This is my 6th visit to Thailand and yet everything seems so new.
I first learned Thai some twenty-five years ago when I was living in Japan. I took Thai cooking lessons in Tokyo and began my lifelong love affair with Thai food and fascination with a country, sweet and sour…
What joy and pleasure to wake up with the fragrance of exotic fruits! Wanna try some langsat or sapodilla this morning? Hey, durian is in season! Let’s go to Rayong, durian capital of the world! And one never tires of fat, juicy mangoes, for breakfast, snack, or dessert, served with sticky rice and coconut milk. Yum! Last time I awoke with sights of fresh fruits was Cyprus last summer. I always fall for low-hanging fruits. No pun intended!
I have come to Thailand for a photographic assignment for Dreamlopments, a social enterprise created by a visionary French doctor, Nicolas Durier (formerly with Medecins sans Frontieres). He saw millions of undocumented migrants in Thailand, especially along the Thai-Burmese border, who had no health insurance and created the M-Fund, a low-cost (US$3/month) plan that now boasts a membership of over 30,000 migrants.
For two unforgettable weeks, with Nico’s team of community workers, I roam around villages on a motorbike in Mae Sot along the Thai-Burmese border, visiting homes, factories, clinics, and hospitals…
Then I return to Bangkok to document a second project on the diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C for people who inject drugs in Thailand. Research shows that up to 80-90% of them have been infected with the virus, yet few seek testing and treatment due to cost barriers and stigma. The C-Free project has been highly successful in providing over 900 drug users with free hep-C testing, half of whom started on treatment with 94% success rate. Read my full photo report on both projects here: Leave No One Behind.
Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis divided by major thanon/avenues (Sukhumwit, Rama etc.). You have to be a committed walker to ditch the MRT, BTS and ubiquitous motorbike taxis to discover the meandering neighbourhood soi/streets always teeming with life.
It is 35-38C, but I walk everywhere. From Punwaitti to Sukhumwit, I explore each neighbourhood in succession: Bangchak, On Nut, Phra Khanon, Ekkamai, Thong Lor… and Asok. From the Thailand Cultural Center, I pass by an enormous military complex to reach Ari, a yuppy area filled with foreign residents. Lumphini Park is a real oasis in the bustling city. From there, I skirt the Chulalongkorn campus to the Bangkok Culture and Arts Center where there’s always some exciting exhibition to check out. The slum of Klong Toei and the market of Huai Kwang fill your senses to the brim before arriving at cute Soi Nana and getting lost in Talad Noi in Yaowarat/Chinatown that’s quickly getting gentrified…
From Bangkok, I take a very slow train – a proud achievement of the former king in the 1960s – to the former capital city of Ayutthaya. a It’s a step back in time, at once so peace and spiritual.
I have arrived, I am home
In the here, In the now
I am solid, I am free
In the ultimate, I dwell.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
The sprawling ruins of Sukothai, Thailand’s first capital city, are even more photogenic. The heat is relentless (close to 40C) and the place is mostly deserted, a real treat for photographers. I sweat bullets but am too busy clicking my camera to dry my face…
It’s hard not to love this welcoming country, with layers of the old and the new – a cute soi next to a modern shopping mall – vibrancy anchored in gentleness, and all-round mysteries because of the language and cultural barriers. And, again, the food! Thailand must have the highest concentration of chefs per capita; there’s always someone cooking around each street corner. It would take years to learn the names of – let alone cook – Thai dishes that I continue to discover each time. Little wonder most Thais don’t cook at home; many don’t even have a kitchen I am told. Here, I say, Aroy-mak/very delicious too many times a day…
Did I forget to mention the beaches? There are so many and so welcoming that now the government has to close some of them for preservation before they disappear!
I will not touch upon the outcomes of the last controversial election. Nor would I comment on the coronation of the new king, for fear of lese majeste – never to be taken lightly – except to say that it is a great photographic experience and to recommend a book that I hope would entice you to book your next ticket to BKK: The King Never Smiles…
Kup-kun-mak-ka to Yui and Nicolas for hosting me for a month that felt like six because everyday was so rich and pleasurable. My Thai never went beyond advanced alphabets, but fruit vocabulary is enticing. Saparot (pineapple), mamuang (mangoes), deng (cantaloup), chompoo (rose apple), farang (guava), loogwa… It looks like a 7th visit is in store!