Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gold Fever

A woman pans in the Mae Wang, (Wang River) near Wang Nua district in Lampang.

When the level of the Mae Wang (Wang River) drops, in February or March, the farmers hoping to strike it rich scour the river bottom for tiny flecks of gold.

People have long suspected that there was gold in the area but no one really knew how much or where. In 2011, a construction crew digging sand out of the river bed opened a vein of the precious metal. The project is complete but the seasonal miners are still working the river bed looking for gold.

The Thai government commissioned a survey of the river after the discovery of the gold. The survey found there was a "fair amount" of gold ore in the river, but not enough to make it commercially exploitable. So the farmers have the river to themselves.
Artisinal gold mines line the river. Farmers have their "stakes" outlined in rock. 

They start looking for the gold in the dry season as soon as the river level drops (river levels here fluctuate based on the season). They start about 9AM and work through the day until 4PM. Every day. They dig up loose gravel and swirl it in wooden pans, gently washing the dirt and sediment out until only gold, or so they hope, is left. This year they may be able to work a little longer because the government is predicting a drought that could delay the rainy season.

The truth is there isn't much gold. Most farmers find a few flecks of gold dust in the course of the day. They hope to make enough to help their families through the dry season. In a good month, they can make between $65 and $100, a substantial amount of money to a person who makes less than $3 per day.
Flecks of gold in a miner's jar. 
A miner checks the bottom of his pan for gold dust. 

The government allows the miners to work the river bottom as long as they work on public lands. They aren't allowed to work in the national parks in the area. The miners also regulate themselves. They work their "claims" and each claim is outlined in river rock. They dig up gravel and sediment from their claim and then rinse out their pans in a shallows near their claim. These are not elaborate underground mines, but it's no less back breaking. Miners spend all day under a grueling sun, daily highs approach 38C (100F) with humidity in the 70%-80% range. March and April are the hottest months of the year in Thailand and they are out in the hottest part of the day. 

There are more photos of the gold miners 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, April 20, 2014

Happy Birthday Bangkok

Girls in a Isaan style musical act wait to go on stage at the Rattanakosin Festival on Sanam Luang.

Bangkok is celebrating its 232nd anniversary this weekend. It's a baby compared to the other great cities of the world like London, Paris or Madrid. Even compared to New World cities like New York and Mexico City it's just a toddler. What Bangkok lacks in historical presence though it more than makes up for in energy. 

Although there's been a presence in Bangkok since the 15th century, the place that is now Bangkok was little more than a wide spot in the Chao Phraya River until 1782, when Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, better known as Rama I, the founder of the Chakri Dynasty (which stills reigns, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current King of Thailand, is Rama IX) moved the capital of Siam (now Thailand) across the river from Thonburi to Bangkok.
A Thai martial arts demonstration at the Rattanakosin Festival. 

Now Bangkok is one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Thais don't call Bangkok Bangkok, that's just what foreigners call it. Thais call it Krung Thep Maha Nakhon. 

The city's full official name, used in ceremonies is: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit (I can't pronounce it either). Translated out of Thai, it's: "City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra's behest." But Thais just call it the Krung Thep for short. 
A young man stands in front of a portrait of Rama IV, the great King Mongkut, one of the most revered of the Chakri Kings. He brought a number of innovations to Thailand and maintained Siam's independence at a time when neighboring Cambodia and Burma were being carved up by French and British colonizers.

The Ministry of Culture is throwing a party on Sanam Luang this year marking 232 years of Bangkok. Although it's supposed to be Bangkok's birthday party, it's really a celebration of Thailand's diversity. From the songbirds of southern Thailand to the foods of Isaan, you can virtually tour Thailand by walking around Sanam Luang. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. 
People in traditional Thai attire (except for the hats) walk around Sanam Luang during a parade honoring Bangkok.

There are more photos of the Bangkok fete 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, April 19, 2014

Travel Time

Travelers in Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok get off an overnight train from Chiang Mai. 

My last Songkran related post, at least until next year's Songkran. 

Thailand travels during Songkran. The local newspapers call the period the "Seven Deadly Days of Songkran" because there are so many fatal wrecks on the highways. The bus companies lay on extra buses, the trains and planes are nearly full. 

Thais who live in Bangkok head to their home provinces to spend time with family and people in the provinces come to Bangkok to see the big city. Everyone, it seems, is going somewhere. 

I went down to Hua Lamphong Railway Station to photograph people on the move. Hua Lamphong is  a wonderful old world railway station. It opened in 1916 and, except for the addition of western fast food franchises, sometimes feels like it hasn't changed much in the last 98 years. 
Boys do school work while they wait for their train to go home.

Thailand built an impressive rail network in the early parts of the 20th century and it's possible to go all the way from Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand) to Singapore by train. You have to change trains in Bangkok and Butterworth, Malaysia, but the layovers are easy. If you're into train travel it's one of the world's great trips. 
A worker cleans the windows on a train going to Sungai Kolok, on the Thai-Malaysia border. 

Sleeping on a southbound train. 


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, April 18, 2014

Covering Songkran

My Songkran setup: 1 Canon 5D Mark II body (with 28-70mm f2.8 zoom), a Kata rain cover, a plastic water proof pouch for cash and iPhone, ThinkTank Skin pouches, my 16-35mm and 70-200mm zoom lenses are in the pouches, which are covered by the included water proof covers that come with ThinkTank products. 

Songkran is probably the most famous holiday in Thailand. It's the traditional Thai New Year and celebrated with raucous water fights all over the country. You can be walking down the sidewalk, minding your own business, and find yourself drenched when a pickup truck full of Thai teenagers throw water on you as they speed past looking for another target of opportunity.

Some neighborhoods, like Khao San Road, are closed to regular traffic and become virtual free fire zones of aquatic hijinks.
If you're going to photograph Songkran, you're going to get wet

On one hand, covering Songkran is the easiest thing in the world. Go to the water fights and start photographing. Mission accomplished. But when you're covering Songkran, you have to make sure you're covered or you're going to end up covering some expensive repair bills for cameras that are not waterproof. 

I've been covering Songkran for years now and I have never lost or damaged a piece of equipment. This is how I do it. 

In my normal day to day photography I don't use zooms. I much prefer using fast prime lenses, like the Canon 24mm f1.4 or 50mm f1.2. If I need to change the perspective, I walk closer to or further from what I'm photographing or change lenses. But when you're in the midst of a water fight involving dozens of combatants, changing lenses is a really bad idea and you don't have the mobility you're used to. 

When I photograph Songkran I break out my zoom lenses and older camera body. Just because I've never damaged a camera in Songkran doesn't mean I never will and I don't want to wreck my 5D Mark III covering something as silly as Songkran. I use my old Canon zooms, which I don't normally use, because I can change up my field of view without changing lenses. 

Normally I work out of a shoulder bag. What can I say, I'm old school. During Songkran though I leave the shoulder bag at home and work out of a ThinkTank set of "Skin" pouches. I carry my old Canon 16-35mm f2.8 zoom (version 1 of the lens, more than 12 years old) and my old Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom (I think this lens is about 15 years old). The lenses ride in the ThinkTank pouches. ThinkTank includes brilliantly designed waterproof covers for the pouches. When I get down to the waterfight zone, I cover the pouches with the waterproof covers. It's not very stylish, but it keeps everything bone dry. 

My workhorse lens, and the one that is on the camera for about 75% of what I do for Songkran, is my really old Canon 28-70mm f2.8 zoom, which has been out of production for more than 13 years. I use the zooms one week a year - Songkran. At almost all other times I use my Canon prime lenses. 

For working on the street during Songkran I carry the camera and lens I'm working with in a Kata 702 rain cover. This is an exceedingly uncool way of carrying a camera but it keeps your gear dry and working. It's a giant clear plastic bag. The "front" has a drawstring and Velcro closure which keeps water out of the front. There is no lens covering, so it's important to use filters on your lenses to keep water off the lens itself. Your hands go into holes on the side, which also have drawstring closures. There's water and dust proof zipper and the bottom that seals the whole thing. There is no eyepiece cover per se. The rain cover is clear, so you look through the plastic case when you look through the viewfinder. 

It's a little awkward and strange looking but it works. It costs about $70(US) and is worth every penny.

Finally, if you're going out to photograph Songkran, or any other water fight, don't forget your cash and iPhone. You will get wet. Really wet. Like last person off the Titanic wet. Anything in your pockets will also get wet, and your iPhone is not waterproof (neither is your Android if you were wondering). I bought a plastic waterproof case from a vendor at a BTS station for my iPhone and cash. It cost about 30Baht (one dollar) and keeps my smaller things snug as a bug in a rug. 
A child hoses down passerby during a Songkran water fight. 

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, April 14, 2014

Songkran Part 2

A Songkran reveler uses a large squirt gun in a water fight on Khao San Road

After photographing the sublime for the start of Songkran (the procession for the Phra Buddha Sihing and a mass merit making ceremony), I ventured down to Khao San Road, the backpacker ghetto section of Bangkok, to photograph the ridiculous aspect of Songkran. 

This is what Songkran is most famous for, the no-holds barred all out water fights that can break out with no warning almost anywhere in Bangkok during the holiday period. April is the hottest month of the year and people are ready to cut loose. The water fights cool things down, even if you can't go out in public without worrying about finding yourself as collateral damage between rival gangs of bucket wielding children (and occasionally adults). 
Thais walk through a water battle on Khao San Road. The mist in the background is not rain. It's water fights.

The water fights are nonstop in the touristy parts of town: along Khao San Road, along Silom Road, along Rama I in front of Siam Paragon Mall and Nana, the "entertainment" / red light district on Sukhumvit. The reality though is that a water fight can break out almost anywhere at almost anytime. You'll be walking down the street and a pickup truck full of teenagers come up from behind you and throw buckets of water at you or shoot you with giant squirt guns. 
"Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war" Or something like that. A running water fight on Khao San Road

In general, Thais are very respectful of people on the street during Songkran. Walking around Bangkok with my cameras I try to avoid water fights. Children run up to me laughing and ask if they squirt me or, if they don't ask, they squirt my legs or back. There's always the risk that I'll get caught between rival gangs of  bucket wielding mods and rockers. Tourists though are not respectful of people on Songkran. They will hunt you down and deliberately soak you, whether you're minding your own business and trying to stay dry or on the front line of a water fight. It's just another reason to avoid the touristy parts of town. 

There are more photos of Songkran 2014 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.