Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Getting Ready for the New Year

People watch a calligrapher draw Chinese New Year greetings for customers on Chareon Krung Road in Bangkok. 

Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year or Tet (in Vietnam) is a huge cultural celebration in Chinese communities around the world. Thailand has a very large Chinese community and Lunar New Year is celebrated with gusto in Bangkok and Sino-Thai communities throughout the country. 
A calligrapher draws a greeting. 

Lunar New Year comes early this year. It will be celebrated on January 28 in Bangkok (it's usually in February). Lunar New Year provides a huge shot in the arm for the Thai economy. Restaurants are fully booked the weeks before and after the holiday period, Chinese opera troupes are fully booked and perform through out the country and people buy New Year supplies, like dresses and lanterns.

One of the most traditional things to do is to go to a calligrapher and buy New Year's greeting. 

In Bangkok, the calligraphers line Chareon Krung Road in the heart of Chinatown. They set up on small tables and hand paint the greetings that customers buy. They use an oil based gold paint. Sometimes the put gold flecks on their work. 
A woman calligrapher (the only woman calligrapher I've seen on Chareon Krung) finishes a greeting for a customer. 
A detail photo of a calligrapher at work. 

I don't know what the calligraphers charge for their work or how much they make during the New Year season. They are busy though. When they're not working on customized calligraphy for customers, they're drawing spec pieces that they hang near the stand. Passersby, in too much of a hurry to wait for a customized piece, buy the spec pieces. 
The woman calligrapher works on a piece. 

This is my fifth Lunar New Year in Thailand. I photograph the calligraphers of Chareon Krung at least once a year. Chinese New Year is a loud, crowded, incredibly fun holiday. Photographing the calligraphers is sort of how I mark the beginning of the Lunar New Year period. I'll be spending a lot of time in Bangkok's Chinatown over the next couple of weeks. 

There are more photos of the calligraphers in my archive

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Children's Special Day

A boy plays with TAR21 assault rifle during Children's Day activities in Bangkok. The Royal Thai Army hosts a popular Children's Day event at the 2nd Cavalry Division headquarters. 

The second Saturday of the year is Children's Day in Thailand. Government offices hold open house type events so the kids can see what goes on in government, malls throw parties for the kids and parks sponsor big events. 

But all that pales compared to what the Thai military does. Military bases throughout the country open and host events. The latest military hardware is on display, from little things like assault rifles, to big things like tanks and jet fighters. The kids are given the chance to play with and on most of the military hardware. 
Military medical personnel use theatrical makeup to paint faux battlefield injuries on the kids. 

Although this looks more like a cry for help than a battlefield injury. 

Children's Day has been celebrated in this overtly militaristic way for years - way before the 2014 coup that deposed the elected civilian government. The military is deeply woven into Thai society. They control banks and industries and the generals are important members of society. They're seen by many as the ultimate protectors of the Kingdom's values and culture. 

When an oilspill fouled the beaches of Koh Samet in 2013, a lot of the manpower for the cleanup was provided by the Thai Navy (although the cleanup was supervised by oil industry experts). When there are floods, the military leads relief efforts. During the drought of the last two years, it was the army who prevented farmers from stealing water but they also drilled boreholes, dug wells, built reservoirs, and hauled water to rural communities. In the US, people may go years without interacting with an on duty member of the military. In Thailand people interact with the military every week.
Soldiers supervise a firing line of AirSoft type BB guns. 

In the last couple of years, a few writers in Thai media have been critical of the militaristic celebration of Children's Day but, at least the 2nd Division Army base, crowds are still huge and enthusiastic. 
One of the displays included a demonstration of the use gas masks. Kids put the masks on and stopped into a sealed room that was filled with fog (from a dry ice fogger). As the kids left the room a soldier gave them packets of instant Mama Noodles, Thai style ramen noodles. 

I was a little taken aback by the overt militarization of Children's Day the first time I covered it. After years of covering Children's Day though, and photographing the Thai military involved in daily life here, I try not to read too much into it. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

It's the End of the Year...

...As We Know It

And Stephen Colbert sang out the year on his CBS talkshow.


In June, I photographed a fisherman jumping off a bamboo bridge in 4,000 Islands in southern Laos.

It's the end of the year, which means it's time to look back and consider the pictures I made in 2016. I spent most of the year in Thailand, with just a couple of trips to other places in Southeast Asia. 
A woman prays during a Buddhist ceremony on January 2. 

I didn't cover as many "big" spot news stories this year (like the Thai coup in 2014 or the Bangkok bombing in 2015), instead working mostly on topical stories like climate change and tolerance. I covered a lot of ground in Thailand and Cambodia on climate change and drought stories. In the short term, the drought resolved itself because Thailand had a good rainy season, certainly enough rain to guarantee a successful rice crop. 
In May, I went to Cambodia to photograph the drought. A worker walks away from the Tara, a boat on the Tonle Sap Lake, left beached by the lake's shrinking surface area.

Some stories persisted though. Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, is still in court on charges related to her tenure as PM. (She was deposed by the military in the 2014 coup.) 
In August, Yingluck Shinawatra appeared in court. She is still personally popular and her supporters greeted her with bouquets of roses. 

I spent a couple of weeks in Bali this year photographing feature stories. I was lucky enough to be there at a time when there were a lot of religious rituals. 
In July, women in Bali leave a Hindu celebration on a black sand beach. 

Also in Bali in July, girls mimic birds in flight during a dance at a mass cremation ceremony. 

The biggest story in Thailand this year was the death of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand. The King, also known as Rama IX, was revered by the Thai people and his death plunged the nation into a year long mourning period. He died in October and I spent most of the last part of the year photographing events related to the mourning. 
October 13, the King's death was announced at Siriraj Hospital. 

For Americans, the biggest event of the year was the surprise selection of Donald Trump as US President. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes but because of archaic US election procedures he was selected by the Electoral College. I didn't cover any election related events in the US, but I went to the Democrats Abroad Election Watch event. To call it a party would be a mistake. 
November, at Democrats Abroad, it was not a good day. 

November, I went to Penang, Malaysia, to get a visa for Thailand. A picture I made of kids playing in an alley in Little India. 

I added some 63,000 photos to my Lightroom archive in 2016 but only a fraction of those got uploaded to my online archive. Here is a slideshow of some more of my favorite photos of the year.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Floating Markets

A fruit vendor plies the canals around Damnoen Saduak. 

Central Thailand is crisscrossed by a network of rivers and canals (called "khlongs" in Thai). The rivers flow from the low mountains north and west of Bangkok to the Gulf of Siam. Most of the canals were dug in the 19th century to connect the rivers, provide irrigation water to farm fields, and an early highway system to people living outside of urban areas. 

Now the canals are used almost exclusively for irrigation, flood control and fishing. But back in the day they moved armies (the Siamese army dug a canal all the way to Cambodia so they could move an army to the border) and served as market places. 
A boatload of tourists are paddled through the Damnoen Saduak floating market.

The floating markets of rural Thailand have become a tourist stereotype. Now most rural residents shop in the town markets - they get to the market by motorcycle or pickup truck. Now the only people who shop at the floating markets are the tourists searching for the authentic Thai experience. 

One of the biggest and best known floating markets is in Damnoen Saduak, a bustling community in Ratchaburi province about two hours from Bangkok. I've gone to Damnoen Saduak a couple of times. Although the market is an over commercialized vortex of tourists, there's a lot to see in that part of Thailand. The salt fields of Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkram are nearby, the market on the train tracks in Samut Songkram is only about 20 minutes away. When I go to Damnoen Saduak it's because I have something else going on in that part of Thailand. 
The canals of Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrive. 

The truth is though, Damnoen Saduak can be a nice town to visit. The trick is to arrive very early and leave early. When I feel the need the go there, I plan to arrive about 5.30 - 6.00 AM (depending on time of year and the hour of sunrise) and leave before 10AM. 

At this hour, local vendors still go from home to home in their boats and canoes selling produce and curries. Monks pad silently through the community soliciting alms. Local people sit on the boardwalk in front of their homes gossiping and enjoying the cooler morning weather. They're inevitably surprised to see a farang (Thai for foreigner) and will frequently share a cup of coffee and patongo (Chinese doughnut or churro) with you. It's a delightful way to spend the morning. 
A water taxi heads into Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrive. The canals of the town are lined with boardwalks, making it easy to explore on foot. 

The tourists come in giant buses from Bangkok. They start arriving a little after 8AM and by 8.30 the nature of the town has changed. From sleepy canal side village to bustling tourist trap. The later you go, the worst the tourist scene. 
By mid-morning this canal will be gridlocked with tourist boats. 

Damnoen Saduak was the first of the big tourist trap floating markets. The business model is being copied all over central Thailand. There is a floating market in Amphawa (about 15 minutes from Samut Songkram). In Amphawa, the market is an afternoon/evening thing. Food hawkers line the canals in town and sell freshly prepared curries and seafood. In the morning in Amphawa monks from the local temples go house to house in canoes. There are a couple of floating markets in Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from central Bangkok. There's one in Pattaya (that has the gall to charge admission, most of the other markets are free). 
A woman takes her daughter to school in Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrived. The canoe was a gift from Western Union, who provided people in central Thailand with thousands of boats during the floods in 2011


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, December 5, 2016

The King's Birthday

A woman holds up a portrait Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, during a ceremony to honor His Majesty on Bhumibol Bridge (named after the King) in Bangkok.

December 5 is the birthday of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, who died on October 13 after a long illness. This year would have been his 89th birthday. The King was revered throughout Thailand. People of all political persuasions, bitter rivals in their political lives agreed on one thing - the central role of the King in Thailand.  
Tens of thousands of people gathered on the bridge to honor the King. 

I've made it a point to photograph the King's Birthday every year we've been here, starting in 2012. (I even photographed his birthday in 1992, during a vacation visit to Thailand.) This year was obviously much different. Thais have been grieving His Majesty's death for six weeks. The mourning period will continue until late next year when the King is cremated. 
999 Buddhist monks participated in a merit making service on the bridge. 

The bridge was jammed with people paying their respects to the memory of His Majesty.

The Crown Prince, King's son and heir apparent, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun ascended to the crown on Friday, Dec. 2. This was not his coronation. It is being described as an ascendency. He will reign as King but his formal coronation won't take place until after his father's cremation. 
A woman weeps during the ceremony on the bridge. 

People pray during the ceremony. 

This is not unusual in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ascended to the throne in 1946. He left Thailand to finish his studies in Europe (Thailand's Chakri Kings have always valued education and most have been educated at Thailand's finest schools and prestigious universities in Europe and the US). His coronation didn't come until 1950, nearly four years after he ascended to the throne.