Saturday, September 5, 2015

Rededicating the Shrine

The Minister of Culture sprinkles flower petals around the Erawan Shrine during a rededication ceremony Friday. 

Bangkok's return to normalcy took another step Friday when Thai government officials, Brahman priests and invited guests gathered at Erawan Shrine for a rededication ceremony. Twenty people were killed and more than 100 Injured on August 17 ​​when somebody placed a large bomb near the Shrine. One of the four faces of the Four Faced Brahma was damaged by shrapnel. The Thai government rushed a repair of the statue. The repaired statue was officially revealed Friday. 
Dancers at the shrine get ready to perform before the rededication ceremony.

About 50 invited guests and Brahman priests from the Royal Household gathered at the shrine for Brahman prayers and a blessing ceremony and Thai dancers performed and made merit at the shrine. More than 100 people, regular Thais, couldn't get into the shrine and gathered outside the fence and participated privately in the ceremony. 


People who couldn't get into the shrine gathered outside to pray during the ceremony.

I thought this was an interesting example of the influence of Erawan Shrine. The invited guests were summoned and more or less had to be there. The regular people who came to the shrine, at 6.45AM, they were there because they really wanted to be. 
The Brahman priest from the Royal Household blesses the Four Faced Brahma statue. 

After the Erawan's rededication, people walked to the other shrines in Ratchaprasong (there are Hindu/Buddhist shrines in many parts of the neighborhood) to pray and make merit. I stayed at Erawan for a few more minutes and then left to file my photos to ZUMA. I stopped by Erawan Shrine after filing my photos and there was a large crowd of regular people praying and making merit. 
A lion dance troupe makes merit at the shrine after the official ceremony. 

There was also a lion dance troupe making merit at the shrine. This says something about cultural and religious diversity of Thailand. Lion dancers are a Chinese tradition primarily from Mahayana Buddhism. Thais are overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhists. The shrine honors Brahma, a Hindu god. Yet they all come together at this corner in Bangkok's Ratchaprasong district. 

Thai police have made a number of arrests of people allegedly involved in the attack. They've issued arrest warrants for others not yet in custody. But we still don't know who masterminded the attack and paid for it or whether or not other attacks were a part of the scheme. 

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, August 31, 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. 

Saturday, August 22, 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.