Chinese New Year in Bangkok

Over the past five years, I managed to see a number of celebrations of Chinese new year in Bangkok. While similar to some degree to the traditional Chinese festival, they differ too. Indeed, the Thai version has a more marked Buddhist flavor to it. Of course, this goes together with the Thai syncretism and the hotchpotch of beliefs which mix Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese traditions and animism.

 

Red is the color

Of course, wearing red is almost an obligation on Chinese New Year, as this color is said to bring prosperity.

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Even little kids dress up in quipao, the traditional Chinese dress.

For tourists, this is also the occasion to bargain to buy some traditional red garb and attempt to “blend in”…

 

A family reunion

Just like in China and in Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is mainly a family reunion. Families often go together to the temple, but mainly just like in China, it is an occasion to meet relatives.

Incense in Chinatown temple
Chinese Thais are lighting incense in a temple of Chinatown

People often go in family to the temple. Like in this case, the mother and daughter.

Chinese New year Wat Traimit
A mother and her daughter pray at Wat Traitmit on Chinese New year

The biggest event however takes place on Chinese New Year eve. Indeed on that occasion, it is believed that wishes have the best chance of being realized upon the passage to a new (Chinese) year. Hence, beyond burning incense, Thais also splurge on huge candles as can be seen in the picture below at Wat Traimit in Chinatown. Obviously, the most expensive or biggest candle is believed to bring the most “luck”.

It is a money thing…

There is a heavy confusion among Westerners between what they see as “faith” or “religiosity”, and the own view of Thais on their practices. Thai modern Buddhism is, with some exceptions, mainly oriented on materialism and obtaining immediate material benefits. It goes to the point that some temples have been shamelessly riding the wave of greed, by posting publicity for Mercedes at their entrance! The most uanabashed Thai invitation to relinquish your money to get more money is probably the “garlands of banknotes” hung in the temples…

Garlands of Banknotes.
ON Chinese New Year eve, garlands of banknotes are hung in the temple to incite people to give more.

On some occasions, monks can be rude enough to be checking their smartphones under the nose of the worshippers…

Monk and smartphone
A monk checks his smartphone while faithfuls pray at a Chinatown temple

Probably the most outrageous was seeing a famous brand of German cars “sponsoring” a temple on that occasion:

 

Sponsorship of temples
A German car sponsor a temple in central Bangkok

 

The bigger candle brings the biggest luck…

The Chinese tradition says that you should be burning incense as soon as possible after midnight on Chinese New Year. Where in Hong Kong, this causes regularly some scuffles, to the temple, in Bangkok, things are taken way more easily. People go to burn incense no matter what the time, as long as it is done on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Candles of Wat Traimit
Giant candles set alight at Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Of course, the candles, themselves make for interesting subjects at night time.

Wat Traimit Candles
Flames burn as the giant candles of Wat Traimit consume themslves

Business at the forefront

Chinese New Year is also an occasion for doing business. On that single day, the police is rather understanding with the small-time hawkers which populate Bangkok. Yaowarat road, the main artery in Chinatown becomes  a  pedestrian area on that day Despite this, the heavy crowds and the sheer number of vendors make it a very difficult area to walk through.

Crowd on CNY eve
The huge crowd pressing in Chinatown on CNY eve

Of course, among the stuff sold, you have the habitual “snake oil” peddlers as below (with English advertisement too!).

Chinatown on CNY
Chinatown in Bangkok on Chinese New Year eve

 

 

Bangkok adds a Buddhist touch to Chinese New year

Traditions, for Chinese New Year in Bangkok, are mostly similar, with incense being offered, but an interesting departure from Chinese tradition is that instead of food, the offerings are often lotus flowers as the two ladies below can be seen holding at Wat Traimit, the main temple in Chinatown.

Wat Traimit Chinese new year
A lady places incense at Wat Traimit on Chinese New Year 2017.

The meaning of the lotus flower is very Buddhist in its core, but very few Thai are aware of the roots. In fact, the lotus flower means the purity of the body, speech, and mind. Indeed, while rooted in the mud, its flowers blossom on long stalks floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. In Thai temples, the symbol of detachment, becomes another reason to earn mone.

Lotus flowers
Lotus flowers are presented as an offering at Chinese New Year 2017 in Wat Traimit.

Within Chinatown itself, Wat Traimit, the main temple of the area hosts a 2-ton massive gold Buddha statue. On Chinese New Year eve, many Thais come to pray for favors (or take selfies in front of it).

 

Buddha of Wat Traimit on CNY
The 2-ton massive gold Buddha of Wat Traimit is particularly sought on Chinese New Year eve.

Selfie Mania

Last but not least, Thailand would not be Thailand if there was not a selfie mania on Chinese New Year. In temples, when giving offerings or anything, Thais will try to grab a selfie to post on social networks.

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How to get there?

Yaowarat is a quite long road extending through Chinatown and large parts of the area are reserved to pedestrians on Chinese New Year. Your best bet is still to take the MRT to Hua Lamphong, then to walk on foot to Yaowarat. On the way, very near to the train station, you will see Wat Traimit. To have a glimpse of the agitation and the vibe of Chinese New Year, do drop there.

Loy Krathong: from spiritual festival to a Thai Valentine

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This week-end, Loy Krathong took place in Thailand amidst a slew of restrictions by the Thai Junta. In recent years, Loy Krathong evolved from a spiritual festival to a Thai Valentine day.

Origins of Loy Krathong

As many things in Thai history, the origins of Loy Krathong are murky at best. It is a festival related to the importance of water in the Thai traditional society. It is thought to have originated in the ancient capital of Sukhothai in the XIIth or XIVth century with Brahmin influence. Another Thai interpretation is the belief that it pays hommage to the water goddess, Mae Khongkha.

When does it take place?

As with many Thai festivals, it follows the lunar month rather than the calendar month. As such it should take place on the full moon of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. In modern-day equivalent, that places it generally at the beginning of November.

The evolution of Loy Krathong

From family event to commercial event

Foreigners have probably the most retained the family dimension of Loy Krathong, young Japanese children in traditional Thai garb often going to float the Krathongs on local ponds or rivers as in Benjasiri park. Conversely, real Thai kids, are more likely to try and snatch the coins or banknotes on the krathongs beign floated.

Japanese girl krathong
A little Japanese girl floats her krathong with a lit candle in Benjasiri park’s pond.

From a tradition-based family event based on passing time together and preparing artisanally the “Krathongs” (baskets, made of bread or more sadly of polystyrene nowadays), the feast has become a commercial event. As such, sellers are quite crowded around the places where Krathong floating is common, such as Benjasiri Park.

Krathong sellers
Sellers of Krathong drive a hard bargain trying to sell their products on the evening of Loy Krathong

The commercial element is so present that on the Loy Krathong evenings, the entrance of Benjasiri park is generally packed full with vendors.

Vendors of Loy Krathong
The entrance to Benjasiri park packed with vendors on Loy Krathong.

A spiritual occurrence become a romantic symbol

Each year, Loy Krathong is the occasion to read panicked messages of the Government asking teenagers to be careful about… sex! Yes, Loy Krathong has become the equivalent of Valentine’s day for the Thais, mainly because a tradition says that if a couple float a Krathong together, they will be bound for life. In Thai modern society, affections and love bonds (especially among teenagers) are far more fleeting. Nevertheless, Loy Krathong remains thus a romantic occasion with the sexual consequences thereof.

Many young single Thai ladies also float their Krathongs in the hope of finding a partner or happiness in life.

Lady taking a picture of Krathong
A lonely lady pushes her Krathong with her hopes for companionship… but does not fail to take a picture.

 

Today: a social media opportunity

As with many Thai events, there is an element of searching for “good luck” as it is believed that putting hair or nail clippings on the Krathong takes away your bad luck on the river. Today, like many things, though, Loy Krathong has mainly become an occasion of taking selfies.

Lady taking selfie with Krathong
Of course, this would not be Thailand without the compulsory selfie (here with a Krathong).

The same happens for girls who come out together and pose for pictures in order to have the perfect memory of their Krathong.

Picture girls with krathong
Girls pose for a pic while pushing their krathong in the water

For travelers and tourists, it is an occasion of taking some cute photos. It is also an occasion to regret the waste and the pollution this tradition creates with its mass usage of non recyclable tools. In the end, like many other things in Thailand, the original spiritual justification just lost its meaning and became a mass commercial event… One more.

Enregistrer

Bangkok: How a mall was built

The start of the project

This project started when I was living in Bangkok, in the posh area of Thonglor at soi 17. Just next door to my condo, in 2013, they started destroying an old house to make way for a new construction. As I had an unparalleled view from above, I decided to follow the progress of the construction. The original was to make it a sort of timelapse of the changes on the construction site, but with time, the real interest focused on the workers. Then it became the story of how a mall was built, namely “the Commons” mall in Bangkok. And more largely, a documentation of the working conditions on Thai construction sites and the workers along with the quirks and peculiarities of work in Thailand.

The hidden actors of Bangkok’s rise

Thus, the project moved towards telling the story of those workers who have made possible the fast rise of Bangkok. In a way, it is also an ethnological study of a micro-society.

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It all starts with destroying

In Bangkok, in prime locations, new projects often start with destroying old buildings. The construction site of the Commons was no exception, as they destroyed an old restaurant that occupied two stories in the back of the land. Probably an inefficient use of space for such valuable land.

Workers climb on the roof to pull down the main beams.

Of course, here most of the work was done by hand by workers with barely any protection against the hazards (no safety shoes, no helmets, if you notice the picture).

A picture of the context and the general idea of the location:

The demolition work progressed quickly.

Laying the foundations

Once the old house was torn apart and the rubble taken away, started the extensive work of laying the foundations. As a reminder, Bangkok is built on a former swamp, and the land is foundering by an average of 6 cms a year (huge by geological standards!). Hence, before building the main structure, the construction company kept on driving into the ground huge cement stilts to ensure the stability of the final construction.

Foundations layer
This machine is used to lay the foundations for the building. Here on day one, when it was not yet built up.

The machine used to thump into the ground those huge cement rods. This alone took upwards of 4 months.

This machine pushed down in the ground huge metallic rods to stabilize the foundations.

 

Preparing the construction itself

In a second stage, the workers started preparing the infrastructure for the construction work properly said. This involved mounting a crane. On that occasion, I had the utter surprise of seeing workers climbing up in the branches of a crane without any safety gear. But this was only the start of an incredible few years witnessing how the Thai construction workers got their job done.

darevils in a crane
To build the crane, workers climb without any security.

Once the foundations were laid, and a central cemented base was solidified, the central crane was used to lift all the heavy materials on the additional stories as they were being built.

The first cement basis provided the basis for building the other floors.

The building process

The building process involves laying layers of reinforced concrete, building support columns with more reinforced concrete, then building another floor above, often all at the same time. A fascinating work but done with a happy-go-lucky stance and total disregard for safety. As in this picture, you can see how many workers wear a helmet…

 

Scaffoldings
The building process required laying a layer of reinforced concrete then building columns and pouring another layer of reinforced concrete above.

Strangely for a construction site, a lot of ladies worked there. And despite the dust and the hard work, they never failed to try to be coquettish even on the construction site.

Coquettish even on a construction site.

This did not mean that the work was not hard, for ladies more than anyone.

Binding
Workers unite to finish a portion of the armature.

Ladies had to carry metal rods like anyone else, sometimes better, sometimes worst than men…

Ladies on construction site
Ladies struggle with carrying metallic rods across the construction site.

Odd situations

Often, this construction site offered quite quirky moments. From a lady taking a rest in a hammock hung on the scaffolding… to guys playing in flip flops on a construction site.

Hamac on scaffolding
A worker hangs a hamac on the scaffolding to take a rest.

Probably the most striking was the total lack of regard for safety. The workers often came working with flip flops, almost never wore a helmet and played in a very relaxed manner around other workers. Like in this case.

Playing on construction site
Two workers in flip flops play while a third is using a circular saw to cut a piece of wood.
edge
A worker stands on the edge of the building as the day draws to a close.

Safety : Thai-style approach

Probably, the most concerning part of the whole work was the fact that workers seemed to be completely ignorant of elementary safety rules on a construction site. Furthermore, most of them wandered on the working place either in flip-flops or without any safety gear such as helmets or protective shoes.

Safety not really a concern as these workers climb on unstable rods or work directly underneath.

In some cases, a worker can be holding a metal rod with his flip-flops while another worker hammers it into place…

 

Feet in danger!
A flip-flop worker is holding a metal bar with his uncovered feet, while a fellow worker hammers by the side.

The issue of electric shocks and elementary safety precautions, such as wearing shoes when climbing on tight surfaces seemed totally lost on these workers. A soldering iron was used, for example, with the wire hanging partly in water in the picture below.

Casings
The workers prepare casings where they will let the cement flow. Acrobatics in flip-flops? nothing to shudder about. Nor using soldering irons with the wire hanging in water.

Then, let us not forget about the acrobat climbing metal rods in flip-flops…

Flip-flop worker climbing
Flip-flop workers climbing metallic rods.

 

An incredible pace

Thanks to the breakneck pace and the extended hours (7 AM to 10 PM), the construction site moved very quickly, and as can be seen in this picture, where three different floors are being built simultaneously. Sometimes, this breakneck pace ends tragically, when structural issues cause a collapse of the construction.

Construction
Construction progressed quickly and simultaneously as can be grasped from this picture..

 

Good humor

Foreman
Foreman makes a sign to his workers as they leave the construction site

Despite the difficult working conditions and the heat, most of these workers had a good-natured disposition, having fun when they could and often joking among them. And at the core, it had to be a teamwork.

Supporting columns of the building
The workers group together to bind the iron rods that will make one of the supporting columns of the building.

The final stages

Towards the end of the building, the main crane was dismounted in favor of a small roof-mounted crane. In order to pour cement, the crane carried a worker who had to action the lever allowing the cement to flow.

This was the occasion for some spectacular pictures of the worker on the sunset.

Life in the balance
A life in the balance: the construction workers in Bangkok

Of course, even construction workers have smartphones, so these guys dismounting the crane did not miss taking some pics of the scenery.

 

Dismounting crane
Busy with dismounting the main crane, these two workers still find the time to take a picture of the environment from their high-perched observation point.

As the construction neared its end, it was time for a nostalgic picture closing the story. Here, the building was basically completed and the roof was already installed.

Nightfall on construction site
The end of the construction nightfall

The end result

Of course, we are in Thailand, so an important part of the buildup was… installing a spirit house on the roof!

how a mall was built: Spirit house
After the Commons was almost completed, first thing they did was install a spirit house on the roof.

I visited the Commons immediately after it was opened, and it was really remarkable to contrast the finished product with the years of work that preceded. Today, the Commons is a very posh mall and open-air restaurant. Nobody has any idea how this mall was built, nor of the efforts of the workers in building it. It is highly likely that any of the workers of the construction site will never be able to experience this mall, given its steep prices.

 

interior of the commons
Interior arrangement at the Commons

 

The Commons
The years of dangerous work were all for this: a fancy eating place for Bangkok’s elite.

If this project interested you, please leave your comments and/or feel free to share it.

 

 

 

The Nahim Café: an instagram cafe in Bangkok

People start a business, then try to make it instagram-worthy. Nahim cafe started the other way around. It was originally an instagram handicraft business, before becoming the Nahim café: an instagram cafe in Bangkok.

The decoration and the handicraft exposed in the café alone, do justify a visit, and while the food and coffee are nothing to write home about, it has a lovely atmosphere.

A familiar sounding name

The name “Nahim” rang a bell with some of my previous readings, but it was only because it sounded strangely similar to “Nahik“, which is a key plot point in the French comic series the “Decalogue”. Which is the occasion of recommending that series, written by Jean Giroud, for the depth of its themes and its elaborate scenarios. The main idea being that a bone piece contains a new set of religious prescriptions written by the Prophet Mohammad which are at odds with today’s Islam. The whole series is based on the people trying to silence that message from getting through from AD 622 to 2001. I am not sure on whether it has been translated in English, but if you can read French, you should definitely give it a try.

Handicrafts and selfies

Returning to the main subject of this post, the handicraft is the main reason for being for this cafe. It is also what gives it a uniquely quaint atmosphere and warm tones. Let us say that this cafe is clearly more pleasing to girls than to men, but nevertheless, it has some lovely items.

handicraft and coffee
Nahim café offers these items for sale so the coffee and food side is just one part of their business.

As this is an instagram café in Bangkok, it is obvious that part of the reason for being there for most Thais is just to have their selfies taken. Obviously, you can see a a “no photo please” as an instagram café attempts to control its own image, but that is self-defeating. Such places have only value for people because of the possibility of taking selfies and pictures of the stuff. No pictures = loss of branding on Instagram.

Decoration

The decoration is also quirky and attempts to make it instagram-worthy. While the food and drinks are comparable to other numerous cafes all over Bangkok, prices are not that cheap (around 100 THB for most dishes or drinks). You are obviously paying your selfie along with the drink.

If you are not too much into handicraft and taking a moment off, then, you can give it a miss. Otherwise, don’t hesitate and take a look. It is interesting to see a place evolving from online business to the real world.

 

Selfie corner
Obviously, the place looks set up for selfies…

Where to find it?

The easiest way is to head to the Hua Lamphong train station and walk from there.

You can also visit their Facebook page here. And of course, for an instagram café, here is their instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nahimcafe.handcraft/ .

Street Photography: Bangkok girls

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Bangkok girls over the years

Having lived for several years in Bangkok, I must say that I was gifted with a nice opportunity to take pics of pretty ladies almost at every turn, if we may speak this way. For street photography, Bangkok girls are a gift that keeps giving.

Girl with clogs
A girl walks past Dusit Thani while checking her phone.

If you ever felt that you were limited by subjects, Bangkok is an incredible trove of subjects in terms of street photography. You do not need to go in red light areas to find interesting and pretty ladies – on the contrary.

Girl waiting
A girl waits near the MBK mall in Bangkok, while a bus rushes past.

Candids or interacting photo?

Ah, that’s an eternal question of the photographer. Let me give you two examples of pictures taken with an interaction with the subject:

Flea market girl
A vendor at a flea market in tones which reflect the linen which she was selling.

If I did not ask this young lady for her permission I probably would not have had her look into the lens, nor her lovely smile which is just as warm as the surrounding clothes.

Beautiful flower vendor
A beautiful vendor prepares lotus flowers for sale.

In this case, it is a bit different, as I did not ask her consent, but I was very close (shot with a 20 mm), and she was happy to have her shot taken. Afterwards I thanked her for the picture. As the goal was to show her work, it was useless to have her pose. Of course, afterwards, I thanked her and she kindly acknowledged.

Compare and contrast with this picture, where the lady poses for the picture.

One of the vendors with the most colorful stands at Pak Khlong Talad.

In short, there is no single answer. It will depend of the scene and what you are shooting. As much as possible, avoid being creepy though. Respect and appreciation of your subject is the key word in street photography.

 

 

Ekkarat drum manufacturing village in Thailand: a unique experience

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In a previous post, I talked about Wat Sanam Chai, in the province of Suphanburi. When you are there or in Ayutthaya, it does not take much time, to go to Ekkarat drum manufacturing village.

This village is unique in that there are a number of traditional drum-making craft shops which still go on making drums while you visit. An excellent visit outside of the beaten tracks.

These drums are mainly used in temples or for religious occasions and the local craftsmen are proud to let you see the whole drum-making process.

A survival of an ancient tradecraft

While not very known, it is rare nowadays to still see a traditional craft being performed at various stages of development. During my visit in Ekkarat, back in 2016, I was able to see all the stages of a drum making (ok, not the finition).

The start: stretching a hide

It all starts with the hide. A large cow hide is stretched on a portico, to let it dry as well as to extend it to its maximum size. If you are lucky, you will see such a hide hung outside to dry.

It all starts with a single leather hide of a cow which is extended and left out to dry like this.

Obviously, the drum membrane is both thin and dry to give the best sound. ISome smaller parts may be further left to dry for the small drums.

Small leather membranes for the smaller drums

The central part of the drum: a tree trunk

While the hide for covering the drum is stretched and extended, the wooden body of the drum is prepared. For the bigger size drums, they use the whole trunk of a tree, which is then hollowed in a single piece on a machine as you can see in this picture.

It all starts with taking a single tree trunk and hollowing it on this machine.

After the trunk takes its final shape, it is further polished by hand.

A lady polishes one of the elongated drums by hand.

Stretching the membrane

The next important stage is stretching the membrane over the drum and leaving it in that position for some time, in order to avoid the hide retracting once the drum is complete. To do that, the drum-makers use metallic contraptions to stretch the hide across and pull it downward.

Another important step is pulling the leather hide across the wood.

Once this is done, the drum is left to rest for a few days to let the materials take their final form.

This drum’s membrane has been stretched and is left to rest.

You can see below a short video filmed in Ekkarat in the same shop where these pictures were taken.

The final product

Obviously, walking you through each step of the process would be meaningless, if you did not have a glimpse to some of the finished products. Once the drum is completed, it is painted and the membrane is sometimes decorated as well. This drum is huge, basically man-size, so you have an idea of the tree trunk that was used to manufacture it.

At the end, once completed and decorated a ceremonial drum looks like this.

In short, if you want to see a glimpse of traditional Thailand, do not miss Ekkarat, it is a worthwhile visit when you are near Ayutthaya or Suphanburi.

How to get there?

Ah, now that is the painful part. Getting to Ekkarat drum manufacturing village is as difficult as getting to Suphanburi, in fact. Given that the village is halfway between Suphanburi and Ayutthaya, it might be worth hitting it as a mid-point visit between the two cities. To the best of my knowledge, there is no public transportation that takes you straight from Bangkok to Ekkarat, so the best choice is still a private car or a tour visiting that place. You will find below the google maps location to help you.

Bonus

Finally before leaving, let me introduce you to a video filmed by students showing the visit of the village. If you understand some Thai, you might understand the exchanges going on.

Chiang Mai Sunday market

One of the main attractions for tourists in Chiang Mai is certainly its  Sunday night market. Sprawling across Rachadamnoen road, this market offers both, the occasion of seeing some real Thai craft, as well as a very lively and beautiful atmosphere. So, if you are in Chiang Mai, don’t miss visiting that market!

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The plight of elephants in Thailand

A long silence finally broken

After a long persisting silence, finally a study was carried out on the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand.

While many tourists love to ride elephants as an attraction (the main place for this being the Elephant kraal in Ayutthaya), few know that to get pliable animals who accept to let someone ride on their back, the baby elephants must go through real torture.

Abuse is rife and would lead to international outcry if it happened in Europe or in any Western country. Because Thailand is a third world country and because tourism is such a huge industry worth millions of dollars, nobody told the Thais it was a shame on their country. Until today that is.