Friday, September 30, 2016

Before the Flood

Thai school girls play and swim in the flood waters that have inundated the playground of their school in Ayutthaya province north of Bangkok. 

Two months ago I was covering the drought that devastated rural Thailand and most of Cambodia. I think it's a little early to say the drought is over, but it has been raining. In some places it's raining a lot and the drought is certainly abating. Now I'm covering floods in central Thailand. 
A child swims in the flood waters that swept through his village. 

Flood waters along the Chao Phraya River recently swept down river and pushed through communities along the river. This flood is not caused by too much rain. Indeed, the Thai government says reservoirs upstream are still below 50% full. The current round of flooding was triggered when officials in flood mitigation and irrigation departments opened sluices and flood gates along the river to make room in the reservoirs for expected heavy rains in October. 
A man paddles his plastic canoe through flood waters near a temple in Bang Ban district of Ayutthaya...
And statues at the temple are submerged.

In 2011, Thailand was devastated by historically bad flooding that swamped 65 of the country's 77 provinces. Localized flooding started in July, by October huge swaths of central Thailand (including the parts of Ayutthaya that are again underwater) were submerged, the flood wasn't declared over until January 2012. 

I wasn't living here during the 2011 flood, but I followed it from our home in Phoenix and did what I could do get wire service coverage of the flood into the Arizona Republic. People living in the US probably best remember the flood because it took Western Digital's hard drive factories in Thailand off line and, at the time, most of the WD drives sold in the US were made in Thailand
A lottery vendor waits in the flooded plaza of a temple for a boat to take to her home in a flooded village a few hundred meters away. 

Thailand was so traumatized by the 2011 flood that the current government has vowed it will never again happen and that everything that can be done will be done to prevent a recurrence. So with the prediction of more rains in October, the sluices are being opened to make room in the reservoirs.
A woman lifts her daughter out of a boat. This is not a waterway. It's a road. A banana plantation, now underwater, is on the left. 

I went up to Ayutthaya today to see how bad the flooding is. The local people I talked to said this was the worst flooding they've seen since 2011. A number of communities are underwater and thousands acres of farmland are underwater. In the district I was in, most of the flooded farmland had been banana plantations but rice fields have flooded in other parts of Ayutthaya. 

The areas that are flooded are really flooded. Some villages have more than a meter of water flowing through them. At this point though the flooding is still localized. Some areas are completely submerged but neighboring villages are bone dry. Many of the roads here are built well above grade and they function (intentionally) as dikes or levees and the dikes are saving communities away from the river. 
Villagers paddle down a flooded road in their village. The water here was about a meter deep. 

The government has asked the flooded communities to be patient and has asked dry communities to do what they can to help their neighbors. Even though this flood is still localized, communities that are flooded are experiencing significant losses. 

I met a banana and corn farmer who lost his entire year's crops. Both his cornfields and banana groves are completely underwater. His loss is 100%. 
A man who grows corn and bananas paddles out to the road that runs past his now flooded farm. 
His submerged banana groves. The water here is very deep - the banana plants are well over two meters tall. 

This is early in the flood season and flood waters are still inching up. This isn't a flood like Katrina in 2005 or the Fukishima tsunami in 2011 - cataclysmic events that swept through a community in hours. This is a disaster in slow motion. A person at a flooded temple told me everyday there is more water in the temple, that the flood started a week ago and it's still getting worse. 
A man pulls a "khlong" jar back to his home in a flooded village. In rural Thailand these huge ceramic jars are used to store domestic water. His broke loose overnight and he pulled back to his home. 

The people I met in Ayutthaya are responding to the flood with what I could only call Thai je ne sais quoi. 

When I wanted to visit a flooded village, I asked a shopkeeper if there were any boats available. She yelled to a friend that I needed a boat and her friend, an 80 year old woman, paddled over to me and told me to hop in and took me through the village. When we got back to the highway, the woman who paddled me around refused my offer of money. We had a brief discussion and I was finally able to convince her to take about 100 Baht. Less than $3.00 US. 
Children swim in the floodwaters that left their playground submerged. 

I stopped at a school that was partially submerged (the first floor was underwater but the second floor was dry and all of the classes had moved upstairs). I asked if I could look around and the principal said of course and then added, "but you should really come back at 1.30PM, when the children swim in the playground." So I went back at 1.30 and the students were taking swimming lessons in the floodwaters. 

The banana farmer who lost everything invited me into an empty storage shed and offered me his last bunch of bananas. I tried to pay for the bananas and he absolutely refused. He wouldn't accept anything from me. 
A man from a flooded village floats on a home made raft past a submerged chedi and Buddha statues at a temple in Bang Ban. 

There are more photos of the flooding in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Back On Track

Shoppers walk on the track bed in the Samut Songkhram (Maeklong) train station. The train is running again after the State Railway of Thailand spent nearly a year upgrading the tracks. 

I took a much delayed road trip today to do some purely touristy things. The day started at the floating market in Damnoen Saduak and then went to Samut Songkhram to see the market on the train tracks
A vendor in the Samut Songkhram market. The yellow and red banner is a tip-off that she's selling vegetarian foods for the Vegetarian Festival. 

The local market is built on the train tracks in Samut Songkhram (also called Maeklong because the Maeklong River empties into the Gulf of Siam here). The station is the terminus of the Baen Laem-Samut Songkhram line, a short (less than 20 kilometer) train line that mostly hauls local people. 

The trains come into town three times a day. Each time the train comes into town, the vendors move their goods and stalls out of the way, wait for the train to pass and then put it all back together. The market, and its railroad ballet, has become a big tourist draw. 
A vendor bags limes on the tracks while a local resident walks past.

The tourists, most of whom are on package tours to the floating market, come into town on huge buses, line up in the market, watch the train come through and get back on the buses and leave town. They're in town about 20 minutes. 
A grilled shrimp vendor on the tracks.

The vendors take this all in stride. On one hand, the tourists get in the way of doing business. On the other hand, the tourists are the business. They contribute a lot of money to the local economy, although most of the money goes to the established business interests in town and the vendors don't see much of it. 

But this is a real working market. Local people come down to the market to shop. Most of the vendors sell produce, sea food and meats. A few sell tourist knick knacks like tee shirts and key chains. It gets extremely crowded. Sometimes so crowded you can hardly move through the throng. 
Local people walk down the tracks
Tourists and locals line the tracks as the train comes into town. 

I like visiting the market on the train tracks in Samut Songkhram. I first visited in 2009 and, while there are a lot more tourists in it now, it's still one of the most unique sites in Thailand. The truth is there are a lot of tourists almost everywhere in Thailand and coping with the tourist invasion is a necessary task when you visit or live in the Land of Smiles
A Thai shopper waits for the train to pass. I made this photo with a fisheye lens - I was just inches from both the woman and the train. Note the limes on the ground under the train. 
A vendor holds the awning for her stall as the train passes. 

The market is a fun place to visit. I think the best way to get down there is take a taxi and combine it with a trip to the floating markets that are common in this part of Thailand. You can take a train from Bangkok, but it's a long, tiring trip that requires a change of trains and a long walk in Samut Sakhon (also called Mahachai). 
Another fisheye photo of a train leaving Samut Songkhram.


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Monday, September 26, 2016

Likay in the Fort

The Likay show in Pom Mahakan Sunday night

I went down to Pom Mahakan last night to photograph another community event in the old fort. The community organized a "Likay" show for the families in the fort and anyone who wanted to drop in. The residents set up small food stands throughout the fort and served the usual staples of Thai street food, from grilled meats to Phat Thai (fried noodles) to som tam (papaya salad) to fried bananas and more. 
Grilled meats - in this case, squid, fish and chicken, for sale in the fort. Thai community events like this are really moveable feasts. The food is delicious and inexpensive

I like going to community events in the fort. The food is great and I like watching the progression of their "living history museum." But the headline event last night, the likay show, is what really drew me to the fort. 

From Wikipedia, "Likay is a form of popular folk theatre from Thailand. Its uniqueness is found in the combination of extravagant costumes with barely equipped stages and vaguely determined storylines, so that the performances depend mainly on the actors’ skills of improvisation and the audiences’ imagination.

Likay, like mor lam, is just plain fun. Even if you don't understand what's being said and sung (and I don't), watching the interplay between crowd and performers is a good time.
The "dressing room" for the likay performers was the ground floor of a resident's home. 
A performer does his makeup. 

The performance took place in the courtyard in the middle of the fort. People spread out on mats on the ground or grabbed one of the few benches available and settled in for the show. Music accompaniment was provided by a trio performing on traditional Thai instruments.

A couple of times performers seemed to flub their lines. They covered by cracking a joke and the crowd roared in laughter. 
Putting on makeup. The lights in the background are the stage.

Ready to go on stage

I went to a Chinese opera with a Thai friend a couple of years ago, before I had been to Likay show. I had a good time at the opera but my friend did not. On the drive back to Bangkok he said he didn't like Chinese opera, that it was too slow and he didn't understand Chinese. (Chinese opera in Thailand is usually performed in the Teochow language.) He went on to say that he preferred Likay. It was faster and he could understand it.
A performer prays while getting into character

My friend was right. Chinese opera might be better to photograph (it's more ornate, the makeup is more dramatic and the staging is more elaborate) but likay is more fun. The shows are shorter (Chinese opera goes four or more hours, a likay show is an hour to 90 minutes) and snappier. I had a really good time at the likay show and plan to go to more. 
A performer at the show. 
The "stage," in this case the plaza in the fort. The only set dressing was a couch that the leads shared for most of the show. The other characters kneeled on the left and right sides of the couch. 

Likay shows are usually performed at temple fairs. They're less common in Bangkok but quite common upcountry. Like a lot of the folk entertainment in Thailand, it can be hard for foreigners to find out about the shows. They're not advertised in English language media - in fact they're hardly advertised at all. Usually there's a poster in front of the temple with a picture of performers in costume. The posters are always in Thai, sometimes the dates are in Arabic numerals, but usually they're in Thai script. (Thais use Arabic and Thai numbers pretty much interchangeably.)

If you're in Thailand and you want to see some fun Thai folk entertainment, you should seek out a likay show. It's not as ornate as Chinese opera, but neither is it as intimidating.* 
After the show performers came out and posed for photos.


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.

*I don't mean to imply that Chinese opera performers are intimidating. They're not. They're as approachable and friendly as likay performers. But the operas are more intimidating because they're very long and very loud and the audience much more reserved. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pom Mahakan Update

A resident of Pom Mahakan packs up her home on the day she moved out of the old fort

I've been to the old fort at Pom Mahakan a few times since the city tried to evict residents earlier this month. Most of the residents are hoping to stay in the fort, which is their ancestral home, but their legal status is questionable. The city owns the title to the land and has plans to build a public park on the site. But more and more community activists, urban planners, and Thai academics are lining up on the side of the residents. Even the Prime Minister has hinted that he thinks the residents should be allowed to stay in the old fort.
A partly demolished home in Pom Mahakan.

The residents are becoming more proactive about protecting their community. They are doing outreach. They host school field trips to the community. University students walk through the community and talk to residents about their life in the fort. 

The residents' "living history museum" is drawing more and more tourists, both Thai and foreign, to the old fort. When I started going to the fort, six months ago, I was usually the only nonresident in the fort. Now I see Thai and foreign visitors almost every time. The foreigners (unless they're with a Thai speaker) usually just walk through the fort, clutching their Lonely Planet books. But the Thai visitors spend time talking to residents. 

The residents sponsor community wide events on weekends. Hundreds of people come to see what it's like to live in the fort. 
Children hang paper flowers during a community wide event to spur interest in the fort
People line up on the city wall that is the outer boundary of the fort during a community event to support the residents. 

There's a sense of optimism in the fort now. When I started going to the fort, in March, people were vowing to stay and said over and over again that they would fight to the death to keep their homes. Now they vow to stay but are relying less on fight to the death rhetoric and more on the living history museum and tourist attraction the residents have created.
A demolished home in Pom Mahakan. 

There are scars from the recent struggles in the fort though. At least 12 homes were destroyed during the city's eviction effort on September 3. Those home sites are now open wounds in the community. Scavengers still pick through some of the rubble. 
A woman wipes her brow while scavenging through demolished homes in the park. 
A demolished home site in the community

I hope to keep visiting the fort until the situation is resolved, one way or another. In the meantime, city officials have announced plans to evict communities from other parts of Bangkok, especially along the Chao Phraya River. The beat goes on. 


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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Celebrating a Century

The Archbishop of Bangkok prays in the sanctuary of Santa Cruz church during the church's 100th anniversary celebration. 

Santa Cruz Catholic Church, in Thonburi, is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Bangkok. Thailand has a small but active Catholic community. Portuguese soldiers of fortune came to Thailand in the 1600s and played an important role in helping the Kings of Ayutthaya, the ancient imperial capital of the Siamese empire, defend Siam (now Thailand) from Burmese invaders. 

When Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in the 1760s, the Portuguese, along with the Siamese survivors, fled downriver to Thonburi. King Taksin, the monarch who reestablished the Siamese empire, gave the Portuguese a land grant near his palace and in 1769 they established a church on the site. 
The Archbishop (right) in front of the sanctuary

The original sanctuary was destroyed in a fire and the church outgrew a second sanctuary on the site. In 1916, the church dedicated its third sanctuary. The Catholics of Bangkok gathered at the church earlier today to celebrate the sanctuary's centenary.
The anniversary mass in the Church. 

The area around Santa Cruz is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Bangkok. It's an amazingly diverse part of town. There are two large, and important, Buddhist temples in the neighborhood. Santa Cruz is the heart of the remaining Catholics in the area. And there are two mosques in the area. Buddhists, Catholics and Muslims live side by side and respect each others' faiths. 

Going over to Santa Cruz and walking through the community is like leaving Bangkok and visiting a village. Except you're just a kilometer or so from the heart of the city. 
Nuns pray during the anniversary mass. 

I've been going to the Santa Cruz area for at least three years now. I started going to work on stories about the Portuguese bakeries (there are bakeries there that make cakes based on a centuries old Portuguese recipe). Then I worked on stories about the Catholic community, the Buddhist community at Wat Kanalaya (north of the church) and a couple of stories from the Muslim communities west of the church. 

When I started going over there, I was frequently the only non Thai person in the community. Now it's changing. Now I run into tour groups every time I go over there. Especially around Santa Cruz Church. It's right across the river from the Flower Market and there's continuous ferry service from the Flower Market to Wat Kanalaya. Tour groups that explore the city on bicycle bring groups over to Santa Cruz on the ferries a couple of times a day. 
Alter servers wait for the Archbishop to arrive for the anniversary mass.

The community is changing but so far it's been positive change. There's a new museum with artifacts from the Portuguese times. The museum has a very nice cafe and dessert bar. One of the bakeries has a coffee stand and both bakeries sell their cakes. People still wave and smile and love to chat with visitors but I worry that the tourists will wear out their welcome. 
A man holds a rosary while he prays during the anniversary celebration. 

There are more photos of the Santa Cruz anniversary 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, September 16, 2016

Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival

People pray at the entrance to Heng Chia Shrine during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Bangkok's Chinatown. 

I went down to Chinatown to see if anyone was getting ready for the Vegetarian Festival, a nine day celebration of vegetarian food and Chinese culture. The festival starts around October 1 this year, so I was a little early. On my walk back to my subway stop I saw a large crowd at Heng Chia Shrine and I stopped to photograph. 
Inside Heng Chia Shrine. It's a tiny place, smaller than the average suburban living room in an American home. 

Heng Chia Shrine is an interesting place. It's on one of the main streets in Bangkok's Chinatown. It's not just small - it's tiny and there is hardly any room to move around inside. There's a permanent haze and the smell of burning incense is thick in the air. 

I've passed by it countless times and it's almost always busy. Frequently busier than the much larger and better known temples in the neighborhood. Earlier today, for the Mid-Autumn festival, it was jammed. 
Lighting candles and incense in front of the shrine. 

The Mid-Autumn festival is not one of Bangkok's better known Chinese festivals, like Lunar New Year, Vegetarian Fest or Hungry Ghost (it's widely celebrated in Taiwan or China though). On the lunar calender it falls between Hungry Ghost and Vegetarian Festival and most tourists to Bangkok miss it. 

The holiday is best known as a time for sharing "moon cakes." Chinese bakeries and shops throughout Bangkok, including convenience stores like 7-11, sell the little calorie bombs by the dozen (one small moon cake, a little bigger than a donut, has almost 1,000 calories). But the religious aspects of the day are largely overlooked outside of the Chinese community.
A woman making an offering of cash prays before leaving the money in the shrine. 

I spent about an hour photographing activities at the shrine. I was finally done in by the smell of the incense. It completely overpowered me and I had to leave. Sometimes the photos find you. Sometimes you find the photos. This time the photos found me. 

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Friday, September 9, 2016

All Aboard!

The new khlong boat makes its way up Khlong Phadung Kasem towards Hua Lamphong Train Station in Bangkok. 

Bangkok has a new khlong boat service. This city used to be known as the "Venice of Asia" because of the many khlongs (canals) that used to cut through the city. Most of the khlongs have been filled in or covered over in the name of development and now the "Venice of Asia" has some of the worst traffic in the world. 

There are still one or two khlongs in Bangkok proper (on the east side of the Chao Phraya River) that have passenger boats, the biggest being Khlong Saen Saeb, which is served by very large passenger boats that haul commuters into and out of Bangkok but most of the khlongs are no longer navigable for boats. 

The national government has encouraged the city to explore ways of renovating the existing khlongs and the city recently started running passenger boats on Khlong Phadung Kasem. 
Passengers on one of the new khlong boats. 

I like this idea. The boats start at a pier near Hua Lamphong (the central train station) and follow canal on a broadly northwesterly route to Thewet Market. The route is still in the experimental stage, and it's free (for now). They're using converted garbage boats that have been thoroughly cleaned and have seats bolted to the deck. If the experiment is successful, the garbage boats will be replaced with proper passenger boats and there will be a small charge to ride the boat.
A woman photographs her boat trip with a smart phone. 

I've traveled on the boat a couple of times. I like it, but I have to give it a mixed review. I like it because I like using mass/public transportation. I can take the skytrain to the subway, the subway to the pier (it's about a 300 meter walk from the end of the subway to the pier) and then the boat to my destination in the old part of Bangkok. The mixed review is because the boat is very slow. And the canal, which passes through some interesting parts of Bangkok, is so far below street level and that you can't see anything but concrete embankments. 
A boat approaches Hua Lamphong. The canal embankments are so tall that you don't have much of a view of Bangkok's streets during your cruise.

So is the boat worth it? It's free (for now) so that's a definite plus. I will keep riding it because I like mass transit and the boat goes directly to a neighborhood I plan to photograph later this year. The boat's leisurely pace up the canal and relative quiet means you'll have a chance to socialize with other passengers. (The Chao Phraya River boats and Khlong Saen Saeb boats are so loud it's almost impossible to have a conversation on them.) 
A crewman holds the boat in place while a passenger prepares to board. 

Even if it's not perfect I have to give credit to city officials for trying something new. Anything that relieves Bangkok's horrible traffic congestion is a good thing. 

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.