Sunday, February 28, 2016

Another Landmark Closing

A woman who sells cymbals, drums, and baking pans from a street stall arranges her merchandise in the Verng Nakorn Kasem neighborhood in Chinatown.

You could build a career in Bangkok photographing the old neighborhoods and markets that are being torn down to make way for new condominium and shopping mall developments. The latest market closing is the Verng Nakorn Kasem neighborhood in Chinatown, also known as the "Thieves' Market." 

The neighborhood is famous as the shopping district for music instruments in Bangkok. From traditional Thai instruments to electric guitars, keyboards and drums you could find it there. The neighborhood was also dotted with small mechanic shops and food stalls. 
Inside an abandoned shop in Verng Nakorn Kasem. 

Verng Nakorn Kasem was owned by one family and the shopowners rented from that family. The family decided to sell the land and the new owners, who own other large parcels in Bangkok, including the Asiatique development, want to redevelop the area into a mall. 

The current lessees are leaving as their leases expire. The neighborhood is following a familiar pattern. 
A woman walks by shuttered shops, their fronts blocked by construction fencing.
About a block away, a woman sells fresh fruit, using the fence to shade her from Bangkok's blistering sun. 

First one or two shops close and they're hardly missed but as more shops close, the neighborhood loses its vitality. And then it loses critical mass until the remaining shops struggle to stay afloat. 
People have already moved out of many of the shophouses in Verng Nakorn Kasem. This is not a normal scene in Bangkok. For a city of 12 million people, Bangkok is quite clean and surprisingly well ordered with regular trash pickup. You only see scenes like this in neighborhoods where evictions are taking place.

I just found out about the evictions in Verng Nakorn Kasem and the neighborhood's transition is already well underway, so I don't know how often I'm going to go back there. 
A man sorts recyclables he recovered from abandoned shophouses in Verng Nakorn Kasem. 

I am not a musician and I've never shopped for instruments in Bangkok. Nor have I ever really explored Verng Nakorn Kasem. Its passing doesn't impact me directly. It's more a symptom of how this remarkable city is changing. The things that make Bangkok unique are being torn down and replaced with condominium developments and malls, not that different from what you would find in New York, London, or Singapore.

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, February 23, 2016

Honoring the Buddha

Buddhist monks walk to their places for the observance of Makha Bucha Day at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani. 

Holy days in Buddhism are based on a lunar calender and the dates change year to year. Makha Bucha Day, also called Magha Puja, Sangha Day or Fourfold Assembly Day, is celebrated on the full moon night of the third lunar month. It marks the occasion when 1,250 monks, enlightened ones ordained by the historical Buddha, spontaneously sought him out to hear him speak. It's one of the most important holy days in Theravada Buddhism and is celebrated by merit making, meditation and candle light processions at most Theravada Buddhist temples in Asia. It's a public holiday in most of Southeast Asia and celebrated in Thai, Lao and Cambodian communities in the US. 
People gather in prayer at Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

This year I went out to Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani province, about 90 minutes from our Bangkok apartment. Wat Phra Dhammakaya is the headquarters of the Dhammakaya sect, a relatively new sect of Thai Buddhism. 
Monks sit on the sides of the chedi before the service at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. 

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is famous because it is unlike any other Buddhist temple in Thailand. Flights landing at Don Mueang airport pass directly over the temple and to the uninitiated it looks more like a UFO sitting on a landing pad than it does a Buddhist temple. The UFO comparison is even stronger at night, when the temple is lit up and the chedi's golden glow fills the night sky. 

Dhammakaya is not without its critics, in Thailand and abroad. Members of the Dhammakaya actively evangelize and seek out converts to Buddhism. Theravada Buddhists in most of Southeast Asia are open to non Buddhists coming to their temples and asking about Buddhism and they're happy to spend as much, or little, time as you want with them while they discuss Buddhism and their beliefs. But Dhammakaya actively recruits. And they preach sort of a Thai version of the prosperity theology, a Buddhist version if you will, of what some evangelical Christian sects in the US preach. 
At the start of the candle light procession around the chedi, people line up with candles and lanterns. 

Monks walk around the chedi during the candle light procession. 

This is very different from what is taught in traditional Theravada Buddhism, which teaches that you make merit through deeds and actions on your path to enlightenment and that through reincarnation you come back a higher being. 

The Dhammakaya movement has a lot of adherents in Thailand and temples throughout the Europe and the US. Dhammakaya sponsors high profile events, like the annual mass pilgrimage of monks through central Thailand and large merit making ceremonies in Bangkok. Dhammakaya has been involved in efforts to make Buddhism the state religion in Thailand, a move that so far has not been successful. 
People gather on the plaza in front of the chedi at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Tens of thousands of lay people and thousands of monks attend the Makha Bucha ceremonies at the temple. 

Although Thailand is 85 to 90 percent Buddhist, and Islam is the second largest religion, there is no state religion in Thailand. Dhammakaya would like to change that, in much the same way the American religious right wants to make Christianity the state religion in the United States. 
The monks' candle light procession around the chedi. The full moon can be seen to the left of the dome of the chedi. 

There are more photos of Makha Bucha 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, February 19, 2016

A Prayer for the Lovelorn

Praying for love at the shrine to Lord Trimurti at CentralWorld, a large shopping mall in central Bangkok.

The spiritual is all around you in Thailand. Sometimes it's observed in small ways, with the anonymous offerings people leave on the sidewalks, to the public displays of faith seen at popular shrines like the Erawan Shrine

Thais seem to have a very tolerant view of religion. Most Thais (about 85% to 90%) are Theravada Buddhists, but it's not unusual to see Thais blending other religious traditions, especially Hindu ones, with Thai Buddhism. This helps explain with Lord Trimurti is so popular in Bangkok. Lord Trimurti is the three Hindu forms of God personalized: Lord Brahma the creator, Lord Vishnu the preserver, and Lord Shiva the destroyer.
A woman lights a candle at the Trimurti shrine.

On Thursday nights, starting about 19.00 and then peaking at 21.30, hundreds of Thai people come to the Trimurti Shrine, on the large plaza in front of CentralWorld, to pray for love and help in the romantic realm. Thursday night at 21.30 is considered auspicious because that is when Trimurti descends from heaven to hear the prayers of his believers. 
A rose vendor sets up for the evening. 

There are rules for praying to Trimurti. You are supposed to pray with nine red roses and nine incense sticks. Many people also bring candles, but usually just one or two. The sidewalk leading to the shrine is lined with flower and incense vendors. You light the incense (and candle if you have one) recite your prayers then leave the roses as the base of the shrine. Workers scoop up the flowers almost as soon as they're dropped. There are no monks leading the prayers, the whole thing is done silently. 
A woman prays at the shrine. 

And a few minutes later a man prayed in almost the same spot. 

A real mix of people come to the shrine to pray for love. Many of the devotees are young women and university coeds, who come in their school uniforms. But there's also a good percentage of men and people closing in on middle age. Most of the people who come to the shrine appear to be alone but there are some couples who come to the shrine together. It's an interesting, diverse mix of people. 
At the busiest time of the evening, between 21.00 and 21.35, hundreds of people line up at the shrine to pray.

Although you get a sense of how popular the shrine is early on a Thursday night, to really appreciate it you should wait until 21.15 or so. It's remarkable. All evening long people alone, or in small groups, pray at the shrine and leave their roses and incense. But then a little after 21.00 there's a change in the crowd. More people light their candles and incense and the crowd around the shrine grows. The size of the crowd peaks just before 21.30 and by 21.45 you would never know they were there. 
After the crowd has left Trimurti Shrine, in front of Central World. 

There are more photos from the Trimurti Shrine 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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Salt of the Earth

A salt worker in Phetchaburi province walks out of the flats after raking up salt. 

I photograph the salt workers of Thailand's gulf coast every year. I like seeing how things are made, especially something as ubiquitous and taken for granted as salt. There are some small salt mines in northern Thailand and I photographed salt being mined in northern Laos a couple of years ago. But on Thailand's gulf coast, salt is gathered in the traditional way. 

Fields near the ocean (or in this case the Gulf of Siam) are flooded with ocean water and then left to dry out. As the sea water evaporates it leaves behind salt. 
Salt workers walk through an empty warehouse on their way to the fields to harvest salt. 

The last few years I've been photographing salt workers in Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram provinces, both very close to Bangkok. We could leave Bangkok about 6AM and still be in the fields at sunrise, which is about 6:45 at this time of year. 

It was very foggy when I went out to photograph the salt this week and when we got to Samut Sakhon I couldn't see across the highway. It would have been almost impossible to photograph the workers. So the person I was working with suggested we keep going down the coast to Phetchaburi province. 
Workers use shovel like things to break up the crystallized salt in one of the fields. 

It was a good call. Although we missed the sunrise, the workers in Phetchaburi start late and we still managed to get to the salt fields before the workers started for the morning. The Samut Sakhon / Samut Songkhram fields are in a rapidly industrializing area (the two provinces are next to each other and the salt fields are in both provinces) every year the fields get smaller and the backgrounds become more cluttered with factories and industrial parks. Every year there are fewer fields to photograph because the land is being sold for industrial use. 
A worker pushes the salt into piles. 

Phetchaburi is about an hour further away and a little more remote, plus the roads are only two lane (the salt fields in Samut Sakhon are off a six lane divided super highway). The ambiance in Phetchaburi is much more rustic. 

Gathering salt this way is very much a seasonal task. It's done only in the dry season, as the fields dry out. I've been in Samut Sakhon when the harvest was delayed by a couple of weeks because unseasonal December rains made it impossible to gather salt. 
A salt worker pushes salt into his basket. Workers in Phetchaburi carry the salt out of the fields in wicker baskets suspended from their shoulders by a bamboo yoke. It's the way they've harvested salt for centuries. In Samut Sakhon, workers use wheelbarrows to get the salt from the fields to the warehouse. 

It hardly rained at all during last year's rainy season and Thailand is in the midst of a drought. While it's a disaster for rice and fruit farmers, it's a good thing for salt harvesters. Warm dry days and lots of sunshine are perfect "growing conditions" for salt gatherers. 
Women relax in the shade of a salt barn next to a field in Phetchaburi. Most of the workers in Samut Sakhon are migrant workers from Isan. The workers in Phetchaburi told me they were local people. 

Salt producers in Phetchaburi and Samut Sakhon are hoping for a good season this year. In Phetchaburi, they usually gather salt from late January until May. In Samut Sakhon they start a little later (usually late February or early March) and go until May. A salt field owner in Phetchaburi told me it was too early in the season to predict whether or not they would have a good year. But salt workers in Samut Sakhon have told me the drought was good for their harvest and could mean a longer season. 
A worker carries baskets of salt out of the fields...

...While another worker empties his baskets of salt in a warehouse next to the fields. Gathering salt, like so many other agricultural jobs, is brutally hard work. The sun beats down, you're standing in a shallow pool of water that is evaporating around you and you're carrying almost one hundred pounds of wet salt on your back. Think about that the next time you order a margarita with a salted rim. 

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, February 9, 2016

Year of the Monkey

Lion dancers perform on Yaowarat Road in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown during the kickoff celebration of Chinese New Year. This is the Year of the Monkey. 

Thailand celebrated its second New Year's Day with gusto this week as thousands of people jammed into Bangkok's Chinatown neighborhood to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Millions of Chinese have emigrated to Thailand through the centuries. By some estimates as many as 14% of Thais are Thai-Chinese or have Chinese ancestors in their family tree. Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year, also called Tet in Vietnamese communities) is a big deal here.
People think of Lunar New Year as a raucous party with fireworks and lion dances, but there is an important religious component to the holiday (and the truth is the fireworks and lion dances are religious). Monks at Wat Traimit start the holiday by lighting candles in the courtyard in front of the temple.  
People gather to pray at Kuan Yim Shrine in Chinatown. 

Although Lunar New Year is an important event on the tourism calender, it's not a creation of tourism authorities. Hundreds of thousands of Thais flock to temples to make merit and pray for a prosperous new year. Bus and train stations are packed with people going to their home provinces to spend the day with family. While the it's not a legal holiday in Thailand, so many people take the day off that rush hours are (a little) less congested.  
A boy in a lion dance troupe waits for the lion dance parade to start. 

Lion dance troupes go through Chinatown performing in shops to bring good luck and a prosperous new year. The owners present cash offerings to the dancers. 

I never tire of the excitement of Lunar New Year in Bangkok. If you look, you can see much of the Thai-Chinese experience in a few city blocks. There's the touristy experience on Yaowarat Road, the spiritual experience in the temples and shrines and Chinese opera (which I didn't photograph this year). 
A woman prays for a prosperous New Year at the lions that guard Wat Mangon Kamlawat, the largest Mahayana Buddhist temple in Chinatown. 

People hold lit incense sticks over their heads while they wait to go into the prayer hall at Wat Mangon Kamlawat to pray. 

This year I ended up spending four days in Chinatown photographing preparations for Lunar New Year and the actual New Year's Day. I've had the privilege of photographing Lunar New Year festivities in a lot of places - New York City's is fun but February in New York is seldom pleasant. (Sorry New Yorkers.) Lunar New Year in Phoenix is mostly a chance to go to a Chinese restaurant and have Americanized Chinese food. But Lunar New Year in Bangkok is as close to the authentic experience as I've come yet. Maybe next year I'll go to Hong Kong. 
A member of a dance troupe performs in an alley in Chinatown. 

Thailand celebrates New Year's three times. January 1 is the official Thai New Year and has been since the 1930s. Lunar New Year is widely celebrated in the Thai-Chinese community and Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year is celebrated in April (it's also celebrated, albeit with a different name, in Theravada Buddhist countries bordering Thailand, like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar). 

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, February 3, 2016

Not The Sweet Life

A sugar worker in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok, cuts sugar cane. 

Thailand is one of the world's leading sugar exporters and sugar is one of the world's most traded commodities. It goes into almost everything we eat (which has creates a whole new set of health issues) and, increasingly, it's used to fuel our cars and trucks

Thailand's sugar yield per acre is expected to go down a little this year because the 2015 rainy season was well below normal and Thailand is in the midst of what could be a crippling drought. The total harvest is expected to increase however because farmers who couldn't plant rice because of the drought instead planted sugar, which was still impacted by drought but not as significantly. 
A worker in the cane fields. The fields are burned out at night with low slow flames that consume some of the chaff and weeds and chase out the snakes. 

Harvesting sugar is backbreaking work. Workers walk through the fields with long knives chopping the plants at ground level then stacking the stalks in rows so tractors with claws can pick up the stalks and put them in trucks. At ground level, this is how sugar has been harvested for centuries. 
A worker atop a truck that hauls sugarcane to a mill. Trucks like this one jam the rural roads of Kanchanaburi province during the sugarcane season. The trucks are more unstable and unsafe than they look. 

Workers start just after dawn and work through the day until late afternoon. Most of the workers are migrants from Isan (northeastern Thailand) and, to a lesser degree, Myanmar and Cambodia. The workers I photographed, all from Isan, took my presence in stride. In fact they were welcoming. They shared their breakfast with me (sticky rice and grilled fish) and asked me what I was doing. I used the translate app in my phone to explain that I was a journalist working on a story about climate change and the Thai drought. When I started photographing, some of the workers joked with my subjects while others asked me to photograph them. Some turned it into a contest to see who could cut the most cane while I was with them. A few gave me their knives and let me try my hand at cutting sugar cane. One swing of the knife was enough to convince me that I couldn't cut cane for a living. 
A woman and her son finish their breakfast. The boy was not working. There is no day care for Thai farm workers and husbands work alongside their wives, so day care is letting the kids play in the fields. 

The El Niño caused drought is being felt throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand, it's contributing to lower yields on important crops like rice and sugar. Farmers, and government leaders, are hoping that rains come in abundance this year after the El Niño fades. 
Workers buy lunch and snacks from a vendor who motors the roads that run between the fields. 


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.