Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Makha Bucha in Bangkok

A candle light procession around the Marble Temple on Makha Bucha night

Monday was Makha Bucha Day, an important Buddhist holiday celebrated throughout Southeast Asia. In Bangkok, people come to the temples throughout the day to pray and make merit

As afternoon passes into evening, monks lead a chanting service. Just after dark, monks file out of their temples and lead a candle light procession that circles the temple three times.

I photographed Makha Bucha Day for the first time at a small temple in Kanchanaburi several years ago. I enjoyed the experience and was looking forward to Makha Bucha Day in Bangkok. I went down to Wat Benchamabophit, in Bangkok's Dusit district, early in the afternoon. I brought a lot of gear - two bodies, my 24mm, 40mm, 50mm, 100mm and 200mm lenses, a couple of flashes and a bunch of memory cards. At the last minute, I threw a tiny table top tripod into my camera bag. It turned out to be the smartest decision I made all week. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

What If?

Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Prime Minister of Thailand, riding the Skytrain

I ran into Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, on the Skytrain the other day. The story of how that happened is a story of serendipitous luck that involved a series of unrelated decisions.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Campaigning for Her Candidate

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is showered in roses while campaigning for Pongsapat Pongcharoen, who is running for Governor of Bangkok

Bangkok is in the midst of election fever. The city's voters will elect their Governor on March 3. There are a handful of candidates running but the two leading candidates are the Democrats' Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the sort of incumbent (he has been Bangkok governor since 2009, but "resigned" to run for reelection) and Police General Pongsabat Pongcharoen (retired), who is running on the Pheu Thai ticket. 

Bangkok is the heart of the Democrats' power base. They traditionally carry the city comfortably in national elections. Sukhumbhand was a popular Governor in his first term. Then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva carried Bangkok but lost the 2011 general election to Pheu Thai's Yingluck Shinawatra

Pheu Thai, the latest incarnation of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's power base, is centered in northern Thailand and has an ironclad majority in rural Thailand. Yingluck is Thaksin's sister and surrogate. Retired Police General Pongsabat Pongcharoen is running under the Pheu Thai banner. 

Early polls have given Pongsapat a comfortable, but not commanding, lead and at this point he is favored to win. 

A Pongsapat victory could signal a seismic shift in Thai politics. Relations between the Yingluck government and the Sukhumbhand administration in Bangkok have not always been comfortable. Especially during the floods of 2011 there were noticeable disagreements between the PM and the Governor, with finger pointing and both sides blaming the other for making the disastrous floods worse. Although Yingluck is personally popular in Bangkok, her party (and the Red Shirts) is not always popular with the old school Thai elite. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Welcoming in the Year of the Snake

People pray for a prosperous year at a small Chinese shrine in Bangkok's Chinatown during Lunar New Year celebrations this week

Thailand celebrates the New Year three times in four months. Thais mark Gregorian calendar New Year on January with big parties all over the country. Thailand, which has a large Chinese population, celebrates the Lunar New Year with gusto, especially in the Thai-Chinese communities. And Thais celebrate their traditional New Year, Songkran, on April 13. That's got to be some kind of a record. 

This weekend was Chinese New Year (also called Lunar New Year or Tet). I went down to Bangkok's Chinatown, a maze of narrow alleys and congested streets that teems with people 24 hours a day. 

Chinatown on Lunar New Year takes the congestion and hyperactivity and multiplies it by a factor of ten. 

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. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

An Operatic Afternoon

A child is made up to perform in a Chinese opera in a mall in Bangkok

Chinese opera is an art form that goes back centuries. In a time before movie theaters, television or the internet, Chinese opera was entertainment for the masses in China. Roaming opera troupes criss-crossed the countryside bringing culture and laughs into the lives of Chinese peasants. As Chinese, especially Teochew Chinese, emigrated to new homes, they brought their culture, including opera, with them.

Thailand is home to a very large Teochew-Chinese emigrant population and Chinese opera is popular here. The operas are sung in the Teochew language - not many Thais speak or understand Teochew, but they respond to the spectacle of the opera. The over the top makeup and costumes, the actors' expressions, the universal nature of art.

Chinese operas in Thailand are usually performed during holidays and special events. This weekend is Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year or (in Vietnam) Tet. The Lunar New Year is a huge holiday here. Most businesses put on some kind of a Chinese New Year promotion, offering drawings for trips to Hong Kong and Macau, numerous two for one offerings or Chinese cultural shows.

Seacon Square is a large mall in the suburbs of Bangkok. Most of Seacon Square's clients are Thais, it's well off the tourists' trail.

Malls in Thailand, just like malls in the US, have become public gathering spaces and Seacon Square is sponsoring Chinese operas through the New Year holiday period. I went out to Seacon Square yesterday to photograph the opera.

The opera started at 4PM, but I was most interested in photographing the performers getting into character before the show, so I got there at 2PM. I found the opera company and was invited to photograph as much as I wanted. I spent a couple of hours with the performers putting on makeup and getting into their costumes before their performance and then photographed their show.

It was my first Chinese opera. I enjoyed it but I didn't understand a word - like the Thais, I enjoyed the spectacle.

There are more photos from the Chinese opera in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.
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. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Cremation of the King-Father

Mourners stand behind a Cambodian government limousine to watch the cremation of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk.

Sihanouk's cremation last night was an amazing experience. Thousands of Cambodians packed the streets around the Royal Palace and the National Museum (they're next door to each other) and tried catch a glimpse of the proceedings. Their view was blocked by the six foot high wall that surrounds the museum and the international media that was pressed up against that wall, but they waited in patient silence until a 101 gun artillery salute was fired. As the cannons roared, the people wailed in anguish. The once silent streets were filled with the sounds of people no longer able to contain their grief.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Funeral Fit For a King

The coffin bearing King-Father Norodom Sihanouk leaves the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh to start its last journey around the Cambodian capital

Phnom Penh pretty much shut down Friday morning. The normally bustling capital was quiet as Cambodians lined Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh's riverfront boulevard, up to Wat Phnom and back to the Palace. The total route was probably less than 10 kilometers (it's a route I've walked several times, so it can't be that long) but it took the cortege more than four hours to make the circuit. (Quiet doesn't mean silent though. There is classical Cambodian music playing out of speakers all along the waterfront. I think it's lovely but it's nothing like anything I normally listen to.) 

I left my hotel at 4:45AM, the procession was supposed to start at 8AM. Sunrise in Phnom Penh comes at about 6:45AM, so I had almost two hours of darkness to work before it even got light. I made some features of people lining up in the darkness and a couple of photos of the Royal Palace.