Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Out With The Old

People party like it's 1999, or at least 2013, at the Ratchaprasong New Year's Eve bash. 

The Ratchaprasong New Year's party is the biggest New Year's party in Thailand. The area, which is also home to Bangkok's swankiest shopping centers (Louis Vitton on one corner, Kate Spade on another) and some of the most spiritual places in Thailand (Erawan Shrine and Wat Pathum Wanaram). Dropping a giant party in the middle of the intersection is a guarantee for a dynamic evening. 

Thais visit temples and shrines as a normal part of their New Year's routine, so Erawan Shrine and Wat Pathum Wanaram see a steady flow of spiritual visitors. Free music and fireworks bring the teenagers and tourists come to the party because, well, it's a free party in Bangkok.

Friday, December 27, 2013


What I take to a riot: helmet, two cameras, one with a 16-35 zoom, the other with a 70-200, a couple of breathing filters, my Cambodian krama, a bunch of Compact Flash cards, press credentials and a bottle of water. Not pictured, my iPhone, a notebook, a pen, earplugs and goggles. Everything gets carried in my Think Tank skin set of pouches

Photographing a riot is a real challenge. It's hard work, dangerous and exhausting. I didn't come to Thailand to photograph riots but as a journalist I have to cover the news when it happens. 

You learn quickly when you're covering something like a riot to pack only the essentials and bring your "PPE." 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

And the winner is...

People walk through the Christmas lights at Siam Paragon, an upscale mall in Bangkok

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. The most "instagrammed" place on the planet is not Times Square or the Eiffel Tower or the British Museum or Grand Canyon (that one I get since cell phone coverage in the Grand Canyon is abysmal). The most instagrammed place on the planet is, drum roll please, Siam Paragon, an upscale mall in the middle of Bangkok's shopping district. 

On one hand I sort of get it since Thais, especially ones who shop at Paragon, are very plugged in and wander around with smart phones, tablet and phablets (a real thing). They take "selfies" at every turn and photograph their lives with an obsession, that even, I as a photographer, can't match. 

The political protests in Bangkok are the most photographed political protests in history not because of the number of photojournalists covering them but because the largely middle class protestors constantly photograph themselves with their phones. 

On the other hand, there is so much to photograph in Bangkok that the choice of a mall is a little bewildering. I've Instagrammed more photos from the Chao Phraya River, Chinatown or Skytrain than I have the mall. Interestingly, the most Instagrammed place in the world in 2012 was the main international airport in Bangkok, a location that as far as I can tell didn't even make the list this year. I guess Instagram and Thailand go together like sticky rice and mango

I use Instagram a lot and I'm partial to the lo-fi filter. (ADVERT ALERT: Follow me) But near as I can tell I've Instagrammed a total of two photos from Paragon, the top one, that I made when I was there photographing Christmas lights and the bottom one that I made when I was getting my iPhone serviced. I may have posted a couple of other photos from Paragon, but if I did I don't remember them. 
Shoppers relax in the mouth of a shark in Paragon. 

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.

Christmas in Bangkok

Santa Claus walks through the congregation handing out candies and small gifts at Holy Redeemer Church on Soi Ruam Rudi in Bangkok

Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist - by most estimates somewhere between 80% and 90% Buddhist, but Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular, is also very diverse. There's a huge Muslim population (10% - 15%) and smaller Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Jewish communities. For the most part, people are allowed to practice whatever religion they choose and missionaries, regardless of their faith, are allowed to evangelize here. 
Christmas prayers at Holy Redeemer.

Christians make up less than 1% of the Thai population. A little less than 300,000 of them are Catholic. Christians may be a minority here, but there's a festive celebration of Christmas in Bangkok that rivals anything in the US or Europe. The malls go all out with decorations and lights, Christmas trees sprout from light posts and planters in front of most businesses and many buildings and just about everyone owns at least one Santa hat. 
A Thai family poses for portraits with Santa.

I went to Christmas services at Holy Redeemer Church, a large Catholic community on Soi Ruam Rudi near the intersection of Phloen Chit and Wireless Roads. I made it a point to go to a Thai service to photograph Christmas in Thailand. 

The church was a veritable winter wonderland. Except with palm trees instead of snow drifts and blinking lights filling in for icicles. There were snowmen, albeit plastic ones, a Santa and a sleigh. No reindeer though. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

You Say You Want A Revolution

Anti-government protestors blow whistles and chant "Yingluck Auk Bai!" (Yingluck Get Out!), the rallying cry of the anti-government protests sweeping Bangkok. 

The protests are continuing unabated. Numbers dwindle during the week to a few thousand hard core protestors camped at the principal protest site near Democracy Monument, but when protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban calls for massive protests on the weekends his acolytes respond en masse.

This Sunday was one of those times. Suthep issued a call for his supporters to gridlock Bangkok and they did.
Protestors carry a Thai flag down Phloen Chit Road toward Ratchaprasong Intersection.

Protestors set up stages all over town, from Democracy Monument to Victory Monument, to Asoke, Ratchaprasong and Silom. They settled in for speeches, picnics and music. Bangkok is a big city (about 12 million people) but the city center is very, very compact. So even though there were multiple protest sites and hundreds of thousands people on the street, all of the stages were close to each other. Protestors marched, motorcaded and took commuter trains from site to site. The roads, sidewalks and trains were gridlocked and moving around was nearly impossible. 
Anti-government protestors confront riot police near Yingluck Shinawatra's home. 

Across town, in the suburbs near Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's home, a few thousand protestors, mostly women, gathered to go to the PM's home. Riot police set up a series of barricades and stopped protestors from going down the street. Protestors stood at the barricade and screamed at police and then marched right up to the barricade and threatened to dismantle it. 

Rather than let people tear the barricade down, police intervened and removed it. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Yingluck, Auk Bai!

A Thai woman leans out of the window of a pickup truck and screams "Yingluck, AUK BAI!!" (Yingluck, GET OUT!! - the chant of the anti-government protestors.)

The anti-government protests are still going on in Bangkok. Things have calmed down from the near riots the city endured a few weeks ago, but there are still thousands of protestors camped out at Democracy Monument and Suthep Thaugsuban still makes incendiary speeches there calling for the end of "Thaksinism" and for the "caretaker" government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, to resign. 

Both sides have held forums on reforming Thai politics. 

Suthep's supporters want the election to be delayed until the political system is reformed. They propose Thailand be run by an appointed council of professionals from all walks of life until reforms have been made. 

The government suggested going ahead with the election (currently scheduled for February 2) with reforms taking place after the election. 

Suthep and his supporters say that's not acceptable. That's where things stand. The election commission announced today that the election would go ahead as scheduled. It looks like Thais will go to the polls on Feb. 2. 

February 2 is only six weeks away. There's a lot to be done before the election and a lot that could go wrong and derail the election. 

One big question mark hanging over the election is the role of Thailand's Democrat party. (The Democrats are the opposition and haven't won an election in the last 20 years.) Suthep was a long serving Democrat member of Parliament (and former Deputy Prime Minister in the Abhisit administration in 2010) until he resigned at the beginning of the protests. Most of the Democrats have joined him on the protest trail and called for reform before elections. It's still not clear if the Democrats will participate in or boycott the election. 
Suthep Thaugsuban walks through the crowd at Silom this afternoon. He was given a hero's welcome. 

If they participate they will almost certainly lose. Pheu Thai (the ruling party) is still enormously popular in the countryside. If the Democrats boycott they will also lose because they will have absolutely no role in the future government, not even as backbenchers. My guess is that people will be staying up late in Bangkok this weekend trying to plot the Democrats strategy going forward. 

Candidate registration is Monday, Dec. 23. The protestors have hinted at trying to obstruct the registration process. If they succeed, the election could be thrown into turmoil. 

Thailand is never a boring country. Now it's a really interesting country. 
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. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Looking Back

An anti-government protestor runs towards police lines in Bangkok to throw a tear gas grenade back to police. 

It's year in review time. A chance for photographers (and others) to look back on the year and consider what they've done and, possibly, what they hope to achieve in the coming year. 

My year really got rolling with the cremation of King-Father Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in late January and ended with political protests in Bangkok. The King-Father story is done, he is literally dead and buried. The Thai political story, on the other hand, is just getting started. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Little More Mor Lam

A few weeks ago I posted a blog entry about a Mor Lam show I photographed. I recorded some sound while I was there but haven't had a chance to edit it until now. This is a 2 ½ minute multimedia piece I put together on Mor Lam. The audio was recorded with a ZOOM H1 and edited in Garage Band. The stills were made with my 5D Mark III. I edited the piece in Final Cut Pro X. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

And I'm Legal

My various credentials - my Thai government credential (purple foreground), my Thai Work Permit (blue), my US press card, which is widely accepted here (orange) and my Thai Journalists' Association arm band (green). 

I'm now officially a photojournalist accredited to work in Thailand. 

Many of the foreign journalists who live here do it in a sort of a gray market way. They're not exactly working illegally but they're also not exactly working legally. 

They have a long stay multiple reentry visa that allows them to stay in Thailand for a year but they have to leave the country every 90 days. These 90 day trips are called "visa runs" and they're a part of the routine of living here. I was on one of these long stay multiple reentry visas last year and made a couple of trips to Cambodia, trips to Laos, Myanmar and Singapore for my visa runs. 

I've worked on immigration stories for more than 20 years from both sides of the US / Mexico border. I've worked on immigration stories in Guatemala, Mexico and Thailand (in Thailand, it was stories about Burmese and Cambodian immigrants coming to Thailand, not Thais going to the US). Working in Mexico I always had a journalist visa. In Guatemala I didn't (technically I was in Guatemala "illegally" but that's another story), in Thailand I never had a journalist visa but my immigration papers were always correct and I stayed within the letter of Thai immigration law. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There's Something Happening Here...

...What it is ain't exactly clear*. 

Thais carry their flag down Phitsanulok Road near Government House (the Prime Minister's offices)

Man that's true. And if any farang (Thai for foreigner) tells you what's happening in Bangkok right now is exactly clear, they're probably making it up.

I am a guest in this country. I feel privileged that I am allowed to live here and work here as a journalist with relative ease. Even if I have an opinion about the political turmoil Thailand has plunged itself into, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to express that opinion. This is a matter for Thais to resolve and it's not my place to publicly express an opinion about Thai democracy, just as we (Americans) don't like it when non-Americans express an opinion about our democracy. (Witness the efforts by the Right to get Piers Morgan fired from CNN and expelled from the US after he made comments about gun ownership.)
An anti-government protestor flashes the "V for Victory" sign after Yingluck Shinawatra announced that she was dissolving Parliament and calling new elections

I've been photographing the protests since I got back last month. I have no idea how or when they're going to end. The collapse of the government is not enough for the protest leaders, who want to see the Thaksin family completely out of Thai politics. Protest leaders have called on the Prime Minister to surrender herself for arrest, called on the police to resume their normal duties and called on the military to protect government offices. There is no precedent, short of a military coup, for what the protestors seem to be demanding. 

Thailand has a long history of military coups. There have been 11 successful coups and 7 failed coups  going back to 1932. That was then and this is now. The international community is not as accepting of coups as it once used to be. Thailand's last coup, in 2006, set the stage for the problems currently gripping Thailand, so many Thai political observers are not predicting a coup this time. 

My hope, and I suspect the hopes of a lot of Thais, is that this will somehow resolve itself peacefully and Thailand can move forward. 
Anti-government protestors march on Government House after the government resigned

There is a joy to living in this country. Thais are among the most hospitable people I've ever met - whether a businessman in an air-conditioned office in Bangkok, a farmer in a rice paddy in Isan, a ticket taker on a train or bus, a market vendor or construction worker, Thais have always treated me with nothing but grace and warmth. I hate to see these protests ripping apart the country. 

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. 

From Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth," recorded by Buffalo Springfield. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Happy Birthday to His Majesty

While fireworks go off behind them, Thai civil servants hold up candles and chant Long Live the King during the celebration of the King's Birthday on Sanam Luang Thursday night.

December 5 is the birthday of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand. This year marked his 86th birthday. The King has been at his palace in Hua Hin since August, he hosted a special birthday public audience there this year. 

His birthday is probably the most important non religious public holiday of the year in Thailand. The King is widely revered throughout Thailand. His portrait hangs in almost every home and public building in the Kingdom. At this time of year, there are shrines for the King in front most of the larger buildings and people routinely stop to write holiday greetings for His Majesty. 

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra "wais" coming into the celebration of the King's Birthday (top photo), with other members of her government (bottom photo).  

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the King doesn't wield much official power. But he still commands great respect and admiration from the Thais, so his public statements can have enormous implications. 

He hasn't commented publicly on the current political crisis gripping Thailand but in the past he has stepped in to prevent bloodshed between protestors and the military, most famously in 1973 when he opened the gates of Chitralda Palace, the Royal Family's residential palace, to shelter students who were being attacked by the army and again in 1992 when he summoned military commanders and civilian protestors to his palace and urged them to seek a peaceful solution to a political dispute that had turned violent. The 1992 incident, in particular, is frequently seen as a deciding moment on Thailand's road to democracy. 
Prime Minister Yingluck (center) reads a proclamation during the King's Birthday. 

In his younger years, the King was quite a bon viviant. He's an accomplished jazz musician, patron of the arts and a respected amateur photographer. The King has been very involved in economic development projects throughout Thailand and promotes his own form of sustainable development. His influence is felt in almost every part of Thai life. 
A woman leaves birthday greetings for His Majesty on a replica bodhi tree in Bangkok. 

It's hard for Americans, who have no history of Royalism or Monarchy, to understand the role the King plays in Thailand. It's something that transcends party politics and religion. In his younger days, he traveled throughout Thailand meeting rural villagers and peasants, talking with them about their lives and their problems. He funded the construction of dams and water reclamation efforts throughout Thailand. 

As he's aged, he's cut back on his travel and doesn't get out of Bangkok much. But he's still seen as a unifying figure and much loved by the people of Thailand. 
People hold candles above their heads at the close of the candle lighting ceremony on Sanam Luang.

I've photographed royal events a couple of times (but never the King - that's not allowed for protocol reasons). Every time I am moved by the love the Thais show for their Monarch. 

There are more photos of the King's Birthday 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. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Manic Monday

Anti-government protestors attack police positions on Phitsanulok Road with rocks. 

The violent, near riot like, protests that shook the Dusit district of Bangkok Sunday continued Monday. Although there weren't nearly as many protestors on the streets, they were a lot more determined and more willing to engage police. Police fired tear gas and used the water cannons throughout the morning. 
A protestor runs towards police lines with a smoking tear gas grenade.

The police security perimeter was on the opposite side of a khlong (canal) that runs parallel to Rama V Road. Protestors ran up and down the road, using trees, cars, hedges and power poles for cover while they threw rocks, cherry bombs and fired slingshots into the police lines. The police responded by throwing rocks back at the protestors, throwing tear gas grenades and firing rubber bullets. The water cannons were set up at the intersections and bridges across the khlong and used to sweep protestors out of the street when they approached the bridge in big numbers. 
A protestor fires his slingshot towards police lines.

The skirmishes went on like this for hours. The protestors have shown remarkable ingenuity in finding ways to counter police tactics. They use wet burlap bags to smother tear gas grenades, rain ponchos the protect themselves from the caustic chemicals mixed into the water cannon, construction hard hats, motorcycle helmets or buckets to protect their heads from flying debris. Some used life preservers as body armor against rubber bullets. Many have their own gas masks, but vendors were selling industrial breathing filters on the streets leading up to the protest site to people who don't own gas masks. Some were using plastic bags over their heads to protect themselves from the gas, which I suppose will work for a minute or two or for however long you can hold your breath. 
Protestors, wearing all of their various protective gear rush one of their own, hit by a rubber bullet, to waiting medics. 

They even have a field hospital set up about 100 meters from the front line of the fighting. It was mostly serving people overcome by tear gas or the caustic chemicals in the water cannon. Ambulances and medics were on standby to rush more seriously injured people to hospitals. 

I was down at the "front" for about five hours. It sounds weird, but the protestors were always very nice to me. They knew I was photographing them but they didn't interfere with my work. I went to the field hospital for ear plugs and they offered me not only ear plugs but also goggles, saline solution (for eye rinse), bottled water (for drinking) and gloves (to throw back gas grenades, which burn very hot). I declined everything but the earplugs. The Thai police are not using sonic weapons, but both sides have banks of loud speakers set up directly across from each other and play Thai music and trash talk each other at extraordinarily high volumes that is literally deafening. 

As the day went on though, I could sense the crowd's attitudes changing. They weren't achieving their goals and that frustrated them. I was by myself (which, frankly, is never a good idea in a situation like this) so as the afternoon wore on and after seeing a couple of protestors carried off with injuries from rubber bullets I decided to leave rather than stay as it got dark. 

I walked a couple of hundred meters to a group of waiting motorcycle taxis, grabbed one and went to the Skytrain and home. 

There are more photos of Monday's protest 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. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Tense Sunday

A protestor throws a tear gas grenade back towards police lines

Thailand's political tensions entered a new phase Sunday. The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsupan, said Sunday would be a people's victory day and that the government of Yingluck Shinawatra would collapse after his protestors took over Government House (the Prime Minister's office), the Parliament building and important ministries around Government House. 

Suthep's claims of victory were premature though. Police have reinforced all of the intersections around the protestors' targets with razor wire and tall concrete barricades. Formations of police, with gas guns and water cannons, stood behind the barricades. 

Protestors marched to the barricades, tried to dismantle them. The police threw tear gas. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used water cannons. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used tear gas and water cannons. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police threw tear gas. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used water cannons. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police fire rubber bullets. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. 

It went on like that for eight hours or more. The protestors had no chance of breaking through police lines and the police made no effort to leave their fortress and arrest people.

Protestors run under the stream of a water cannon and through a cloud of tear gas.

I went out to photograph the protest with Gavin Gough and Christopher Alan Brown, two other photographers who live in Bangkok (there's safety in numbers when this sort of thing happens). There were hundreds of photographers at the protest site. Most were wearing helmets and some sort of gas mask. (My "gas mask" is a remarkably ineffective Cambodian karma wrapped around a dampened hand towel. Note to self, buy a real gas mask.) 

There were quite a few "newbies" and tourists who wanted to play at being conflict photographers with no protective gear. A couple of photographers were wheeling big ThinkTank like rollers full of camera gear through the crowd. 

Going into a situation like this without a helmet (at minimum) and towing a roller bag is stupid. Rocks and bottles are flying through the air, gas grenades being thrown and shot into the crowd. Journalists and tourists who go into this unprepared put not only themselves at risk but also those who around them who would lend aid if they're hurt. It's no place for sightseers. 
I was crouching behind a barricade with a couple of protestors and the man on the left stood up to throw rocks at police. 

In a way these protests are the polar opposites of the 2010 protests that saw the Red Shirts attacking the government. 

In 2010, the Reds were out of power, their popularly elected Prime Minister deemed ineligible to be PM by Thailand's Constitutional Court. 

In 2011, the Red Shirts (or more accurately, the people they voted for) came back into power when Thailand elected Yingluck Shinawatra and her party, the Red Shirt supported Pheu Thai to govern Thailand. The election results weren't even close. PT won an outright majority. PT has maintained that majority since then and handily survived a censure motion last week. The protestors on the street now are the people who lost the 2011 election. Their demand is that the Shinawatra clan get out of Thai politics. 
Thousands of protestors fill Phitsanulok Road near Government House.

Yingluck Shinawatra is the sister of exiled, fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed by a military coup but remains popular in the countryside (and despised in Bangkok). Although the Pheu Thai is not very popular in Bangkok (and the Red Shirts are loathed by Thailand's middle class). Bangkok is the stronghold of the Democrats and the protest movement. The protest leaders maintain that she is a puppet of her brother, who was convicted of corruption charges after he was unseated in a coup and could have other charges filed against him if he comes back to Thailand. 

The Pheu Thai still maintains a popular majority in the countryside, especially in Isan and northern Thailand. The popularity in the countryside is so overwhelming that it translates to a popular majority nationwide. 

The protestors call for the dissolution of Thailand's parliament and suggest the country be run by an appointed commission of honest people. The Red Shirts and their majority in the countryside would probably see this as another coup that would stifle their aspirations. 
A guy in his underwear uses a fire extinguisher against the police. Sometimes things are a little surreal. 

Suthep had originally said the protests would end early last week when Yingluck Shinawatra stood down. Then he said they would end in the middle of the week, after his protestors invaded the Finance Ministry and other government offices. Then he said they would end in victory Sunday. Now he's saying in two days more. 

I don't know how or when this is going to end. December 5 is the King's Birthday, the most important nonreligious holiday of the year in Thailand. Maybe the protestors will take a break over the holiday. It does seem as though we have at least two more days of this to endure though. 
Protestors take cover from gas grenades and rubber bullets on a median strip on Rama V Road.

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.