Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Trip to the Island

A musician performs during a free concert on Ko Kret this weekend.

We went to Ko Kret this weekend. It's a small island in the Chao Phraya River in Nonthaburi, north of Bangkok. It was created in 1722 when the Siamese monarch in Ayutthaya (then the capital of the Siamese Kingdom) ordered a canal dug to bypass a horseshoe bend in the Chao Phraya River. The canal separated the Ko Kret peninsula from the mainland and created the island. 

Ko Kret is one of those places we've been meaning to visit but never got around to seeing. It was originally a Mon community and Mon culture is well preserved on Ko Kret. The Mon are an ethnic minority from the Thai / Burma border region. Centuries ago they sided with the Siamese (Thais) during Siam's (Thailand's) near constant wars with the Burmese. 

The Mons have had a huge role in the culture of both Thailand and Myanmar. Among other things, they brought Theravada Buddhism (the dominant form of Buddhism in both Burma and Thailand) to Indochina. The Mon are a persecuted minority in Burma but are pretty much assimilated into Thai culture. 
A potter at work in a shop on Ko Kret. 

Ko Kret is best known as a place to get Mon style pottery and the place to go for Mon food, especially Mon style fishcakes, close to Bangkok. I like fishcakes, but I completely forgot to try the Mon style ones so I can't say if they live up to the hype. 

The pottery is lovely and despite the tourists on the island, the potters will explain the process to you if you ask. 
A potter etches a bowl before it goes into a kiln. The bowls bake in the kiln for three days. 

The island is also well known for its temples. There are seven or eight Buddhist temples on the island, which is only two kilometers long by about one kilometer wide and home to just over 6,000 people. The largest temple, Wat Poramaiyikawat, is the most important Mon temple in Thailand and conducts services in the Mon language.
One of the ferries that brings visitors to Ko Kret. A ticket costs 2Baht (roughly .06¢ US).

There are a couple of ways to get to Ko Kret. The "adventurous" way and the easy way. We went the adventurous way. 

We took the BTS Skytrain from our apartment to the river, where we caught a Chao Phraya Express Boat and went to the end of boat line in Nonthaburi. From there we caught a taxi to Pak Kret, the community on the "mainland" opposite the island and then we took the ferry to Ko Kret. It took us three hours from the time we left our apartment to the time we stepped on the island. It's 20 kilometers (roughly 12 miles) from Bangkok to Ko Kret. The BTS fare was 42Baht ($1.17 US), the boat fare was 15Baht (0.42¢ US) and the taxi fare from Nonthaburi pier to Pak Kret was 130Baht ($3.65 US). If we do the math, the total cost to get to Pak Kret was 244Baht ($6.85 US). 

(Two BTS tickets at 42B each, two boat tickets at 15B each is 114B, taxi at 130B brings it to 244B.)

The easy way is to take a taxi. It's a 45 minute to one hour cab ride from central Bangkok to Pak Kret, depending on traffic. Cab fare costs between 225Baht and 275Baht ($6.30 US to $7.70 US), depending on traffic. An air conditioned taxi the entire way is almost exactly the same price as the unairconditioned adventurous way, is more comfortable and takes 1/3 as long. The next time we go to Ko Kret we're taking a taxi. 
The leaning stupa at Wat Poramaiyikawat is the most recognized landmark on Ko Kret.

The best way to get around on Ko Kret is to walk. It's flat, the path is paved and shaded and it can be a pleasant stroll. There are bikes for rent on the island, but the paved path is not very wide and there are a lot of people out walking around, so navigating a bike through the crowd can be tricky. There are a few motorcycles but no cars on the island. 

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the island, had a tasty lunch overlooking the river, wandered about a bit more and then headed back to Bangkok. 
A dancer performs as Hanuman during a performance on the island. 

It was a very pleasant way of spending a Saturday afternoon. Now that we've been to Ko Kret, and we know the easy way of getting there, I suspect we'll go back. 

There are more photos from Ko Kret in my archive

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, August 25, 2015

One Week On

Thais carry their flag along Phloen Chit during a vigil to honor the victims of the Erawan Shrine bombing. 

It's been one week since a person or persons unknown set off a bomb at Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok. Since then, the Thai government and national police have made a number of confusing statements about the bomber and how soon he or she would be apprehended. 

Now police are saying it's possible that the bomber, who they think is a foreigner, has left Thailand and that the case has "gone cold." 

Monday night there was a vigil for the victims of the bombing. The vigil was announced via social media over the weekend but there were no links to the sponsors of the event and the government announced that it was canceled for security reasons. 
A woman talks to monks before the vigil started. 

I went down to the shrine anyhow because I wanted to be there one week after the bombing. I wasn't really surprised to see that the vigil was going ahead, without government approval. There were five or six Buddhist monks, a few Buddhist nuns and a couple of hundred people in front of Amarin Plaza, one of the malls near the shrine. 

The monks chanted and lead the people in prayer, then people unfurled a large Thai flag. 
People unfurled a large Thai flag during the vigil for the victims of the bombing.

Then they lit candles and walked to the shrine, about 100 meters west of the mall. 
A monk helps a boy pray during the vigil. 

During the short walk to the shrine some people prayed, others wept. 
The procession to the shrine. 

At Erawan Shrine the monks said some more prayers and participated in funeral rites for victims of the bombing. People lit candles and prayed. Despite its spiritual importance in Thailand, the shrine is very small. There were well over 100 people there for the vigil, plus the monks plus a large number of journalists. The shrine was packed. 
Monks participate in funeral rites for the people murdered at the shrine last week. In Buddhist tradition, the one week anniversary of a person's death is a milestone because Buddhists believe that it is at that point, one week after death, that the souls of the departed believe they are dead. 

People light candles after the funeral prayers.

There are more photos from the vigil and the bombing 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, August 21, 2015

Praying for Normalcy

Women who sell flower garlands and religious paraphernalia pray in their stands on the sidewalk during a Brahmin prayer at Erawan Shrine Friday morning

Bangkok is rushing headlong into restoring normalcy to Erawan Shrine and Ratchaprasong after the bombing there Monday night. The roads around the shrine were reopened Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the terror attack. The shrine reopened early Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the attack. Friday I covered a large interfaith prayer service to honor the victims of the bombing and restore confidence in the Ratchaprasong District. 
Thais who work in the Ratchaprasong area stop at the interfaith service Friday morning

The tourism industry is one of the bedrocks of the Thai economy. It accounts for about 10% of the Kingdom's economic activity. Tourism has taken a beating lately. New "exotic" destinations, like Cambodia and Myanmar, compete for high end travelers. The murder of two tourists in Koh Tao and the apparently botched police investigation of their murder has hurt confidence among European visitors. Pattaya and Phuket used to be virtual Russian tourist enclaves, but the collapse of the Russian Ruble has cut into arrivals from Russia. Millions of Chinese tourists come to Thailand (based on the wild success of a Chinese road trip comedy movie), but Chinese tourists were killed in the bombing and that may cut into arrivals from China. 

So Thai authorities have a big vested interest in getting things back to normal. 
A Brahmin priest talks to Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra (right) before the prayer to bless the shrine. Thailand is a Buddhist country and the King, like most of the Kings of the Chakri dynasty, is a former monk. But the priests to the court are Brahmins (Hindu) and Erawan Shrine is actually a Brahmin, not Buddhist, shrine. Yet, almost all of the people who come to the shrine to pray are Buddhists.
Photographers work the Brahmin prayer service at the shrine. 

Friday morning there was a large interfaith service in Rathchaprasong. It started with a Brahmin prayer, open to Thai government representatives and VIPs, at the shrine. Then it moved to the plaza in front of Central World, the huge mall kitty corner from the shrine. Prayers were offered by Theravada Buddhists (the school of Buddhism in Southeast Asia), Mahayana Buddhists (Chinese Buddhists), Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. 

The service attracted a lot of people. Tourists, Thai and foreign workers from the area, and regular Thais, like street vendors, all rubbed elbows. Some came to pray and make merit. Others were drawn by the spectacle of it. 
Thai Catholic nuns at the Christian service. 

Imams in the Muslim service. 

After I photographed the interfaith service at Central World, I walked back to the shrine where monks were performing a Mahayana service. 
Mahayana monks lead a service at the shrine...

...while people sat on the plaza around the shrine

After the prayer service ended, the dancers who perform at the shrine started performing. This is perhaps the most visible sign of the return to normalcy.

People pay for the dancers to sing and perform behind them while they pray. The dancers are an integral part of the shrine. 
A woman prays while the dancers perform. 

The shrine's classical dancers. 

The manhunt for the bomber is continuing. There have been updates from the government about the manhunt and possible suspects (including a confusing comment from the Prime Minister about the TV show "Blue Bloods"). The government is warning netizens to watch their words about the bombing and to avoid posting rumors about the attack. 

There has been some criticism of the handling of the investigation and the quick clean up. On Thursday, Jonathan Head, the BBC correspondent in Thailand, found shrapnel from the bomb embedded in a wall across the street from the shrine

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, August 19, 2015

Erawan Shrine Reopens

A man prays inside Erawan Shrine Wednesday

Erawan Shrine reopened Wednesday morning. It opened with little fanfare about 8.45AM. There were more journalists in the shrine than devotees. There were very few tourists. It was my first opportunity to see up close the damage done by the bomb. 
The only visible damage done to the Four Faced Buddha in the shrine was caused by shrapnel that blew off the chin on the face of one of the Buddhas.

The fence around the shrine and gate to the shrine were badly damaged in the bombing, but in the shrine itself, there was surprisingly little damage. 

Families of the bomber's victim were among the first to visit the shrine. There were memorial services for them throughout the morning. 
Buddhist monks lead a service for families of the deceased. 

A family that lost loved ones in the bombing pray in the shrine.
A Thai man who lost loved ones in the bombing prays in the shrine. 

On the sidewalk in front of the shrine, the vendors were back, selling flower garlands left as offerings, religious paraphernalia and soft drinks. 
A vendor opens her stand in front of the shrine.

The shrine is one of my favorite places in Bangkok. For me, it has always been the essence of Bangkok. The frenetic consumerism, ancient spirituality, the religious diversity (the shrine actually dedicated to the Hindu God Brahman, but most of the people who worship here are Thai Buddhists) all come together at Erawan Shrine. 

The shrine is not very big and first time visitors might say, "that's it?" but its importance and role in society are far greater than its physical size would suggest. 
The reopened shrine Wednesday

Although there weren't many people buying garlands from the vendors, a sense of normality is returning to the area around the shrine. It will be a long time though before the shrine is truly back to "normal."

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, August 18, 2015

The Day After

A man in front of Erawan Shrine. 

The Thai police chief surveys the scene of the terror bombing. 

The nightmare of the bombing at Erawan Shrine was all too real Tuesday morning. The death toll stands at 22 with more than 100 still hospitalized. Ratchaprasong Intersection was closed through the morning but reopened in the afternoon, although the shrine is still closed. 
A security guard at the Louis Vuitton store in front of the store's massive display window, broken by the blast. 

Police worked overnight Monday into Tuesday collecting evidence and ensuring that there were no follow on bombs (it's a common tactic at terrorist bombings to set off one device and then later a second device to kill people responding to the first explosion). 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Terror in Bangkok

A police officer looks at a victim of the terror bombing in Bangkok Monday night. 

A bomb blast ripped through central Bangkok Monday night, shattering rush hour and causing death. Person or persons unknown left a package near a bench in Erawan Shrine, one of my favorite places in the City of Angels. At about 6:55PM, the peak of rush hour, when the shrine was packed with tourists and devotees who had come to pray, the package was detonated. The resulting explosion sent a fireball into the night sky killed dozens of people and injured more than 100.
Police look for evidence at the scene.

I was home when the first alert about the explosion hit one of my social media accounts at about 7:10PM. I threw a set of lenses into a waist pack, grabbed my cameras and headed to the scene. Our apartment in Bangkok is about four miles from Erawan Shrine, which seems close but Bangkok is a very dense city with unbelievable traffic congestion. Four miles in Bangkok is far away. 

It was 8:00PM, a little over an hour after the blast, when I got to the scene. At that point, police had set up a perimeter about 100 meters from the blast site. Tourists were wandering around the neighborhood, behind the perimeter barricades and media was using long lenses to photograph the police, who were in the early stages of evidence collection and investigation.  
A police officer on crowd control duty watches his colleagues collect evidence. 

Erawan Shrine is located in the Ratchaprasong Intersection. It's the heart of modern, commercial, Bangkok. It's next to the Grand Hyatt Regency Hotel (which is also known as the Erawan Hotel), across the street from the Intercontinental Hotel, 100 meters from the Peninsula Plaza Hotel. Thousands of foreign tourists sleep within a stone's throw of the shrine every night. 
A tourist on the street after the explosion. 

Gaysorn, one of Bangkok's first high end malls, with a Leica boutique and Louis Vuitton store, is across the street from the shrine. Central World, one of Bangkok's largest malls, with Timberland, the Gap, Haagen Dazs, and hundreds of other chain stores, is kitty corner. The Police General Hospital is across the street and police headquarters are just 100 meters down the road, next to the hospital.

It's hard to imagine a softer target in this city of 12 million people. It would be like putting a bomb on 5th Avenue or in Rockefeller Center in New York, on Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles, on Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris or Oxford Street in London. 
Destroyed motorcycles in the street after the explosion. 

What amazes me is not how bad the destruction was but how much worse it could have been. Aside from the initial fireball, there was no fire. Windows were blown out in the malls and hospital but there was no structural damage. And the death toll could have been so much worse. 

The shrine was packed with tourists and devotees, but Monday is street cleaning day in Bangkok. Normally, vendors selling flower garlands and religious paraphernalia line the sidewalk in front of the shrine, but not on Mondays. If the vendors had been there the death toll could easily have been double. 

There's been no claim of credit for the bombing and police don't have a suspect but the Thais will move heaven and earth and call in every IOU from foreign law enforcement to track down the perpetrators of this act.
Thai soldiers help tourists lost after the explosion. 

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.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bike For Mom

Bicyclists hit the Victory Monument intersection during the Bike For Mom pedalfest.

The last big public event to honor Queen Sirikit was the "Bike For Mom." It was organized by the Thai government as a countrywide event led by HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who led the cyclists on a 26 mile journey through Bangkok. 

People gather in Victory Monument before Bike for Mom hit the road. 

The government wanted the event to get into the Guiness book as the biggest mass bike ride in the world. Apparently the previous record holder was in Taiwan, with some 70,000 riders verified. That seems like a lot. 

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical. Although bicycles are a ubiquitous form of transport in Asia, they aren't in Thailand. Thailand's economy, which is more advanced than its neighbors, means many people have moved on from bikes to motorscooters and cars (as a trip in Bangkok during rush hour will prove). Go to Phnom Penh or Yangon or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you'll see thousands of bikes on the street. Not so in Bangkok. 
A man snaps a "selfie" before the ride started.

I can admit when I'm wrong. And I was wrong about Bike For Mom. It was packed. We went to Victory Monument, a huge traffic circle in Bangkok, and it was packed with spectators. When the riders, led by the Crown Prince, passed, people were first quiet (as a sign of respect for the monarchy) then started cheering and waving their blue "Bike for mom" flags. Almost everyone was wearing sky blue polo shirts, most with the Bike For Mom embroidery. (Blue is the color associated with Queen Sirikit.) 
Cyclists go around Victory Monument.

When the final tally was taken, more than 146,000 people Biked for Mom, guaranteeing Thailand a place in the Guiness book.

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, August 13, 2015

Her Majesty's Birthday

Women at a candle light service for Queen Sirikit on her birthday. 

August 12 is the birthday of Queen Sirikit, the wife of Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's beloved monarch. He has reigned since May 5, 1950. He is the world's longest reigning monarch and is Sirikit is the world's longest reigning Consort.
School girls perform a historic pageant in honor of Her Majesty on her birthday.

The birthday of the Queen is a national holiday in Thailand. It's also celebrated as Mothers' Day. Thais of all walks of life offer prayers to the Royal Family. Schools hold special convocations to honor the mothers in the days leading up to August 12. It's a holiday people take seriously. The malls are open (the malls are always open) but many small shops are closed, most businesses and all schools are closed. Small eateries, the mom and pop ones, are closed. Street vendors stay home. 
After the pageant, students sang the Queen's Anthem. 

It's hard to explain the people's reverence for the Thai monarchy. To Americans, it seems archaic, like a throwback to another era. But to Thais it's very real. The Monarchy here is a near divine entity. At a time when the country is split along class lines and there's a growing rural / urban split, the monarchy is one institution that unites Thais. 
Monks at a service honoring Her Majesty. 

This was Her Majesty's 83rd birthday. We went from candle light service to candle light service and I was struck by the number of them. Just within a few kilometers of our apartment there were services in the temple near us and at all of the malls on Sukhumvit Road. We were walking home from the Skytrain, I stumbled upon a waitress from a restaurant we occasionally go to standing in the middle of the sidewalk holding a candle. Inside, all of the patrons held candles aloft and sang the Royal Anthems.
A waitress holds a candle on a sidewalk next to a popular restaurant. 

There are more photos of the Queen's Birthday observations in my archive.
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.