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. 

Monday, October 13, 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. 

Tuesday, October 7, 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.