of progressively more narrow staircases.

The view is spectacular and you can certainly wander up to the bar for a quick look and then wander back down to the hotel lobby. But it will cost you if you plan to enjoy the sunset. A tonic water set me back about $5.50. That’s a plain, gin free, tonic water. The same tonic water at the “Family Mart” convenience store near my apartment is about .40¢. But then the view from my third floor walk up apartment overlooks a dead end soi.    

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tattoo You

I went to Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province today. The temple is famous for its Sak Yant tattoos. These are powerful tattoos said to impart special protective powers to those who have them. They are very popular with people who live in a dangerous world - mobsters, soldiers, and police are frequently covered in these tattoos. The tattoos originated in the ancient Khmer (present day Cambodia) kingdoms and the tattoos still use Khmer script. 

The temple is supposed to be about 30 miles from Bangkok. But it took me two hours to get there, so it’s either more than 30 miles or Bangkok traffic was particularly bad this morning. I think, more likely it’s a combination of the two. 

The process of getting the tattoo is very interesting. People bring offerings for the monk doing the tattooing (some money, but more likely flowers and cigarettes) and sit in a line to the side of the monk. While one person is being tattooed, the person who was just tattooed and the person who is next in the queue hold the tatoo recipient still  while he (or she) rests his head in a pillow in his lap. The monk works quickly and silently tattooing the persons back. He starts by using a stencil of the pattern he is going to use. The tattoo needle is sharpened on a piece of rough sandpaper and the monk quickly dips the needle into the ink and then pierces the skin. The ink is a mixture of oil (usually palm oil), Chinese charcoal ink and, occasionally, snake venom. A typical tattoo requires about 3,000 strikes to complete and the monk replenishes the ink in the needle every 30 seconds or so. 

Needles are rinsed off in cleaning solution between clients. Tattoo parlors in the US are pretty noisy places. There’s frequently some music playing and the tattoo gun makes a buzzing sound. Tattooing at Wat Bang Phra is done in silence. A few whispered words might pass between the monk and the person getting the tattoo but normally the room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. This is a religious experience for the people getting the tattoos. 

There are more photos from Wat Bang Phra in my PhotoShelter archive or available from ZUMA Press. Also, be sure to check out Gavin Gough’s fascinating photos of a festival at Wat Bang Phra

(Don’t adjust your monitor. This is a black and white entry.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Protests With Sanuk

Sanuk is a Thai word roughly translated as deriving pleasure and joy from something. Not just when you’re on vacation or at a movie, sporting event or holiday, but all the time. At work, in the car or even at a political protest. 

That has certainly been the case the last two days as the protests, which if you look at the Red Shirts’ demands (the dissolution of Parliament and resignation of the Prime Minister) are very serious. Despite their serious demands, the Reds seem to be having a ball. Yesterday’s march was as much carnival parade as protest. And today, when the Red Shirts went to the Army barracks that has become the de facto center of power, because the security services command center is here and the Prime Minister is living at the base, there was a definite party atmosphere. This time they were prepared for the party - Red Shirt refreshment stands, snack stalls and souvenir stands were mixed in with the protestors. 

There is still no end in sight for the protests, but it appears as though the Prime Minister blinked first. Red Shirt leaders announced while I was there that the PM has agreed to sit down and negotiate with the Red Shirt leaders. The negotiations are supposed to start later today at a neutral venue. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Red In The Land

Bangkok is in the midst of another round of street demonstrations. This time it’s the Red Shirts vs the government. In the past it was the Yellow Shirts against the previous government. 

The Red Shirts support ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first Thai Prime Minister popularly elected to two terms. In 2006, the Thai army ousted Thaksin in a coup and the Thai courts banned his party. In the 2007 elections that replaced the military government (that ousted Thaksin) Thaksin’s new party won (Thaksin, now a felon in Thailand didn’t run. Instead his proxies were on the ballot). The so called Yellow Shirts took to the streets and the courts ruled that the new party was not really a new party and was made up of Thaksin’s cronies and took orders from Thaksin. All of which was true. So they ordered the new democratically elected government to step down. 

Which is how the current PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva came to be the Prime Minister of Thailand. Now it’s the Red Shirts who are in the streets protesting. Most of the protests are in the old part of Bangkok, well away from the city’s commercial centers of Sukhumvit and Silom. But some of the protests have disrupted the routine of tourists who like to visit the temples and Palace in the historic part of Bangkok. 

Some observers fear Thailand is on the brink of civil war. Certainly these are dangerous times in the Kingdom. Grenade explosions and attacks launched from M79 grenade launchers (a relic of the American wars in Asia) are common place. It’s important to note that none of these attacks have taken place where there were large crowds or in areas used by the expat community. In fact, they usually happen late at night or early in the morning in relatively remote areas or around closed government buildings. I think they are meant to scare people rather than kill people.

Today’s protest was supposed to be a rally at the protest headquarters in old Bangkok. But organizers decided to turn it into a march. Which turned into a motorcade, which turned into 10 or more motorcades. I started following what I thought was the main part of the march and after about two hours we ran head on into another group of marchers coming from some other part of town. It was all very confusing. The intersections where they met were completely gridlocked. And it was about 95 degrees and we were in the only part of Bangkok that doesn’t have convenience stores on every corner, so there was no water available. 

Eventually the motorcades that came together splintered and I found myself in a part of Bangkok I hadn’t been in 40 years, since we lived here. Which meant I was completely lost. But I never felt like there was any risk or danger. The protestors were a very cheerful bunch. And they seemed to really like Americans. Several times people asked where I was from, when I said America they started slapping me on the back yelling “Obama” and then asking that we (foreign journalists) tell the world what is happening in Thailand. One woman gave me a hat (because I stupidly left mine in my apartment). Countless folks offered me rides on motor scooters. Which I turned down. The air was more festive than anything else. 

I have no idea when or how this is going to end. The Red Shirts are funded by Thaksin who has billions to spend. I’m not sure the government can count on the security services to break up the protests if it comes to that. Today the police were cheering for the protestors, giving them water and generally supportive. The soldiers accepted flowers from protestors and shook hands with them when the Army was pulled out of several checkpoints. 

The Army opened fire on protestors in April 2009 during a similar series of marches. Whether or not it will come to that no one knows. For their part the Red Shirts plan to push this to the end, whatever that means. 

The protests have been smaller than predicted. At one point, the Reds said 1,000,000 people would come to Bangkok. It never reached that. They had just over 100,000 last week (before I got here) and today’s crowd was about 80,000. But what they lack in numbers they make up for determination. This was supposed to be a long weekend of marches that were supposed to end around March 21, last week. Then there were small demonstrations through the week (including one where they threw blood at the Parliament and Prime Minister’s home). Now they’re not saying when it will end. 

This may well be Thailand’s Year of Living Dangerously. 

There are more photos of the protests available from ZUMA Press or in my PhotoShelter archive.  

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dust to Dust

A volunteer sprinkles dirt on the casket of an unknown homeless man who died on the streets of Phoenix during an interment earlier this week in White Tanks Cemetery, Maricopa County’s “potter’s field” while a county detention officer stands guard. Indigent and homeless people who die in Maricopa County are buried in this expansive piece of desert west of Phoenix. 

More than 3,000 people in White Tanks, which opened in the mid 1994. The funerals are lonely affairs. Usually the only people in attendance are the sheriff’s “chain gang,” clergy who volunteer to officiate and a Catholic nun, who sprinkles holy water on each casket. The funerals take place every Thursday.  

As minimal as these funerals are, they are still expensive. The county has spent millions of dollars burying the least fortunate in this lonely place. One of the options they’re considering is cremation. Several other counties in Arizona have already started cremating their indigent. 

I’ve been photographing the Sheriff’s chain gangs since 1999. I’ve been to White Tanks five or six times. There are more photos of the funerals and chain gangs in myPhotoShelter archive.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When Horses Fly

Colorado, a horse owned by a Phoenix horseman, is airlifted to safety after he was stranded on a sandbar in the Gila River near Buckeye, about 50 miles from central Phoenix. Colorado’s owner, and some of his friends, were on a trail ride in the Gila River basin last week when they tried to cross the normally placid stream and were caught up in current of the swiftly flowing river, swollen by one of the rainiest winters in Phoenix in years. 
The people, and most of the horses, were saved by rescuers. But Colorado was swept downstream to the sandbar and another horse had to be put down because it broke a leg. 
Rescuers tried to get to Colorado but the swollen river made it unsafe, even in a boat. The only way to get the horse back to solid ground was to airlift him across the river. 
Early Tuesday morning a team of rescuers boarded the helicopter and were shuttled to the sandbar. They sedated, blindfolded and trussed up Colorado like a Thanksgiving turkey and the helicopter plucked him off the sandbar for a 45 second flight back to his owner. 
It was a good story - a man desperate to save his horse, a horse he raised from birth, and the resources that it took to reunite horse and owner. But I wonder how important a story it was. 
Arizona is in the midst of a paralyzing budget crisis. More than 300,000 people are being thrown off the state’s medicaid rolls. All day kindergarten and health care for children are being eliminated. The state’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent (and the most solid growth sector of the economy, health care, will take a huge hit when 300,000 people lose their medicaid insurance). And every television station in town dedicated huge resources to covering every second of a horse rescue, some even took it live. I wish they put the same effort into covering the state’s political and budget crisis. Instead Phoenix TV stations seem more concerned about covering pet stories, car chases and “paying it forward” stories, They’ve abdicated their responsibility to operate in the public interest
Don Henley summed it up 27 years ago when he sang about “Dirty Laundry,” We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five”

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Exercising Their Right To Vote

Phoenix has one of the largest Iraqi expatriate communities in the US. As a result it’s one of only eight US cities where Iraqis can vote in their parliamentary elections this weekend. Iraqi elections workers expect up to 6,000 people from several western states to come to their small polling place in central Phoenix to vote. 

Heck 'Uv A Job Brownie

Scott Brown, the newest US Senator in Washington, the Republican who shocked the Democratic establishment when he won Teddy Kennedy’s old seat (even though the Democrats arguably beat themselves with a thoroughly inept campaign), is a hot commodity right now. John McCain, who is in the toughest primary battle of his political life brought Brown to Phoenix Friday to campaign for him. The crowd was treated to the usual McCain stump speech and then Brown spent a few minutes mingling with folks before being ushered to one on one interviews with local TV stations. 
McCain’s opponent, JD Hayworth, is an arch conservative who has courted the Tea Party movement. Apparently the love is not being returned since both Sarah Palin and Brown are campaigning for McCain and Tea Party leaders in Arizona have indicated that they won’t endorse either man. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Skimming the surface

I was leaving an assignment in Chandler this morning when I saw this “crop duster” spraying a field next to the Intel plant, just south of the intersection of State Highways 101 and 202. 
Only five or six years ago this area was mostly agricultural with numerous dairy farms, cotton and alfalfa fields, and some sheep farms.  There are still few fields, like this one, left, one dairy farm and one sheep farm but increasingly it’s commercial developments and some residential.
Crop dusters working the fields around the Phoenix area used to be a common site. Now, not so much. In the future this will be an even less common scene.
There are more photos of the crop duster in my PhotoShelter archive.