Thursday, March 30, 2006

Wat Prabat Nampu

The last week of my trip in Thailand was perhaps the most incredible. I decided to head to an AIDS hospice at Wat Prabat Nampu. It is right outside of the town of Lopburi. After trying to coordinate through fax and telephone both in Thai and in English I decided to just go and see what happens. On a humid afternoon I headed to the train station called Hualophong. I bought a ticket for fifty cents, purchased a couple of ice cold beers, and cozied into my third class train seat. By the end of the trip I was feeling great and stepped off the train into a nice, quiet, country town. The noise of Bangkok was far behind me and there was nothing but the occasional motorbike and pickup truck wizzing by. I walked away from the trian station, had a bowl of soup on the corner and found a nice hotel that was half the price of what I was paying in Bangkok and much more welcoming. The next morning I headed to Wat Prabat Nampu. Here are the photos and essay from my experience.

Hope for the Hopeless: A Story of AIDS in Thailand

©Matthew Williams/ZUMA Press

March 1, 2006, Thailand – Thailand’s AIDS prevention has been revered as one of the most efficient models in Southeast Asia. By using public-education and safe-sex promotion in the red-light districts, Thailand drastically reduced the number of people being infected with AIDS in the last ten years. Today, however, the epidemic has shifted from sex workers into the everyday society: teens, mothers, fathers, and children. In addition to these trends, the HIV infection rate has increased dramatically within intravenous drug users, the youth, and the homosexual populations throughout Thailand. “I see AIDS as being a continuous problem. I don’t see how AIDS is really going to stop, because there are still people who are HIV positive and don’t know that they are HIV positive, and have lots of partners without knowing they are spreading the infection,” stated Usanee Janngeon, Health Coordinator for Mercy Centre in Bangkok.

Forty children run through the hallways of the Mercy Centre as they return from school on a sunny afternoon in March. They put their backpacks away, take showers, and end the day by lazily watching television, playing in the courtyard, or creating pieces of artwork with a collection of colored pencils and crayons. Located in Klong Toey Slum, in Bangkok, Thailand, the Mercy Centre is a safe haven for these orphans, who were rescued from life on the street in the slums. Their lives seem like those of any others at first glance, but most of these bright-eyed children have been orphaned by AIDS. They have to deal with the stigmas, health problems, and emotional struggles that accompany being a child with AIDS in Thailand. At 5:30 every evening, the children line up at the nurse’s station to take their daily dose of antiviral medication. Donated by the Thai government, the medication gives these children a chance at the future, which the Mercy Centre is taking an active role in planning for. According to Usanee Janngeon. “They will have a bright future, there will be medications for them, they are a very strong set of children, they are very determined, they are healthy, and we are planning now with our work for their future. We are planning what they are going to do when they finish the sixth grade. We are planning which university they are going to go to. Really, the children who are living at the Mercy Centre are our family. Many people have asked me how long do you think they will live, and I really hate that question. For me I think ‘What are we going to do with their future, how are we going to help them?’, instead of when they are going to die. Boys and girls living at the Mercy Centre, whether they are HIV positive or not, are treated as any other children⎯the same.”

Three hours north of Bangkok in the quiet town of Lopburi is the Buddhist temple, Wat Prabat Nampu, that is dedicated to helping adults who are HIV positive. The temple, run by monks who are also all HIV positive, was founded in 1992. Like the Mercy Centre, Wat Prabat Nampu is dedicated to helping HIV positive people and getting them back out into society. The hospice has grown tremendously in the past 13 years, but it still has a very rudimentary feel to it. The houses surrounding the hospice are full of HIV positive patients who spend their days doing chores around the temple grounds and living their lives to the fullest. Most of the patients who arrive at the temple are merely left at the front gate by family or friends, sometimes not ever being visited again. Although the Thai people are becoming more educated about living among HIV positive people, there remains a lot of fear among the Thai population. Organizations such as Wat Prabat Nampu encourage tourists to visit their museums and walk through the hospice to promote more understanding and awareness among the general population to combat the stigma surrounding AIDS. Each day between 50 and 100 visitors can be seen walking through the temple grounds.

Despite the grim circumstances that the patients and orphans at Wat Prabat Nampu and the Mercy Center are faced with, there is hope for the future. The patients are lucky to have medication available to them, medical care, and a professional staff dedicated to their futures. Thailand is slowly becoming more educated and understanding to the dangers and risks of living with family members and friends who have AIDS. With better medical care and the availability of anti-viral medication, children and adults alike are planning their futures and even re-entering society when they are well.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Southeast Asia

After being in Southeast Asia for the last three months Southern California seems a bit strange. The experience was life changing, and photographically it changed me in ways that I will never be able to explain. The following is a collection of images and journal entries I have compiled throughout my adventures. I am planning my next documentary trip as we speak, and hope to continue my career photographing people affected by conflict and poverty in the developing world.

03.06.06 – Ton Sai

The time at the beach was amazing. I obviously got sun burnt because the sheer power of the sun near the equator is incredible. Some highlights of the week – stepped on a large scorpion the first day, went swimming in the Andaman Sea, snorkeling with a beautiful Swiss woman, kayaked for an hour to get to another island, found coconuts in the jungle and proceeded to pound them on rocks until I could get at the goods, and spent a lot of time in my hammock. It was amazing.

02.23.06 – Friends and Acquaintances

I woke up this morning with a stuffy nose, a fever, and an upset stomach, and couldn’t bring myself to go run around the streets of Thailand today. So I decided to stay in. I quickly fell back asleep, woke up, read a little, and then fell back asleep again. I checked my email, ate an amazing salad with avocados on it and sipped on a cup of coffee while I thought about the people you meet throughout life. Most of them are fairly uninteresting, and do more complaining than anything else. Unfortunately I have grown tired of hearing English teachers bitch and moan about their troubles in Bangkok, or how bored they are doing the same thing day after day. I also grow tired of hearing about “Dude, man the islands were so cool...”, or “Dude, like, the full moon party was so radical.” Frankly, I just don’t give a shit. But once in a while you meet someone on the road who really sticks with you and seems more than momentarily interesting. These are the people that matter, and if we could all get together in the same place at the same time it would be a giant party. Unfortunately the kind of people who seem more than momentarily interesting, are usually on the go and hardly ever in the same place at the same time. Such is life.


Bad days lead to good days. Tense situations always lead to calm situations. Chaos transforms into tranquility. Bangkok has been an interesting place to stay for awhile. There is so much happening throughout Asia and the Middle-East, but as a student, I cannot travel to where the action is, which is fine, although it makes me want to finish school and move closer to the Middle-East. There is a strange concept, which I am grasping more than ever before. People fear what they do not know, and especially when it comes to unstable places throughout the world. Many people think that Cambodia is a dangerous place, Pakistan is where people get their heads chopped off, but in fact, walking through downtown LA might be more dangerous than either. What we do not know scares us the most. I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to cover as a photojournalist, and I know now more than ever before. I want to cover conflicts and humanitarian issues throughout the world because this is where people are most vulnerable and most passionate. These seem to be the stories that matter the most. Even throughout the past few months I have discovered more about myself than ever before. This is the beginning to something wonderful that I hope to share with you all for years to come.

02.06.06 – Stung Meanchey

At four o’clock on Monday Vuthy and I headed out to Stan Meanchey. I was a little nervous and didn’t know what to expect at all. When we crossed over a small creek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh I started to realize the situation that I was about to be involved in. Suddenly the paved road transformed into a potholed dirt road with people living in shacks. Speeding through the slums of Phnom Penh we saw a moto with 50+ live chickens attached to it that were being taken to the market, naked babies running through the street, and then we turned the corner. The stench was overwhelming, and the size of Stan Meanchey is indescribable. It can be likened a mountainous landscape, except made entirely of garbage. We stopped the motorbike and Vuthy talked to one of the workers in Khmer, while I organized my camera gear and donned my new rubber boots. I left Vuthy at the main entrance, and began to make my way through the mounds of garbage. I had purchased a facemask earlier in the day, but did not want to wear it, and thought it might affect how close I could get to people photographically. At the entrance of the junkyard is where all of the trucks dump their new loads. Hundreds of people gather around the trucks and scavenge through the piles of garbage looking for recyclable materials that they can sell. They use sharpened metal hooks to grab plastic to put into their garbage bags. When the jaws of the dump truck open the workers crowd around to stab at plastic bottles with their long metal hooks, and move aside with the truck bed begins to rise and all of the garbage falls to the ground. The workers negotiate around trucks and bulldozers that unearth the ground so that new treasures can be found.
A narrow road winds its way through mountains of smoking and burning garbage that children walk on, sometimes barefoot, to look for bits of sellable material. I walked up into the smoke, following a barefoot little boy. He didn’t have any shoes on, and the ashes on the ground seeped through his toes as he scavenged for another piece of plastic. After twenty minutes my boots were burning my feet, and I wondered how anyone could be forced to work in these conditions. I am heading back in a couple of days to “smoky mountain”.

02.04.06 – The Kiss

I spent the evening with my friends Phil, a photographer who is working on a book about contemporary spiritual art, and my two new swiss friends, Annette and Julia (unsure of spelling). Anyhow, the evening was going great. We went to the Blues Bar, which has some of the best blues I have ever heard live. The band consists of a mixture of Thais and farang (tourists), who jam out for two and a half hours every night. Afterwards, we moved to a rooftop bar, where my first international romance started with Annette. As the night wore on, and the bars closed, Phil decided to leave, and Julia didn’t seem too keen in her friend’s new interest. After an intense conversation in Swiss, Annette and I walked back to Khao San to continue the evening. Khao San Road is not the same as it was four years ago. The bars shut down, and the part moves to other parts of the city that aren’t being patrolled by police officers. After a couple of attempts to find beer, we succeeded in obtaining two forty-ounce cans of Heineken, which we purchased for a mere 80 baht. We talked about pretty much everything, and nothing at the same time for the next two hours, holding hands and smiling like teenagers, while the lady boys called out at potential customers, and the street sweepers prepared for another day of obnoxious tourists. Once 4AM rolled around, we decided it was time to part ways. We shared a long kiss in front of the 711, smiled at each other once more, and then disappeared into the depths of Bangkok. She was off to Switzerland and I was off to Cambodia the next morning⎯that was the story of my first kiss on Khao San Road. There was nothing fancy about the evening, but there is something very romantic about kissing someone and then not knowing if you will ever see them again, but knowing you probably, also, will never forget about them either.


The lines on her hands are the same as mine. If she was to have her palm read, the outcome would probably be the same as mine. The Indian man who sat me down about a month ago and said, “You have two siblings, you have two women in your life, and February is going to be a very very lucky month for you my friend, very lucky. You have been hurt in the past my friend, that’s why you have no girlfriend, but don’t worry my friend, soon you find life partner. Now, put money in my book and you will be very lucky my friend!!!” Her hands are small, mine are big, but hers might not get much bigger. Does she know she has AIDS, or just knows something isn’t right? She smiles at me and then puts her head on my lap as I try not to dose off myself. As I close my eyes and think about those two hands, I am jolted back into reality by a ball that bounces off of my head and two giggling children running away. I gave the small child a hug and walked out onto the street to catch a moto taxi back to my guesthouse.
Riding on the back of a motor taxi on a daily basis makes you appreciate the life you have lived. Weaving in and out of traffic, maneuvering onto the sidewalk to get ahead of the gridlock, and then weaving back into the traffic just as the light turns green. The helmets are worthlessly small, and would probably do more damage in an accident than not wearing one. Anyhow, so far the skills of the motorcycle taxi drivers haven’t failed me.