Monday, 24 October 2011

Flood update

All eyes are now on Bangkok as the flood waters continue to surge towards the city centre. While it’s currently the industrial outer eastern and northern parts of the city that are affected (as well as riverside Chao Phraya), it’s unclear how far the waters will advance, and if the dykes and run-off channels will do their job.

The latest news reports state that much of the city is likely to be inundated, with the government preparing shelters for up to 800,000 people. City residents have been warned to prepare for four to six weeks of flooding of up to one metre in depth.

Having experienced firsthand how pathetic the city’s drainage is during a mere rain storm, I suggest anyone planning a visit to Bangkok in the coming weeks pack their rubber thongs and be prepared for very wet feet.

In the worst floods for over half a century, there’s been A$5.88 billion in damage, with 2.5 million families displaced and 356 people killed since August. And as industry shuts down, workers are being sent home, many of them forced to return to their families in poverty-stricken regional areas.


I was told this morning that in Isan – the poorest region of Thailand – community centres and orphanages are strapped as breadwinners return from Bangkok, minus their jobs and seeking help. This usually dry region of Thailand currently looks “like Kakadu during wet season”, with rice paddies  and fields submerged. Short term, there are bound to be food shortages; long-term, lives and livelihoods will need to be rebuilt.

One NGO doing a great job in the rescue and relief mission is The Mirror Foundation, a charity based in Chiang Rai run by Thai and hilltribe staff. This is just one group that has answered the call for assistance, coordinating around 70 volunteers a day to deliver relief aid, loading up boats with supplies for flooded communities and rescuing those who have been stranded.

Ironically, the charity’s own accommodation near Don Muang airport has just succumbed to the floodwaters – looks like they’ll be sleeping at the airport tonight, joining over 3,000 other refugees on the floor of the relief headquarters.


According to Aye Naraporn from Mirror Foundation, volunteers will be required after the crisis passes to help with restoration efforts. Although nowhere near as drastic in terms of loss of life, she compares the situation – in regards to numbers of displaced families and livelihoods lost – to that of the 2004 tsunami, one which will require years of restoration effort.

The Mirror Foundation is accepting donations for flood victims on their website. Having worked briefly with this group in Chiang Rai, I can vouch for the amazing, hands-on approach to charity and their strong moral ethics. I can guarantee your money will be going into the right hands.

To donate, visit

In the meantime ... don’t cancel your plans to visit Thailand! In most parts of Thailand, it's business as usual, and that means hot, sunny weather and plenty of smiles. It's even a beautiful day in Bangkok today, despite the rising waters. The gorgeous islands in the south are unaffected by the flooding problems, less than three percent of major tourist attractions are closed, and all airports - including  Suvarnahumi Airport in Bangkok - are operating as usual. Some roads in the central regions are under water, however, so best stick to air travel between destinations.

Now more than ever, Thailand needs our support – with tourism the best way to boost the economy. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Bangkok through experts' eyes

Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t claim to be a ‘photographer’. Yes, I take photos that are publishable, many of them halfway decent. But while I love to seek out good subject matters and take pride in my framing, much of my visual success is due to luck and the egalitarian nature of digital cameras.

What I do know about my camera, however, I attribute to one person. As I stood behind the goal posts at the annual elephant polo tournament in northern Thailand several years ago, the event’s official photographer, Kris LeBoutillier, gave me a few simple tips and made some minor adjustments to my camera settings – and voila, my pics improved tenfold. In a 15 minute masterclass with an expert, I learnt more about the tools of my trade than I had from months of fumbling around on my own.

A professional photographer widely published around the world, Kris has now started his own photographic business, F8 Workshops, running week-long custom-designed seminars in some of Asia’s most exciting destinations. But not content with sharing his own considerable expertise, Kris has snared several legends in the photographic world to lead the workshops, jaw-dropping talents at the top of the mass media game.

Bringing their expertise to Bangkok from December 12-18 are Steve McCurry and Michael Yamashita, both veterans of National Geographic whose photographs have graced the pages of the magazine for decades. McCurry is responsible for arguably the most iconic NG cover of all time – the Afghan girl with piercing green eyes; while Yamashita is a specialist of Asia, best known for his coverage of the odyssey of Marco Polo.

With the visual splendour of Bangkok as a backdrop, McCurry and Yamashita’s workshops are a rare opportunity to learn from the best in the business, designed to challenge and improve your shooting technique and inspire you to take your passion to new levels. Suitable for all photographers from novice to semi-professional, these classes are restricted to just 20 participants to ensure you get personal attention from these incredible instructors.

The City of Angels, of course, is a photographer’s dream, rich in inspiration, colour and contrast. From its boxing arenas to Buddhist temples, Bangkok is the ideal backdrop to create a narrative photographic essay.

So if you want to sharpen your camera skills and see Thailand’s capital through the eyes of experts, check out further details at

Monday, 10 October 2011

Floods affect Ayutthaya's eles

Just sparing a thought for my friends in Thailand, many of whom have already been affected by the worst floods in decades, and others who are preparing for the oncoming deluge.

Fifty-nine provinces across the country have been damaged in some way by floodwaters, with  23 million people affected, tens of thousands displaced, the region’s food bowl ravaged and 252 killed in the last month.

As Bangkok braces for the latest onslaught of floodwaters, the ancient capital of Ayutthaya continues to be swamped, with the whole province declared a disaster area. It’s bad enough that many of the historic cities historic monuments are waist-deep in water ... but even more concerning is the plight of the elephants at one of the city’s biggest attractions, the Royal Elephant Kraal.

While most of the elephants were moved to higher ground a month ago (when the first floods hit), there are still seven mothers and babies trapped at the Kraal, surrounded by a wall of water. According to Communications Director for the Elephant Stay program at the Kraal, Ewa Narkiewicz, the entrances to the compound have been blocked up with dirt, and everyone is praying this holds. There are a handful of people living up on the pavilion, doing what they can to care for the elephants trapped there, but the situation is dire as the waters continue to rise.

(Pic: The Royal Elephant Kraal during last year's flood, from

Built on an island at the confluence of the Lopburi, Pha Sak and Chao Phraya Rivers, Ayutthaya is of course no stranger to floods. Just this time last year, all the elephants from the Kraal had to be moved to higher ground, and the farmland where the elephants’ food is grown suffered severe flooding.

A similar situation also seems to be developing at the elephant village of Ta Klang in Surin, home to 200 elephants rescued from a life of begging on the streets. According to my friend John Roberts from the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, the Surin elephants and their mahouts face major foot shortages, with most of the rice paddies and elephant grazing grounds in Surin under water. For updates on the situation, check in at or

With loss of income and so much damage to the Kraal, Elephantstay will also need all the help it can get. Donations can be made through

PIC: One of the baby elephants born at the Royal Elephant Kraal during last year's floods. This little girl had to be evacuated just hours after birth, walking five kilometres to higher ground.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Willing Hands Required

In the wake of 2009’s devastating bushfires in Victoria, a bunch of Thai kids devised a plan to raise money for a school burnt to the ground in the disaster. Baking and selling donuts, they scraped together $3,500, which they donated to students at Flowerdale Public School.

This act of generosity is remarkable, considering it came from children from far flung shores. But what is even more amazing is that these kids are themselves victims of unimaginable suffering, suffering very few people can appreciate or understand. These amazingly generous young souls, orphaned during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, live at Baan Tharn Namchai orphanage in Khao Lak, supported by the wonderful Hands Across the Waters charity.

The very fact that they went out of their way to help other children who’d suffered loss brings tears to my eyes. Yet this, as founder of Hands Across the Water Peter Baines reminds me, is just the Thai way.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about the Thais and how they live their life,” he says. “Giving that money was just a gift for them. They’ve got so little themselves – they sleep in a bedroom with 40 other kids, yet they chose to go out and raise money for someone else.”

Hands Across the Water was set up as a direct result of ex-forensic policeman Baines personally witnessing the devastation and loss caused by the tsunami. Since then, the Australian charity has raised over A$5 million (with all funds going directly to the kids, not spent on administration), building two orphanages and providing ongoing care for 72 children.

(pic: Will Horner)

In March 2010, the charity decided to expand their reach and support a new orphanage in the Yasothon region of north-east Thailand. The Suthasineee Noiin Foundation is a home for 115 children who have been affected by HIV. The kids who live there are either HIV positive or their parents had HIV and passed away.

Transforming this orphanage to meet the admirable standards of Hands’ Khao Lak establishment, however, takes time and effort. To help get things underway, Hands Across the Water is arranging for a team of volunteers to travel to the Yasathon orphanage in November for a week-long taskforce, putting in the physical hard-yards with hammers, nails, shovels and wheelbarrows.

While people with a trade are particularly required, anyone willing to get dirty and contribute are welcome to lend a hand. The Taskforce will run from November 12-19, with volunteers responsible for their own travelling costs to and from Ubon Ratchatani. The charity will help secure the best deals at nearby accommodation, however.

So if you want to add a feel-good element to your next holiday in Thailand, sign up! You can send an email to

See you there, hammer in hand!