Saturday, March 28, 2015

Another Mall in Bangkok

Women take "selfies" of each other on the red carpet in front of EmQuartier, the newest shopping mall in Bangkok.

Central Bangkok, an area rich with upscale shopping malls, has another place where the 1% can spend their hard earned Baht. EmQuartier (note: it is not "EmQuarter") is a new shopping destination across Sukhumvit Road from Emporium, a well known high end mall in Bangkok. 
Inside EmQuartier. 

The new mall is a part of a major expansion of shopping at Sukhumvit Soi 24. It's adjacent to the Phrom Phong BTS station, in the middle of a part of Bangkok where many farangs (Thai for caucasian foreigners) live and very close to Thong Lor and Ekkamai, where lots of wealthy Thais live. Emporium, opened in the late 90s, was the first mall in the area, EmQuartier opened this week and there are plans in place for EmSphere, about 100 meters west of Emporium. The complex is being rebranded and will be called the EM District (you may notice a theme running through the names.) 
Shoppers walk past a women's fashion store in EmQuartier.

The EM District is owned by the same developers who own Paragon, another large, very high end, shopping complex on Rama I Road, about 4.5 kilometers (roughly 2.5 miles) from Emporium and the EM District. Paragon is on Rama I, but both are really the same road. Rama I changes names several times but it is a straight shot down Sukhumvit to Rama I and Paragon is a longish walk from EM District. 
A worker installs flooring in a courtyard at the new mall. 

There's a plethora of expensive malls between Paragon and EM District. Coming out Rama I/Phloen Chit/Sukhumvit (the three run together) there is: Paragon, a "luxury" mall; Siam Square, which features fashions geared to college students and young adults; CentralWorld, a sprawling mall with almost every high end western and Japanese chain store you can name; Gaysorn, one of the first high end malls in Bangkok; Central Chidlom (also spelled Chit Lom), more of a huge department store with aspirations of being a mall; Central Embassy, a brand new mall that opened in 2014 and still seems mostly empty and Terminal 21, a mall popular with Thai teenagers and fashionistas. Of all the malls, only Terminal 21 has a really unique identity and is geared to local people. 
On an escalator in EmQuartier, a shopper unknowingly matching the Hamburglar. (There's a McDonald's in the food court of the new mall.)

EmQuartier is opening in the midst of what seems to be an economic slow down in Thailand. There are near daily reports in the local media about economic challenges facing Thailand. Thailand's export driven economy is facing hurdles as the export driven economies of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam gather strength. Tourism in Thailand is experiencing a slowdown because Russians (who make up a big part of the tourism to Thailand) can't afford to travel as the ruble collapses. 
People file into EmQuartier a few hours after it opened.

As a lay person observer and resident of Bangkok, this development does not feel sustainable. One of the problems is that the malls (again, except for Terminal 21) all have the same stores and restaurants. Paragon is unique because you can buy a car in the mall (so long as you're buying a Rolls Royce or Masareti. Seriously, there are Rolls and Maserati showrooms in Paragon) but otherwise they feel very similar.
A worker dry mops a floor while shoppers go around him.

All of these malls contribute to the surreal nature of living in Bangkok. I can go from photographing in Khlong Toey market or slum to eating at an expensive bistro in EmQuartier in minutes. It's about 2.5 kilometers (roughly two miles) from one of Bangkok's most famous wet markets and infamous slums to some of the most expensive retail in Southeast Asia. This really is an amazing city. 

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, March 26, 2015

Not Your Usual Beauty Pageant

Contestants on stage in the first round of the Miss Tiffany's 2015 pageant. 

Thailand is famous for its tolerance of transgendered people. "Ladyboys" or kathoey in Thai are a well documented part of Thai culture. Thailand is the center of gender reassignment surgery.

Thailand is also famous for its cabaret shows featuring transgendered performers. I've photographed a couple of them. Working within inches of the performers I could not tell they were transgendered.

One of the best known cabarets is Miss Tiffany's, in Pattaya. Every year Miss Tiffany's hosts an international pageant for women who were born male.
Contestants wait to go on stage during the pageant. 

A contestant gets help with her eyelashes. 

The first round of the pageant, for Thai contestants, was yesterday at CentralWorld, a large mall in central Bangkok. The women were primping and preening. The mall's central court was packed with spectators. 

The contestants wore white tee shirts with the Miss Tiffany's logo. There will be a swim suit pageant at the end of this month, the finals will be held in Pattaya on May 8. The international finals are usually held in December, also in Pattaya, and features contestants from around the world. 
A contestant prays before going on stage. 
She's video chatting with a friend on their smart phones. 
Contestants watch the pageant. 
Contestants on stage.

There are more photos from the pageant 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, March 21, 2015

Riding The Rails

A snack vendor walks the aisle in a third class train running from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. The Ayutthaya line of State Railways of Thailand was built in the late 1800s and was the first train line in Thailand.

Thailand has a vast train system that crisscrosses the Kingdom. You can travel from the Malaysian border all the way to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand or Nong Khai, on the Lao border in Isaan. If you want to be a stickler, you can start in Singapore and ride the rails all the way to Vientiane, Laos, with transfers in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. It would take several days but it could be done. 
On the line to Aranyaprathet, a town on the Cambodian border, a woman looks out the window of a train leaving Bangkok.

Thailand's trains provide a reasonably reliable and very inexpensive way for people to travel across the Kingdom. Third class fares on most trains are just a couple of dollars. The two hour trip to Ayutthaya is only .60¢ (20 Thai Baht), the four hour run to Kabin Buri, near the Cambodian border, is just over $1.00 (33 Thai Baht). The third class train to Chiang Mai, a bone crunching 15 hours in an unairconditioned car, is only about $4.00 (121 Baht).

To give an idea of how inexpensive third class train travel is in Thailand consider this. My tickets to and from Kabin Buri were just over $2.00 (66 Thai Baht round trip), my lunch in Kabin Buri was 30 Baht (under $1.00) for curry and rice with a bottle of water, throw in a couple of bottles of water at 10 Baht each (.30¢) and the total was about 116 Baht. Taxi fare for the 30 minute ride from our apartment to Hua Lamphong train station, to catch the early morning train, was 120 Baht (about $4.00). Note that I am not complaining about the cab fare. Bangkok taxis are very inexpensive compared to taxis almost anywhere else for a city of similar size.   

I call the service "reasonably reliable" because trains are almost always late. Sometimes just a few minutes but hours late is common. My train to Ayutthaya this week, supposed to be about an 80 minute ride, was over two hours. My train to Kabin Buri yesterday, scheduled to be 3:45, chugged into Kabin Buri station about 20 minutes late. 
The train to Kabin Buri.

Maybe because there's so much opportunity, the world is looking at Thailand's trains with covetous eyes. Chinese, Japanese and Europeans are all vying to invest in Thailand's rail system. The Chinese, in particular, want to see high speed rail built from Nong Khai (on the Lao border) to Sattahip, Thailand's main deepwater port. Not coincidentally, the Chinese are also trying to build high speed rail through Laos, from China to Nong Khai, and Laos is a country with virtually no rail currently. That would give the Chinese access to deepwater ports for their factories in southern China.
Passengers get ready to hop off a train on the northern line.

I've ridden Thai trains from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram, Kanchanaburi, Nong Khai, Ayutthaya and Kabin Buri. It's a great way to see the countryside. The third class trains are not air conditioned and seats are frequently hard benches but they're pretty clean. Not clean room clean but certainly clean enough for people in jeans or travelers clothes. Vendors walk through the trains hawking food (stir fries, like chicken or pork with chilies and basil are popular) and the food, while it won't win any culinary awards, is not bad. Thais are hospitable, so it's easy to strike up a conversation if you want to. 
A monk on a train into Bangkok on the northern line. 

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, March 18, 2015

Amazing Bangkok

A couple gets ready for a pre-wedding photography session at the old Customs House in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok. The building is popular with Bangkok wedding and portrait photographers - it offers lovely light and a richly atmospheric setting for photos.

I went down to the old Customs House Tuesday morning to see what was happening with the historic old building. The old Customs House was designed by an Italian architect and constructed on the Chao Phraya River in the 1880s. The Chao Phraya was Siam's gateway to the world then and the Customs House one of the most important buildings in Bangkok. 

The customs offices moved when the port moved from Bangkok to Khlong Toey (still in Bangkok but several kilometers downstream from the central Bangkok waterfront) in the mid 1950s. The old, beautiful Customs House was shuttered. Eventually the Marine Fire Department, responsible for fighting fires on the river moved into it. 
A firefighter climbs the stairs to his apartment after showering on the ground floor of the old Customs House. Despite being closed for almost 60 years, the building retains a good deal of its old grandeur

The Marine Fire Department / old Customs House sits on prime real estate along the Bangkok waterfront. The French Embassy is just meters away - the north wall of the embassy is the south wall of the Fire Department. Very high end hotels line the waterfront but none of them have the architectural panache of the Customs House. 
The facade of the old Customs House, now the Marine Fire Department headquarters and barracks

Rumors have been swirling for years that the Fire Department will be kicked out of the building and that it will be renovated into a high end hotel. It's not clear if the building, which is gorgeous but in pretty rough shape, will be saved or if it will be razed and an all new building put up in its place. I went down there to see if the firefighters were still there. 
Children of families living in the building hang their laundry on the second floor landing

The firefighters are still there, but there are only about half the families living in the building that lived there the last time I visited, about a year ago. I wandered around for about 90 minutes, mostly photographing architectural details. I was finishing up when I saw a young couple walk into the lobby with a load of luggage. They didn't look like firefighters so I followed them in. 

The woman was wearing a wedding dress. They had come to the Customs House for their pre-wedding photography session. The photographer they hired followed me in. I introduced myself and we made some small talk. I made a couple of photos while they got ready for the session and then I left because I didn't want to interfere with the photographer they had hired. 
A portrait of the couple. This is unposed. They were waiting for their photographer to get set up when I made the photo

Chance encounters like this are one of the things I love about photography in Bangkok. The fire department discourages photographers from wandering around the residential parts of the building (I don't really blame them. Would you want tourists wandering through your home?) but the public parts of the complex, like the ground floor foyer and the main staircase are open. 

I can't think of many places that would allow you to wander into the Fire Department's headquarters relatively freely.  Although photography is discouraged, the are no guards or locks, just a couple of discrete signs asking tourists not to enter residential parts of the complex. Sometimes firefighters will take you into the building if you ask them to, but this is more easily arranged if you speak Thai. Wedding, fashion and portrait photographers frequently use the building for sessions. As far as I know there is no permitting process so long as you work in the public areas and don't interfere with fire fighting operations. 


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, March 16, 2015

Sunday Morning at Wat Bo

A Cambodian man makes merit by giving monks money during a mass merit making at Wat Bo in Siem Reap. 

We went for a walk through Siem Reap Sunday morning during our weekend getaway to Angkor. 

Siem Reap and Thailand have a complicated history (for that matter, Thailand and Cambodia have a complicated history). Siem Reap is Khmer for "The place we defeated the Siamese (Thais)" or words to that effect because Khmer (Cambodian) forces dealt Siamese forces a crushing defeat there in the 1500s. On the other hand, the Siamese came back in the 1800s and governed western Cambodia until the French colonization in the late 1800s pushed the Siamese back to Thailand. 

Wat Bo, a large temple in Siem Reap, was built as the temple to meet the needs of Siamese soldiers garrisoned in Siem Reap.
A Cambodian woman prays during the mass merit making ceremony.

Each year, in the middle of March, Wat Bo hosts a large merit making ceremony for all of the Buddhist monks in Siem Reap province. This year the merit making ceremony happened to be on the Sunday we went walkabout. Through happenstance we ended up at Wat Bo, along with 1,300 Buddhist monks and even more Cambodian lay people. 

In the mass merit making ceremonies I've covered in Thailand, monks walk in long rows between lay people sitting on the ground. At Wat Bo, the monks are seated and the lay people walk among them. 1,300 monks is a lot of monks and Wat Bo is big but not that big. There were monks sitting almost everywhere throughout the temple grounds. 
A woman prays with a bundle of cash she was donating to monks at Wat Bo. 

There were a few other foreigners there but not very many. This was a Cambodian ceremony that apparently flies under the radar of most of the tourists. 
Monks leave the ceremony in tuk-tuks (three wheeled taxis). 

It was an interesting way to spend a Sunday morning. There are more photos of the merit making ceremony 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. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Morning At Angkor

Tourists use their flashlights to guide them into Angkor Wat before the sunrise. This photo is about a 2 minute time exposure made with my Olympus E-P5. I rested the camera on the balustrade along the walkway and used my iPhone to control it, using the camera's wifi and Ol.Share app on my phone.

Angkor Wat is one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World," a place of such scope you have to see it to believe it. During its heyday, roughly 1100 - 1200 CE, Angkor and its surrounding complexes was the largest city in the world. Bigger than London, Constantinople, Moscow or better known European cities. New York, and the Americas were centuries away from European domination though there were flourishing civilizations in what are now known as the Americas. 

Angkor eventually collapsed and what is now Cambodia became a vassal state of neighboring empires - the Siamese (Thais), Cham (Muslim Vietnamese) Annamese (southern Vietnamese) and eventually a French colony. Angkor fell into disrepair after the Khmer capital moved to Phnom Penh. 
Buddhist monks pray in the heart of Bayon, a large temple in Angkor Thom, a part of the complex of temples and ruins in Angkor Wat.

Angkor has been rediscovered by tourists. Now it's by far Cambodia's biggest tourist attraction. Millions of people traipse through the temples and ruins of Angkor every year. 
Tourists line up along the reflecting pond in front of the main Angkor Wat temple for the sunrise. Sunrise at this time of year is usually obscured by smoke and haze from burning in the farm fields around the temples. Slash and burn agriculture is still widely practiced in Southeast Asia. 

The success of marketing Angkor is killing Angkor. Tourists climb around fragile rock faces, causing wear on the ancient temples. They pose for pictures inappropriately, desecrating sacred places. They visit the temples improperly dressed.

At some point authorities are going to have to limit tourism to Angkor. Install viewing platforms around the temples rather than allow people to climb on the temples. Electric trolleys to move people between temples rather than motorcycles, tuk-tuks, SUVs or diesel exhaust belching tourist buses. 
A tourist photographs Angkor Wat with his smart phone. 

Changes have come to Angkor. Nine years ago, when we first visited, tourists climbed the ancient steps to the top of the temple. Now there are only one or two staircases available to tourists and the stone stairs have been covered and protected by steel or wooden staircases (which, coincidentally, are also less steep, have handrails and are generally much safer), some parts of Bayon have been roped off and shoring has been installed in some of the temples. 

Still, much more is required to protect the remains of the ancient civilization.

There are more photos of Angkor and its environs 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. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Salt Fields and Climate Change

A worker leaves a salt field in Samut Sakhon province, south of Bangkok. 

I went to the salt fields south of Bangkok this morning to photograph some of the workers. The fields are in Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram provinces, close to the Gulf of Siam.

Fields near the Gulf are flooded with salty sea water. Mother nature takes over and the water is evaporated off the fields leaving a crusty covering of salt. They've been producing salt down here this way for centuries. 
Workers rake the salt. 

Making the salt this way is a seasonal activity. They start collecting salt in February (the rains usually end in November and they need a couple of months to dry out the fields) and work in the salt fields until April or May, depending on the weather. The rainy season normally starts in June, but it starts raining in May, with storms becoming more and more frequent until the official start of the rainy season. In a typical year, they have about three months to collect salt. 

The last few years have not been typical though. Last year (2014) was a very good season for the salt collectors. Because the rainy season started late, they were able to harvest salt until mid-May. This resulted in a bumper harvest of salt. 
A worker catches his breath before pushing a wheelbarrow full of salt out of the fields. 

Because they collected a lot more salt than normal last year, some of the warehouses are still storing 2014 salt. The surplus of salt has depressed prices - one salt farmer told me 2015 prices are down about 15% compared to 2014 prices. And this year is setting up to be another bumper harvest since there hasn't been much rain this dry season (it normally rains a little bit all year round, even during the dry season, but this dry season has been very dry). 

The salt farmers are stuck. They can leave the salt uncollected in the fields but the land can't be used for other crops. The situation is not as desperate as the one facing rubber or rice farmers, and the number of salt producers is tiny compared to rubber and rice, but they are nervous about how the rest of the year is going to play out for them. 

Rain, or the lack of it, is challenging Thailand in new ways this year. For some, like the salt producers, the drought means an opportunity to harvest more of their products. But the extra supply is bringing down prices. 

Rice farmers are facing the loss of an entire crop. Some rice farmers in Thailand get as many as three crops out of their paddies but the government is warning them that this year there won't be enough water to irrigate the paddies during the dry season. The government is encouraging farmers to take employment off the farm during the dry season this year. 

There are more photos of the salt harvest 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, March 8, 2015

Tattoo You Redux 2015 Edition

A man channels his spirit tattoo and charges the stage during the Wai Krua ceremony at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province. 

The annual tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra, in Nakhon Pathom was yesterday. It's the one day of the year that I can reliably be counted on to work in black and white. There's something about the faces, the graphics and the subject matter that I find myself covering it in monochrome.
A monk is tattooed Friday evening at Wat Bang Phra.

The tattoo blessing is frequently called a "festival" but it's not a tattoo festival in the U.S. sense of the word. People come to Wat Bang Phra to get their tattoos blessed, to unlock the tattoo's spiritual power. Tattoo masters, either monks or deeply religious lay people, give people tattoos or freshen up existing tattoos. All of the work is done by hand with long stainless steel needles. 
A man is tattooed at Wat Bang Phra. 

After the tattoo is completed, the monk (or tattoo master) pray with the tattoo recipient. Sometimes the recipient goes into a trance and unleashes the tattoos mystical powers. He (it's almost always a man, although women are frequently tattooed they don't go into the trances very often) will start growling and howling, punching the air with his fists while his friends rub his ears and bring him gently out of the trance. 
A man channels the power of his tattoo while the tattoo master prays with him. 

On Saturday, there's a large blessing ceremony. Thousands of people, many of whom have sacred Sak Yant tattoos gather in the parking lot for the ceremony which usually starts about 9:30AM. The exact time is selected by the abbot of the temple in the days before the ceremony. It's sometimes 9:09 or 9:19 or 9:39. 
A part of the crowd in the parking lot at Wat Bang Phra. 

Throughout the morning men (usually) rise up, channeling the spirit of their tattoo. If it's a tiger, he becomes a tiger and rushes the stage. If it's a snake, he crawls to the stage. If it's a monkey, he starts chattering like a monkey and runs to the stage with simian like moves. In years of going to Wat Bang Phra, I've only seen a few women go into trances and rush the stage. 
A man rushes the stage, channeling the power of his tattoo. 

Soldiers stop a man rushing the stage and bring him out of his trance. 

I've been going out to Wat Bang Phra on Friday afternoon before the festival. I photograph people getting tattoos Friday afternoon and evening, the temple fair, which has trampolines and bouncy houses for the kids, street food, movies and arcade games. It's Wat Bang Phra's main fund raising event each year. Around 1AM Saturday, I find a park bench at the temple, or an empty spot on the floor, and try to get a couple of hours sleep. I usually get up about 4.30AM and start photographing again. 

By then people are already arriving for the ceremony. They go to different prayer halls at the temple to make merit. Monks do blessings and people are still getting tattoos. Friday and Saturday at the tattoo ceremony are a very long day. 
A man is caught by a soldier while he rushes the stage. 

I don't know if I'm going to Wat Bang Phra next year. It's becoming harder and harder to work at the ceremony. There's no crowd control, but the problem isn't the people who are charging the stage. It's the tourists and gawkers who wander around trying to photograph with iPhones and iPads and pay no attention to where they are or what's going on around them. They're a danger to themselves and the people around them. Photographing the tattoo ceremony requires a lot of situational awareness and the tourists who wander in have hardly any. 

There are more photos of the 2015 tattoo ceremony in my archive (including many in color) and 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. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Makha Bucha Day 2015

Buddhist monks during the Makha Bucha Day procession around the prayer hall at Wat Benchamabopit in Bangkok.

Makha Bucha Day is one of the most important religious holidays in the Theravada Buddhist world. It celebrates the day more than 1,200 disciples came to hear the Buddha preach in a grove in India (the birthplace of Buddhism). The disciples were all ordained personally by the Buddha and were "arhantas" or enlightened ones. 
Monks at Wat Benchamabopit in the Dusit district of Bangkok.

The holiday is usually held on the full moon of the third lunar month. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar each have their own religious governing bodies and Makha Bucha Day is not always celebrated on the same day in every country. Cambodia's celebration of Makha Bucha Day, called Meak Bochea Day, was celebrated in February while it was celebrated in March in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. 

It's not a raucous holiday, in Thailand bars are closed and restaurants aren't allowed to serve alcohol. People go to their neighborhood temple and make merit. At the end of the evening, they participate in a candle light procession around the temple's prayer hall. 
A woman prays at Wat Benchamabopit. 

There are more photos from Makha Bucha Day 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.