Sunday, 4 December 2011

Manila: Jeepneys, Chinatown and Jose Rizal

I had forgotten quite how ubiquitous jeepneys are in Manila. They throng the roads, bus stations and petrol pumps, crowding out everything else. There are similar, if less extravagant, vehicles in Bangkok (called ‘song-tau’ in Thai) but since the introduction of the metro and the skytrain they have become something of an endangered species. This photo gallery includes Manila's Chinatown, a vintage jeepney factory, the Chinese cemetery, revisiting street children two years on, and the Jose Rizal shrine at Fort Santiago. Read my Philippines blogs »

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Movement of the masses: the Filipino jeepney

A newly-built jeepney at Sarao Motors, complete with five extra headlights.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
I’ve been fascinated by jeepneys since the first time I first visited Manila in 2009. The psychedelic, graffiti-style artwork mixing religion and pop culture. The names and slogans emblazoned on the front, like ‘Evangeline’ or ‘God is Love’, dwarfing the actual destination. The myriad of coloured streamers and extra, false headlights that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. Decked out in all this finery, they speed up and down the main roads of Manila, picking people up and dropping them off apparently at random. They pile up at traffic lights, sounding their horns in a continuous cacophony and pumping black exhaust fumes into the already polluted atmosphere.

Jeepneys are the unofficial symbol of Manila, featured on T-shirts and found in model form at souvenir shops throughout the capital. Originally made from World-War-II-era American jeeps, they are now mass produced, extravagantly decorated and transformed into low-cost busses. They are the main mode of public transport in the Philippines and often as overcrowded as the islands themselves, with passengers hanging off the back or sitting on the roof. I simply had to try one out.

My boss, Angela, told me that jeepneys tend to ply the main roads through Manila in a more or less straight line so I clambered aboard the open back of one that was waiting at a junction for the lights to change. I took my place on a narrow bench along one side, nearest to the driver. Once the jeepney set off, other passengers started to pass their money hand-to-hand up the bench towards me. Slightly bemused, I passed the resulting wad of cash to the driver who, at the next junction, returned me a handful of change. I passed this back down the row and, in a remarkable show of honesty and cooperation, everyone took out exactly what they were owed.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Filipino history and the 'Pied Piper of Manila'

Carlos holds a portrait of Filipino ‘national hero’, Jose Rizal
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
When I think of the great histories of the world – the Roman civil war of the First Century BC, the ‘Three Kingdoms’ of Imperial China, the British Raj and the partition of India – the Philippines doesn’t get much of a look in. But this oft-neglected corner of the world has a fascinating heritage that occasionally places it at the heart of global events in surprising ways.

I was first introduced to Filipino history in 2009 by Carlos Celdran, the self-styled ‘Pied Piper of Manila’, his diminutive figure and larger-than-life character dressed up in Nineteenth Century top hat and tails. Every week, Carlos takes tourists and locals around Manila’s handful of historic buildings – those that survived World War II – and treats them to, not so much a tour, as a piece of stand-up political theatre.

In this performance, Carlos charts the last thousand years of Filipino history, demolishing some of its central myths along the way. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, gets a gentle ribbing, while US General Douglas McArthur gets a savage mauling. All of this is delivered in a humorous and entertainingly over-the-top style. “There’s a Dutch word for people like this,” my friend Martijn said. “It translates as ‘pleasantly insane’.”

Friday, 11 November 2011

Delivering mosquito nets in flood-hit Bangkok

Ratnasunder plays with her pet dogs at Bang Krai Nok Temple evacuation centre
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Piyanun Kiatnaruyuth

Seven-year-old Ratnasunder lives with her grandparents and pet dogs in a former classroom at an evacuation centre at Bang Krai Nok Temple, in Bangkok. The ground floor of the building is flooded and the only way in or out is by boat. For a child who had to flee her home in the face of rising floodwaters, Ratnasunder seems happy and carefree. She smiles broadly and lifts up one of the dogs, squeezing it tightly.

Her grandmother Tongploen is more sombre. “We used to live in a single story house alongside the canal at Wat Po Ain,” she says. “We went back once and rescued some clothes but it’s now flooded up to the roof so we can’t get in. We’re comfortable living here but it’s hard to get out. We used to have our own boat but it’s broken so now we use the public boat.”

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Escaping the Thai floods at a Buddhist temple

Twelve-year-old Tang with his sister Ice at Laksi Temple evacuation centre
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Twelve-year-old Tang sits with his sister Ice, 13, in a ‘child-friendly space’ at Laksi Temple evacuation centre, in Bangkok. The children are making necklaces from beads and thread. They are surrounded by a mixture of squalor and beauty. Dozens of families sleep on mats on the floor of the temple, surrounded by their few possessions, while the stench of contaminated water drifts in through the windows. Yet above them, ornate pillars rise up with elaborate designs etched in green, red and orange, while golden Buddha statues look down from their pedestals, smiling enigmatically.

Although he’s the younger child, Tang is more talkative than his sister. “When our house flooded we moved to a school, but there were no supplies there so we came here,” he says. “The temple has given us some blankets but they’re not enough. Our family sleeps on the roof. We don’t have any mosquito nets so we get bitten a lot at night.”

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A Bangkok university rises to flood challenge

A doctor checks Peem’s stomach at a health clinic at Phranakhon Rajabhat University
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Tired mother Gaew is one of the thousands of people made homeless by Thailand’s devastating floods. She waits with her chubby five-month-old baby, Peem, outside a makeshift health clinic at Bangkok’s Phranakhon Rajabhat University. “Peem has a stomach ache so we’re waiting to see the doctor,” she says anxiously, holding the boy on her lap. “We’ve been here three days. We left our house in Pathum Thani when the water got waist high.”

There are no classes any more at the university, which now hosts one of the more than 300 evacuation centres set up in Bangkok for people escaping the floods. University students and staff run the evacuation centre on a voluntary basis. At the clinic, they are supervised by doctors from nearby hospitals.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Exile on main street: Chiang Mai street children

Four-year-old Tong makes a tie-dye t-shirt for sale in the centre’s gift shop.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Last week, we took a group of popular Thai bloggers to see projects for marginalised children in Thailand’s Chiang Mai district. After two days visiting orchard schools in Fang (see part two of this blog), we returned to Chiang Mai itself to visit a drop-in centre for street children.

Run by the Volunteers for Children Development Foundation, the centre focuses on preventing and supporting the victims of sexual abuse. Many of the street children in Chiang Mai were sold to child traffickers at the Burmese border and brought into Thailand to work in the sex industry. Once in Thailand, these children are considered ‘stateless people’ and are not entitled to identity cards. This denies them the right to education, healthcare and – when they grow up – to legal work.

The Foundation helps these children by providing life skills training and sexual health education. Condoms and pregnancy tests are available free of charge. UNICEF helped fund the centre’s HIV prevention work and is now evaluating it. “We do outreach to around 800 children in Chiang Mai,” Foundation Director Ake told us. “They come from ethnic minorities and broken homes. Lots of children end up here because of the sex trade. We build their trust on the streets, then we invite them to visit the centre. Here they can get food, milk and informal education.”

The drop-in centre was a small building in a side street, with an open-plan play area on the ground floor and an office upstairs. While Ake told our bloggers more about the project, I started taking photos of the children. Most of them were ethnic Shan Burmese, as in Fang, but some of them were Thai. They were watching an exercise video and copying the dance moves. A girl in a white vest punched the air enthusiastically in time to the music.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fruits of labour: schools for migrant children

A boy holds up an orange during a maths class at the orchard day school.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
I was in Chiang Mai district last week, introducing a group of Thai bloggers to UNICEF-supported projects for marginalised children. After our visit to the orchard night school (see part one of this blog), we went to see a day school in the same area.

We got up early and set off in our vans for an orange orchard outside Fang town. We drove through wide paddy fields, criss-crossed by irrigation canals and filled with a host of yellow grass blades glistening in the morning sun. Here and there, women in straw hats were working in the fields, breaking the earth with wooden hoes. The landscape was layered: beyond the rice fields was a line of low trees that marked the start of the orchards. Behind them, craggy mountains rose up with forested flanks. It was a beautiful scene, but Fang is not a tourist destination. Instead, it’s the centre of a sometimes harsh agricultural industry.

After a half hour drive, we arrived at the orchard day school. While the bloggers listened to an introduction from Khun Adun, Director of the local NGO Group for Children, I started to look around. The centre was larger and better equipped than the night school. It was a well-built wooden structure with three classrooms and a sleeping area, where blue mosquito nets hung down from the ceiling. There were also two outdoor classrooms, a kitchen and a play area for younger children, who were happily digging in a sandpit with plastic buckets and spades.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Evening class: visiting Thailand's orchard schools

Children at the orchard day school in Fang, Chiang Ma.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

Thailand is rightly famous for the quality of its fruit. The sois (small streets) where I live in Bangkok’s Aree neighbourhood are lined with stalls selling oranges, dragon fruit, mangos and whatever else is in season. The brightly coloured fruit is piled up on mobile trailers: fresh, plentiful and cheap. But this abundance comes at a price. As we discovered during a trip to Chiang Mai province in the north of the country, many of Thailand’s fruit orchards are staffed by low-paid migrant workers, whose children rarely get to go to school.

The trip was part of a project to reach a wider audience in Thailand by taking 12 well-known Thai bloggers and social media influencers to visit UNICEF-supported projects. We hoped that by introducing the bloggers to issues affecting disadvantaged children, they would spread the word to their fans and followers, many of whom may not have thought about children’s rights before.

Our Thai bloggers included Chayapa ‘Bubble’ Boonmana, who uses social media to talk about nails and beauty; Kongdej ‘Kafaak’ Keesukpan, who blogs about IT and gadgets; Sresuda Vinijsuwan, a news reporter for Channel 9 TV; and Thanaboon ‘Ace’ Somboon, who runs forums for arts professionals and volunteers. The trip was sponsored by Sansiri Plc, a corporate partner of UNICEF Thailand.

After an orientation at the UNICEF office, we took a flight to Chiang Mai and then a two hour van drive to Fang, a town in the centre of the orange-growing region. Only a few days before the area had been under water, following Thailand’s worst floods in decades. “The flood waters came up to here," our driver said, holding his hand above his waist. But now it was clear and the sun was shining. We drove along twisting, turning mountain roads, past bamboo forests, roadside shrines to local spirits and tall jagged hills that disappeared into a bank of clouds high above.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Sunrise at Jakarta docks

When we arrived at Sunda Kelapa docks, the sun had just risen and sat fat, red and squat on the horizon, enveloped in a dirty haze of pollution. The air was cool for the first time since I arrived in Indonesia and the docks were eerily quiet. On the west side of the harbour was the main attraction – a long line of Indonesian sailing ships called ‘pinisi’, which have been built to the same design since colonial times and are still very much in use. Their wide prows and tall masts stretched out before me, lit up by the first rays of sunrise. It was like stepping back in time. Read my Jakarta blog ».

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Treasure island: exploring Jakarta's boat docks

A market trader displays his scaly wares at Jakarta’s fish market.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Indonesia

I was warned about Jakarta. ‘It’s polluted, dangerous and characterless,’ everyone said. Even the Lonely Planet calls it “a hard city to love”, noting the “relentless urban sprawl”. Yet now that I’m here I find myself liking the place, somewhat to my own surprise. It’s true that the traffic is terrible. In the mornings it takes me 15 minutes to get to the UNICEF office on foot - or 30 minutes in a ‘taksi’. The roads are solid with cars, although a tide of motorbikes makes its way through, flowing between the cars or racing along pavements three abreast. Travelling by foot, you have to dodge these same motorbikes and breathe in their exhaust. You also have to cope with the intense heat, which I managed by staying in the shade of the skyscrapers.

And it’s true that Jakarta is dangerous. When we arrived at the airport, my colleague Yas made straight for the premium taxi stand. “Aren’t the meter cabs cheaper?” I asked. “Usually yes,” he replied. “But last year a member of staff was kidnapped by a taxi driver at the airport and taken to a cash point.” Once we got to our hotel we had to go through three rounds of security, including metal detectors, blast barriers and razor wire, a legacy of the 2009 Al-Qaeda linked attacks on targets perceived to be ‘Western’. It was the same at the office.

But characterless? I really can’t agree with that. Most of the people thronging the streets and riding the motorbikes did so in cheerfully brash and colourful batik shirts. The local currency is measured in units of 1,000 rupees, which meant I had up to a million in my wallet. “In Indonesia you feel like a rich man,” Yas joked. The skyscrapers and malls were interspersed with a multi-cultural medley of architectural curiosities, including crumbling Dutch colonial buildings in the Kota, or old town, a Catholic church in the style of a Chinese temple (complete with stone lions and a red tiled roof) in Chinatown, and a huge Greco-Roman palace near my hotel in the business district.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Full house: former street children in Manila

Mary with Butch at his home in Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
Last year I visited Manila, capital of the Philippines, with photographer Sharron Lovell to document a day in the life of three children, for the launch of the new UNICEF UK website. One of them was thirteen-year-old Mary (not her real name) who lived with her family on the street outside Starbucks, where her mother ran a cigarette stall. Back then, Mary spent her days working on the stall or looking after her younger sisters, and her nights hanging out on the streets with other street children, many of whom ‘did rugby’ (sniffed solvents).

I was in Manila again recently and spent an afternoon with street educator Butch Nerja from local charity Childhope Asia Philippines. After saying goodbye to Sally (see part one of this blog), we went to find Mary. Although her family was still on the streets, Mary was living temporarily with Butch and his wife in order to concentrate on her studies. “Mary is such a smart girl but it’s hard for her to study when she’s on the streets,” Butch told me. “Her brothers will be going to a shelter soon but Mary won’t leave her mother. I had to think of another solution. We live only two blocks away so I said ‘you can come and stay with us’.”

Butch and I first looked for Mary at Binondo church, where Childhope runs alternative learning sessions (ALS) and a choir for street children. Mary wasn’t there but her older brother Bayani was. He was studying hard, writing in a notebook on a wooden table in a humid upstairs room. Outside the church, we ran into Mary’s younger sister, Jasmine, who was running unsupervised across the busy square with other street children. In the evenings, children throw firecrackers here, with little regard for their own safety. Jasmine had a T-shirt tied around her head. “She got lice recently and was scratching her head,” Butch explained. “Because her fingers were dirty it got infected, and she had to go to hospital.”

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Educating Sally: a street child goes to school

Sally with her mother Grace.
“I don’t want Sally to be illiterate or to drop out of Grade 3 like I did,” Grace says.Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines

The Philippines will always have a special place in my heart. I lived and worked here for three months in 2009, following Typhoon Ketsana and the flooding of Manila. It was my first overseas posting and I was captivated by the friendly, outgoing people, the colourful chaos of the cities with their brightly decorated ‘jeepneys’ (public buses made from converted army jeeps), and the unspoilt natural landscapes of the islands and mountains.

One of my tasks back then was to collect photos and stories of children living on the streets of Manila, to feature in UNICEF UK’s ‘Put it Right’ campaign, which aimed to raise awareness of children’s rights and money to protect them. One girl who featured heavily in the final material was three-year-old Sally, along with thirteen-year-old Mary and fifteen-year-old Crisanto (not their real names). Although this time I was in the country to help UNICEF Philippines develop a digital communications strategy, I took the opportunity to revisit the three children and see how they were getting on.

After a morning in the office, I made my way to Childhope Asia Philippines, a local charity supported by UNICEF that works with street children. Childhope is run out of an old Spanish villa in Paco, a district of Manila. The road outside was potholed and lined with posters from local politicians wishing residents a ‘Happy Fiesta’. Inside, the villa was full of faded grandeur – high ceilings, teak wood panels, antiques and oil paintings. An administrator worked on an old typewriter surrounded by paper files, while electric fans thudded rhythmically, moving hot air around the room. Above the bay window hung an alternative take on Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, with the disciples replaced by Filipino street children.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Bangkok: Venice of the East

One of the best things about living in Bangkok is having the time to wander around aimlessly with a camera. I've been to palaces and temples, day and night markets, protests and rallies, rivers and canals. It was the 19th century Italian nobleman Salvatore Besso who first hailed Bangkok as the Venice of the East because of its labyrinth of canals (called 'khlongs' in Thai). Some of the ancient waterways remain and, though pungent, they're still picturesque in places. Here's a collection of some of my favourite photos from the year so far, including a stroll down Khlong Saen Saeb.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Recipe for success: Delhi children learn to cook

Former street children working in the kitchen at the Butterflies catering school.
© UNICEF India/2011/Andy Brown

The notion of India as a single country is a relatively modern one, forged in the ashes of British rule in 1947. “India is more of a continent than a country,” my colleague Shweta said. “Most people here identify themselves as Punjabis or Bengalis first, and Indians second.” A quick glance at Wikipedia backed up her assertion. India has 28 states, 21 official languages, nine religions and over 200 ethnic and tribal groups.

As well as these wide variations in culture, India has perhaps the world’s widest gulf between rich and poor, with some of the world’s wealthiest people living alongside those as destitute as in any African failed state. Along with China, it is one of the world’s two emerging superpowers and already the world’s largest democracy, but even more than its neighbour to the north-east, the benefits of economic progress have not trickled down to those at the bottom. Nowhere is this more evident than in the capital city, Delhi.

This was my second visit to UNICEF India but my first to include a project visit. My task was to train six country office staff in blogging and online video. I wanted to do this in a real-life environment. UNICEF regularly works with local charity Butterflies to include sport and play in children’s development, including through workshops and monthly play days. During the Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup, we worked together to provide sporting events for street children in Delhi. Butterflies has a number of other projects across the capital, and they agreed to let us visit two of these for the training – a catering school for former street children and a night shelter and community bank near Old Delhi railway station.

Down and out in Delhi: a home for street children

Former street child Suraj listens to an English lesson at the shelter for street children
© UNICEF India/2011/Andy Brown

After our morning at the culinary training centre (see part one of this blog), we went to Old Delhi to visit a night shelter for street children and a community bank. This time, I was training Lalita, Ruchi and Omesh, from the UNICEF India office, in blogging and online video. The afternoon’s projects were again run by Butterflies, a local charity that UNICEF works with on sport and development, including by provide sporting activities for street children during the Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup.

Old Delhi is a bit like the evil twin of New Delhi, where the UNICEF office is located. Where the new town has wide, tree-lined avenues, clean streets and vast, gated mansions, the old city is full of narrow streets and dilapidated buildings. Its streets are filled with a dense crowd of people and animals, including goats with full udders and carts drawn by large oxen, which battle tuk-tuks, cyclists and cars for command of the road. Disabled beggars limp between vehicles chasing a few rupees and entire families sleep rough on the pavements wherever there is a patch of shade. It was hot, noisy, chaotic and bewildering.

We stopped outside the railway station in Old Delhi, which is a hub for street children, drawn by the lure of begging from tourists and travellers. The train station is a red and white brick building, mirroring the style of Mughal-era architecture, if not its magnificence and antiquity. There was a tap on the van window, which I initially ignored as you get conditioned to do by all the touts and beggars on the streets. The noise became more insistent and I turned to see Stayaveer Singh, education coordinator for Butterflies. He was sitting on a motorbike and smiling broadly. Indicating for us to follow him, he drove off down the road and down a small side alley, where the night shelter was located.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Lost Kingdom of Ayutthaya

An election poster outside one of Ayutthaya's ancient temples
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

In the three-part Thai epic blockbuster The Legend of King Naresuan, the eponymous hero rebels against Burmese rule and restores the Kingdom of Siam around Ayutthaya in 1590. He then expands the kingdom with the help of an army of elephants, ushering in a period of peace and prosperity that lasts until 1767, when the Burmese return to sack and burn the imperial city. They loot its treasures and wipe out its population, leaving the charred ruins to be reclaimed by jungle.

We went to Ayutthaya for a more prosaic reason than the Burmese – to escape the traffic and pollution of Bangkok for a weekend. The former capital is only 76 km north of the new one. It’s either a one hour drive in a mini-van from Victory Monument or two hours on a clapped-out old train, shambling down the out-dated railway tracks like an old man.

We travelled up by van after work on Friday, braving the disorganised scrum at Victory Monument marketplace to force our way into a vehicle, and arrived about 7pm. We’d managed to get a cheap deal at the Krungsri River Hotel, described by the Lonely Planet as the ‘plushest pad in town’. That may have been true but our ‘riverside view’ turned out to be mainly a motorway view and the hotel itself had the air of a mafia hangout. Scary looking Russians with shaved heads, tattooed arms and gold chains lounged around the swimming pool or at the bar.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Election season in Thailand

It was election season in Thailand so the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya were juxtaposed with very modern election posters. Vans from the political parties cruised up and down the streets, with loudspeakers repeating campaign messages on a loop. Back in Bangkok, I attended several election rallies and debates, including one at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. Here are some of my favourite photos from the run up to polling day. Read my Ayutthaya blog »

Monday, 20 June 2011

In the mood for love: Maggie Cheung and children

Maggie Cheung and the young presenters, including Xi-xi (far left).
© UNICEF/China/2010/Martin Ye 
Child poverty is not solely a problem for poor countries. Although China is now the world’s second largest economy, having overtaken Japan in February, its spectacular economic growth has not yet reached the poorest children and communities. China still has 100 million children living on less than $2 a day and there are stark disparities between urban and rural areas. It is still a developing country and the poverty numbers are huge.

Wednesday 1 June was National Children’s Day in China, which made it the perfect time for me to visit Beijing. For the week leading up to Children’s Day, UNICEF China ran a campaign around the issue of child poverty in rural provinces. The face of the campaign was actress and UNICEF Ambassador Maggie Cheung. I studied film at university and wrote my dissertation on Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, whose films include Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, both starring Maggie Cheung, so I was looking forward to meeting her in her UNICEF role.

To prepare for the campaign, a group of UNICEF staff and Government partners took Maggie and a film crew to see child welfare projects in poor communities in Liangshan, Sichuan Province. This already deprived area is now also affected by HIV and drug use, with many children growing up without one or both parents. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to establish a child welfare system that can protect the most vulnerable children in China. Liangshan is one of the pilot sites for the project.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Nepal: gurkhas and Ganesh

Nepal is a photographer's dream. Houses, temples and palaces are all adorned with beautiful and intricate wood carvings. Stone lions guard the dusty, potholed streets and crumbling buildings. Sacred cows wander unhindered among the tractors, rickety vehicles and women carrying baskets on their heads. The people are beautifully dressed in colourful saris and dauras, their children’s eyes rimmed with kohl to keep out evil spirits. Here are some of my favourite photos from the trip. Read my Nepal blog »

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Return of the King: Nepal's royal capitals

The author in Patan’s Durbar Square. © Joyce Lee/2011/Nepal
Nepal is both one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and one of the poorest. In the capital Kathmandu, both the beauty and poverty are very much on display. The city is an odd mixture of historic grandeur and modern squalor. Its medieval buildings and squares have remained unchanged for centuries. Houses, temples and palaces are all adorned with beautiful and intricate wood carvings, which cover doors, windows, pillars and rafters. Stone lions guard the dusty, potholed streets and crumbling buildings. Sacred cows wander unhindered among the tractors, rickety vehicles and women carrying baskets on their heads. There is a Hindu temple on almost every street corner and square, from small shrines to local spirits and sacred trees, to huge towering monuments to the major Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu. And it is all marvellously intact – there are no office blocks, shopping malls or multi-story car parks to disrupt the historic skyline.

In the nearby cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, the historic scenery is even more magnificent. In Patan’s Durbar (Royal) Square, half a dozen temples are accompanied by two tall stone pillars. On top of one is a golden statue of Garuda, Vishnu’s bird-man mount. From his lofty perch he faces the temple of his master on one knee, his arms crossed and wings outstretched. On top of the other pillar a statue of King Yoganarendra, who ruled Patan in the 17th Century, faces the former royal palace. Above him is an uncoiled cobra, on top of which sits a small bird. Legend has it that as the long as the bird remains, the king may return. Accordingly, the palace door is left slightly ajar so he can enter with ease.

What spoils the view, unfortunately, is all the rubbish. Refuse lines the streets and piles up in squares and parks. People work, cook and eat amongst it, with women barbequing corn-on-the-cob over wood and bricks on the pavement. The smell of rubbish and occasionally urine mingles with the sweet and heady scent of spices coming from the food stalls. The only other place I’ve seen like it is Payatas, the slum town on the edge of Manila’s main rubbish dump. I saw one Kathmandu shopkeeper attempt to clear the space in front of his storefront, sweeping the street clean with a broom made from bundles of twigs. Others burned piles of rubbish in the evening, sending swirls of acrid plastic smoke across the pavements.

On the roof of the world: trekking in Nepal

Working on my blog, with four days’ worth of beard.
© Joyce Lee/2011/Nepal
Our reason for being in Nepal was to hike the Himalayas, so after exploring Kathmandu (see part one of this blog) we took a light aircraft to Pokhara, the starting point of our trek in the Annapurna mountain range. Tourism has saved this region from many of the ills that plague the Kathmandu valley. The streets are cleaner and the buildings in better repair, with even slum houses painted sky blue. There is also 24-hour electricity thanks to locally-produced renewable energy. Solar panels on houses heat people’s water and hydro-power in the valleys provides electricity for the villages. Houses here are painted with the words ‘Never End Peace And Love,’ the first letter of each word spelling out ‘Nepal’. “In Kathmandu, it means: ‘No Electricity Product, Always Load-shedding,” a local woman joked. 

We signed up to do a five-day trek through the mountains to Poon Hill, with a local organisation called ‘Three Sisters’ that employs, educates and empowers local women. Our guide, Kamala, had been working with them since 1999. We also had two teenage porters, Manuka and Danu. As soon as we set off, we started feeling guilty about letting the girls carry our heavy backpacks while we carried lightweight daypacks. Every time we stopped, Joyce and I would take something out of their bags and put it into ours. We felt less guilty, however, when we saw the other porters. One Dutch couple had a single 60-year-old man as a porter. Each morning he tied three large backpacks together with rope and attached them to a strap across his forehead. While Manuka and Danu often raced ahead of us, waving cheerfully back from the top of the next hill, the old man struggled along behind his group, taking slow and shaky steps up the steep mountainsides.

The thing that struck me most about the mountains of Nepal is that they are very much lived in, in a way that European mountains no longer are. There are bustling villages all along the trekking trail, where subsistence farming is now combined with tourism. Even the smallest group of stone huts now has a restaurant, a guesthouse, a general store and – bizarrely – a ‘German bakery’. Children in crisp school uniforms run up and down the vertiginous stone steps like nimble mountain goats. Women dressed in bright colours wash clothes in the river, work in the fields with babies strapped to their backs, or dry mushrooms on rooftops in the midday sun. Men drive trains of donkeys (“the mountain car,” Kamala called them) laden with rice sacks across rope and wood bridges over deep gorges. Others carried goods themselves, using the same forehead strap as the old porter. We saw one man carrying a cage of a dozen live chickens in this way. Strings of brightly coloured Buddhist prayer flags were hung in even the most remote locations.

Monday, 2 May 2011

India: maharajas and minarets

Old Delhi is a bit like the evil twin of New Delhi, where the UNICEF office is located. Where the new town has wide, tree-lined avenues, clean streets and vast, gated mansions, the old city is full of narrow streets and dilapidated buildings. Its streets are filled with a dense crowd of people and animals, including goats with full udders and carts drawn by large oxen, which battle tuk-tuks, cyclists and cars for command of the road. Disabled beggars limp between vehicles chasing a few rupees and entire families sleep rough on the pavements wherever there is a patch of shade. Here are some of my favourite photos from both sides of the city. Read my India blog »

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A passage to India: the two faces of Delhi

Me and Joyce at Humayun's tomb, the precursor of the Taj Mahal.
© Andy Brown/2011/India

A few days after Songkran, I packed my bags once again and booked a ticket to Delhi, India. It’s a country I’ve always wanted to visit. I have several British-Indian friends in London and have watched countless movies about the country, from Richard Attenborough’s classic Ghandi to more recent art house fare like Earth and Water. I’ve always been intrigued by the country’s rich culture and history.

However, I also felt some trepidation. I’d heard about India’s extreme poverty, with slum dwellings lining the pavements of Mumbai, and had been warned to expect touts, scammers and hasslers. Joyce and I went to Morocco a few years ago and had an unhappy time. As soon as we stepped onto the street, we would be mobbed by aggressive and persistent fake guides, who would swear and spit at us when we refused their services. I was worried Delhi would be the same.

Happily, my time in India turned out to be neither quite like a movie, nor anywhere near as unfriendly as Morocco. However, there were two distinct sides to Delhi and its people. It was like a two-sided Venetian mask - one face smiling happily, the other angry and unsettling.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

On the waterfront: Songkran in Thailand

An ingenious variation on the traditional water ceremony at a temple on Koh Kred.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Water has many associations in Thailand at this time of year. It’s a symbol of devotion to elders and the Buddha. Yet it’s also a sign of youth and anarchy; of childhood and play. This week is Songkran, or Thai New Year, when the entire country marks the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth by staging the world’s largest water fight. According to the traditional Thai calendar, the year is now 2554.

The word Songkran comes from the Sanskrit ‘saṃkrānti’ meaning astrological passage. It lasts for three days, from 13 to 15 April, and falls into two distinct parts. In the mornings, Thais go to visit their elders and pour water on their hands as a sign of respect. Then they go to the temple and wash Buddha statues with water and flower petals from golden bowls.

At work this week, we had a short ceremony where we poured water over Anupama and Tomoo’s hands – the heads of UNICEF’s regional and country offices respectively. We also saw temples where ritual washing was in progress. At one, on the island of Koh Kred in the Chao Praya river, an ingenious contraption had been set up. For a donation, you got a bowl of water that you attached to the claws of a golden bird. By turning a wheel, you activated a series of pulleys that hoisted the bird on a cable up to the top of a temple spire, where its bowl tipped over, pouring water and petals down the side of the building.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Away match: Bryan Robson visits Bangkok shelter

For many people, football is a sport, a passion and a part of their regional identity. For UNICEF, football is a way of keeping children fit and healthy and of teaching them life skills like discipline and teamwork. We also team up with leading football clubs and players to raise awareness and funds for our work on children’s rights.

Manchester United legends Bryan Robson and Andrew Cole were in Bangkok last week as part of a fundraising tour to help the club raise £1 million for UNICEF’s work with children. During their trip, I went with Bryan to visit Baan Phumvej Reception Home for Boys, to learn how UNICEF is supporting children who have been abused or trafficked.

I arrived in Pak Kred an hour ahead of the main group. The boys were practicing for a music class and changing into Man Utd kits, bought specially for the occasion. Bryan arrived later with Alex from UNICEF UK and John Shiels, from the Manchester United Foundation. Also known as ‘Captain Marvel’, Bryan was the longest serving captain in the club’s history and is now manager of the Thailand national team.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

China: cadres and colonnades

I returned to Beijing after a ten-year absence. The horizon was a jumble of skyscrapers and tower blocks, stretching out from East to West with barely a sliver of sky between them. Everything was clean and orderly, with neat rows of silver birch trees lined up behind spotless pavements and well-managed cycle lanes. The tiled ‘hutong’ houses and bicycle-drawn carts I remembered from my last visit were nowhere to be seen. But as the days went by, I started to notice old Beijing emerging from the cracks between the modern facades. Here are some of my favourite photos of the new and old China. Read my China blog »

Saturday, 2 April 2011

China: back in the P.R.C.

The author on the Great Wall of China. © Andy Brown/2011/China
In 1876, Gore Vidal’s historical novel about the US centenary, narrator Charlie Schuyler returns to New York after decades of self-imposed exile in Europe. He is struck by the transformation of a city he once knew into something brash, modern and unfamiliar, as America rushed to catch up with and surge past the global powers of the Old World. I got a bit of the same feeling returning to Beijing after a ten-year absence.

Driving into town, the horizon was a jumble of skyscrapers and tower blocks, stretching out from East to West with barely a sliver of sky between them. Everything was clean and orderly, with neat rows of silver birch trees lined up behind spotless pavements and well-managed cycle lanes. The tiled ‘hutong’ houses and bicycle-drawn carts I remembered from my last visit were nowhere to be seen. As the light began to fade, we reached the embassy district where Western brand names, neon-lit Chinese characters and a huge Apple logo lit up the sky above a brand new shopping mall. There was even a billboard for a Bob Dylan gig at the Workers' Gymnasium. It felt more like Geneva than the hectic and historic Asian city I remembered.

I had almost forgotten it was winter. I left Bangkok just as the rainy season began, spending my last night sheltering from a particularly spectacular thunder storm. Here it was mid-March but the trees were still bare. Where Bangkok was lush and green, Beijing existed in varying shades of yellow and brown. Dry leaves lay on the lawns and flowerbeds, testament to the lack of rain since they fell in the autumn. At night, the temperature dropped to well below freezing. The air was dry and dusty and I would wake up in the morning feeling as if I’d been chain smoking the night before. A few days later my skin started to flake.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Human traffick: a shelter for abused children

Yarzar talks to Fahan (not his real name) in a classroom
at Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmeth
Poverty is relative. For families living on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the streets and slums of Bangkok promise a lifestyle worth making a long and sometimes dangerous journey for. In the troubled border regions of Burma, meanwhile, there are people desperate enough to sell their own children into slavery. As shocking as it sounds, this is a common enough practice to generate a thriving trade in child trafficking at Thailand’s border towns.

To find out what happens to the victims of child trafficking, we went to Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys at Amphur Pakkret, about half an hour’s drive north of Bangkok. In fact it’s only north of Bangkok in the sense that Sutton is south of London – the urban sprawl thins out a bit but there’s no greenbelt or real sense of when one place ends and the other begins.

I live on the north side of Bangkok, so I flagged down a taxi and made my own way to the shelter. There, I met up with Ann and Yarzar from Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in Thai), part of the NGO Friends International, which gets support from UNICEF to work with migrant and trafficked children. Yarzar was a polite, young Burmese man in glasses and a Friends polo shirt. Like Nan, the street outreacher worker we met before, he used his language skills to communicate with non-Thai children and their families.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Friends in need: children living in Bangkok slums

Nuch selling flower garlands on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Like any large city, Bangkok is multi-faceted and the view you get can be radically different depending on your perspective. Having seen the city from the viewpoint of a tourist and an office worker, my next job was to see the same locations from the perspective of the urban poor: in particular children living in slums and working on the streets.

I went on three project visits around Bangkok with my colleagues from the Thailand office, Tum and Cherry, and a local photographer, Chum. I’m working with Tum and Cherry to create stories for the UNICEF Thailand website on the right to an education, while training them up on producing different types of content, including audio, video and social media.

As well as doing freelance work for UNICEF, Chum is an award winning photo journalist. His pictures from the front line of the Red Shirt riots last year paint a vivid picture of anger, bloodshed and arson among the normally placid Thai people. “It’s hard to get natural shots,” Chum explained. “Even during the violence, people would smile and wave at the camera. These were the best 15 pictures from thousands.” I’d just taken my own photos of Red Shirts on their way to a weekend rally, so it was fascinating to see Chum’s much edgier work.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Work, eat, sleep: adjusting to life in Bangkok

A street vendor selling fruit and veg in Ari. © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Living in Bangkok is a very different experience to visiting it, and after our first week we started to feel less like tourists and more like inhabitants of the sprawling metropolis. We moved into an apartment in Ari, a residential Thai area. It’s upmarket but still feels more adventurous than living in expat central round Sukhumvit. We’re staying in a small block of 15 apartments around a swimming pool. It’s very homely and ‘traditional Thai style’ with lots of shade and pot plants everywhere. We’re surrounded by quiet leafy lanes, populated with villas and garden restaurants. It feels a bit like a Thai equivalent of the more villagey suburbs of London like Highgate or Hampstead.

The streets near the Skytrain are lined with food stalls, selling fruit or fried noodles. Scattered among them are occasional folding tables covered with lottery tickets. There is also a cobbler and a middle-aged man with an old-fashioned sewing machine, patiently repairing an endless succession of garments. The ready availability of fruit here is a welcome contrast to Manila and, along with my twice-daily swims, allows me to maintain the semblance of a healthy lifestyle while eating spicy soup noodles every night.

Each of the street stalls is in fact a small trailer with gas canisters pulled by bike, moped or sometimes by hand. Owners of the larger stalls set up folding chairs and tables along the roadside to create a makeshift restaurant. Late at night, they take all this down and do their washing up with large plastic bowls and hosepipes, emptying the dirty water out into the gutters. One night, after the stalls had gone, I noticed that the pavement was actually marked out into small areas with painted lines like a car park. Presumably the stall owners pay rent on their space to the local council.

Monday, 31 January 2011

First impressions of Bangkok

The author, demonstrating the rolling ball action in a dragon's mouth.
© Joyce Lee/2011/Thailand

Like déjà vu or a half remembered dream, Bangkok strikes me as both familiar and unknown. The hustle, bustle and good-natured chaos of Banglumphu (the old town and backpacker district) reminds me of Manila. Among the glitzy, air-conditioned skyscrapers, malls and skytrain of Sukhumvit, meanwhile, we could easily be in Hong Kong or Shanghai. In between are the temples, saffron-robed Buddhist monks, monarchy and Sanskrit writing that are inimitably Thai. The city is in a mid-point of development. It has left behind the huge, sprawling slums of Manila but the streets are still gridlocked, lined with hawker stalls, and home to stray dogs in feral packs and street children selling flower garlands. “It’s like Hong Kong fifteen years ago, before they made the street stalls illegal,” Joyce says.

I’m here on a 12 month contract with UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Office. My job is to help develop websites and other digital activities like email and social media for UNICEF offices in the region. I'm focusing on the middle-income countries, such as Thailand, China and Malaysia. While UNICEF's main business in these countries is still delivering programmes in health, education, child protection and the like, they also have an opportunity to fundraise from an emerging middle class that is wealthy, online and looking for projects to support.

I came out a week early with Joyce (my fiancée) to find a flat, sort out practical matters like banking, and get a feel for our new home. For the first week, we stayed in a guest house in Banglumphu. The district is full of foreigners (called 'farang' in Thai), bars and restaurants with shisha pipes, and travel agencies offering cheap rides down to the islands or to the hills up north. Images of the King are everywhere, from calendars in shops and cafes to giant portraits at road intersections and on government buildings. While staying here, we went out for cocktails on Ko San Road, the famous hippy mecca. It reminded me of the dance village at Glastonbury festival, with pumping trance music, t-shirt stalls and glow-in-the-dark gadgets. Unlike Glastonbury, however, it also features beggars displaying their missing or broken limbs, in an uncomfortable reminder of the darker side of tourism in a poor country.