Thursday, November 29, 2012

Loy Krathong

A man and his son get ready to float their "krathong" in the Mae Nam Choa Phraya (Chao Phraya River) Wednesday night for Loy Krathong

Loy Krathong is one of Thailand's most famous holidays. It's a fantastic evening of light and fun and revelry. People float the krathongs and pray for success and luck in the coming year. Releasing the krathong also represents releasing your grudges. All in all, a pretty terrific holiday. 

People float (loy in Thai) small lotus shaped boats or rafts (called krathongs) in rivers, lakes or ponds. If you're not near a river, lake or pond (which would be unusual, at least in central and southern Thailand), you can float a krathong in a pool or other small man made water body. And if you're really not near water, you can virtually float one online

I had originally planned to go to Wat Sri Boonreung, a relatively unknown temple in the Bangkok suburbs. I had selected the temple because the monks there are a friendly bunch and its relative isolation meant there wouldn't be many tourists there. 

But then it started to rain. Taxis in Bangkok, like many other big cities, become very difficult to find when it rains. I've stood on street corners for 30 minutes trying to get a taxi in Bangkok thunderstorms. Since I'm not very familiar with the neighborhood around Wat Sri Boonreung and the taxi situation in that part of town, I changed plans and headed down to the Chao Phraya River with Gavin Gough, a British photographer who lives in Bangkok. 

We took the Skytrain to Wat Yannawa, a large temple right on the river, close to big hotels and the Skytrain. 

It was the right choice. The temple was a beehive of activity. There was so much going on, that Gavin and I seldom saw each other once we started photographing. All night long, people came in with their krathongs, lit some candles, recited a brief prayer and watched them float downriver. Some people floated krathongs made of bread (traditionally they're made from the stalk of a banana tree). The river's catfish went into a feeding frenzy whenever a bread krathong came to them. It was a lot of fun to watch and photograph. 

Periodically through the night fireworks (usually unsanctioned) would go off adding to the atmosphere.

As I was getting ready to leave, I saw people trying to light large paper lanterns and "float" them into the sky. This is the Loy Krathong tradition in northern Thailand, especially Chiang Mai, but it's apparently becoming popular in Bangkok.

An unsuccessful lantern launch burns out near Wat Yannawa while others try to launch their lanterns. 

I had read in the local papers that city officials in Chiang Mai were working with holiday organizers to control the release of the lanterns because they posed a fire hazard. I marked that as "that's interesting" sort of thing when I read it but pretty much forgot about it, because I didn't think it was a big tradition in Bangkok. 

Except that now some folks are trying to make it a Bangkok tradition. And the lanterns are not allowed in Bangkok. I watched people trying to light them and as soon as someone would light a lantern, a police officer, firefighter or safety official would run in and literally rip the lantern from the owner's hands and try to stomp out the flames. 

Except the fuel was a sterno like substance, which like napalm, continues to burn but sticks to everything. Some of the police were running around with flames licking at their shoes. And people who managed to evade the law discovered that the lanterns are deceptively hard to get airborne. 

I'm willing to bet that for every lantern that went into sky, five or six crashed and burned (literally) on the ground. The winds last night were carrying the lanterns over the river and the ones that did fly were gorgeous, but I could definitely see how these could be a fire hazard. It was very interesting and a lot of fun to photograph. 

There are more photos from Loy Krathong in my archive and available from ZUMA Press.   

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for either editorial licensing or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you like, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wat Saket Temple Fair

A balloon vender at the Wat Saket Temple Fair in the old part of Bangkok

I started out today checking out the places I wanted to go to photograph Loy Krathong, a Thai holiday that is one of the happiest, most photogenic days in Thailand. I took a khlong boat out to the end of the route on Khlong Saen Saeb, where there's a lovely temple. With a friendly group of monks. 

It's location, well off the beaten path and far from central Bangkok, means there won't be many tourists out there. On the other hand, it's location, well off the beaten path and far from central Bangkok, means it might be hard to find a taxi to bring me home at the end of the night. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Praying for the King

A woman prays for King's recovery in the courtyard at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok Monday

It's hard for non-Thai's, especially Americans who have no tradition of a monarchy, to understand how important Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, is to most Thais. He is Thailand's longest serving monarch - on the throne since 1950. He's the only King the overwhelming majority of Thais know. 

In a country riven by political differences, the King is a unifying force - reverence for the King is the one thing most Thais can agree on. Even though Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, like the United Kingdom, the King wields enormous influence that goes well beyond his technically limited powers. Insulting the King, or those in his immediate family, are violation of Thailand's "lese majeste" laws and can land you in jail. 

He's Rama IX, the ninth King of the Chakri Dynasty. Thailand wouldn't be what it is today without the leadership of the Chakri Kings. When Burma, the Malay states, the Annamese (now Vietnamese), Lao and Khmer monarchies were wiped out or co-opted by the forces of colonialism, the Chakri Kings were able to play British and French colonial interests off against each other and maintain Thailand's (then Siam) independence.

Southeast Asia has a long history of God Kings - the Angkor Kings were revered as God Kings. Thailand was an absolute monarchy until a military coup in 1932 replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. 

Rama IX is revered because he is not a God King. He's a mortal who puts his people's needs ahead of his own. The King has sponsored economic development programs in rural Thailand. He funds colleges and schools, hospitals and health programs. He's an accomplished jazz musician and amateur photographer (I have a theory that one of the reasons Thais are so comfortable being photographed is that the King, even from his hospital bed, is never without a camera). In his younger days, the King seemed genuinely fond of getting out of Bangkok and being with the "common" people. Now age and illness limit his mobility. 

The King has been in Siriraj Hospital since 2009. He's left a couple of times for short day trips or official functions but for all intents and purposes he lives in the hospital. A steady stream of Thais visits the hospital every day to pray for his recovery, sign get well cards and drop off bouquets of yellow or pink flowers (yellow the color of the monarchy, pink because it's thought the color will bring him good health). His birthday is Dec. 5. As the day approaches, crowds at the hospital are almost certain to grow. 

There are more photos of the King's well wishers at the hospital in my archive

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Party Cloudy With a Chance of Tear Gas

Thai riot police and anti-government protesters scuffle near Government House Saturday afternoon. I was put on assignment by Getty Images to cover the protest. These photos are not available for use and are used courtesy of © Getty Images

Saturday's protest started peacefully enough with both Buddhist and Brahmin blessings. At the main stage, on the north end of the protest site, there was a festive, almost street party atmosphere (which is normal in Thailand). Street vendors were doing a brisk business with barbecued meats, soft drinks, sweets and other snacks. There were also lots of Thai flags and the yellow banners of the monarchy for sale. Thai musicians put on concerts and every once in a while the crowd would break out chants of "Yingluck, Get Out!" I don't speak Thai but the phrase for "Get Out" is one I understand and in Thai it's rather poetic (I learned it in 2010 when the crowds chanted "Abhisit, Get Out!"

It was a different story at the south end of the protest site, about 1 kilometer away. There protesters were confronting riot police, and had set up a second stage with more strident speakers. Very early on police fired a volley of tear gas to break up a group of protesters but for most of the morning it was a tense peace. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Before the Storm

A Thai riot policeman drills with his comrades near Government House in Bangkok Friday. The scarf is not a fashion accessory. It identifies the officer's unit. Others wear green, blue, red etc

Authorities around Government House spent Friday preparing for what they expect to be a large anti-government protest. The protest was called by the Pitak Siam group which hopes to provoke enough confusion that the Army will step in and force out the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Pitak Siam claims the current government is corrupt. Corruption is a huge issue in Thailand. There is an entire government department dedicated to rooting it out and daily headlines about corruption inside and outside government.  

This will Pitak Siam's second rally. Their first one, in October while I was in the South, drew many more people than expected. This time they claim they will have 500,000 to 1,500,000 people filling the streets around Government House in Bangkok. 

The government is taking that claim seriously. They are putting well over 10,000 riot police on the street, imposing the Internal Security Act and putting several army units on alert to back up the police. 

In many ways, this is a movie we've all seen before and it seldom ends well. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

POTUS at the Podium

President of the United States (POTUS) Barack Obama and Thai Prime Minister (PM) Yingluck Shinawatra at their joint press conference at Government House in Bangkok Sunday night. The lighting is caused by another photographer's flash going off at the same time I made my photo. This is one of my favorite photos from the night. Photo by Jack Kurtz / Getty Images

President Obama visited Thailand yesterday. He landed in Bangkok Sunday afternoon, toured Wat Pho, met with Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, and then came to Government House for a meeting with Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister and attend a State Dinner. He ended the night at a meeting with US Embassy employees in central Bangkok and flew on to Yangon, Myanmar this morning. 

Getty Images, the photo agency / wire service, asked me to photograph the President during his time at Government House because their Bangkok staff photographer was traveling to Yangon to photograph that part of the President's trip. 

Photographing a Presidential visit is both interesting and tremendously, unbelievably, excruciatingly boring. 

It's interesting because he is after all the President. There is always the chance that news will be made or he might slip either figuratively or literally giving you a better picture than you would expect to get.

It's tremendously, unbelievably, excruciatingly boring because Presidential visits now are so tightly scripted there almost no chance of news being made and you have to be there hours in advance for security sweeps and you're kept hundreds of feet away from the President. President Obama is very disciplined and not given to off the cuff displays. (President Bush on the other hand was a relative wild man. I once photographed him drawing a power tool from a tool belt, pretending it was a "six shooter" and shooting reporters.)

I've covered a lot of Presidential visits. In fact, I've photographed every sitting President since Ronald Reagan and I've been in the "pool" (the small group of select photographers who accompany the President everywhere he goes) for several Presidential visits in Phoenix. So this wasn't my first rodeo.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Heavy Load to Bear

A worker in a rice warehouse in Pathum Thani, Thailand, prepares to throw a sack of rice into place in a warehouse. The sack weighs about 100 kilos (about 220 pounds). 

One of the things I love about being a photojournalist is that it's a passport into the lives of others. Sometimes they're politicians, celebrities or athletes; people used to being in the public eye. They usually have a public face they put on for us. The best photographers have a way of cutting through that public face to show us the real person, but as people become better at manipulating the media and publishers increasingly don't mind being manipulated if it saves them money, it's getting harder and harder to do that. 

Working as a photojournalist also gives me a passport into the lives of regular people. I enjoy these assignments a lot more (although I do like covering politics and politicians when I have the time and access to do it properly). This week I worked on a story about rice in Thailand. One of the sort of themes of my work has been food and where it comes from. I like working on stories about agriculture and food production and hanging out with farmers and workers. 

We drove out to Pathum Thani, a province north of Bangkok, Thursday to visit a rice warehouse and find rice farmers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Buddhas Bought and Sold

Men haul a Buddha statue out to a waiting delivery truck on Bamrung Muang Street in Bangkok.

Bamrung Muang Street in the old part of Bangkok is one of my regular haunts. It's one of the oldest streets in the city - it was originally an elephant trail from the provinces to the Royal Palace - and one of the first paved roads in Bangkok. 

It's where Buddhist religious paraphernalia is bought and sold. Big and small statues of the Buddha. Statues of revered Thai Kings, like King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn. Statues of Hindu and Brahmin deities like Shiva and Ganesh (also revered in Thai Buddhism) can all be bought here. Some small enough for bedside table, others so large they require their own room. I call it Bangkok's Street of Many Buddhas. 

But it's not just statues that are sold along Th Bamrung Muang (Th is the abbreviation for Thanon, the Thai word for street or road), you can also buy monk's robes, alms bowls, candles, incense or pretty much anything you would need for a Buddhist observance. Workshops along the street apply the finishing touches to the statuary while workers apply the final touch ups and details to the statues on the street in front of the showrooms. 

I like photographing the street because it's an always changing kaleidoscope of Bangkok life. Even on cloudy days, like yesterday, the photography is good. You're dealing with a lot of saturated colors - yellows and golds and reds - and a lot of the photography is in the shade, either in small sois or storefronts, so the clouds help control otherwise nasty contrast. 

The street photography along Th Bamrung Muang is right up my alley (so to speak). Almost all of it is done with short lenses, from my 24mm lens to my 50mm lens. On my Lumix GX1, I used mostly my 20mm lens (equal to a 40mm on the Canons) or my 14mm lens (28mm on the Canons). 

Every experience is different, no matter how often I go down to the Street of Many Buddhas. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive, and almost all of the photos  from Southeast Asia, are available for editorial licensing or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you like, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Trying to Save a Life in Bangkok

Medics and first responders work on a child hit by a vehicle in Bangkok Saturday night. The medics worked on the boy for more than 30 minutes but they were not able to revive him. 

One of the stories I'm working on while I'm here is how Bangkok and other fast developing Asian cities grapple with growth; how they meet the basic needs of citizens drawn by perceived economic opportunity the bright lights of the city. 

In Bangkok, one of those issues is emergency medical care and first responders. 

Bangkok has a police force. They deal with crime and public safety. Bangkok has a fire department. They deal with fires. 

What Bangkok doesn't have is a publicly funded emergency medical department. So people hurt in accidents, fires, crimes may have police and fire respond to their event, but neither police nor fire will render aid or transport them to a hospital. It's not their job. 

There are two large Buddhist based foundations that run emergency medical operations through the city. These organizations are privately financed and rely on volunteer medics to meet the first response needs in a city of 12 million. To call it a challenge is to significantly understate the situation. 

The Ruamkatanyu Foundation and Poh Teck Tung got their start picking up the dead from the streets of Bangkok (from crimes scenes, accidents, suicides etc) and transporting them to morgues and hospitals. They initially got some fame as Bangkok's "body snatchers." 

Sometimes though the dead they were picking up weren't dead but were in need of emergency medical care. So they started volunteer medical response and ambulance teams. And now both organizations field thousands of people who roam the city streets, mostly at night, offering aid to strangers and helping the injured get medical help. 

The volunteers who work the streets give a lot more than just their time. While they work under the umbrella of the Ruamkatanyu Foundation and Poh Teck Tung, they have to provide all their own gear. 

That includes uniforms and rubber gloves, ambulances and oxygen tanks, firefighting and snake catching gear (they are frequently called upon to capture snakes, even in the heart of Bangkok 25 foot long Burmese pythons are not unusual). 

And yes, you read that correctly - the ambulances these volunteers drive are their privately owned vehicles marked with the Foundation's stickers, the oxygen they administer at an accident they've bought with their own funds. Even the gas they use to race to an accident scene they have to buy. Many spend up to 1/3 of their monthly pay on supplies for their ambulances. One driver joked that he didn't drink because all of his money went into his rescue gear. 

Ruamkatanyu, the younger and smaller of the organizations, has been around for about 65 years and has about 7,000 volunteers (they're not all on the street every night). Poh Teck Tung, has been around for about 100 years and has many more volunteers. 

The foundations' (and volunteers') work isn't limited to Bangkok. After the 2004 tsunami in southern Thailand both groups sent volunteers to Phuket to help with the clean up and body disposal. One Ruamkatanyu volunteer told me he thinks he helped take care of more than 2,500 deceased after the tsunami. Marko Cunningham, originally from New Zealand but now a Ruamkatanyu volunteer, said he got onto the ambulance crews after the 2004 tsunami - that after not sleeping for weeks straight and helping take care of 2,500 bodies he never wanted to touch a dead body again. 

Cunningham has run flood relief operations in the provinces north of Bangkok and conducted emergency medical training for foundations in northern Thailand and eastern Myanmar (Burma). Both groups have orphanages and schools. Poh Teck Tung has a large public hospital in Bangkok (the website is in Thai). 

These volunteers fill a vitally important role. If it weren't for them, many people would never get the first response medical care they need. Marko Cunningham is trying to buy another ambulance for his crew at Ruamakatanya Foundation. You can read about it here

NOTE: Some graphic content in the slideshow. 

Finally, many of the photos you see in my archive are available for licensing for editorial use or for self fulfillment as prints if you would like to hang one on a wall or give one as present. Click on the "Add to Cart" and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Watch in Thailand

Americans living in Thailand react to President Barack Obama's reelection victory during the US Embassy's election watch party at a hotel in Bangkok

History was made in the US Tuesday when the nation reelected, against all odds, Barack Obama to a second four year term. 

This is the first year in nearly 30 years of being a photojournalist that I missed most of the election season, or at least the home stretch of the election season. But that's what happens when you move to Thailand six weeks before the election. 

It was weird being in Bangkok and following the election from afar. Thais follow the horse race nature of American elections pretty closely and they like President Obama. They like that Americans (most of us anyhow) put our past behind us and elected an African-American, and they like Obama's message of inclusiveness. For Thais, whose democracy has been tested by coups and military crackdowns, it's proof that things can change. 

Finally George W. Bush was not popular here or anywhere. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not and are not popular. (I covered the US Embassy's 2004 election party in Mexico City, when George W. Bush was reelected. One of the headlines in the Mexico City papers then was "Four More Years of Terror." I thought that headline said all you needed to know about the Bush administration's international standing.)

Covering a US election from outside the country means covering the US Embassy's election watch party. US Embassy's everywhere hold election watch parties. Local dignitaries and media are invited to watch the count while the Ambassador and embassy employees explain the process. The parties are strictly non-partisan. 

I'm sure the embassy employees have political leanings, but they were definitely "sitting on their hands" during the party in Bangkok. They didn't express any feelings one way or another whether it was discussing national races or local races. They explained the process without taking the sides. Which is their job. 

The attendees though were not bound by the non-partisan ethic. Most of the people at the party supported President Obama and as the early results with Mitt Romney leading came in they were pretty glum. But once the vote count picked up steam and the President's victory became apparent the enthusiasm grew. 

I made most of these photos towards the end of the morning (Bangkok is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, so 10PM in New York is 10AM here). 

There are more photos of the election watch party in my archive

Finally, many of the photos in my archive, and almost all of the ones from Thailand, are available for editorial licensing and self fulfillment for prints. If you see something you want to use or hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rowing for the King

The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban is propelled down the Chao Phraya River during the final dress rehearsal for the Royal Barge procession.

The Royal Barge Procession is Friday, November 9. It's a special day, a very important one for the Thais. This is a full procession of the barges. Full processions of the barges is a rare event - there have only been 16 during the reign of Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The river bank will be lined with thousands of well wishers, most wearing yellow (the King's color). The King's eldest son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir apparent to the crown, will preside over the procession.

I photographed two of the rehearsals. One from the east side (Bangkok side) of the Chao Phraya River, one from the west side (Thonburi side). The first time I photographed the rehearsal, from the Bangkok side, I made a couple of mistakes

I didn't get down to the river early enough. I naively thought the river taxis and ferries would be running (because even then I knew the best view would be from the west side of the river) but they weren't because the procession shut down river traffic. And I didn't bring a long enough lens with me to the river. I knew the barges would be in the middle of the river and I would be on shore, but I thought my 200mm lens and 1.4X teleconverter would be long enough (effectively a 280mm lens) but I was wrong. 

The pictures from the first rehearsal were okay but not what I was hoping for. They would have been better from the west side of the river with a longer lens.  

Because I learn from my mistakes, things went much better the second time. First of all, I got great tickets from a friend at the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Grandstand seats at the Royal Navy Convention Hall on the west side of the river very close to the end of the procession, exactly where I wanted to be. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Eye Candy From Kao Seng

Kao Seng is a Muslim fishing village near the city of Songkhla. It's a little off the beaten path and a lot off the tourist track. I went down there Sunday morning to watch and photograph the fishing boats come in. Except they didn't come in because they never went out. It stormed Saturday night and the seas were too high for the small boats to put out.

Instead of photographing the boats coming in and the catch being off loaded, I photographed people in the village. It worked out pretty well for me because although the boats didn't go out, the storm left beautiful skies and gorgeous light behind.

There's no story or narrative here - just a few photos I liked.

I was walking along the beach and I saw this girl making lunch for her family. I don't think she even saw me until I thanked her for the photo. 

Men fish with casting nets just offshore. 

He was wandering along the beach hunting for clams. 

A fishing boat, one of the few that went out Saturday night, comes back. 

A fisherman coils some of his ropes. 

A boat runs offshore. 

A fisherman walks home after a morning in the surf. 

There are more photos from Kao Seng in my archive.

Most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial licensing or self fulfillment for prints if you want to hang one on your wall. Just click the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

To Olé or not to Olé

Bulls do battle in the bull fighting arena in Hat Yai. Thai bullfights are bull vs bull. No matadors, no swords and not much blood.

I went to the bullfights in Hat Yai Saturday. It was my first Thai bullfight and it was something I've been trying to photograph for years, but my schedule and the bullfighting schedule never got into synch.

It was interesting and the people watching was a lot of fun. Thais bet on bullfights. (They also bet on cockfights, fish fights and cricket fights.) In fact, they bet a lot on bullfights. The totals wagered on one of the fights Saturday was about 4,000,000 Baht (that's four million), about $128,000 (US). Not much in terms of the Super Bowl, but a lot for rural Thailand and a lot for one fight.

There's ritual connected to Thai bullfighting. The bulls are washed down and anointed before the fight. The bulls wear decorative necklaces and lassos. They are paraded into the ring with a team of people who tend to their every need.

During the fight they are encouraged (from a distance) by team members calling to them and tossing their ropes toward them. But there are no whips and the bulls are not hit. I know it's seems incongruous, but the animals are well cared for and live to be 20 or more years old. One of the bulls fighting Saturday was 15 years old.

The bulls choose to fight or not to fight. In fact, most of Saturday's fights were very brief. The bulls meet in the arena, head butt each other a couple of times and one of the bulls turns around and trots away.

Catcalls and booing ensue from the spectators and if the bull can't be shamed back into battle the match is called. During Saturday's fights I didn't see any bulls change their minds. Once a bull decided this wasn't what he wanted to do on a nice Saturday afternoon the fight was over.

Which brings us back to the 4,000,000B wagered on one fight. The Thai man I went to the fights with told me 2,000,000B was bet on each bull in the final bout of the day. It was also the shortest. The bulls met in the center of the arena and the loser turned and ran. He didn't trot off, he ran. At some point in his career he must have done well to get people to drop 2,000,000B on him, but this wasn't his day.

The fight wasn't much to watch but the crowd was. The losers were incensed that their bull chickened out. There were catcalls and boos a plenty.

None of them worked. The bull stood his ground by refusing to stand his ground. In a matter of seconds, 2,000,000B was lost.

I don't gamble and I especially don't gamble when 1) I have no idea what the rules are and 2) I don't speak the language of the bookies.

The betting at Thai bullfights is fast and furious. The betting starts as soon as the fight is announced - days or weeks before the actual bullfight - and continues right up to the end. I didn't even pretend to understand it. But I had a good time and I will probably go to a bullfight the next time I'm in Hat Yai.

There are more photos from the bullfight in my archive.

Most of the photos in my archive are available for licensing for editorial use or self fulfillment for prints if you'd like to hang one on the wall, just click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Living Under the Gun

Thai Rangers patrol in Yala from the back of an open pickup truck. 

The situation in south Thailand is complicated. Just ask almost anyone who lives there. In Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces there is a low intensity war being fought between Muslim separatists and Thai authorities. 

Centuries ago, Pattani was an independent Muslim sultanate and one of the leading trade ports in Southeast Asia. It was a part of the Britain's Malaya colony in the late 1800's and ceded to Thailand in the first few years of the 1900's. The people of Pattani remember the sultanate like it was yesterday and chafe at Thai rule when their ties are much closer to Malaysia than they are Thailand. (Most Thais in the south speak a local dialect of Malay and are Muslims, like most Malays.)