Thursday, October 30, 2014

Baking Cakes

A worker at Pajonglak Maneeprasit bakery pulls cakes out of an oven. The bakery has worked out of the same house in the Thonburi section of Bangkok for more than 240 years.

Bangkok is an amazing city. Sometimes challenging, sometimes infuriating, usually for the same reasons (traffic is so bad it can take an hour to drive from our apartment to the shopping district less than five miles away), it's also a city of surprises that reveal themselves in different ways everyday.

I recently went for a walk in Thonburi, a part of Bangkok on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. Thonburi briefly served as the capital of Siam (as Thailand was known until the 1930s) under King Taksin the Great. Taksin put Siam back together after the Kingdom was destroyed by Burmese invaders who sacked the imperial capital of Ayutthaya in 1767.

Thonburi's fortunes faded after the death of Taksin when King Rama I (Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke) moved the capital to Bangkok in 1782 (Taksin's reign was short). Thonburi is a warren of narrow sois and ethnic neighborhoods. Thai Catholic communities are next to Muslim communities and Chinese Buddhist communities and of course Thai Buddhist communities.
The door of a Catholic home near Santa Cruz Church.

I took a ferry to Santa Cruz Church in Thonburi. Santa Cruz is the center of a community of Thai Catholics. Catholicism has a surprisingly long history in Thailand. Portuguese Catholic priests accompanied Portuguese soldiers who came to Siam in the early 1700s. The Portuguese fought alongside the Siamese (Thais) during the Burmese wars and were allowed to practice their faith. The Portuguese married Siamese women and some Siamese converted to Catholicism.

I don't normally trespass or just walk into people's homes, but I spotted a sign that simply said "Open" over a door so I wandered in to see what was open.

I had wandered into a small family run bakery. There were about eight people mixing batter, filling small ovens and packing small bags of cakes called "Kanom Farang Kudeejeen." No one in the bakery, which was really a family's front porch, spoke English, but I was invited to wander around and photograph. So I did.
A worker covers an oven in hot coals. The ovens are heated from the bottom by natural gas, hot coals are put on top of the oven to brown the top of the cakes. The bakery uses a recipe that originated with the Portuguese - eggs, flower, sugar and water. No baking powder

I've been in bakeries in the US - places with giant commercial ovens that turn out tons of baked goods every hour. 

This was not that. There are two ovens, ancient looking cylindrical affairs with natural gas heating from the bottom. When cakes are in the oven, a metal pan is placed on top and hot coals, from charcoal braziers scattered around the floor (watch where you step), are placed on top of the ovens to brown the cakes. 

A women sat on a stool a few inches off the floor hand mixing batter. Children watched TV while other workers packed cakes hot out of the oven or poured batter into cupcake like cups. 

It's almost always hot in Bangkok, but between the ovens and charcoal braziers in a very small space the bakery was stifling. It was not quite a beehive of activity, but people were always in motion. Either filling ovens, or dropping raisins onto cakes baking in the ovens, or mixing batter or packing the fresh cakes, there was always something for someone to do. 
Fresh eggs wait to go into the batter

I spent a couple of hours in the "bakery" photographing people hard at work. To me this is what Bangkok is all about. It's a city of 12 million people but get out of Ratchaprasong or away from the touristy sections of the city and you're transported back in time to what I imagine Thailand was like when it was called Siam. 

There are more photos from the bakery 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. 


A Chinese dragon dance troupe performs during the Wat Saket temple fair parade Thursday.

The Wat Saket temple fair is one of the oldest and most popular temple fairs in Bangkok. Thai temple fairs are bit like American county fairs, there are rides, games, food and entertainment acts. They're a chance for people in the neighborhood to come out and have a relatively inexpensive good time.

The Wat Saket fair is a favorite of mine. I try to go a couple of times every year, but this year I'm going to miss it because I'm traveling.

The parade to open the fair was at a ridiculously early hour this morning. I dragged myself out of bed and went down to the temple to cover the parade.
Dancers line up before sunrise for the parade

It was not a parade in the US sense of the word. There were no floats or marching animals. It was more like a religious procession. Most of the entertainment was either cultural, like traditional dancers, or religious, like the lion and dragon dances. It wasn't all culture and religion though, a high school marching band, playing songs from the Broadway show "The Music Man" led the parade. 

People carried a very long bolt of red cloth during the parade. The cloth was carried to the top of the temple (the chedi for Wat Saket is about 300 feet above the city - it used to be the highest point in Bangkok) and then wrapped around the chedi.

Buddhist faithful carry the bolt of red cloth around the chedi. People wrote prayers and wishes on the cloth before it was wrapped around the chedi

The parade was about 3.5 - 4 kilometers long, it basically circled the temple on the main city streets in the neighborhood but it felt exceptionally hot and humid in Bangkok this morning. Performers were not nearly as energetic at the end of the parade as they were at the beginning. 
Dragon dancers climb the steps to the top of the chedi

At the top of the chedi, people gathered for prayers while Brahmin priests led the procession of red cloth around the chedi. Buddhist monks chanted while people prayed quietly. 
People pray at the top of the chedi

There are more photos from the procession 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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Closing Saphan Taksin Station

Passengers going into the Bangkok Central Business District line up for an incoming train on the platform in Saphan Taksin station

The Skytrain, also called BTS, in Bangkok is a wonder. It's hands down the quickest way to get across town in a city with world famous traffic jams. The system opened in 1999. The Silom line terminus was at Saphan Taksin, a bridge over the Chao Phraya River and the pier where commuter boats from provinces north of Bangkok stopped. The line goes down to a single track at the bridge because there isn't room on the bridge to build a two line track. 
Passengers jam into a Bangkok bound train at Saphan Taksin station

Fast forward 15 years. Ridership on the system has grown from just 200,000 passengers a day in 1999 to about 650,000 riders per day in 2013. On December 22, 2013, more than 750,000 riders jammed into the BTS (this was a day of mass political protests in Bangkok and the city was gridlocked pretty much everywhere as protestors went from protest site to protest site). Most trains, even off peak, are standing room only now. 

The network was expanded through the years. 

Now Saphan Taksin is a middle stop on the Silom line that extends well into the Thonburi side of Bangkok. Now the decision not to build a two track line on the bridge is haunting transit officials. 
Passengers doze on the Silom line. 

What was the terminal station of the Silom line is now a bottleneck. Because there is only one track across the river, trains have to wait on the Bangkok side before coming into the station. The solution seems to be shut the Saphan Taksin station

The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority wants to build an elevated moving sidewalk from Surasak station to Saphan Taksin. The two stations are about one kilometer apart. Surasak is on the edge of the Central Business District, making it the river stop will certainly raise its profile. But one kilometer, even on a moving, shaded, sidewalk is a long ways and there is no timeline for finishing the moving sidewalk so commuters face the prospect of a long walk in Bangkok heat to get to the river. 
Saphan Taksin station may soon be closed. It will become an architectural relic. I always thought it looked like something out of "Blade Runner" from this angle.

At this point there is also no timeline for closing the station, but the issue seems to be generating a lot of urgency in the last couple of weeks. There are stories in the papers almost every day about plans to close the station and relieve congestion on the Silom line. 

Honestly I don't see how closing the station will relieve congestion. There will still be just one track across the river. Trains will still not be able to pass each other on the bridge, so trains on the Bangkok side will still have to wait for trains from Thonburi to pass. 

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, October 24, 2014

Lighten Up

A picture made with my E-P5 and the Olympus 12mm f2 lens at a clinic for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. I held the camera over my head and used the tilting LCD screen to compose the photo and relied on the in body image stabilization to help me with the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.

I've used Canon cameras for as long as I've been a photographer. The first camera I used was a Canon FT-QL, a tank of a camera. The QL stood for "quick load," a Canon innovation that made it easier to load a new roll of film into the camera. We got that FT-QL at the PX in Bangkok in 1967 or so.

Even then, Canon and Nikon were the big two of the camera companies. The others, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, Yashica, etc were playing catch up to the CanNik juggernaut. Leica was always in a league of its own.

Through the years I've flirted with other systems.
My "new" camera system. Two Olympus E-P5 bodies and Olympus lenses: 12mm f2, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Also a small Olympus flash

In the 1980s, one paper I worked at issued me Olympus OM bodies and lenses. The lenses were excellent and the bodies nice and small, but I stayed with Canon for my personal gear. In the late 1980s, another paper I worked for issued me Nikon gear, FM2 bodies and a selection of Nikon lenses. They were okay but (and this might be heresy to Nikon fans) they didn't offer me anything the Canons didn't, so I stayed with Canon. (Although I have to admit the Nikon FM2/FE2 are arguably the best looking 35mm SLRs ever made. Nikon nailed the aesthetics of those.) While the Olympus gear was substantially lighter than my Canon gear, the Nikon gear weighed about the same.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Flash Way, Way Off Camera

People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt’s funeral. This photo was made with available light.

I recently photographed the first day of funeral rites for Apiwan Wiriyachai, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Thai parliament. It’s always a good idea when you’re using a small flash to get the flash off the camera. Properly done off camera flash makes the light more interesting and more natural. That’s pretty much impossible with the small popup flashes that are on top of most cameras these days or when you’re working in a media pack.

Apiwan’s funeral was a big media event. There were probably 30 photographers gathered around the body photographing as people paid their respects. Most of them were using flash, almost all of them either the small popup flashes built into their cameras or large accessory flashes but all of them, every single one of them, had the flash on the camera.* Most had the flash pointed straight ahead but a few were “bouncing” their flashes off the ceiling. I was working exclusively with available light.

The room was lit by fluorescent tubes and combining fluorescent and flash creates all sorts of color balance issues. I’ve found it’s much easier to edit and do color correction if there’s only one light source in  the photo. The base exposure at ISO800 was around f1.8 at between 1/60th and 1/250th (depending on whether people were looking up or down) and Apiwan was covered in a shiny white shawl so I was comfortable working with available light.
A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer’s camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.

As I was working I could see that I was going to have a lot of unusable frames. Other photographers’ flashes were going off with machine gun like rapidity.

A couple of times the flash was just discrete enough that I could piggy back off of it.
Another photographer’s flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn’t completely overpower the photo. I burned down Apiwan’s white uniform a little in Lightroom.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.

It’s impossible to predict at the moment that you’re making pictures what effect other people’s flashes will have on your photos. There are a lot of variables.

With the exception of a couple of motion blur photos I made, I was working at f1.8 to f2.2, wide open, or close to it, all day. It doesn’t take as much flash to expose at f1.8 as it does f8. If the photographer whose flash I was piggy backing off was shooting at wider apertures (and putting out less flash) I ended up with an interesting picture. If he (they were all male) was working at f11 or blasting away with the flash, I ended up with a blown out frame.
Available light, I didn’t capture any other flashes in this frame.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer’s flash. There is no detail in the white and any attempts to burn it down just turns it an ugly gray.

I could see the flashes going off around me and I knew from experience that I was going to have a difficult time editing. It’s impossible to predict when another photographer’s flash is going to help you and when it’s going to wreck your photo. I made a lot more frames than I normally would have because I was I trying to work around the photographers’ flashes.

* There’s a protocol when you’re working in a media scrum like this. Normally, a professional photographer would get the flash off the camera and either put it on a light stand or hold it out at arm’s length (or ask a nearby civilian to hold it for you). But you don’t have those options when you’re in a scrum. If I hold a flash in my hand and then stick my hand out to get the flash off camera I’m going to end up blocking another photographer’s view. The idea in a scrum is to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t block other photographers.

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, October 20, 2014

Apiwan's Cremation

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra lights the ceremonial cremation fire for Apiwan Wiriyachai, who served as her Deputy Prime Minister before the coup that deposed the elected Pheu Thai government

Thai funerals can last a week or more. The higher a person's standing in the community, the longer funeral rites go on. Apiwan Wiriyachai, the former Deputy Prime Minister who died in exile in early October, was a person of distinction. In addition to his political role as Deputy PM, he was also a graduate of the Thai military academy. Thousands of people attended his funeral.  
A small part of the crowd at Apiwan's cremation

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra presided over the funeral. Yingluck has made only limited public appearance since the coup deposed her government (technically, she was ousted by the courts in early May. The May 22 coup deposed the interim government serving in her place). She's traveled outside Thailand to see her brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, but otherwise she's mostly been seen in shopping malls and grocery stores. 
Yingluck walks through the crowd at the funeral

Rounds of applause erupted as she walked into the ceremony to greet Apiwan's family. 

The military government said Apiwan could have a public funeral on the condition that it was religious only - no discussion of politics. The Red Shirt leaders at the cremation Sunday were as circumspect as they were at Apiwan's bathing rites last week. They posed for photos with members of the public but they didn't make any speeches or public comments. I was within a meter or two of Yingluck during the cremation and I didn't hear her say a word. 
A woman prays during Apiwan's cremation.

A mourner holds up a photo of Apiwan as his family walks past her during the funeral procession. The funeral started in a torrential rain storm, but the clouds parted and the sun came out when the former Prime Minister arrived. I'm sure it was coincidence

Although the Red Shirt political leaders were mindful of the junta's mandate of a politics free funeral, the regular folks, the vast sea of Red Shirt mourners that filled the temple grounds, were undeterred. Some proudly wore their red shirts. Others held up the unofficial Red Shirt three fingered salute, borrowed from the Hunger Games movies. 
A mourner flashes the three fingered Hunger Games salute. 

As I walked through the crowd, Red Shirts who recognized me (I've been covering the Red Shirts for years now. Some of them recognize me and I recognize some of them) came up to talk to me about the situation. I tried not to be rude, but I don't engage in political discussion here anymore. The situation is too complicated. When people asked what I thought, I offered my condolences and moved on. 
Ratchanee Wiriyachai (left) widow of Apiwan Wiriyachaiat, and former PM Yingluck Shinawatra pray during Apiwan Wiriyachai's cremation at Wat Bang Phai in Bang Bua Thong
Women cheer for Yingluck during the cremation.

The cremation was the largest, most energized gathering of Red Shirts since the coup in May. I don't know what this means for Thailand going forward. Public political gatherings are still banned and martial law is still in place. I don't see the Red Shirts taking to the streets to protest against the government.

There are more photos from the cremation 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. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tourism Woes

A tourist photographs Buddhas at Wat Pho while a man sleeps in the temple.

Thai tourism is in something of a crisis right now. Tourist arrivals year to date are down more than 10%. It has been a rough year for Thai tourism. The protests led by Suthep Thaugsuban crippled the high season (roughly November - March). Random politically inspired shootings, riots, and grenade attacks apparently scared off tourists. At the same time, Thailand's neighbors, Cambodia and Myanmar are rapidly improving their infrastructure, competing for tourism dollars with Thailand. 
A tour guide leads his clients through Bangkok.

Tourism officials hoped the coup in May would restore confidence in the tourism industry but it hasn't. 

Last month, British tourists were horrifically murdered on a resort island. Police botched the investigation before arresting undocumented Burmese migrant workers. At one point they hauled the suspects out to the scene of the murder and reenacted it. British journalists covering the investigation were drafted into playing the role of the victims.

None of this has restored faith in the tourist industry. Tourism is about 10% of the economy here, so a double digit drop in arrivals reverberates throughout the economy.
A souvenir vendor chases tourists in the street near the Grand Palace (background).

Despite all of this, Thailand is still a great country to visit. Crime against tourists, considering the number of tourists who come here, is pretty low. I don't worry about street crime when I go out, whether it's day or night. The attractions that made this a great country to visit last year - the beaches, the gracious people, the historic attractions, the food - are still wonderful. Traffic is a nightmare, which is why I don't drive here, but otherwise it's still a charming place. 
A tourist puts coins into a bowl, making a donation at Wat Pho. Despite its reputation as an "anything goes" place, Thais are quite modest and tourists are expected to dress modestly when they visit temples. Some temples, like Wat Pho, provide lime green robes for tourists who dress in revealing clothes. 

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, October 12, 2014

Red Shirt Funeral

A woman weeps while she prays for Apiwan Wiriyachai on the first day of his funeral rites at Wat Bang Phai, in Bang Bua Thong, a Bangkok suburb

Apiwan Wiriyachai was a member of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (Red Shirts), and a Thai politician in the Pheu Thai Party, which was aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives (Thailand's lower house) in the Parliament before the military coup in May 2014 coup deposed the elected government. 

Apiwan was charged with Lese Majeste after the coup and fled Thailand rather than face prosecution. He died in exile in the Philippines on October 6. The military government said his body could be brought back to Thailand for cremation but insisted that the funeral should be religious only with no discussion of politics. 
People come to Apiwan's body to lay flowers on it.

The funeral, which is expected to take about a week, started Sunday, Oct. 12. Tens of thousands of Apiwan's supporters and Red Shirts stood in line for hours to pay respects to Apiwan and bathe his hand in scented water. The Red Shirts' political leaders attended the funeral and were greeted as rock stars. They followed the military instructions, they paid their respects to Apiwan, some posed for photos but then left without making public comment.
Women stand in an open door and watch the funeral

The funeral was notable because it the first large gathering of Red Shirts since the coup when the army shut down a large Red Shirt gathering and encampment on May 22. I covered the funeral of the Kamol Duangphasuk, a fiery Red Shirt poet in April. That funeral was filled with political speeches and passion. Apiwan's was not. People paid their respects and prayed but any political talk was done in whispers not shouts. 

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. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Praying for the King

A monk prays for Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, during a service for His Majesty at Siriraj Hospital

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, is back in Siriraj Hospital. He was taken to the hospital last week, while we were in Malaysia. He had surgery to remove his gall bladder. According to officials in the Palace he is doing well.
School children line up for a class picture with a portrait of the King in the lobby of the hospital

The King is the longest serving monarch in Thai history and the longest serving head of state in the world right now. He came to the throne in 1946. He is the only Monarch most Thais have known. 

He's been in and out of the hospital since I've been coming to Thailand regularly in 2009. He lived at Siriraj more or less full time from 2009 until 2013, when he (and the Queen) moved to the Summer Palace in Hua Hin. 

His picture hangs in almost every home and business in Thailand and he is revered by most Thais. It's hard to explain his role to people not familiar with Thailand. He is a constitutional monarch (Thailand's absolute monarchy ended with a coup in 1932) with limited official powers. But his unofficial influence is profound. For years, through military coups, anti-government insurgencies and elected governments that came and went, the Monarchy was a constant in the lives of Thais. 
Women pray for the King in the lobby of the hospital

I'm hoping His Majesty is on the road to recovery and is soon able to return to the Summer Palace

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, October 6, 2014

Puppet Opera

Chinese Opera performed with puppets at a temple in George Town. 

I've photographed a lot of Chinese Opera since coming to Thailand. I've photographed five just this year. The Taoist "Nine Emperors" festival coincided with our visit to George Town. The festival ended the day before we arrived but some of the temples and shrines still had operas going Saturday night. We missed those because we were photographing the Navratri procession. 
Puppet heads in a box backstage.

We were wandering around the "Clan Jetties" along the George Town waterfront and heard the gongs and trilling of a Chinese opera in the neighborhood. I ran to the end of the jetty and a resident told me the opera was at a temple on the next jetty over. We quickly made our way to the next jetty only to be told that it was on the next big jetty. We ran back to the road and hustled down to the end of the big jetty. 
A musician at the opera plays her gong and sings

At the temple I was confronted by the smallest opera stage I had ever seen. I thought this surely couldn't be right. 
The stage for the opera. The puppets are about 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall

But it was right. It was the most unusual Chinese opera I've seen so far. The musicians also provided the vocals and two women manipulated the puppets. I made a few frames from the edge of the platform they were performing on and while they were singing one of the women pushed aside some costumes and motioned that I was welcome to photograph from the their platform. So I climbed up on the crowded and platform and made a few photos. 
Backstage at the puppet Chinese opera. The women on the right are manipulating the puppets, the man on the left is running the sound

The performance ended about five minutes after we got to the temple, so I didn't make many photos, but it was fun and unique and totally unexpected. 

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, October 5, 2014

Honoring Durga

The chariot carrying Durga is brought through the streets of Little India, in George Town, the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang

We happened to be George Town for Navratri, a nine day Hindu festival that honors the deity Durga. Navratri roughly corresponds to the Taoist "Nine Emperor Gods" holiday which is also celebrated in George Town. (George Town is a remarkably diverse city with large Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian populations.) Coincidently it was also the Muslim holy day of Eid Al Adha, and Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Almost every one of the word's big religions (with the exception of Christianity) had something to celebrate this weekend.
Hindus pray as the chariot bearing Durga passes them

Navratri is celebrated with processions throughout the community. In a community with a large Hindu population, like George Town, this can mean a lot of processions. We got into George Town late Saturday evening, went walk about and stumbled into a procession winding its way through Little India. 
The band leading the procession performs on a Little India sidewalk

I followed the procession for about an hour and then went back to our hotel room to edit. The next day we went walk about in another section of downtown George Town and bumped into a second Navratri procession headed down Campbell Street, one of George Town's best preserved historic streets.
The Durga deity is brought out of George Town's Krishna temple to the waiting chariot

I photographed this procession for a couple of hours as it slowly made its way through George Town. 
The procession on Penang Street near the corner of Campbell

Thanks to the Indian diaspora, there is a large Hindu population throughout Southeast Asia. In the 1800s, British colonial authorities brought Indian civil servants to Muslim Malaysia and Buddhist Burma and Indian merchants settled in Thailand. With just a little effort, it's easy to find Hindu celebrations to participate in. 

There are more photos from the Navratri processions 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.