Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Honoring His Majesty

A woman bows her head in reverence to the King during a candle light vigil in his honor at Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok Wednesday night

Wednesday was the 85th birthday of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand. The old part of Bangkok, the area known as Rattanakosin, was a sea of yellow* as the King's subjects showed up in the hundreds of thousands to wish His Majesty a happy birthday. 

When I started planning my move to Bangkok back in May, I set aside this week to stay in Bangkok. The King's Birthday is arguably the most important holiday in Bangkok. Thailand is split along political lines (Red Shirts vs Yellow Shirts), economic lines (the poor vs the very rich) and even religious lines (Buddhist vs Muslim in the Deep South), but the one thing almost all Thais agree on is the importance of the King as a unifying factor in their country. Young or old, rich or poor Thais come together in support of the King. 

People cheer for the King as his images appears on televisions in the crowd.

My day started when I left my apartment at 6AM Wednesday. I took a taxi to an area near the Royal Plaza. When traffic (at 6AM!) made the taxi impractical, I switched to a motorcycle taxi. When the roads closed, I switched to a second moto (it's Bangkok, the roads were closed and no motos were allowed in, but the motos already in the closed off area were still allowed to operate). When the sea of pedestrians became to dense to travel safely on a moto I walked. I got to the Plaza about 6:45. It was packed. There were hundreds of thousands of people there, all wearing yellow, all waiting to see the King. Who wasn't scheduled to appear until 10:30AM. 

I settled in to wait with 200,000 of my closest friends. It was very hot and very humid and generally very uncomfortable. 

I made a few photos of people waiting in the heat. People waving Thai flags in the heat. People holding up pictures of the King in the heat. I went to the first aid area and photographed people who collapsed in the heat. 

I worked my way back and forth through the crowd, trying to find the right place to photograph from. I gave up on actually photographing the King. The nearest camera position for non-credentialed media was about 400 meters from the balcony the King would speak from (access to the King and permission to photograph the King is very tightly controlled in Thailand) so I decided my best photos would be of people in the crowd. 

I finally found a spot I liked and settled in to wait. The ceremony started about 9:45 with a program presenting the Royal Guards. Thousands of soldiers marched past the King's balcony in colorful uniforms. I was too far away to see it, but people watched it on the large screen televisions set up around the Plaza in rapt attention. 

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra spoke and people booed her. Bangkok is not her home turf, and in general urban Thais don't support her the way rural Thais do and this was a hard core "Yellow Shirt" (both literally and figuratively) crowd, but I was a little surprised by the vehemence of the booing. 

The crowd erupted in cheers whenever the King or his motorcade was shown on the screen. Occasionally people collapsed, whether from the heat or the excitement, and had to be carried out of the crowd. Ambulances were set up around the crowd for just such emergencies. 

The King finally spoke about 11AM. People gathered around speakers and radios to hear his address, which called on Thais to put aside their political differences. 

While the King spoke, I grabbed another moto (my 3rd of the day for those keeping score at home) and went down to Sanam Luang to see what was happening there. 

It was too early for the crowd to gather at Sanam Luang, so I went home (via moto number 4) to edit my morning take and transmit the photos to ZUMA

I worked at home for about three hours and then headed back down to Sanam Luang to photograph the parade honoring the King and the night time ceremony hosted by the Prime Minister. A taxi got me down to the area.

Sanam Luang was a great experience. The parade, the candle light vigil, the ceremony were all a lot of fun and very photogenic. It was packed. I think all 200,000 people who witnessed the King's speech in the morning came down to Sanam Luang for the evening festivities. 

It's Bangkok and traffic was a mess and there were no taxis at Sanam Luang when the program ended. I took a moto (#5) to the nearest subway station, took the subway to the stop near my apartment and a moto (#6) the rest of the way. 

Normally I avoid the motorcycle taxis. They are a quick way to get around the city and they're pretty cheap, but the drivers sit around drinking Red Bull and Thai Whiskey or Red Bull and beer or Red Bull and cheap Scotch while they wait for fares. And by the end of the day they've consumed a lot of Red Bull and alcohol. Plus, every single accident scene I've been to with Bangkok first responders involved moto accidents. 

I have a healthy respect for motorcycle taxis (fear is really a better word). But you gotta do what you gotta do and sometimes you have no choice. So it was motorcycle taxis for me Wednesday. 

I got home about 10PM and spent the next three and a half hours editing my take from the evening. I finally finished up about 1:30AM Thursday, or about 19.5 hours after I started the day. 

In the course of the day, I photographed about 40 gigabytes worth of photos and ended up archiving about 20 gigs worth. I primarily used my Canon 5D series bodies. During the morning activities I used the Mark II and Mark III pretty much interchangeably. At night the vastly superior autofocus and high ISO ability of the Mark III made it my "go to" camera. I used my Lumix GX1 for a few photos during the parade and early in the evening. Lens wise, I used everything from my 24mm out to my 200 with the 1.4X teleconverter. 

There are more photos of the King's Birthday in my archive and available from ZUMA Press

* I've been reporting that yellow is the color of the Monarchy, which is not quite right. Thais wear yellow to support the King because he was born on a Monday. In Thailand, days of the week are assigned colors, and yellow is associated with Monday. Therefore yellow = the King. But technically yellow is Monday's color and the next King could have a different color, except that he too was born on a Monday.  

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