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.