Saturday, 21 December 2013

Thailand: Surasak photo walk

An afternoon spent wandering around the Muslim and Chinese districts of Surasak, Bangkok

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Bangkok political protests (continued)

Anti-government protesters marching down Phahon Yothin road, Bangkok, in December 2013, as seen from the bridge at the end of our soi.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

King of Thailand's birthday

Highlights of the King of Thailand's birthday celebrations in Bangkok, December 2013, during a brief pause in the ongoing political protests.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Getting to zero: young people set the agenda at AIDS congress

A migrant worker activist shares a joke with the HIV virus on the parade
© UNICEF EAPRO/2013/Andy Brown

I’ve been to many international conferences in my time and the word ‘fun’ doesn’t immediately spring to mind. But the 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), held in Bangkok, really was fun. This was largely because of the enthusiastic participation of young people and HIV activists from around the region.

As well as the speeches and debates you would expect at an event like this, there was a marathon, cultural performances, youth protesters and a noisy and colourful parade. The opening ceremony featured a performance by drummers from Thailand, China and Bangladesh, playing in their own national style, while children from Indonesia danced on stilts. A group of ‘Instagram reporters’ commissioned by UNAIDS went around capturing the sights for social media.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Monday, 4 November 2013

Shooting Chinatown: the Worldwide Photo Walk

On Sunday 5 October, nearly 30,000 photographers – myself included – went on over 1,200 photo walks around the world. This is the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk, and it’s the largest social photography event in the world. After the walk, every photographer is asked to submit one photo for the award. Choosing a single photo was in itself a challenge, and I recruited my Facebook friends to help me decide.

I signed up for the walk via my local photography group, Bangkok Photographers, without really realising what it was. I enjoy doing photography for work and when I travel, but I haven’t done any formal training for years. The group seemed like a good way to hone my skills and learn from other photographers.

On the day of the walk, we met at Saphan Taksin, where the skytrain crosses the Chao Praya river. I recognised walk leader Dennie Cody, his wife DK, and photographers from previous walks, including Madhu and Linda, who I also know socially. Together, we took a ferry up the river to Rajawongse pier, the dropping off point for Bangkok’s Chinatown. We were lucky with the weather – it’s rainy season in Thailand but on this day it was pleasantly cool and dry.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Mongolia: caravan of camels, hotel of horrors

A caravan of camels crossing the road outside Murun
The third and final stage of my Mongolia journey was perhaps the most challenging, with both highs (encountering a caravan of camels) and lows (staying in a horror movie hotel). We were planning to drive south from Tsagaan-Uur to Tarialan soum, but were warned that the ‘road’ had become impassable because of the rains. So we had to take a longer way round.

We passed some amazing sights along the way. We drove through woodland where the ground was sprinkled with brightly coloured spring flowers. When we came out into a meadow, it was so dense with flowers that the grass looked canary yellow instead of green. Later, we saw a large eagle that had just killed a rabbit. It moved along the track away from us, dragging its prey with one taloned foot. It spread its wing to fly but the rabbit was too heavy for it to take off. Given the choice, the bird stayed on the ground and slowly hopped out of view.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Mongolia: frozen lakes and stone cooked lamb

Snowcapped mountains emerge from the mist at Khuvsgul Lake
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Look at a map of Khuvsgul and one feature will jump out at you – Khuvsgul Nuur, or lake. This is a massive 2,760 square kilometre body of water that stretches almost to the border with Siberia. It is the second largest in Asia and one of the oldest lakes in the world, being among just 17 that formed over two million years ago. Mongolians call it ‘ocean mother’ and revere it as the country’s main source of fresh water. It is famous for its clear, drinkable water and blue/green colour.

The lake is also a major tourist attraction and, unusually, there was a tarmacked road all the way from the provincial capital Murun. We stopped mid-morning at the southern tip of the lake. Our driver Agi knew the chef at a tourist 'ger' (tent) camp, and he served us tea and snacks. Afterwards, we walked down to the lake. The shore was stony and the water was crystal clear. On reaching the water, the Mongolian tradition is to take a little water in your hand and splash it on your forehead. “This is to give thanks for the water and show respect to nature,” Byamba said, demonstrating.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Mongolia: land of the eternal blue sky

Herds of livestock wander through the barren landscape of Khuvsgul
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Mongolia is unlike any other country I’ve been to. For most of the year it’s a frozen wasteland. Temperatures plunge to minus 35, lakes freeze over and heavy snow piles up across the land. Then, for a few brief months in summer, the snow melts and the country is transformed into a land of wide, open grasslands, sparkling lakes and vast green forests under an endless blue sky. I visited in June, when this transformation was nearly complete. The snow had temporarily retreated to the mountain tops, leaving the land clear for people, animals and vehicles.

I was in Mongolia for three weeks – two in the capital Ulaanbaatar, and one in the remote northern region of Khuvsgul, which borders Siberia. These days, Ulaanbataar is a modern Asian city in the grip of a construction boom. It is centered on S├╝khbaatar Square, which is deserted in winter but when I visited in summer was full of children and teenagers running around, playing football and cycling. Parents and grandparents arrived with young children. They climbed the steps of the Parliament building and held the infants up to see the colossal new statue of Chinggis Khan, who sat sternly on a giant throne gazing out across the activity on the square.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Home and away: children with disabilities go to a Man Utd match

This article was first published in the Bangkok Post on 23 July 2013.
Pichit and other children respond to a near miss by Man Utd
© UNICEF Thailand/2013/Jingjai N.
Among the 60,000 football fans packing out Rajamangala National Stadium for a Manchester United football match last weekend were 36 children with intellectual disabilities. The atmosphere was buzzing. Many fans arrived in the club’s trademark shirts, waving balloons, scarves and banners.  The children, who were invited to the game by the Manchester United Foundation and UNICEF, had only seen the football stars on TV, and were among the most enthusiastic in the audience.

“It’s fun to be here,” Pichit Panachai, 17, said at half time. “This is my first time to be really here. It’s more exciting than watching on TV. I want to see number 18 [Ashley Young] score!”

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Fighting the stereotypes: disabilities report launch

UNICEF launched its annual flagship report, State of the World’s Children, in Da Nang, Vietnam. The subject was disability. I was on the ground with UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake as he visited centres around Da Nang and met children with disabilities.

Children with disabilities pose for a photo after their drum game
© UNICEF EAPRO/2013/Andy Brown
I arrived in Vietnam two days before the report launch. From the air, Da Nang is stunning. We came in to land at sunset, with a cloudless view across a wide river delta and out to sea. Trees and village houses cast long shadows across the waterways and mud-brown fields. Near the coast, a handful of limestone peaks (the Marble Mountains) rose out of an otherwise flat landscape. Here and there, a few cargo boats made their way downstream to the sea.

But Da Nang also has a dark side. During the Vietnam War, its airfield was used to store containers of ‘Agent Orange’, a chemical that was sprayed over the countryside to destroy crops and forests. Now, almost four decades later, Da Nang still has one of the highest rates of birth defects in the region. This is widely attributed to Agent Orange, which contaminates the water supply and food chain.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Children with disabilities overcome the legacy of Agent Orange

Three-year-old Dan was born with disabilities because of Agent Orange
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
Dang Hong Dan is just three years old but he’s a victim of the Vietnam War. He was born with disabilities because of Agent Orange – a chemical sprayed in the south of the country during the war to destroy crops and forests. Although the war ended almost four decades ago, Agent Orange still contaminates fields and rivers in the Mekong Delta region. It gets into food and drinking water, causing birth defects in children.

Dan was born with a cleft lip, which has been partly repaired with surgery, and a deformed hand and foot. He is too young to be aware of his disability and the stigma that sometimes surrounds it. He is a happy and active child, with an enormous sense of curiosity and clearly intelligent for his age. “Dan likes to play with anything,” his mother Oanh, 30, says with a laugh as he tries to figure out how to use UNICEF’s digital camera.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

A chance for change: young people learn a trade

This article was first published in the Bangkok Post on 19 January 2013.

At a university dormitory in Bangkok, 21 young people from disadvantaged communities line up to pull the name of a top hotel out of a bag. Behind them, teams of hotel staff in uniforms wait to meet their new apprentices. For 19-year-old Daojai, a cabbage farmer from a Mon hill tribe village in Petchaburi province, it’s an exciting moment. She reaches in and pulls out a piece of paper saying ‘JW Marriot’ and her new life begins.

Although  quiet and  shy, Daojai  is  talkative once she gets going. She dresses simply and has a simple haircut, unlike the more fashion-conscious girls from urban areas. “This is only my second time to Bangkok,” she says. “I arrived yesterday by bus with my friend. I’m very excited to be here. I wanted to go to university but my parents couldn’t afford to send me. I’ll need to pay my own way. Working in a hotel will help me do that.”

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Cambodia: after the floods, a brighter future

Leng Silong, 12, writes equations on the board at a flood affected school
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia but also has perhaps the richest culture and history. In ancient times it was the seat of the Khmer Empire that stretched across the region and influenced the culture and religion of present day Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. More recently, it suffered the massacres and misrule of the Khmer Rouge, from which it has yet to fully recover.

I visited Cambodia to work with the UNICEF country office on digital communications and train staff in local ‘zone offices’ to write stories about children. I had a punishing schedule, with three provinces to cover in four days and groups of up to 20 people to manage. However, it was a great chance to see the country and meet local communities.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The dark of day: life in a Jakarta urban slum

In the mornings, Neng helps her mum on the family food stall
© UNICEF/Indonesia 2012/Andy Brown
Neng is fourteen years old. She lives and works on Venus Alley, a lane in the notorious Jembatan Besi slum in Jakarta, Indonesia. Unlike other children her age, she rarely gets to see the sun. The slum is one of the most densely populated in Indonesia, rising to four stories in places. The ground floor homes are reasonably well constructed but as they ascend, they become increasingly makeshift, with walls and floors made from wood and scrap metal.

Sunlight is in short supply throughout the slum, due to the narrow alleys and tall buildings. In the densest areas, people have built across the top of the alleyways, cutting out the sun altogether and plunging the lanes into perpetual night time. Here, the only light comes from neon tubes and bare lights bulbs hanging from wires. The air is stale and the lanes smell of rubbish and sewage.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Independence days: the new nation of Timor-Leste

Young people watch the sunset at Dili seafront
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste
I’d only vaguely heard of Timor-Leste (or East Timor) before I went there last August. The tiny former Portuguese colony of just over a million people is most famous as the first new nation of the century. It achieved independence in 2002 after a long and bloody struggle with Indonesia, which invaded after the Portuguese left. The BBC describes the subsequent rebuilding of Timor-Leste as “one of the UN’s biggest success stories” so it was fascinating to visit with UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund.

For the first time, I was working on what was essentially an army base. The office was a series of portacabins in a large fenced-off compound, next to a giant satellite dish. We shared our area with the other UN agencies, but the canteen and other facilities were on the peacekeeper’s base. Here, many of the buildings were in fact shipping containers with a few doors and windows, stacked on top of each other in much the same way as those at the nearby cargo port.