Monday, March 25, 2013

China In Laos

Chinese tourists stretch their legs after crossing the border in Laos

Northern Laos is a pretty remote place. A two day drive from Vientiane and a full day's drive from Luang Prabang, Highway 13, Laos' north-south artery ends at a gravel parking lot in Boten. North is China. And it's China that's reshaping the face of this part of Laos. 

China's presence in Laos becomes more evident the further north you drive. From Vientiane to Luang Prabang the highway is filled with heavy trucks hauling stuff through Laos between China and Thailand and mini vans and buses hauling tourists and backpackers from the capital to lovely town of Luang Prabang. But from Luang Prabang to the border the minivans and buses are replaced by super buses, ones that have fully reclining beds rather than seats, hauling Chinese tourists and migrant workers into Laos

The Chinese presence becomes really evident in Oudomaxy, about two hours south of the border. Signs are in Chinese. Chinese license plates are as common as Lao license plates. 

Then there's the department store. 

Oudomaxy is home to one of the most modern department stores in all of Laos (possibly the only department store. It's certainly the only department store I saw, but then I didn't spend much time in Vientiane.) It's a brand new, sprawling place, spotlessly clean and virtually empty. 

Hill tribe women walk past the Chinese department store

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tattoo You

A man channels the spirit of the tiger during the "Wai Khru" ceremony at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom

I went to Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province, about 40 miles from Bangkok, for the temple's annual tattoo festival. The festival is held every March but the exact date is selected only about a month before the festival. The temple's abbot selects the date based on what would be the most auspicious time to bless the tattoos. The Wat Bang Phra tattoo temple festival has been on my radar for years but the cosmos have never lined up to allow me to go.  

I have been to the temple to photograph the tattooing process. One year, the festival was the day before I flew into one Bangkok. One year, it was the day I left. Now that I live here it's a lot easier to make sure I get to some of these temple fairs that I've always wanted to attend, including the tattoo festival. 

The temple is famous for the Sak Yant tattoos monks and "wicha" (magical spirit tattooists) give people. In Thai Buddhist culture (and also in Laos and Cambodia), Sak Yant tattoos are considered sacred. They are thought to impart special powers or protections to people who have them. The tattoos are especially popular with soldiers and policemen and gangsters or anyone who lives by the gun.

A monk blesses a man's new tattoo at Wat Bang Phra.

Sak Yant tattoos frequently feature an animal of some sort - a tiger or a monkey or a snake - animals important in Thai culture. The animals' powers are imparted into the person's character, so after a tattoo is blessed (the blessing "activates"- for lack of a better word - the tattoo) the person has the powers of a tiger or monkey or snake. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Back to the Salt Mines

A woman scrapes salt out of a pain of boiling water in Boten, Laos

My main reason in going to Laos was to work on stories about the highways the Lao government is building to accommodate traffic to and from China. While we were driving up to the border I noticed what looked like small workshops a few hundred meters from the road in the middle of a construction site and decided they would be worth investigating on my way south after seeing the border area. 

The workshops turned out to be salt distilling operations. There were six or seven wooden buildings in the construction site, all belching black smoke into the air. Inside, people were hard at work boiling briny water and scraping the salt left in the pans into piles for eventual sale. 

What I didn't know then was that Boten, the Lao town on the Chinese border, is rather famous in this area for its salt. Control of the salt works was one of the French objectives in the colonization of Laos. The salt works had been around for centuries and Chinese traders regularly sent caravans to the works to buy salt for import into China. The salt works have been active in Boten for centuries. 

The phrase "back to the salt mines" refers to the back breaking work that is required to mine salt. The salt works in Boten are not mines, but the labor is no less back breaking. Shallow pans are filled with briny water and the water is boiled until only salt remains. The pans are heated by charcoal fires. The salt is collected and bagged and then sold. Life in the workshops is hot, humid and smoky. This is the way it's been done in Boten for centuries.

But the Boten salt works may be coming to an end, a victim of Laos' burgeoning trade with China. The Chinese are using Laos as a conduit to Thailand (and Thailand as a conduit to the world). Chinese exports, destined for the US, Europe and other global markets, are trucked through Laos to Thailand where they're put on trains and hauled to Thailand's deep water ports. All of this means the Lao/China border is not the sleepy remote village it once was. (I will be writing a blog entry about the surreal scene at the Lao/China border in the next few weeks.)

The Lao government is building out the border crossing as quickly as it can. Right now, parking around the border is on gravel lots and the whole area is under a constant cloud of dust. The salt works sit right in the middle of what is scheduled to be the new parking lot and construction is ongoing. When the lots are done, the salt works will have to move and may close. It would mean the end to a centuries' old tradition.

The are more photos from northern Laos in my archive and 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, March 18, 2013

Monks Morning Rounds

Monks on the morning tak-bat collect alms in front of Wat Nong Sikhounmuang in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang is one the hip cities to visit in Southeast Asia right now. Like Siem Reap, it's thought to be off the beaten path, a place where travelers in the know go to escape tourists. Except both places are pretty much awash in tourists.

Luang Prabang is a charming, well preserved colonial city in the mountains north about seven hours from Vientiane over a very bad road. There are about 50 Buddhist temples and monasteries in the city and hundreds of monks (more per capita than there are in either Bangkok or Vientiane). Every morning at dawn the monks go out en masse on their alms rounds. Hundreds, on rare occasions over a thousand, of monks walk in a silent single file through the historic section of Luang Prabang while devout Laotians give them an offering of Lao sticky rice.

It's an amazing site to see. As a photographer, it's an event I never tire of. The monks in the saffron robes, the soft early morning light that changes from blue (the tak bat starts in near dark) to orange (dawn) to daylight (at the end). There's nothing like it.*

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Laos By The Numbers

Hmong women weave thatch roofs for their homes in a Hmong community on Highway 13 in northern Laos

I've been in Laos for the last 10 days working on a self assigned story about life along Highway 13, the main north-south artery in Laos and a road that's changing the country. I fly back to Bangkok tomorrow, so this is a good time to reflect on the trip. 

Normally I set up in one place and work out of it for the length of the story. This trip was different because I never spent two nights in the same place. We (I had a hired car and driver) left Vientiane and started driving. We stopped along the way whenever I saw something I wanted to photograph. In some ways, it was like looking for "wild art" back in the days that I worked for newspaper. We planned just far enough out to end each day in a reasonably sized town that would have lodging. It was, by any measure, a great trip.

Laos is a physically breathtaking country and the people here are every bit as generous and gracious as the Thais, their cultural, religious and ethnic cousins. Both are Theravada Buddhist countries. Thai, especially the Thai spoken in northeast Thailand, and Lao are essentially the same language. At various times in their history Thailand (then Siam) controlled parts of Laos and the Lao Kingdoms (there were three spread from north to south all descended from the same Lao royal family), for briefer periods, controlled parts of Siam. Traveling in rural Laos today, especially western Laos close to Thailand, is a lot like traveling in Thailand was when I was growing up. 

Because Laos and Thailand are so similar, nowhere is the effect of the American War in Vietnam as evident as it is in Laos. (Laos, like Cambodia, was officially neutral but like Cambodia was caught up in the maelstrom of war.) In Thailand, US aid built stuff to help the war effort. Divided four and six lane highways. Airports (former military airbases and air fields), electrical distribution. All the infrastructure needed to support a modern nation state. In Laos, the US bombed the same infrastructure. Bombs rained down on the cities, on the countryside, on the highways and bridges on almost everything. While the US presence helped Thailand become the dominant economy on the Southeast Asia mainland, the same presence set the Lao economy back decades.  

Highways in northern Laos are narrow and winding. The average American suburban driveway is wider than a Laotian highway. Ten percent grades end in six percent grades which transition to eight percent grades. Many stretches of the highway are unpaved or the pavement is crumbling from disrepair. Under normal circumstances it takes about seven hours to complete 390 kilometer (240 mile) run between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Stopping every few miles for photos is not normal circumstances and we never made very good time. 

Laos by the numbers:

Days in country: 11

Kilometers driven: 2,184 (about 1357 miles)

Hours in car: 63 (six hours a day in travel - but each day was much longer than that because we stopped along the way for photos and I edited at night. My normal work day on this trip was about 7AM to 11PM.)

Average speed (number of kilometers driven divided by hours in car): 35 kph (about 21 mph)

Amount of data generated: 136 gigabytes. I filled 17 eight gigabyte cards, roughly 4500 frames. 

This trip was exhausting. We were on the road every morning by 8AM and worked until dark. At the end of the day, in the hotel or guest house, I started editing. I didn't do a hard edit each night, there wasn't time for that. I ingested the photos into my Lightroom catalog and quickly went through them to see what needed to be redone and keep track of where I was on the project. Along the way I photographed some smaller stories, like the salt works on the Lao border and the morning Tak Bat in Luang Prabang.  

I will be writing more blog posts about some of the specifics of my time in Laos when I get back to Bangkok.
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, March 4, 2013

Even by Bangkok Standards....

A "coyote" dancer performs for the deity of Chuchok at a suburban Bangkok shrine to the old Brahmin

Any time something starts with "Even by Bangkok Standards..." you know you're coming dangerously close to sliding down the rabbit hole of different. The Chuchok shrine in suburban Bangkok is different. Even by Bangkok standards. 

According to Buddhist legend, Chuchok was an old, rather "repulsive" Brahmin who lived in India in the time before the Buddha was the Buddha (somewhere around 535BCE - more than 2,500 years ago). He was married to a much younger woman who was given to Chuchok by her family because he helped the family. Chuchok, the old Brahmin, liked being married to a young girl.

Fast forward to 21st century Bangkok.

The American movie "Coyote Ugly," by most accounts a completely forgettable rom-com made quite an impression in Thailand. It spawned a style of dancing called "coyote dancing." Attractive young women dance in sexually suggestive ways for men. Coyote dancing is popular at country fairs in rural Thailand and in bars pretty much everywhere in Thailand. As wildly popular as it is in bars, it is not so popular in temples or shrines and it's not without controversy. The Ministry of Culture has determined "coyote dancing" is offensive and banned it near temples.

Chuchok, the old man, liked young women. Thais enjoyed the movie "Coyote Ugly" and coyote dancing is big in Thailand. The two disparate items were meant to be joined.

About five years ago, a private shrine to Chuchok opened in suburban Bangkok. Since it's a private shrine it's beyond the arms of the Culture Ministry. A few people showed up and prayed. Their prayers were answered and, knowing the old Brahmin liked attractive young women, they hired attractive young women, "coyote" dancers, to dance for statues of the deity.

Word spread, one thing led to another and now coyote dancers are regular visitors to the Chuchok Shrine in suburban Bangkok.

Although a few farangs have been there. The people who come to pray are Thais. This is a real Thai shrine, not something that was developed in the tourist industry.

The shrine operator, a woman (on the side she has a breast enhancement business*) does not charge people for admission to or for use of the shrine. She serves a free lunch of very tasty noodles and curry to shrine visitors. (She does accept donations, but donating is completely voluntary.)

She doesn't help people hire the coyote dancers. If you pray to Chuchok and your prays are answered, how you thank the old Brahmin is up to you. Some people hire coyote dancers. Others make traditional offerings: cash donations, food or flowers. If you choose to hire coyote dancers you're on your own to find them and negotiate a rate for them to come to the shrine.

Most of the people who pray at the shrine are women and most of the people who hire the coyote dancers are women.

I talked to one woman who hired coyote dancers after she prayed to Chuchok and asked for help in the lottery and help bringing harmony back into her marriage. Chuchok granted her wishes so she hired a pair of coyote dancers to perform for him. Her husband did not come with her to the shrine when she hired the attractive young women to dance in a sexually provocative way for the statues. Some of her girlfriends did though. It's hard to explain the experience.

It would be easy to laugh it off as another piece of exotica in Thailand. There was something surreal about it. There was nothing titillating about it. The women prayed when the coyote dancers arrived. The dancers prayed after their performance. This was a real religious experience for them.

The women quietly ate their lunches of noodles and curry while the coyote dancers pranced around the statues to the song "I Can't Dance" by LMFAO, which blared out of a CD player. The refrain? "I wanna dance. I can't do it. I can't dance, I'm too Jewish.*" Followed by an electronica mash up of Hava Nagila. I asked Nam, one of the dancers (Nam is her stage name) what it was like to dance in a shrine. She said it was "different" and that she was "nervous" when she started. She said she usually danced at fairs and in a pub.

Like I said, surreal.

There are more photos of the Chuchok Shrine 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. 

* This is 100% true.

Things Did Not Go According to Plan

A Pheu Thai supporter attacks a TV set with her shoes after Thai news anchors announced that Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the incumbent governor of Bangkok (and member of the Democrat party) won reelection

Bangkok was supposed to elect a new Governor Sunday. The race, like most political races in Thailand, came down to a contest between the Pheu Thai party and the Thai Democrats. 

Pongsapat Pongchareon, ran on the populist Pheu Thai ticket (the unofficial party of the Red Shirts and the official party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra) and Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the sort of incumbent Governor, ran on the establishment Democrat ticket (I call Sukhumbhand the "sort of" incumbent because he resigned as Governor of Bangkok to run for re-election as Governor of Bangkok).

All of the pre-election polling showed Pongsapat with a small but consistent lead. Even the Democrats seemed to accept the inevitable. The last weeks of the campaign were marked by Democrat finger pointing and blame sharing. Sukhumbhand hinted that he might resign from politics after the election - never a sign that one expects to win.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Cheering for Nattawut

Women cheer for Nattawut Saikua at an election rally for Pongsapat Pongchareon, the Pheu Thai candidate for Governor of Bangkok

I was one of thousands of people in Lumpini Park in Bangkok last night at a campaign rally for Pongsapat Pongchareon, the Pheu Thai candidate for Governor of Bangkok. Thai political rallies are not that different from political rallies in the US. There's a long line of speakers, the opening act as it were, that warms up the crowd - they tell the candidate's life story, outline the ills of the other side. 

Thai rallies differ in a couple of ways though. There's food at Thai rallies - lots of it. And I don't mean hot dogs and burgers but real food served by the food carts that have made Bangkok famous for street food. There's also lots and lots of shopping. At Pheu Thai rallies you can buy all sorts of Red Shirt videos and music CDs, Red Shirt clothing, photos of Thaksin, photos of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. You can get a massage (something I've never seen at a US political rally) or buy inflatable toys for your kids.  

One thing that is markedly different about Thai rallies is that the "warm up acts" talk a lot longer here than they do at rallies in the US. In the US, the "warm up" speakers take the podium for a few minutes, mostly to tout the achievements of the next speaker, who in turn touts the achievements of whoever is next and so on until the "headliner" takes the stage.  

Some of the speakers last night spoke for 30 minutes or more. They didn't use teleprompters or notes. They strode to the microphone and started speaking and kept right on going. I don't understand Thai, but I've covered a lot of politics and I was really impressed with the speaking abilities of the Thai politicians. When was the last time a politician in the US spoke for 30 minutes without a teleprompter or notes? In 90+ degree heat? 

Pongsapat was the "headliner" but the man who got the warmest reception was Nattawut Saikua, a Red Shirt firebrand and Pheu Thai member of the Thai parliament.