Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Not So Distant Shore

A boatman pulls passengers across Khlong Samrong in Samut Prakan province, a Bangkok suburb. 

Bangkok used to be known as the "Venice of the East" because of the canals (called khlongs in Thai) that crisscrossed the city. Now the khlongs are filled in and cars have replaced the boats. There are still a few parts of Bangkok though that have regular boat service. 
A passenger in the back of the boat...

While the boatman pulls her across. He's 19 years old and has been working the crossing for years. 

There used to be small "mom and pop" ferry crossings, little more than a dingy pulled across the canal by rope, throughout Bangkok. Most are now gone, replaced by bridges, buses and motorcycles. I found one of the remaining ferries on Khlong Samrong in Samut Prakan province, a suburb of Bangkok. The boatman grew up in the neighborhood and has been working at the ferry since he was a child. He sits in a shady spot and waits for a passengers to show up. He pulls them across the canal, only about 50 feet wide, for the princely sum of 2Baht (about 0.06¢ US). 
Taking a passenger across the khlong. 

There's a foot bridge over the canal about 50 yards up the canal but the little ferry is surprisingly busy. I spent a couple of hours photographing the boatman. I think he made 20 or more crossings in the time I was there. The canal isn't very wide and it only takes a minute or two to get across, when he's not busy pulling people across the khlong, he chats with his girlfriend, who kept him company while I was there, or passersby. 
Waiting for passengers. Looking up the canal from the ferry you see the Bangkok skyline. There are multiple bridges and a shopping mall within easy walking distance. Looking down the canal is like looking into old Southeast Asia, with houses on stilts (previous photo). 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Day For Love

A couple poses for an iPhone snapshot during their wedding at the Bang Rak wedding event on Valentine's Day. 

Valentine's Day is a big deal in Thailand. At first blush, it might seem odd that Buddhist Thailand celebrates a day that venerates an Italian Catholic saint. But it's really not. Christmas is very widely celebrated in Thailand, especially in urban areas, and All Hallows' Eve, better known as Halloween, is becoming more popular in Thailand. All Hallows' Eve was originally the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed and is very closely tied to the Latin American Catholic Day of the Dead. 
A couple waits for their wedding to take place. 

When Thais celebrate Valentine's Day or Christmas or Halloween they aren't celebrating the spiritual nature of the day. They're celebrating the fun nature of the day. On Christmas, it was the parties and giving of gifts. On Halloween, it's the parties and costumes. Thai children don't usually go door to door soliciting sweets or threatening mayhem, but their parents do get dressed up and go out to parties. 

On Valentine's Day it's the romance, the giving of flowers and gifts, the fun aspects of the day. Many Thais get officially married on Valentine's Day, believing it to be an auspicious day to get hitched. Most Thais essentially have two weddings - an elaborate wedding presided over by monks and usually include a big party and then a very brief civil wedding at a government office where the wedding is recorded as being official. The elaborate wedding may last hours or even days but the civil wedding in a government office is done in a matter of minutes. 
Buddhist monks bless newlyweds during the mass wedding event in Bang Rak. 

In Bangkok, an area known as Bang Rak is by far the most popular place to get married on Valentine's Day. Bang Rak is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Bangkok, the name of the neighborhood translates to "Village of Love," (Bang = Village, Rak = Love) and people flock to the local city offices to get married there on Valentine's Day. 

It's such a popular day that officials moved it from the cramped confines of the local offices to the old General Post Office, a beautiful historic building that has been converted to an event space. 
Newlyweds participate in a blessing. 

Hundreds of people go to the old post office to get married in the eyes of the government. It's become such a big deal that many companies set up booths to help the couples mark their special day. Private clinics promote family planning. The government promotes fertility treatments. (Thais are having fewer children and the population is aging out, so the government is trying encourage married couples to have children.) Dentists promote tooth whitening. Financial planners promote financial planning. And there are food vendors, photographers, car dealers, lottery ticket sellers all hoping to make a Baht. 
Couples wait for their turn to be called so they can have their civil wedding. 

It's a fun event but it's not quite like photographing a mass wedding in the US. Because it's "just" the official part of the wedding, many Thais don't view it as a wedding at all. "The" wedding, the one that matters, is the one that's held in their home village with the monks and the music and the party. The civil wedding is more an onerous chore that has to be completed to satisfy the government.
A couple is tied together in blessed matrimony at a booth sponsored by a beverage maker. 
While another couple waits to be photographed in another booth. The bouquet and teddy bear are props, returned after the photos are made.

Some people went just long enough to register their nuptials, others made a day of it. Valentine's Day is not a legal holiday, so people had to arrange for time off to go to the mass wedding ceremony. That's easier for some than it is for others. 
A toy vendor waits for customers at the mass marriage event.


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, February 12, 2017

Makha Bucha 2017

Buddhist monks walk to the pagoda at Wat Phra Dhammakaya to take their positions before the Makha Bucha ceremony. 

The full moon in February (the third lunar month) is Makha Bucha Day, one of the most important holy days in the Theravada Buddhist calendar. It marks four events that took place during the time of Lord Buddha. 
  1. 1,250 monks convened at Veluvana Bamboo Grove without being summoned. 
  2. All of the monks were personally ordained by the Lord Buddha in what is known as ‘Ehi Bikkhu Upasampata’. 
  3. They were Arahants possessing the six higher knowledge.
  4. The event occurred on the full moon day of the 3rd lunar month.
People go to temples all over Thailand (and other Theravada Buddhist countries) to pray and meditate.
People pray and meditate in the plaza that surrounds the pagoda at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. 

I've been photographing Makha Bucha for years now. I even photographed the holy day in Phoenix when I wasn't able to be in Thailand. Most of the time in Thailand I've gone out to the Dhammakaya temple, about an hour north of Bangkok. 

Dhammakaya is a new sect of Thai Buddhism. It was founded in the mid 1970s and has attracted new followers at a dizzying pace. It differs from more traditional sects in a couple of ways - adherents actively proselytize and seek new members and followers believe that if they give to the sect, they will be rewarded in material ways (similar to the "prosperity gospel" preached by some evangelicals in the west).  

People and monks pray and meditate during the ceremony. 

Wat Phra Dhammakaya sits in a huge complex in Pathum Thani province. The main pagoda resembles a UFO ready to ascend into space. The temple is clearly visible from planes landing at Don Muang, the older of Bangkok's two airports.

The Makha Bucha ceremony ends with candlelight processions around the pagoda. Monks process around the pagoda in the inner courtyard, while adherents, all dressed in white, process around the outer courtyard. 

Top photo, adherents, dressed in white, process around the pagoda while monks process around the pagoda (timed exposure, bottom photo). 

The Dhammakaya movement is not without controversy though. The Thai government has filed corruption charges against the abbot and has issued warrants for his arrest. They made repeated, unsuccessful, efforts to arrest him over the last year. 
Monks sit around the pagoda while the full moon rises behind them. 


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, February 9, 2017

A New Camera

or at least new to me. 

Olympus Pen F on my Domke bag.

We went to Singapore for the holidays and I came back to Bangkok with a new camera. The Pen F has been out for almost a year, but it's expensive in the US and very expensive in Thailand. For some reason, and quite unexpectedly, it's much cheaper in Singapore. I walked into Cathay Camera in Peninsula Plaza to see what they had and walked out with a Pen F. It was about $400 (US) cheaper than it would have been in Thailand and $200 (US) cheaper than it would have been in the US. 
Sorting bed linens from an overnight train in Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok. Pen F, 12mm f2, ISO 200, 1/400th @ f2, shot in BW mode using Tri-X simulation. 

This is sort of a non-technical review of the Pen F. The conclusion: I've had it for about six weeks and I like it. A lot. 

The big headline when this camera came out was the stunning retro styling. It's named after and borrows a lot in the looks department from the original Olympus Pen F, a legendary SLR film camera of the mid 1960s. The style of the new digital Pen F is often compared to Leica screw mount cameras of the 1930s, but to me it evokes the original Pen F, which was a uniquely designed SLR. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Cuttin' It Old School

A barber gives a customer a shave in a small barber shop under the Phra Khanong Bridge. 

One of the things I love about Bangkok is that no two neighborhoods are alike. In 2015, while I was working on the evictions from the Bang Chak Market, I explored Ko Klang, a small island in the middle of the Khlong (canal) that runs between the Phra Khanong and On Nut neighborhoods. After wandering around the island, I walked through what I thought was a small market under the Phra Khanong Bridge (which takes Sukhumvit Road traffic over the canal). There were a lot of small barbershops under the bridge, but it was too early in the day and most of them were still closed. 
A barber naps while he waits for a customer.

Bangkok's wet markets open early in the morning but most businesses don't really get going until mid morning. Or later. That's the case with the barbers under the bridge. In the year since the first visit, I made repeated trips back to the bridge and the barbers were never open. The ones that were open were not busy.
There 9 or 10 barbershops under the bridge and a couple of beauty shops. Most have just one chair.

I made another run at the barbershops yesterday, many were open and some had customers. I hung out under the bridge and photographed for a couple of hours. 

There are street barbers all over Southeast Asia. But because the Thailand is so much wealthier than its neighbors, traditions like the street barbers are disappearing, especially in Bangkok. The barbers under the bridge are about the closest thing Bangkok still has to the street barber tradition. 
A barber cleans up after finishing with a customer, while another customer waits for her to start with him. 

Bangkok is changing at what feels like light speed. Neighborhoods are being relocated, markets closed and vendors evicted, all in the name of development. Thriving markets just a kilometer or two either side of the bridge have been closed so developers can build new condominiums. 
A customer gets a shampoo and shave in a barbershop. 

The shops are small and dingy. In some cases, the walls are made of plywood. In other cases the barbers use the bridge abutments as walls for their shops. 

I'm hopeful though that the community of barbershops under the bridge will survive a while longer. What will save the barbershops, and other merchants under the bridge, is that there's not much else the land can be used for. The bridge is a major conduit for traffic coming in and out of Bangkok, it can't just be torn down. The danger for the barbershops is that the market and community north of the bridge would be closed and torn down. The barbers would lose their customer base. 
The barbershops are decorated with pictures of Thai and foreign movie stars and celebrities. 

I'm optimistic that this won't happen in the near future because there hasn't been any talk of it yet. But in two or three years? Anything is possible. 
In what is a nearly universal scene, a barber reads a local newspaper while he waits for customers. The give away that this is Thailand are the portraits of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered late King of Thailand, that decorate the walls of his shop. 


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.