The Sockeyed Blog

Ben Johnson's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Harm Reduction

Slow Going in Vientiane

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It has been a slow-paced four days in Vientiane which kind of suits the nature of the city. On Tuesday we set up a list of photo subjects for my time here. It seemed impressive, but I managed to get through it all quite easily. Generally my days have begun with a fairly early rise and a quite-tasty buffet breakfast (mixed Asian and western food) at the hotel. The PSI driver arrives in his truck and we crawl through the chaotic yet slow traffic to the office where my days were arranged. I covered a whole range of subjects including:

  • Visits to pharmacies to document birth control options (including Chinese abortion pills) and to private clinics with Tick, the team leader from last-year’s malaria project in Attapeu;
  • The PSI warehouse plus the facilities of Diethelm, their new distributor;
  • The “New Friends” MSM (men who have sex with men) drop-in centre, including their new branding plus information and counselling sessions;
  • A new text messaging program encouraging people to get free HIV testing;
  • Wandering the Morning Market looking for moms with kids to photograph for the reproductive health program;
  • TB training for staff;
  • A primitive clinic that provides exams and treatment for female sex workers;
  • Outreach to female sex workers in the Ramayana Hotel karaoke bar; and
  • PSI staff group photos.

A PSI outreach worker educates female sex workers about STIs.

The PSI Laos Team

I am happy to have accomplished all that was laid out for me. I’ve had plenty of time to wander the streets of the central city between shoots or after my day’s work. I’ve had some tasty food, particularly phe (or pho noodles) and café lao, the best of both I’ve decided are on Heng Boun Road, west of the Lao Cultural Hall. I also found really good pad thai at a stall where Heng Boun meets Chao Anou Road.

Phe Noodles from Pho Dung on Heng Boun Road

Pad Thai Stall on Heng Boum Road


I’ve enjoyed finding a good spot to have a café lao or Beer Lao and sit watching street life or reading a book on my ebook reader.

Lao Coffee, tea and an e-book

There’s really not a whole lot else to write about. I haven’t found much personal photographic inspiration here which is probably partly a function of having spent quite a bit of time here before, of Vientiane not being that inspiring, and of the fact that my last two trips – to India and to the Arctic – were incredibly inspiring.

Sticky Bangkok

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I am writing from the Atlanta Hotel, where there are more rules (about scallywags and catamites) than there are rooms.  Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration because it’s a fairly big hotel, but there are a lot of rules posted on many walls.  It’s possible the owners are German.

The flight from Hong Kong was short and comfortable.  I was somewhat surprised to be riding in a 747.  The taxi ride into town involved hurtling down freeways, then Bangkok city traffic slowed us like a mouse stepping into a glue trap.  The roads were totally bottled up, as usual, and the last few hundred meters took about half the overall travel time.  By the end we were driving through hotel parking lots (with the attendants as will accomplices, it seems), and we magically popped out on Sukhumvit Soi 2, not far from the hotel.

I’ve come to Bangkok to document Population Services International (PSI’s) injection drug user (IDU) outreach program.  This has been moderately successful although I’ve been a bit less successful than I expected.  This is partly because of language issues, important people being out of town, and those who are here being caught up in meetings.  Nonetheless, I have managed to spend some time at the O-zone drop-in centre and on the streets with outreach workers, and I’ve had remote help from Alex Duke in the PSI office.  I met up with him here last year when he and his girlfriend took me out on the river for the Loy Krathong festival, and we’ll have dinner together tonight.

The outreach work has been interesting.  I’ve been out with a number of peer workers who scooter from place to place where they know they can expect to meet IDUs.  When they do, they chat with them, go over educational materials, and hand out clean needle kits and condoms.  It has taken me into parts of Bangkok that I would never have seen, and the scooter rides have been hair-raising to put it mildly.  I often have to tuck my knees in tightly as we squish between moving cars, and the oncoming lane is quite often used for passing if no (or few) cars are coming the other way.  (Mom, you didn’t read this part, but you will be happy to know that I was wearing a helmet).

My angle is to humanize the peer outreach workers, to show that they have lives just like the rest of us.  My hope it to focus on one particular man, Piboy, who is 53 and has been a user for 30 years.  He uses rarely now, but still relies on daily methadone.  You’d never know, however.  He’s going to get married on the 31st, and I’ve already been invited to the wedding.  His wife-to-be isn’t a user herself but is aware of his addiction issues.  I hope to really focus on his daily life tomorrow – not just the outreach work, but also his home life.  With luck I’ll have a translator along and a bit more coordination from the office.

Aside from they photography, I’ve been putzing around Bangkok.  I’ve had some tasty food including a great lunch at the life-changing food court in the MBK mall: green curry with eggplants, green papaya salad, glutinous rice with black beans and coconut milk, and iced coffee.  I’ve also managed to get a thai massage (at the same place in the Muslim quarter that I visited last year).  There were some points in the massage (hamstrings) where I would have freely admitted any state secrets had I known any.  Nonetheless, the kneading seemed largely therapeutic and relaxing.

The weather has been something to be reckoned with, and even the locals seem to be complaining.  It has been very wet, with multiple daily thunderstorms.  It’s about 30+ degrees out, so it’s a might-bit sticky.  Air con can be appreciated at times like this.

I do enjoy Bangkok, but I’m looking forward to moving on to India.  There is a mystery as to what I’ll do when I return here on the 27th.  I was supposed to travel into southern Laos to work on PSI’s malaria programs, but recent storms have made that area quite inaccessible.  I’m waiting to hear from PSI Laos about whether or not they’ll go ahead.  I have the offer of doing more projects here in Thailand – in Chiang Rai and/or in Pattaya – but I’m keen to get out of Thailand, possibly to Cambodia or Vietnam if things don’t work on in Laos.  We shall see.

Written by sockeyed

October 14, 2009 at 03:27

Posted in Photography, Travel

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Bali-Bye and on to Bangkok

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The most exciting thing that has happened since I last wrote is that I have become an uncle. Just less than 24 hours ago, my sister-in-law Emily gave birth to Asha Marguerite Johnson Denton, a lovely little girl born at home. Derek called me first thing this morning with the news and I could feel his glowing fatherdom from halfway around the world. I can’t wait to meet Asha.

I am now in Bangkok, staying in the unique and somewhat charming Atlanta Hotel with its classic art deco lobby, plain rooms, reasonable rates and an astounding number of firm rules posted on almost every blank surface, mostly telling the reader that bad behaviour of any sort will not be tolerated and any transgressor will be immediately surrendered to the Authorities and locked in gaol for the duration. Nonetheless, it is a fun place to stay and it has a great restaurant overseen by an impressive octogenarian cashier/matriarch who has been at her post since the dawn of time. I happened to meet one of my co-workers from the City – Thor Kuhlmann – at the reception desk last night. We knew that we’d both be in SE Asia, but had no idea we would actually overlap at the same place at the same time. I spent the morning with Thor today, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Our last few days in Indonesia were very quiet, and tainted a bit by mild sickness. My ear got worse and Kristi developed flu-like symptoms. At first she was convinced that it was dengue fever or malaria or both, but relaxed a bit when the fever proved not high enough. It wasn’t fun, regardless, so we decided to make an earlier-than-planned exit from the island. We were lucky to get two spots on the Blue Water Express boat to Benoa Harbour on Bali on the morning of the 10th, plus a reservation at the Swastika Bungalows that evening. The boat ride was uneventful, quite scenic and a bit bumpy. It was also about twice as long as the earlier trip from Padang Bai. Returning to Bali and then to the bungalows felt calm, quiet and familiar. It was nice to be back in the lushness and flowers, and to see the daily offerings appearing everywhere again. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and had a nice lunch of local nosh (nasi campur) at Wayan’s Warung, right by our bungalows. Kristi mostly napped and read in bed, and I went for another tasty massage across the road.

For our last day in Bali, we relaxed again in the morning then hired our driver from earlier, Ketut, to take us around to the various craft villages between Sanur and Ubud. We visited places selling stone and wood carvings, textiles and silver. We didn’t buy a ton of stuff, just some batik napkins, several small wood carvings, and Kristi bought a few nice pieces of silver jewellery. Unfortunately Ketut backed his van into a tree and shattered the rear window at our first stop, and had to drive back to Sanur to get another vehicle. Poor fellow.

We watched the sunset at Tanah Lot, which was easily the most touristy place we saw during our time on Bali. It is a temple in a lovely setting on a stone outcrop in the ocean surrounded by crashing waves. Walking through endless stalls selling touristy crap wasn’t pleasant, and the crowd was thick, but we found a nice spot on the next headland over from the temple where we could look back on the temple and at surfers down below as the sun made its progress toward the horizon. The sunset was spectacular and certainly worth watching.

Ketut made quick work of the drive to the airport and we were there in plenty of time to have a bite to eat before checking in, boarding and flying off. The flight was fine and we touched down in Singapore on schedule at 00:45 and took a taxi in to Laurie’s place, once again marvelling at how orderly Singapore is.

I had to wake early to get organized and out the door to make my 11:00am flight. Kristi is staying in Singapore for a few days, then Hong Kong for a night before heading to Vancouver (and work). We were sad to say goodbye, but I’m very happy that we were lucky enough to share a great trip together.

My Air Asia flight got me to Bangkok just after noon, and the taxi ride in was surprisingly fast compared to past years. A new train to the airport that is under construction will improve things even more. I checked in to the Atlanta, then walked to the local 7/11 for water and a SIM card for my phone. Back at the hotel I made contact with local folks who I want to see, and I relaxed.

In the early evening I was invited out to see the Loy Kratong celebrations down on the Chao Phraya river by Alex Duke from PSI, the NGO I will be volunteering for here, in Laos and in Phnom Penh. Alex is a very friendly young guy from Australia and England. He and his girlfriend met me on the riverside under the Taksin bridge, which was a feat in itself given the dense crowd. The festival is a time to give thanks for the year’s water, and is celebrated at rivers and lakes (and ponds and public fountains). It involves launching colourful floating offerings with a prayer of thanks. After enjoying the crowd and the sights for a bit, we paid 20 Baht (66 cents) for a 20 minute boat ride up the river with a gaggle of other folks clutching their offerings. The river was raging, and was lined with colourful light displays and populated with many festive boats. We chugged upstream to near Wat Arun, apparently an auspicious vicinity to launch the offerings. As we returned southwards, we were waved to the side of the river by an officious police boat and made to sit there. About ten minutes later we were treated to a front-row view of a mid-river fireworks display sponsored by three hotels, with one barge in front of each stretching off in front of us. I’m not usually a huge fan of fireworks, but these were pretty impressive because of their proximity and context.

Once docked again we wandered around a bit longer, then rode the skytrain homeward, them to their apartment and me to the Atlanta.

I met Thor for breakfast in the hotel this morning at 9:00, then we went for a walk, first to the Erawin Shrine (Hindu, but very popular with Thais), where we watched eight dancers sing and dance with not much gusto. They are paid to dance by people praying at the shrine, and they do it all day most likely, so I can understand their lack of vim. We turned south down Ratchamdamri Road to Lumphini Park, a large, well-groomed and attractive park with trees, orchids and moderately-intimidating lizards swimming in the lake.

As lunch was approaching, we went to the food court at the large MBK mall near the National Stadium. The food court was heavenly, with stall after stall offering every imaginable Thai delight, plus some international goodies. For 100 Baht (three or so dollars), I had a spicy papaya salad (made fresh and professionally in a giant mortar and pestal), a sticky rice, black bean and coconut milk desert, and an iced coffee. I even had four Baht change.

In the afternoon I headed north to the Mo Chit Skytrain station, then took a cab to O-zone, a drop-in centre and needle exchange for IDUs (intravenous drug users) run by PSI. The staff, volunteers and clients were a wonderful group of people, and I spent the several hours photo-documenting their work: an outreach worker meeting, condom education and recreation (playing music, watching DVDs, eating and relaxing in a safe environment). I felt welcomed and appreciated by everyone there. I’ll be sending them a CD of my images once I’m back in Canada.

One of the staff drove me on his motorbike to the Ari transit station and I rode back to the hotel. This entry has been the focus of my attention since then, but soon I’ll hopefully join Alex and Thor for a beer and dinner.

Written by sockeyed

November 14, 2008 at 02:00