Friday, April 30, 2010

Tear Down That Barricade!

Or, maybe don’t. That’s the question of the day in Bangkok Friday. 
Late Thursday night a group of Red Shirts invaded King Chulalongkorn Hospital, near the Sala Daeng intersection, looking for Thai troops. This has turned into a PR nightmare for the Reds because there were no troops in the hospital and the Red raid terrorized patients. Early Friday morning families started evacuating their loved ones from the hospital.

In what looked to be a conciliatory move, on Friday the Red Shirts moved one of their barricades in the Sala Daeng intersection back about 50 meters to give ambulances access to the hospital.

But that was an illusion. A few hours later, a more militant Red Shirt leader ordered the barricade rebuilt because, he claimed, moving it compromised the integrity of the barricades.
The Red Shirt leadership appears to be fractured. The Red leaders in Ratchaprasong (about a kilometer, less than a mile, away) told their followers in Sala Daeng to move the barricade and to stay out of the hospital. The Reds in Sala Daeng are more militant than the ones in Ratchaprasong and the Red leaders there countermanded the order after the barricade had already been moved. 
Now the intersection is back to the new status quo. Reds at their barricades on one side of the intersection, Thai troops on the other side. And no access to the now closed hospital. (NOTE: On May 2 the Red Shirts moved the barricades back even further allowing full access to the hospital. This time the move appears to be holding.)  
(Pictured: A Thai Red Shirt child scoops up diesel soaked dirt to move it to the barricade. The Red Shirt have soaked the Sala Daeng barricade with diesel and say they will set it on fire to create a wall of flame if government forces, arrayed just a few meters away, attack them.) 
There are more photos of the barricade move in my PhotoShelter account and available from ZUMA Press

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sign of the Times?

Singapore was brief layover between Bali and Bangkok. Unlike either Bali or Bangkok, Singapore is a very orderly place. I get the sense that Singapore is a better place to live than to visit. It’s a little too orderly for me. 
There’s a popular urban legend that even chewing gum is illegal here, which is not true. You are not allowed to spit it out though. In fact, you’re not allowed to spit in general. Nor are you allowed to urinate on the sidewalk. This sign, complete with bright yellow background (don’t know what the subliminal message is there), was in Little India. 
The $500 fine is not as bad as it sounds. That’s $500 Singapore, it’s only about $364 US.
There are more photos from Singapore in my PhotoShelter archive or available from ZUMA Press

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dancing Princess

A young girl in a traditional Balinese dance outfit waits to perform at the Royal Palace in Ubud, Bali. 
Ubud is an enchanting town. In some ways it reminds me of a tropical Woodstock, NY, (the real town, not the one made famous by the 1969 concert). Streets are narrow and winding they go up and down hills. There’s a fair amount of “New Agey” type stuff in both places. Both places have lots of art galleries and thriving arts scenes. Music is important in both places (in Ubud it’s gamelan, in Woodstock it’s folk and rock). Both places are rightly famous. 
This is one of the last photos I made in Bali. From here it’s on to Singapore and then back to Bangkok and the Red Shirts. 
There are more photos from Bali in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press.

A Final Farewell

A member of Ubud’s Royal Family is cremated during his funeral in Ubud, Bali. Funerals in Bali are raucous affairs. More like a street party than a funeral. Think New Orleans Mardi Gras parade combined with a New Orleans jazz funeral. Only with gamelan music and really hot fire. 
It’s an amazing spectacle. The deceased is paraded through town atop a tall tower while bands play. At the cemetery, the body is moved from the tower to a funerary bull, made especially for the occasion. Offerings are put into the bull with the deceased and the whole thing is set alight. The whole time music plays and vendors walk through the crowd selling drinks and sarongs (for those who want to dress respectfully). It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. 
There are more photo from the cremation in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Friday, April 23, 2010

Day In The Market

A Balinese woman hauls a piglet out of her market basket to show the little pig to prospective customers at a “wet” market in rural Bali. 
Asia’s wet markets are amazing places. It’s where most folks go to do their grocery shopping (“dry” markets are markets that sell clothes, household goods etc). They reflect the culture and economy of the country. Some, like the ones in Singapore, are neat and orderly, not much different, really, from grocery stores in the US. Thailand’s wet markets are sprawling, loud a little messy but not too bad. Laos’ wet markets will turn the most committed carnivore into a vegetarian. Animal parts sit on congealed blood while vendors swoosh away flies with plastic bags. Bali’s wet markets are closer to Laos than Thailand. Not quite as gritty as Laos but not as neat as Thailand. Fresh here means really fresh. Like still alive, take it home and kill it yourself. 
There are more photos from Bali in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Banana Leaf Umbrella

It rains a lot in Bali. We were there seven days and it rained seven days. Sometimes for just a few hours but sometimes all day. The Balinese are very adept at finding umbrellas when they need them. This farmer found a banana leaf would work just fine while he was out picking coconuts. 
There are more photos from Bali in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Rice Culture in Bali

A woman sorts rice grains in a paddy outside of Ubud, Bali. Rice is much more than a staple in Bali. A huge part of Balinese Hindu culture is built around the cultivation is rice. In Bali, Rice is Life. 
There are more photos of Balinese rice farmers in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Little Dandruff Among Friends

The Monkey Forest is on the edge of Ubud, Bali. We spent a week in Bali, a break from the Red Shirts and some of the environmental stories I am trying to work on in Bangkok.
On our first day in Ubud we walked down to the Monkey Forest and saw these fine young simians grooming each other. 
There are more photos from Bali in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Monday, April 19, 2010

Military Madness

Thai soldiers stand behind a wall of razor wire on Silom Rd in Bangkok Monday. Silom is the heart of Thailand’s financial services industry - the Wall Street of Thailand as it were. The government has not been able to dislodge the Red Shirts from Ratchaprasong Intersection, the heart of Thailand’s retail industry, so they hope to prevent a similar problem in Silom by preventing the Red Shirts from ever getting there. 
The soldiers were brought in early this morning. They put up barricades in Sala Daeng intersection to prevent the Reds from driving their trucks into Silom and the area was flooded with thousands of soldiers. Workers in the area, most of who don’t support the Reds, greeted the soldiers as conquering heros and brought them food and water. Spontaneous patriotic demonstrations broke out along Silom Rd. 
The Thai government has said now that they will rely more on the soldiers to control the crowds and relegate the police to a support role. The soldiers seem to be better equipped. This morning they were armed with a mix of assault rifles and shotguns. At previous demonstrations the police have been unarmed or had handguns only. 
The Red Shirts have said off and on for the last couple of weeks that they may move into Silom. Today they said that after thinking about it, maybe they won’t move after all. So now the question for Thai leaders is “do the Red Shirts mean it?” That’s a question only the Reds’ leaders can answer.
There are more photos from the Army in Silom in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fade to Pink

The Pink Shirts were out in force this weekend. They held rallies at Victory Monument in Bangkok, just a stone’s throw from the Red Shirt rallies in Ratchaprasong and conveniently just a few minutes away on Bangkok’s excellent light rail system. 
The Pink Shirts claim that they don’t support either the Red Shirts or the Yellow Shirts. They say they support the King and want peace in Thailand. They tend to represent people in the tourist industry, finance, higher education and business. All economic sectors that have been hard hit during this round of street protests. 
I’m really bad at counting crowds, but there were a lot of people at Victory Monument last night. Certainly more than there were in Lumpini Park the last time I photographed the Pink Shirts. The area around the monument was packed and the crowd extended into the Skytrain station two blocks away. It was an impressive turnout for the Pink Shirts but just a fraction of the numbers the Red Shirts attract.
There are more photos of the Pink Shirts’ rally Sunday in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press.    

The Reds Shirts Bring The Economy With Them

A Red Shirt tee shirt vendor sets up his “shop” before the protests kick in Sunday morning. 
Business owners in the Rathcaprasong district of Bangkok are howling mad. Rotchaprasong is the home to Bangkok’s most upscale malls, some of the city’s finest restaurants and five star hotels. The Red Shirts have invaded this hallowed shrine to mass consumption and most of the malls are shut down (the hotels and restaurants are open and have put on extra security). 
To give you an idea of how much retail space is impacted by the Reds, the New York Times has reported that the area shut down is five times the size of the Mall of America in Burnsville, MN, the biggest indoor mall in the US. 
It’s scant comfort to the businesses that have been shut going on two weeks now, but the Reds have brought their own economy with them. It’s rather amazing really. You can’t walk five feet without running into someone selling something. 
Need a watch? We go your watches. 
Sunglasses? Please they’re everywhere. 
Clothes? As long as you’re willing to wear Red we can find you something. 
Services? Massages and haircuts are easy to find. 
DVDs and music CDs? If you’re not to queasy about the legality of pirated goods you can get pretty much whatever you want. 
Food? Street food is everywhere. There are some al fresco sit down places but most of the food is sold by hawkers and street vendors. 
It’s pretty amazing and says something about the entrepreneurial nature of the Thais.  What the Reds’ street market has going doesn’t begin to equal what the mighty malls in the neighborhood used bring in, but if you want an authentically Thai shopping experience you could do worse. 
There are more photos of the Red Shirts street economy in my PhotoShelter archive. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Saying Goodbye

Family members say goodbye to a loved one killed in Bangkok’s street fighting last week during a chanting ceremony in Wat Hualamphong in central Bangkok Thursday. In the Therevada Buddhist tradition a person is cremated upon death, it follows the tradition of cremation in India and the example of the Buddha, who was himself cremated. Cremation usually takes place shortly after death, however it can be delayed to allow for a long mourning period at the request of the family.
That is what’s happening right now in Bangkok. After the street fighting Saturday hundreds of people were hospitalized. Many with critical injuries are still in intensive care. One died today and more are expected to die in coming days. 
Many of the families are cooperating with the Red Shirts leaders and delaying the cremation until the end of a lengthy mourning process (a few may have been cremated in their villages already). No one has said yet when the funerals will take place. During the mourning period, monks meet daily with the family to chant the Abhidharma. Tonight’s chanting was the first in a temple (the bodies, which are in chilled coffins, have been lying in repose at Democracy Monument, they were moved to a temple early today). It’s a private ceremony - only about 50 Thais were there. I went to the temple early today, before the ceremony, and was invited to come back for the service. 
This speaks volumes about the nature of the Thai people. I don’t speak Thai and today I didn’t have a translator with me. I asked around at the temple for someone who spoke English and a man stepped forward. I asked when the cremations would be and he told me they didn’t know yet, but that the chanting would be tonight and that I should come back for the ceremony. He knew I’m a journalist - with the cameras around my neck there’s no mistaking that. 
This evening, I made it a point to get to the temple early to make sure there would be no problems. I was treated as an honored guest, directed to sit in the front row with some of the monks who weren’t chanting (an offer I declined - I stood and moved around through the service) and offered drinks and food. 
I was honored to be able to photograph the ceremony. 
There are more photos from the service in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy New Year Thai Style

It’s Songkran, the traditional start of the new year in Thailand, and Bangkok has turned into one gigantic water fight free fire zone. 

This year's official celebrations have been cancelled because of the Red Shirt protests but Thais are still marking the holiday. It's one of the most popular holidays in Thailand it originally was celebrated only in the north of Thailand, and was adapted from the Indian Holi festival. Except the Thais throw water instead of colored powder. The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddhas for cleansing and then using this "blessed" water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder. Among young people the holiday evolved to include dousing strangers with water to relieve the heat, since April is the hottest month in Thailand (temperatures can rise to over 100°F or 40°C on some days). This has further evolved into water fights and splashing water over people riding in vehicles. 

I rode the Skytrain down to an area I thought there might be some Songkran partying and I wasn’t even out of the station before I was splashed for the first time. By the time I got to the “party,” I was doused with a combination of water and some kind of a fragrant powder. The powder and water mixture dries, leaving you looking a bit like Al Jolson in reverse. 

The Thais, although determined to have fun are respectful. If you’re standing out of the “line of fire” they will leave alone. It’s the farangs, especially the ones who have been drinking, you have to watch out for. They don’t seem to appreciate the nuances of the holiday and are there to 1) get really drunk and 2) soak as many people, Thai and other foreigner, alike. 

There are more photos from Songkran in my PhotoShelter archive and available fromZUMA Press.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Looking Over His Shoulder

A Red Shirt security guard checks on Thai riot police arrayed behind him during the Red Shirts’ protest in Bangkok today. 

The simmering political tensions in the Kingdom exploded in some of the worst political violence Bangkok has seen since 1992. Troops tried to clear one of the Reds’ protest sites Saturday afternoon. Most of the troops were armed only with shields and batons. A few had rifles and shotguns but most of those were loaded with “less than lethal” rounds (blanks and rubber bullets). 

The Reds didn’t want to leave the area and some of them (it’s not clear how many) were armed with rifles firing real ammo. In the ensuing riot 21 people were killed - one Japanese journalist, four Thai soldiers (including a colonel) and 16 Thai civilians. It’s still not completely clear who fired live rounds first and how many live rounds were fired by security forces. By the end of the day, well after dark, the soldiers withdrew leaving their vehicles, some weapons and armored personnel carriers in the streets around Democracy Monument. 

All of this happened while I was in Isan working on environmental stories. I learned about it when I turned on BBC in my hotel Saturday night. It was the oddest thing. Thai TV was showing game shows and variety programs while the “Beeb” was reporting on street fighting in Bangkok with police and soldiers retreating in disarray and many deaths. 

Today the Reds held the funeral cortege for the 16 Red Shirts that were killed Saturday night. It was an amazing spectacle. Sixteen pickup trucks, each with a flag draped coffin in the bed and covered in flowers drove through the city and people came out to pay respects or hand roses to the surviving family members in the pickups.  

A Red Shirt offered me a ride on the back of his scooter and together we followed the motorcade for three hours. There were crowds at every major intersection. Bangkok is a huge city but I was struck by no matter what part of town we were in, Red supporters were there to show their grief and anger. 

The motorcade ended at the Prime Minister’s home, which is about a two kilometers  from my apartment. Thousands of Red Shirts jammed the Soi while hundreds of riot police blocked the street, preventing them from actually reaching the PM’s home. 

At one point the Reds got off their trucks and rushed the barricades, pushing the police back a few meters. I was convinced the police would have to respond. But then the Reds’ security people pushed through crowd and formed a single line between the protestors and the police. And the Reds stopped pushing. They fell back a little and started taunting the police. I’ve never seen anything like it. The protestors’ security apparatus fall in to protect the police.

After a while they tired of taunting the police and they left. They just stopped, turned around and walked back to the main road.  

This is not over yet, but I think it may have taken a step or two towards closure. This afternoon, the Thai Army Chief of Staff announced that the army would not use violence against the protestors and that the time has come for the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament and call new elections. It’s not actually a coup, I don’t know what it is when the Army says they won’t follow the orders of the elected leaders and instead call on the leader to resign. Sort of a coup? 

And the Thai election commission ruled that Thailand’s Democrat Party, the country’s oldest political party, illegally accepted a secret $7.9 million (US) campaign donation. The commission is moving through the courts to have the party banned and dissolved. This would effectively force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva out of office, which is exactly what the Red Shirts want. The question now is will the Reds wait for the process to work itself out? 

There are more photos from today’s motorcades in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bred For Battle

Two fighting cocks battle each other for supremacy in a cock fighting arena in Nakhon Phanom. 

Cockfighting is enormously popular in rural Thailand. A big fight can bring the ring operator as much as 200,000 Thai Baht (about $6,000 US), a large sum of money in rural Thailand. Fighting cocks live for about 10 years and only fight for 2nd and 3rd years of their lives. Most have only four fights per year. Fighting cocks in Thailand do not wear the spurs or razor blades that they do in some countries and most times the winner is based on which rooster stops fighting or tires first rather than which is the most severely injured. 

Although gambling is illegal in Thailand, many times fight promoters are able to get an exemption to the gambling laws and a lot of money is wagered on the fights. Many small rural communities have at least one cockfighting arena. 

There are more photos from the cockfights in my PhotoShelter archive or available from ZUMA Press. (Note there is some graphic content.)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Reds Bring Their Party Uptown

A Red Shirt with a Thaksin Shinawatra mask dances in front of Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok Sunday morning. 

You go out of town for one day and you miss all sorts of fun. 

Yesterday I spent the day in a small province south of Bangkok working on a story that had nothing to do with Thai politics. I got back late and checked the Bangkok Post only to discover that the Red Shirts had moved their party uptown, from the old city to Ratchaprasong intersection, in the heart of Bangkok’s commercial center. The intersection hosts some of the swankiest malls, finest restaurants and the city’s best hotels. It would be like shutting down Times Square in New York. It’s in an area frequented by expats and will garner nearly as much attention as the Yellow Shirts’ stunt at the airports in 2008 did. (Though in truth it’s not nearly as serious - it’s just a couple of malls, not one of the world’s busiest airports.) 

I thought about going down to the protests last night, but it was after dark when I got back from my day trip and the government was threatening to unleash the hounds of hell on the protestors so I sat it out while I edited my stuff from yesterday and redid hotel and plane reservations for another up country trip (long story). 

But like all the previous government announcements that this is the Reds’ absolute last chance, this one was hollow. Nothing happened and the night passed peacefully. 

I got up early this morning and wandered down to the protest area. I hopped in a cab and he drove me through the roadblocks directly to the protest site. All the roads were reopened and most of the protestors were gone. At 7AM this morning 50 Boy Scouts and a water cannon could have cleared the protestors. I thought it was over. I made some photos of the protestors who were still there, tired but quite happy (Thai Sanuk) and thought this thing was over. 

About 8:15AM the protestors who left last night came back. And the Thai Police let them come back. The crowd kept growing. Motorcades from other parts of the city and some up country provinces arrived with much fanfare and the police let them drive in. By 11, the area was completely gridlocked again. A situation that could have been easily resolved at 7 was now, again, a crisis. 

I don’t completely understand what’s happening here. I’m not sure if the police are sympathetic to the protestors (I’ve seen some of them giving water to protestors, waving at them and posing for photos with them) or if they are incapable of controlling them. But whatever it is, the government seems to be unable to control this situation and everyday these protests continue like this the chances of a peaceful outcome become more remote.  

There are more photos from today’s protest in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press