Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fishing for a New Life

Burmese crewmen on a Thai fishing trawler returning to port in Mahachai

I went to the fishing port of Mahachai to photograph Burmese immigrants. By some estimates there are more than 200,000 Burmese immigrants in the town. They crew the fishing trawlers that sail out of the town, they work in the fish processing plants and high tech electronics factories in the area. They work as domestic servants for families as far away as Bangkok. They're omnipresent. 

The longer I'm in Thailand, the more struck I am by the similarities between Thailand and the United States. One of those similarities is certainly attitudes towards immigration. 

Both countries have the largest, most vibrant economies in their region (in Thailand's case I am talking about mainland Southeast Asia - and not including China). Both countries power many parts of their economies with imported or migrant workers. 

In Thailand, some of the hardest, most dangerous work is done by Burmese and Cambodian workers. The fishing boats are crewed by Burmese men who either trafficked to Thailand or come here hoping to make a few Baht to send home. 
A Burmese crewman walks away from a fishing trawler that's just docked

When the trawlers dock, the crewmen (and they are always men) off load the catch then scramble down from the boat to join women, who were waiting for the boats to come in, to sort and grade the catch, which is  put on ice and sent to either the markets or the fish processing plants. 

Sorting the fish is not as physically difficult as some work I've photographed (gathering salt for example) but it's no cakewalk either. It's fast paced and dirty. The work is done on the floor of the sorting shed and workers crouch in decomposing fish guts (and it smells exactly the way you think it would smell) throwing fish into baskets based on the fish's species and size. 

Fish that are not sellable, for example dismembered fish (not frequent but it happens) or fish consumed by jellyfish (happens a lot) are thrown aside and lay on the floor of the sorting shed until it's hosed down. It's a bit weird to walk through the sorting shed and see translucent jellyfish the size of dinner plates with six or seven whole small mackerel in them. 
Mackerel in a jellyfish, sort of a mackerellyfish

Like Latino immigrants who brought their culture with them to the United States, Burmese immigrants have brought their culture with them to Thailand. They live in sprawling tenements, separate from most Thais. They have their own tea houses and restaurants (Burmese food is nowhere near as spicy as Thai food). They get to and from work in buses provided by their employers. For many they have only limited daily contact with Thais outside the fishing industry. The women (and some men) still wear the distinctive thanaka paste that the Burmese are famous for. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Night at the Opera

A performer waits to go on stage during a Chinese opera in the Talat Noi neighborhood of Bangkok's Chinatown. How I found the opera is almost more interesting than the opera

One of the things I've had on my Thai "bucket list" is to photograph a Chinese opera. I photographed one in a shopping mall during Chinese New Year. It was a great experience, but it was in a mall - it was air conditioned with nice, consistent mall light. It was a great show, but it somehow felt inauthentic. I couldn't help but think a real Chinese opera should be outdoors, at night, at the end of a crowded Bangkok street or rural temple fair. So Chinese opera stayed on my bucket list. 

For the last week or so, I've made a couple of runs into the Talat Noi neighborhood. It's a quarter of Bangkok's sprawling Chinatown. It's off the beaten path and not too many tourists go down there. Talat Noi is most famous for its architecture. Some of Bangkok's best preserved shophouse and traditional architecture is in this part of town. It's not as chaotic or frenzied as the markets around Yaowarat Road. Talat Noi used to be Bangkok's blacksmithing quarter. As bicycles replaced horse and buggy and motorcycles and cars replaced bikes, the blacksmiths of Talat Noi became mechanics and now mechanics' shops line the streets.

I got lost Friday in Talat Noi. I was looking for a specific street and couldn't find it. I knew I was close, but in the network of interconnected alleys, narrow streets and covered sidewalks I couldn't get to where I wanted to be. I was walking in circles and went through several intersections three times (and confusingly each time entered the intersection from a different street).

I finally gave up and headed out to the main road. Walking down a small soi, I walked into a stage set up in the middle of the street and discovered that there was a Chinese opera on this very stage all weekend. There was no one there who spoke English and I had forgotten my Thai dictionary so all I knew was that I would have to come back at the end of the day.

I went home and was reading the New York Times digital edition on my MacBook Pro. In what has to be a very strange coincidence, I saw they had a story about Chinese opera with a terrific slideshow by Yvan Cohen, another Bangkok based photographer. Clicking through the photos in the slideshow, I was kind of surprised to see that he had photographed the same opera I had stumbled on.

There are about 30 opera troupes in Bangkok and they move around the city performing at events and temples as needed. I still don't know what to make of my stumbling into the same opera company the New York Times was writing about on the same day they published their story. Very weird.

I went back to the opera Saturday night and had a wonderful time. The performers were wonderful subjects and very patient with me. The atmosphere was exactly what I had hoped for - outdoors, in terrible light and in crowded Chinatown neighborhood. It was terrific.

There are more photos of Chinese opera performances in my archive.
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Migrant workers from Isaan rake salt in an evaporation pond near Samut Songkhram, southwest of Bangkok

One of the things I love about being a photojournalist is that we get to see how "stuff" is made. I'm not a very mechanical person, but I find the process of how stuff is made to be interesting and usually pretty visual. It also serves as a reminders that the real "makers" in our society are also frequently society's least well rewarded members. Whether it's farm workers in the US, a carpenter in a housing development or a worker in a factory poultry farm, the work is almost always physically grueling, dangerous and low paying. 

With miles of coastline, Thailand had what was once a thriving salt industry. Most of the salt collection fields have been consumed by development and are now industrial parks or housing estates. Now salt collection has been reduced to a handful of fields in Samut Songkhram, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. 

Salt is something we take for granted. It's in almost everything we eat. When was the last time a consumer in an industrialized, urban community gave any thought to where his or her salt came from? It's something we shake on our food or rub around the rim of our margarita glasses. But there's an incredibly complex chain that goes from salt in the ocean (in the case of sea salt) to our tables. 

On its simplest level, salt is collected after sea water evaporates. But if it was really that simple, our vacations on the beach would be an exercise in salt collection. 

The process of ensuring that salt makes it from the sea to our tables is a long one that takes months to complete. In Thailand the tradition of salt "farming" is threatened by the dual spectres of industrial development and climate change caused by industrial development.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reading Hour

School girls pray before presenting books to monks during a special merit making during the kickoff of Bangkok World Book Capitol 2013

UNESCO has named Bangkok as the World Book Capitol 2013. This is not a pitch for the encyclopedia of years gone by but a recognition of a city's commitment to promote books and reading. Past honorees have included Madrid, Montreal and Yerevan (Armenia). Bangkok is the third city in Asia (New Delhi was the first, Beirut second). 

To mark the occasion, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority held a public merit making ceremony at Sanam Luang, the parade ground near the Palace, Tuesday morning. Hundreds of people presented donated books to Buddhist monks who in turn donated the books to literacy projects in Bangkok. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

The Cost of Cash

A woman walks past a currency exchange kiosk in a Bangkok BTS station

One of the challenges I constantly face in Bangkok is thinking about the prices of everything in two currencies. 

I pay for almost everything with Thai Baht. But most of my money comes from the US in the form of US Dollars, so I have to think about how many Thai Baht I can buy with each American Dollar. The euphemism is "exchange" but make no mistake about it, when you go to an exchange booth to get money, you're buying it, just as you would buy a loaf of bread, a new camera or a bowl of tom-yung goong (Thai hot and sour soup). 

Lately it's been nothing but bad news in the Dollar (or Euro or Pound Sterling) vs Baht story. The Baht has been on a bit of a tear for the last two years, rising slowly but consistently against the Dollar and European currencies. I sort of understand its rise against the Euro - the European economies with the spectre of defaults in Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain et al would be enough to convince me that I don't want to hold Euros. 

The Thai economy is doing very well. Thailand is one of the leading exporters of fruit, chicken and pork products. It was the world's #1 rice exporting country until this year (it lost the #1 title because of internal politics in Thailand, not a drop in production). It's a leading exporter of cars (sometimes called the Detroit of Asia) and consumer electronics. The global supply chains were gridlocked in 2011 when flooding in Thailand made it all but impossible to buy a computer hard drive. So some of the Baht's increase is understandable. 

The Baht's rise against the Dollar makes a little less sense to me than its rise against the Euro. Except that every time the Republicans talk about shutting down government to make a point, the Dollar falls a little further. The GOP's pandering to their base at home is hurting Americans around the world and the US' long term economic prospects. 

Lately the Baht has outperformed the Malaysian Ringgit, Philippine Peso and even the Singapore Dollar (which is sort of the Swiss Franc of Asia). 

Going back 10 years - to 2003 - a traveler could buy 43Baht with 1USD. A hotel room that cost 4300B (a lot for a hotel in Bangkok) cost a tourist only $100USD. Now I can buy just 28B with 1USD. So a hotel room that cost 4300B now costs $147USD. Kind of sucks to be a tourist in Thailand. 

The exchange hurts not only tourists. Ironically, it also has the potential to hurt the Thai economy. Just as everything in Thailand costs tourists from the US, UK and Europe more, Thai exports to the US, UK and Europe have become more expensive. A car that in Thailand costs 300,000B in 2003 would have cost $6,900 in the US. That same 300,000B car now costs $10,200USD. Before inflation. 

The Baht's rise has been so dramatic that even economists in Thailand are sounding alarm bells. They are warning of layoffs in export industries if the Baht goes much higher and urging the Thai government to intervene, to do something, anything, to slow the Baht's appreciation against the Dollar. 

It's hard to photograph something as dry as foreign exchange rates, but I've spent the last couple of days photographing people walking by exchange kiosks and buying Baht with their Dollars

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Going For the Gold

People crowd into a Bangkok gold shop looking for bargains after gold prices plummeted 13% over the weekend.

Thais, like the Chinese and Indians, are avid collectors of gold. Yaowarat Road, the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown, is also the center of Thailand's gold industry. Small gold shops, with curved counters and bright red decors, line both sides of the street. Gold prices are painted in the shop windows and updated on a live basis as prices change.

It's not unusual to see six or seven people crowded around the counters on any given day buying (or selling, depending on price movements) gold. Wednesday was not a normal day.

Commodities prices in general, and gold in particular, have been a downward slide for months now. Over the weekend, gold plunged another 13%.

Holiday timing in Thailand and the plunge in gold prices combined to create a frenzied buying scenario on Wednesday. Much of Bangkok was shut down Friday - Tuesday for the Songkran weekend. Gold and jewelry shops, that normally would have been open (and selling gold) through that time were among the closed businesses.

Thais at home were reading about the plunging price of gold but weren't able to buy any because their shops were closed.

Shops reopened Wednesday, and Thais unable to buy gold over the weekend, flocked down to Chinatown to take advantage of plunging prices. I was watching gold prices drop over the weekend, not because I have investments in gold (I don't) but because I knew the price drop would kick off a buying spree when the shops reopened. And I was right.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Happy New Year III

A water war on Khao San Road, the heart of Bangkok's "backpacker" district

Thailand has three New Year's festivities. 

There's the European New Year on January 1. There are big parties, the traditional countdown and fireworks all over the country. 

There's the Lunar, or Chinese New Year, with parades, lion dances and fireworks all over the country but especially in towns with large Chinese populations. 

Then there's Songkran. The traditional Thai New Year is celebrated in April for four days. Thais go to temples to make merit. They bathe the Buddha in oils and scented waters. They present monks with extra alms offerings. It's quiet, beautiful and moving. 

Then they go out on the street, grab buckets, firehoses and the biggest, baddest squirt guns ever made and do battle with each other. In the blink of an eye, the holiday goes from quiet religious observance to no holds barred mayhem. 

A man prays after washing an elderly woman's hands with scented water during a religious Songkran observance

The tradition of water fights started many, many years ago. It was a part of the holiday when I lived here as a child more than 40 years ago. In the original holiday, still observed by many families and in temples throughout Thailand, people bathe the Buddha with scented oils and sprinkle water on each other to wash away past transgressions and to bring good luck in the coming year. 

Novice monks at an alms ceremony at the Bangkok City Hall

April is the hottest time of the year in Thailand. It's the middle of the dry season - in Bangkok daily highs soar into the upper 90s. There's usually a cloud of dust and pollution blanketing the city. People are ready for some relief. Songkran provides the outlet. 

It's a small step to go from sprinkling water on someone to dousing them with a bucket. That is the modern Songkran. It's full of water fights and good fun. You can't go anywhere in Bangkok without getting soaked, it's best just to let it happen because if you try to fight it you're gonna lose. 

In the battle between bucket and squirt gun, the bucket wins. The squirt gun is more accurate, the bucket, at close range, has more impact

I've covered Songkran a couple of times. I'm sort of a curmudgeon about the holiday. I enjoy the cultural aspects and love photographing the religious nature but find the water dousing kind of a pain. Cameras and water guns are generally a bad combination. Songkran in Thailand has killed more cameras (and cell phones) than theft, fire and disaster combined. 

I usually travel heavy when I go out to photograph. Two Canon 5D series bodies, four or five lenses, a couple of flashes, my Lumix GX1 and a couple of lenses. I'm ready for anything. But for Songkran I pack super light. One body (my oldest 5D series body) and one lens (a beat up zoom I use only for Songkran) and a couple of spare compact flash cards. I carry them in a ThinkTank Hubba Hubba Hiney belt pack.  

When I'm actually photographing, the camera and lens are nested in a Kata rain cover which looks ridiculous but keeps everything reasonably dry. It's about as safe as you can get without an actual (and very expensive) underwater housing. 

Normally when I photograph, I use the lowest ISO possible and a shallow f-stop (f2 to f4) to isolate focus. For Songkran I set the ISO to 400 and use middle to small f-stop (f5.6 to f11) to maximize depth of field and keep as much in focus as possible. 

Songkran can be a lot of fun. Thais have a way of celebrating that's inclusive and respectful at the same time. While I was photographing in Thai neighborhoods people always asked if they could spray me and when I said yes they made it a point to squirt my back or lower legs - away from the camera. 

It's the foreigners (farang in Thai) that you have to look out for. They have no respect for the holiday or  Thai norms. For them, it's a chance to get drunk and act like buffoons. 

I was walking down a Bangkok street and a drunk American saw me shouted something about the liberal media, chased me down and threw a bucket of water at me and the camera. I'm pretty sure his intention was to wreck my camera. (I looked completely out of place. Because I had been photographing a merit making ceremony I was dressed for the temple, not water wars on the street. It was a safe assumption on his part that I was working media.) The Kata rain cover did its job well - the camera was unharmed. 

On the same street, a group of farang tourists were chasing Thai women and dousing them with Super Squirters and hoses. 

Foreign tourists chase a woman on a Bangkok street

There are more photos of Songkran in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Burning Season

Flames burn dead grass and weeds out of a road side median in northern Thailand

March and April are called the "burning season" in northern Thailand. The calendar might say summer (it's the hot and dry season here) but the air says burning. A pall of smoke hangs in the air, the hilltops shrouded in a gray haze. People were masks and filters to reduce the amount of smoke they breathe in. Some airports have to reduce flight operations. 

For centuries farmers in northern Thailand (also in neighboring Laos and Burma) have used this time of year to prepare their fields for the coming planting season. That means clearing last year's dead growth. The quickest, cheapest way of doing that is striking a match and watch it all go up in smoke. And thus the burning season. 

The "view" from atop Doi Kham near Chiang Mai. The city skyline is out there. Somewhere

As Thailand becomes increasingly urban and climate change, public health and tourist revenue become more important burning is falling out of favor. Chiang Mai's beautiful mountain top temples, Doi Suthep and Doi Saket, are covered in smoke and their stunning views all but obliterated. This annoys big spending tourists but is really indicative of much larger problems. Hospitals are crowded with people struggling to breathe in the heavy smoke. National parks are threatened with destruction when illegal burns go out of control. And the fires contribute to Thailand's (and the planet's) race to deal with climate change. 

A man, who said he was unable to breathe in the smoke, walks to a small rural hospital

The Thai government recognizes the problems the burning causes and is trying to put a stop to the centuries old practice. But it's hard to convince a farmer whose family has been burning the fields for as long as anyone can remember that their old ways are bad ways. The government has put a "bounty" on burners, offering rewards to anyone who turns in someone who sets an illegal fire. There is a public education program in place - you can hardly enter a rural village without running into billboards explaining the hazards and health problems of burning. The Thai Air Force is flying over some cities with tanker planes spraying water into the smoke, hoping to knock it to the ground. 

The efforts have met with limited results. Anecdotally, burning seems to have been reduced but the air is still thick with smoke, people are still going to local hospitals and many fields still bare the telltale blackening of a recent fire. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Market Day in Sanpatong

Water buffalo for sale at the Saturday market in Sanpatong

I love the markets of Thailand. They're full of life, loud, sprawling and sometimes messy. Whether it's Khlong Toei in Bangkok or a small community market in an upcountry village, they're great places to photograph. 

One of my favorite markets has to be the Saturday market in Sanpatong, about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It's huge - one of the biggest markets I've been to outside of Bangkok - and amazingly diverse. You can certainly buy tourists schtick there, that's available in almost every market in Thailand, but this is a real working market. 

Buddhist novices walk through the Sanpatong market on morning alms rounds.

There's a lot of everything in the Sanpatong market. Clothes and food, shoes and farm implements, music and movies, this market has it all. Most of the people who shop in Sanpatong are locals from greater Chiang Mai. I've been to Sanpatong a couple of times and seldom see foreigners there and then only later in the day. Sanpatong market is open all day Saturdays but like most markets it's best seen early. I usually get there about 6:45AM and have the place to myself (well me and several thousand Thais). By 9:30 or 10, the tourists who have heard about the market start to show up. By then the light is terrible and the heat has set in.

My favorite part of the market has to be the livestock section at the back of the market. Thai farmers stuff their water buffalo and cattle into the back of their back of their pickup trucks and haul them down here to sell them. People walk among the tied up critters examining them in great detail and make offers. Negotiations follow and everyone goes home happy. 

There was a time when water buffalo (or carabao as they're also known) were ubiquitous in Thai fields. They were the beasts of burden that pulled the plow, the muscle on the farm. No longer though. Tractors have replaced water buffalo in the fields. Mechanization is the muscle of Thai agriculture now. Now the water buffalo are almost all sold for meat. 

It's always seemed a little off putting to me that water buffalo meat is sold right next to the pens and corrals where the live water buffalo are for sale. I'm not sure why it bothers me - it's no different than eating a burger while you watch rodeo bull riding or going out for a steak after a bullfight in Mexico, but it does. Maybe it's the immediacy of the market and the fact some of the water buffalo dishes at the market are served raw. While I eat street food all the time here, I don't eat at the buffalo market. The idea of ordering a big bowl of buffalo soup or raw buffalo meat with chilies and onions in the midst of the dust and flies just doesn't whet my appetite. 

Water buffalo wait to be sold

There's a lot more the market than water buffalo and cattle. There's also a lively market for selling fighting cocks and poultry. Buyers ask to see the bird's mettle and sellers pit a couple of closely matched birds against each other for a few minutes of chicken boxing. There are no organized fights in the market but it's great chance to see impromptu cock fighting without the gruesomeness that accompanies some organized cockfights. 

A man selling a fighting cock show off his bird

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

One Last Party

A boy entering the monastery participates in the Poi Sang Long Festival at Wat Pa Pao

I'm in Chiang Mai working on a story about the environment. I had Friday afternoon free so I went "walkabout" to see the city. The very nice people at my hotel suggested a taxi because it was hot and too far to walk. They didn't know where I was going - but then neither did I - it's just anywhere is too far to walk. But as I've mentioned before, you don't really see a city unless you walk. So for a walk I went. 

I walked up to the city walls and turned left with no plan other than to see what was what. Passing a small soi, I heard cymbals and drumming and carousing so I walked down the soi to see what the source of the noise was. There was a party going on in the grounds of Wat Pa Pao, one of the many Buddhist temples in central Chiang Mai. 

I started photographing the festivities. Teenage and younger boys dressed up in fancy outfits and painted with lots of makeup were being carried through the grounds by men while drummers and cymbals players (cymbalists?) beat out a soundtrack. It was loud, colorful and fun. 

Boys are carried around Wat Pa Pao. (1/4 of a second at ISO 50)

This was not something I had seen in Bangkok, so I wasn't sure what I had walked into. I suspected it had something to do with boys going to monastery because boys frequently go to monastery during the Thai summer school break (April is summer here) but I wasn't sure if this was a Burmese festival or Thai Lanna festival. 

Burma occupied Chiang Mai for more than 200 years and there are a lot of Burmese refugees living here so that was quite possible. And this part of Thailand didn't get fully integrated into what is now Thailand until late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century. Before that it was the Lanna Kingdom, so that was also possible. 

I asked a couple of older monks what was happening. They pointed at my cameras, pantomimed making pictures and encouraged me to photograph but didn't speak a word of English. They were very nice but no help. 

I asked a couple of participants what was happening. They pointed at my cameras, pantomimed making pictures and encouraged me to photograph but didn't speak a word of English. They were very nice but no help. 

I asked a Thai photojournalist what was happening. He pointed at my cameras, pantomimed making pictures and encouraged me to photograph but didn't speak a word of English. He was very nice but no help. 

There was a theme here. Everyone was very nice but no help. I photographed for a couple of hours and figured I would use Google to sort it all out when I got back to my hotel. 

Boys in the prayer ceremony before they enter the monastery. 

As I was leaving, on the off chance that somebody spoke English, I walked up to a group of seven or eight monks and asked what was going on. None of them spoke English but one asked me to wait (using sign language), said "English teacher" and walked away. A couple of minutes later he returned with the temple's English teacher (also a monk) who very patiently explained to me that this was the "Poi Sang Long Festival," a Lanna Thai tradition to mark the occasion of boys entering the monastery. 

It was the boys' last chance to have "fun" (in the rambunctious sense of the word) before applying themselves to the study of Buddhism and meditation. 

Monks and novices aren't allowed to have contact with women or girls, including their mothers and sisters. For many this would be their first time away from home. For the boys, underneath the fun there was also a little trepidation. For the mothers, who watched from the sides, pride mingled with sadness as their boys left home for the first time. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Highway 13 in Laos

Women from a hill tribe community watch a Beer Lao truck roar past their village on Highway 13 in northern Laos

Highway 13 is Laos' "mother road." Running from the Cambodian border in the south, it goes all the way to the Chinese border in the north and is the most important highway in Laos. 

Around Vientiane it has all the trappings of a modern highway: it's paved and lined with gas stations, restaurants and motels. 

North of Luang Prabang it's barely deserves to be a called a highway. Badly potholed, mountain curves and miles of unpaved dirt and gravel, there isn't a gas station or restaurant in sight. 

I came to Laos to see Highway 13. As the Lao economy has developed, the highway's role has grown. Once a track that connected colonial towns to each other, it's now one of China's gateways to the world. Battled over by all sides during the American War, it's now the country's unifying road. 

Laos, with the help of international development agencies and the Chinese government has been busy repairing and paving the road as quickly as they can.