Saturday, January 30, 2016

Opera in the Afternoon

Likay performers on stage during a performance at a temple in Nonthaburi, a little bit north of Bangkok.

I photographed a "Likay" performance today. Likay is a traditional Thai popular art that blends music, song, and exposition into a live show. Likay's roots are not very well documented but it's thought that Likay originated in either what is modern Malaysia or India and came to Thailand with traders and itinerant performers in the 1700s and 1800s, so it's not really an ancient art form. 

It's a little bit of an oversimplification to call it a Thai version of Chinese opera, because of the two are not related, but the concept is similar. Troupes put on shows for a night or two (or three or four or however long someone will pay them to). Shows are usually put on at temples, during temple fairs. There is very little staging - usually it's just a bare platorm, the audience is transported into the performers' world through ornate costumes and the performers' skill at improvisation. 
Male performers put on their makeup before the show. Technically, they're in the wings of the stage, but since there are no curtains and they're easily seen from the audience's perspective, they're sort of a part of the show.

Likay performers, like Chinese opera performers, wear elaborate eye makeup.

Likay is still popular in rural Thailand - you see posters for likay troupes whenever you go upcountry - but its fading in urban Thailand. I lucked out and found a performance in a province north of central Bangkok, but still in the Bangkok metroplex. I didn't go to Wat Bua Khwan (the link goes to their Thai website) looking for the Likay show. I was actually there researching another story, but that proved to be a dead end. I happened to be at the temple the weekend of their annual temple fair and stumbled into the Likay show before the performance started. 

Since the story I went to the temple to photograph wasn't happening, I stayed for the Likay show. It's typical of Thailand that the performers were completely open to my photography. I didn't just walk in - I walked up to the foot of the stage and a couple of actors called over to me and motioned that I should join them in the dressing rooms and photograph them. And who am I to turn down an invitation like that? 
In the wings, a woman gets ready to go onstage. Most of the hair is a wig. In the early days of Likay, all of the roles were played by men. Now the women's roles are played by women. 

I photographed for about an hour before the show started. A couple of the actors spoke a tiny amount of English and I speak a really, really tiny amount of Thai (my Thai consists almost entirely of the sentence "I don't speak Thai.") but my "universal translator" saved the day. I used to explain to the Likay cast that I had lived in Thailand for four years and that I was a journalist. They used it to offer me lunch (a variety of curries). 
There is no "orchestra pit." The band plays on the wings of the stage, where the audience can see it. The actors use the area behind the band, also in view of the audience, as a dressing room. 

In reality, my universal translator is the Google Translate app on my iPhone, which works pretty well if you use it properly and give it time to do its thing. Although I try to avoid using Google apps on my iPhone (DuckDuckGo is my preferred search engine), Google Translate is pretty much indispensable for what I do.  

The show started with the band, which is almost entirely percussion instruments, tuning and warming up. That transitioned seamlessly into performers, backstage, singing their lines. Which, moments later, leads to actors on stage and the opera starting. It was less than 10 minutes from the first drum beat to the lead being on stage. 
While some of the actors are on stage, others wait off stage for their cues. The whole thing is very relaxed. 
One of the actors uses a cracked mirror to adjust his hat. 

I've photographed a lot of Chinese opera in the last couple of years but this was my first Likay. I had a good time and thought it was very interesting. I hope to photograph more Likay in the next year. 
Actors on stage.

There are more photos from the Likay show (along with photos from Wat Bua Khwan) in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Making Chains

A worker bends a link into shape in a workshop/factory in the Talat Noi section of Bangkok. 

I went down to Talat Noi, a Chinese enclave on the Chao Phraya River south of Bangkok's main Chinatown district. I was looking for early signs of Chinese New Year, which starts February 8. It's a little early for signs of Chinese New Year but I stumbled upon a small one man workshop that makes heavy duty chains, like those used on large ocean going ships. 
Chain links straight out of the forge. 

These chains are made the really old fashioned way. The metal is heated to glowing in a charcoal fired forge then pounded into shape by hand on an anvil. One man does all the work. Watching him work, my thought was that this process probably hasn't changed in centuries. I think most heavy duty chains are now made in modern factories controlled by computer. 

But in this tiny corner of Bangkok, a thoroughly modern city that has embraced the 21st century, chains are being made the same way they were hundreds of years ago. 
Links stacked up in the workshop. 

Bangkok's financial district, a hyperwired collection of international banks and financial firms, is just a few kilometers away, within walking distance. But this workshop, and others like it, exist in a time warp. 
Links are pounded into shape on an anvil. 

Talat Noi is a self contained neighborhood in Bangkok and one of my favorite parts of town. While modernization and gentrification has gobbled up other parts of Bangkok, the people of Talat Noi cling to traditional life. 
Taking a break in his workshop with his work stacked around him. 

I photographed this in black and white because the gritty nature of the workshop struck me as a monochrome environment. (Actually I photographed it in black and white and color because I always work in RAW+JPEG. The raw files record the scene in color and the JPEGs in black and white.) The color photos of the chain workshop are 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.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Crisis That Won't Go Away

A worker in the spillway of Lam Takhong Dam in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat). There's usually water running through here, irrigating the fields behind the gate. But because of Thailand's persistent drought, the reservoir is too low to feed the canal. 

It seems like I've been photographing drought since I moved to Thailand in 2012. It's an issue that Thai farmers wrestle with every year. Although central Thailand is rich in water resources, it's a feast or famine situation. The Thai government has responded by building a sophisticated network of dams, reservoirs, and canals to store and move water on a reliable schedule. But they can't store or move what they don't have and this year there's no water.
An empty reservoir in Buri Ram province. This reservoir provides domestic water to almost 100 homes in the village. At this time of year, the reservoir should be nearly full. People who live around here now have to buy water from trucks that come to the village every couple of days or look for water. This reservoir is for homes, but the fields are just as dry.

Most of Thailand's rainy season is May - November (the rainy season in the deep south is a little later in the year). Light rains start in May, by July it usually rains every day. Rains start to taper off in mid September and stop by November. It's the way it's always been. 

But not for the last two years. The 2014 season was a little below normal. The reservoir I photographed in Buri Ram went dry for the first time anyone could remember in April of 2015 because of the poor rains in 2014 and never completely refilled during the 2015 rainy season. The 2015 rainy season was considerably below normal and the reservoir ran dry in early January 2016. It's not expected to start refilling until late May, or in five months, assuming the rains come in May. 
Neighbors in Buri Ram talk about the drought. The woman in the back of the tractor (left) had just returned from looking for water. The woman on the right wanted to buy some.

There's a sense of panic setting in now. Most of Thailand's dams are well below capacity for this time of year. The dam I photographed in Korat is at about 30 percent of capacity. It should be nearly full at this time of year. Some communities in northern Thailand, not just the one I photographed in Buri Ram, may run out of domestic water in the next two months. The rainy season isn't supposed to start until April. There may be some off season rains between now and then but they won't bring relief to the people in the countryside. 

The government is encouraging people to plant alternatives to rice (which uses a tremendous amount of water) and some people are planting cassava, corn and drought resistant crops. But rice and farming rice is practically built into the Thai DNA (Thais don't ask if you've eaten yet as a greeting, they ask if you've had rice yet). They eat rice, in some form, every day. Rice is also important for the economy. Thailand has a history of being the world's leading rice exporter. 

In Korat, a farmer harvests cassava, a drought resistant root vegetable. 

No one is predicting food shortages in Thailand. There's a lot of rice stored in warehouses around the country (because Thailand has a tradition of producing a lot more rice than it consumes) and presumably exports would stop before people went hungry. But the drought is being felt by almost all of the rural people and, because there's so little water for agriculture, will contribute to drop in economic productivity. 
A woman in Korat hauls rice straw home to feed her water buffalo.

Most rice farmers in Thailand plant at least two rice crops, a rainy season crop and a dry season crop. The dry season crop is watered by irrigation. This rice farmers have been told they can't irrigate and aren't supposed to plant an off season crop. This dry season crop is usually smaller than the rainy season crop, but this will still lead to a measurable loss of income for Thai farmers, who already live virtually hand to mouth. Some of the farmers I talked to in Buri Ram told me they were surviving on money sent to them by children working in Bangkok and other urban areas. The irrigation water is being saved to provide Bangkok and urban centers with drinking water. 

Thailand feeds the world. It's one of the world's leading exporters of rice (it goes back and forth between Thailand, India and Vietnam, although Thai rice is usually thought to be the best) and one of the leading exporters of poultry, pork, cassava, fish and shrimp and fruits. All of which require water. Shrimp and fish farms have been told reduce their use of water and it's hard to farm fish without water.
A woman in Buri Ram fills a water jar (called a khlong jar) while she was looking for water. Rural communities in Thailand are close knit. She asked to buy some water from a neighbor. The neighbor said she needed more water and offered water for free if the woman would help refill their jugs so they went out together to get water.

I'd like to believe that things will return to normal with this year's rainy season. The El NiƱo, that contributed to this year's drought, should be breaking up, and it should start to rain. But there's no guarantee that that will happen. 

There are more photos of drought in Thailand and the 2016 drought 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, January 19, 2016

Last Call

Another landmark gone...

Bangkok is renowned for its street food and one of the best places in Bangkok for street food was Sukhumvit Soi 38, right below the Thong Lo BTS Station. Popular with Thais for decades as a source of cheap and tasty food it become a farang (foreigner) hangout for the same reason. The restaurants and food carts on the street relished their fame. Many had newspaper clippings from local and international papers hanging in their shops. Others had pages from Lonely Planet guides taped to the walls. 
Making "congee," a rice porridge, in one of the shops. 

On most nights, starting about 18.30, the place was packed. Thai office workers and university students vying for space with foreigners at the sidewalk shops. Among foreigners, it seemed to be especially popular with teachers and journalists, people who needed to stretch their Baht. 
Early in the evening, a vendor waits for customers. 

You can't stop the march of time. We've known about the end of the Soi 38 food carts for about seven months. The building that housed most of the shops was sold last year. The shops have been closing ever since. About 1/3 of them stayed open into the new year, but the experience was not the same. It's hard to define when something loses critical mass, but for me the Soi 38 experience died in September or October. It wasn't just the loss of the food stalls, it was the loss of the ambiance. 
Eating at a noodle stall on the street. Hard to believe this was "fine dining" but it was some of the best street food in Bangkok. 

Some of the food stalls moved into the parking garage of a nearby apartment building. It's a nice effort to keep the place going but it's just not the same. Not as much choice, not as many people and just not the same.
Foreigners look for a place for dinner. 

The street food stalls at Soi 38, like the market in Bang Chak, will be replaced by condominiums and high end retail. And another Bangkok institution will be lost.
Grilling chicken satay on Soi 38. At 10Baht per stick (a little over .25¢ US) it was a tasty bargain.

There are more photos from Soi 38 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, January 17, 2016

Bird Flu May Be Back

A vendor in Khlong Toei Market sorts live chickens. 

The Thai Health Ministry ordered an alert for the spread of Bird Flu (H5N1) this month. Bird flu is endemic in Vietnam, China and Indonesia. It's probably endemic in Laos, but public health tracking there is not as sophisticated as it is elsewhere in Southeast Asia, so we don't know. 

Bird Flu is a serious concern for Thailand. Many families in the countryside own chicken flocks for meat, eggs and cock fighting (which is still very popular here), so there is concern that the disease could spread from poultry flocks to people (person to person transmission is more difficult). Thailand is one of the world's leading exporters of poultry products and a bird flu outbreak could decimate the poultry industry. (Thailand feeds the world, but that's a topic for another day.) 
Cleaning freshly slaughtered chickens in Khlong Toei. 

Possibly because so much of the Thai economy, including the poultry industry, is export driven, there's good record keeping. If a flock of chickens in Isaan dies from bird flu officials in Bangkok will know about it in short order. Similarly, Thailand has a good public health system with clinics and hospitals in even the most far flung provinces. If a person shows up in a local hospital with the symptoms of H5N1, officials in Bangkok will know about it. 
A basket of live chickens for sale in Khlong Toei. 

But that's not a reason to be complacent about the possibility of a Bird Flu outbreak here. The border with Laos (and Cambodia) is long and porous. It would be easy for infected poultry from neighboring countries to be brought into Thailand, for example in a farmer's basket, sold at a border market and then infect Thai birds. 

It's important to remember that no new cases of H5N1 have been reported in people in Thailand in years, the warning from the health ministry was just that, a warning. When H5N1 last visited Thailand, the local poultry industry suffered huge losses. Thai poultry exports were restricted, flocks were culled and Thais lost confidence in the poultry industry. 
Ready for the curry pot and not killed by bird flu. 

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. 

Morning on the Beach

A man comes out of the surf just after sunrise at Laem Mae Phim Beach in Rayong.

I am not much a beach goer. It seems almost heretical to live in Thailand, which has hundreds of miles of beach, and not go to the beach but that's the way I'm wired. 

Some of Thailand's beaches are notoriously overbuilt (Pattaya, Phuket) and others appeal mostly to hedonists (Koh Phangan) but with so much beach frontage there are bound to be parts that are (relativly) undiscovered.

This weekend we went to one of the relatively undiscovered beaches.  
Waves break over a piece of driftwood on the beach.

A friend of ours got married and we went to the ceremony on Laem Mae Phim Beach in Rayong, about three hours east of Bangkok. The beach was lovely and nearly empty, especially compared to the other beaches I've seen here. 

An islet is silhouetted by sunlight hits the horizon while storm clouds build. 

It rained a little overnight but for me it just meant more dramatic skies in the morning when I went down to the beach to photograph. 

A tourist walks past a beach umbrella. 

A worker cleans a stretch of beach before the day's visitors show up.

There are more photos from Laem Mae Phim 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. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Temple in Chachoengsao

People make merit and pray in the viharn, or prayer hall, at Wat Sothon in Chachoengsao.   

The roofline of the temple. 

I went out to Chachoengsao this week. My plan was to photograph morning commuters on the trains into Bangkok but things didn't work out and I missed the morning commuters catching the train into Bangkok. Chachoengsao is a nice town, far enough from Bangkok to feel a little like you're in the countryside and close enough to Bangkok that it's easy to get to. Since I was already there, I took the opportunity to explore a little.
People pray in the viharn. 

I took a tuk-tuk to Wat Sothon, a stunning temple a little ways from the train station. The temple's viharn (prayer hall) is relatively new and dominates the local skyline (2nd photo). There are always people in the temple making offerings, meditating and praying.
A monk prays with people after they made merit by presenting him with alms. 

The real action though takes place in an old building next to the temple. I was there in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and it was swamped with people draping Buddha statues in orange robes and making merit by lighting incense and donating hard cooked eggs to the temple. 
A woman prepares an offering of hard cooked eggs at Wat Sothon.

It's customary to present hard cooked eggs at Wat Sothon when your wishes are granted or to ensure that your wishes will be granted. I don't know how the tradition got started and it's not one I've seen at other temples in Thailand (or at least not in these numbers), but almost all of the faithful at Wat Sothon walked into the temple carrying baskets of hard cooked eggs. Some carried a basket, but others carried three or four baskets. The only time I've seen more eggs in one place was at a poultry farm I photographed in Phoenix.
One person's offering of eggs. 
A woman folds orange robes that the faithful drape over Buddha statues at the temple. This is a form of merit making that is common in Thailand.

In addition to the presentation of the eggs, people made merit by donating money to the temple and draping the statues in orange robes. These forms of merit making are common in the Theravada Buddhist world.
In the old part of the temple, next to the new viharn, people pray and make offerings. 

This is one of the things I like about working in Thailand. If a story falls through, which sometimes happens, it's relatively easy to find another story to work on. Since I had never been to Chachoengsao before I didn't know what to expect. Now that I've been there, it's a town I want to go back to. 

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, January 10, 2016

Think About the Children

Children show off their dance moves during a Children's Day party at Government House in Bangkok.

Children's Day is a big deal in Thailand. Businesses all over the country roll out the red carpet for the youngest consumers (and their parents), government offices throw open their doors to explain the inner workings of government to their youngest constituents (and their parents) and the military opens its bases across the country to show off the latest military hardware to their future conscripts (and their parents). 
Shoppers at Paragon look for Pokemon merchandise. 

The last couple of years I've gone to Government House (the office of the prime minister) and the 2nd  Cavalry Division Army Camp to photograph the day. The Prime Minister opens the Government House soiree with a ribbon cutting then spends some time with the kids. And at the 2nd Division, one of the Thai army's elite units, the kids get a chance to play with the latest assault rifles and machine guns and climb on tanks and helicopters. 
Gen Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, the Prime Minster, spars with a high school student in front of Government House. 

The Prime Minister, who has been accused of having a quick temper, used this year's Children's Day to soften his image. He flew a Thai style kite, sparred with students after a martial arts demonstration and showed off his office. It was not that different from the way politicians everywhere interact with kids. 
The PM, center, flies a kite... 

And accepts a gift from children after making a speech. 

Over at the army base, children stood in line to handle the Thai army's latest assault rifles and machines guns and climb around on tanks and helicopters. Thai special forces soldiers posed for photos with children and adults. 
A child handles a Tavor, an Israeli designed rifle. Thailand is replacing its M16A1 rifles with Tavors. 

While young women pose with Thai special forces. 

There are more photos from Children's Day 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.