Sunday, December 18, 2016

It's the End of the Year...

...As We Know It

And Stephen Colbert sang out the year on his CBS talkshow.

In June, I photographed a fisherman jumping off a bamboo bridge in 4,000 Islands in southern Laos.

It's the end of the year, which means it's time to look back and consider the pictures I made in 2016. I spent most of the year in Thailand, with just a couple of trips to other places in Southeast Asia. 
A woman prays during a Buddhist ceremony on January 2. 

I didn't cover as many "big" spot news stories this year (like the Thai coup in 2014 or the Bangkok bombing in 2015), instead working mostly on topical stories like climate change and tolerance. I covered a lot of ground in Thailand and Cambodia on climate change and drought stories. In the short term, the drought resolved itself because Thailand had a good rainy season, certainly enough rain to guarantee a successful rice crop. 
In May, I went to Cambodia to photograph the drought. A worker walks away from the Tara, a boat on the Tonle Sap Lake, left beached by the lake's shrinking surface area.

Some stories persisted though. Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, is still in court on charges related to her tenure as PM. (She was deposed by the military in the 2014 coup.) 
In August, Yingluck Shinawatra appeared in court. She is still personally popular and her supporters greeted her with bouquets of roses. 

I spent a couple of weeks in Bali this year photographing feature stories. I was lucky enough to be there at a time when there were a lot of religious rituals. 
In July, women in Bali leave a Hindu celebration on a black sand beach. 

Also in Bali in July, girls mimic birds in flight during a dance at a mass cremation ceremony. 

The biggest story in Thailand this year was the death of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand. The King, also known as Rama IX, was revered by the Thai people and his death plunged the nation into a year long mourning period. He died in October and I spent most of the last part of the year photographing events related to the mourning. 
October 13, the King's death was announced at Siriraj Hospital. 

For Americans, the biggest event of the year was the surprise selection of Donald Trump as US President. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes but because of archaic US election procedures he was selected by the Electoral College. I didn't cover any election related events in the US, but I went to the Democrats Abroad Election Watch event. To call it a party would be a mistake. 
November, at Democrats Abroad, it was not a good day. 

November, I went to Penang, Malaysia, to get a visa for Thailand. A picture I made of kids playing in an alley in Little India. 

I added some 63,000 photos to my Lightroom archive in 2016 but only a fraction of those got uploaded to my online archive. Here is a slideshow of some more of my favorite photos of the year.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Floating Markets

A fruit vendor plies the canals around Damnoen Saduak. 

Central Thailand is crisscrossed by a network of rivers and canals (called "khlongs" in Thai). The rivers flow from the low mountains north and west of Bangkok to the Gulf of Siam. Most of the canals were dug in the 19th century to connect the rivers, provide irrigation water to farm fields, and an early highway system to people living outside of urban areas. 

Now the canals are used almost exclusively for irrigation, flood control and fishing. But back in the day they moved armies (the Siamese army dug a canal all the way to Cambodia so they could move an army to the border) and served as market places. 
A boatload of tourists are paddled through the Damnoen Saduak floating market.

The floating markets of rural Thailand have become a tourist stereotype. Now most rural residents shop in the town markets - they get to the market by motorcycle or pickup truck. Now the only people who shop at the floating markets are the tourists searching for the authentic Thai experience. 

One of the biggest and best known floating markets is in Damnoen Saduak, a bustling community in Ratchaburi province about two hours from Bangkok. I've gone to Damnoen Saduak a couple of times. Although the market is an over commercialized vortex of tourists, there's a lot to see in that part of Thailand. The salt fields of Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkram are nearby, the market on the train tracks in Samut Songkram is only about 20 minutes away. When I go to Damnoen Saduak it's because I have something else going on in that part of Thailand. 
The canals of Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrive. 

The truth is though, Damnoen Saduak can be a nice town to visit. The trick is to arrive very early and leave early. When I feel the need the go there, I plan to arrive about 5.30 - 6.00 AM (depending on time of year and the hour of sunrise) and leave before 10AM. 

At this hour, local vendors still go from home to home in their boats and canoes selling produce and curries. Monks pad silently through the community soliciting alms. Local people sit on the boardwalk in front of their homes gossiping and enjoying the cooler morning weather. They're inevitably surprised to see a farang (Thai for foreigner) and will frequently share a cup of coffee and patongo (Chinese doughnut or churro) with you. It's a delightful way to spend the morning. 
A water taxi heads into Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrive. The canals of the town are lined with boardwalks, making it easy to explore on foot. 

The tourists come in giant buses from Bangkok. They start arriving a little after 8AM and by 8.30 the nature of the town has changed. From sleepy canal side village to bustling tourist trap. The later you go, the worst the tourist scene. 
By mid-morning this canal will be gridlocked with tourist boats. 

Damnoen Saduak was the first of the big tourist trap floating markets. The business model is being copied all over central Thailand. There is a floating market in Amphawa (about 15 minutes from Samut Songkram). In Amphawa, the market is an afternoon/evening thing. Food hawkers line the canals in town and sell freshly prepared curries and seafood. In the morning in Amphawa monks from the local temples go house to house in canoes. There are a couple of floating markets in Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from central Bangkok. There's one in Pattaya (that has the gall to charge admission, most of the other markets are free). 
A woman takes her daughter to school in Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrived. The canoe was a gift from Western Union, who provided people in central Thailand with thousands of boats during the floods in 2011

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, December 5, 2016

The King's Birthday

A woman holds up a portrait Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, during a ceremony to honor His Majesty on Bhumibol Bridge (named after the King) in Bangkok.

December 5 is the birthday of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, who died on October 13 after a long illness. This year would have been his 89th birthday. The King was revered throughout Thailand. People of all political persuasions, bitter rivals in their political lives agreed on one thing - the central role of the King in Thailand.  
Tens of thousands of people gathered on the bridge to honor the King. 

I've made it a point to photograph the King's Birthday every year we've been here, starting in 2012. (I even photographed his birthday in 1992, during a vacation visit to Thailand.) This year was obviously much different. Thais have been grieving His Majesty's death for six weeks. The mourning period will continue until late next year when the King is cremated. 
999 Buddhist monks participated in a merit making service on the bridge. 

The bridge was jammed with people paying their respects to the memory of His Majesty.

The Crown Prince, King's son and heir apparent, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun ascended to the crown on Friday, Dec. 2. This was not his coronation. It is being described as an ascendency. He will reign as King but his formal coronation won't take place until after his father's cremation. 
A woman weeps during the ceremony on the bridge. 

People pray during the ceremony. 

This is not unusual in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ascended to the throne in 1946. He left Thailand to finish his studies in Europe (Thailand's Chakri Kings have always valued education and most have been educated at Thailand's finest schools and prestigious universities in Europe and the US). His coronation didn't come until 1950, nearly four years after he ascended to the throne. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Rice Harvest

A rice harvester in a field in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok. 

The rice harvest is underway in Thailand. It's hard to overstate the importance of rice in Thailand. It's served, in one form or another, at almost every meal. Although Thai agriculture is incredibly diverse, when most people in Thailand think farmers, they think rice farmers. The rice industry accounts for about 10% of the national economy. Get out of Bangkok and into the countryside and you'll drive through kilometers and kilometers of rice fields. 

I went up to Ayutthaya, about 90 minutes north of Bangkok, to photograph the harvest this week. 
A rice field just about ready to be harvested. The grains are plump and heavy and soon the field will go from green to dark yellow. That's when the harvesters hit the field. 

The harvest in central Thailand is mostly done with machines, similar to combines used on American farms (except they're tracked so they can get through the muck). A harvester can go through a field in a fraction of the time it would take to manually harvest the field. 
A farm worker checks his smart phone on the edge of a rice field. 

This year's crop is expected to be larger than last year's. At the same time, rice prices have tumbled, down to their lowest prices in a decade. This is creating problems for farmers who are harvesting rice that they will have to sell at a loss. In 2011 and 2012, PM Yingluck's government responded to low prices by buying rice at inflated prices and warehousing it, with the intention of selling it when prices improved. 

Things didn't work out that way though. Other rice producers, principally India and Vietnam, took Thailand's place in the world rice markets. Prices never recovered and Thailand was left with mountains of rotting rice. Problems with the rice price scheme contributed to Yingluck's legal problems and the coup that ultimately unseated her government. 
A harvester goes into a rice field.

The current military dominated government is trying to avoid the populist measures adapted by Yingluck. But they are taking small steps to help farmers. 

The military has sent soldiers to rice mills and warehouses to voluntarily "encourage" mill operators to pay a higher price. The government will offer cash assistance to small farmers, to help them store rice. Both the Thai army and navy are buying rice for their kitchens directly from farmers rather than middlemen. 

Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister, is also reaching out to farmers. She sometimes goes into the countryside and buys rice directly from farmers, trucks the rice to Bangkok and sells it to the urban poor at the same price she paid for it. 
A front end loader creates a dust cloud when it stacks rice at a storage facility in Ayutthaya. 

Rice farmers are hoping things turn around, but in the meantime they have to harvest their current crop. I like photographing farmers and Thai farmers are no exception. We drove up to Ayutthaya, turned off the main highway onto a narrow local road until we saw workers in the field. We drove out to the workers, who loved the idea of having a photographer around, and I made pictures. I don't speak Thai and they didn't speak English but that wasn't a problem. 
A woman picks up stalks of rice in a field flattened by a windstorm. She was stacking the rice so a harvester could pick it up. 

Swearing An Oath

A man holds up photos of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, during an oath taking ceremony to honor the late King at Sanam Luang Tuesday. Hundreds of thousands of Thais across the Kingdom swore allegiance to the Chakri Dynasty during the ceremony, which was held simultaneously at government offices, schools and businesses.

Mourning for Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, continues throughout Thailand. The 50th day of mourning an important milestone, will be on Dec 2. There will be large merit making ceremonies to mark the day. 

The National Legislative Assembly (Parliament) has been put on notice to be available for a special session next week. It's expected that HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the Heir Apparent to the Thai throne, will be named King during the special session of the NLA (the official agenda hasn't been announced yet). He will be known as Rama X (his father was Rama IX). Out of respect for Rama IX, the announcement next week is expected to be low key. The official coronation ceremony won't take place until after the Late King's cremation, expected to be in October 2017. 
People line up on Sanam Luang to go to the Grand Palace to pay respects to Rama IX.

The ceremony Tuesday was to honor both the late King and soon to be named new King. In Bangkok, there were large ceremonies at Government House (the Prime Minister's office), City Hall, and the Grand Palace, but most of the attendees at those venues were government employees and civil servants. I went to Sanam Luang, the Royal Ceremonial ground near the palace, because I wanted to photograph regular Thais honoring their monarchy. Sanam Luang was crowded with mourners standing in queue to get into the Palace but hundreds of people either left the queue or came to Sanam Luang specifically to participate in the oath taking.
A woman holds up a Thai newspaper with a picture of the King during the singing of the National Anthem. (This picture was used as main art in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Nov. 23)

The ceremony didn't last very long. It started at 8 with the people singing the national anthem, after that they swore allegiance to the Chakri Dynasty and then they sang the royal anthem. People at Sanam Luang held portraits of the Late King over their heads, some people held up Thai currency (the Late King is on the face of all Thai paper currency). The whole ceremony lasted about 15 minutes. 

Boy Scouts in formation before singing the National Anthem.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A Visit to George Town

Boys play in an alley in the Little India neighborhood of Penang. 

I had to make a quick run to George Town (also spelled Georgetown) in the Malaysian state of Penang this week to take care of some paperwork. 

George Town is a charming town of 700,000 people (although it feels much smaller) on the island of Penang. It's at the northern end of Malaysia, opposite Butterworth, on the Malaysian mainland. The train and bus lines that connect to Thailand and go on to Kuala Lumpur pass through Butterworth; the ferries that connect George Town to Butterworth stop at the Butterworth bus / train depot. 
A small boat tied to a jetty in George Town. Butterworth is the opposite shore. 

George Town is a very diverse city with a thriving Indian Hindu community, a large Chinese Taoist/Buddhist community, a number of Rohingya Burmese Muslims (who mostly live without documents and keep a low profile), and of course, a native Malay Muslims. There's also a smattering of Thais (who come for business reasons) and Cambodians (like the Rohingya, refugees from violence at home). 
A noodle cart on Chulia Street in George Town.

This makes George Town a really interesting place to visit. The downtown area is compact enough that you can walk everywhere. There are Hindu temples, Chinese temples, and Muslim mosques on almost every block. There are Chinese and Indian restaurants everywhere and street food carts in between the restaurants. 
A vendor sets up his street food stall on Kimberly Street. 

If you want to go further afield, for example up to the Kek Lok Si Chinese temple or out to the Thai consulate, taxis and buses are plentiful and inexpensive.

This was a very quick trip to George Town. I was only there for three days - just long enough to take care of my paperwork, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable town and I look forward to my next visit. 
Fresh produce in a George Town street market. 

The historic market on Kimberly Street. This market is beautifully preserved but not very busy anymore. 

A flower vendor in a George Town market. 
In a Hindu temple in George Town. 

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.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Yingluck Sells Rice

A woman (right) thanks former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for selling rice directly to urban consumers during an event at a mall in a Bangkok suburb. 

Yingluck Shinawatra has been in the news in Thailand a lot lately. She's still on trial for alleged mismanagement of a rice price support scheme she authorized during her time as Prime Minister (she was deposed by a military coup in 2014). She's also reaching out to Thais by selling rice directly to consumers during a series of events at Bangkok malls. 

Thai rice farmers are being buffeted by falling prices. The rice farmers were dealing with similar issues in 2011 and 2012 when Yingluck, as Prime Minister, started her "rice pledging scheme." Farmers benefitted but it was beset by problems related to corruption and the government was stuck with a huge stockpile of rice it couldn't sell. The program ended up costing the Thai government billions of dollars. 

People hold up 100Baht notes while they wait for the rice sale to start. 

Move the clock forward a few years. Yingluck is in court for her rice pledging scheme and Thai rice farmers are, again, in crisis because prices are falling. The military backed government has announced a couple of plans to prop up rice prices. (Including sending soldiers to rice warehouses and mills to "encourage" buyers to give farmers better prices.) Yingluck, who has maintained a lower public profile since the coup and her legal problems began, decided to dip her toes back into the waters of public life. 

Yingluck (or her associates) goes into the countryside to buy rice. They truck it into the city and sell it to consumers at the same price they paid for it. So far she's held two of these rice sales. Both sold out in hours. 

I didn't go to the first one, but the second one, held in Samut Prakan, a suburb a few kilometers from our apartment, attracted thousands of people. There were 10 or 12 pickup trucks loaded to overflowing with rice. When Yingluck arrived, the crowd burst out in applause.

Yingluck is being watched by government security services and politicking is banned right now in Thailand, which is in mourning for the late King and and in the very early stages of a transition from military rule to civilian rule. She's being very careful not to say anything. She didn't make any speeches (she did talk to reporters afterwards). She didn't have a microphone or make any sort of public statement. She talked quietly and joked with supporters. 
Yingluck laughs at a joke made by someone buying rice from her. 

I didn't know what to expect when I went to her rice sale. I was expecting a crowd, Yingluck is still very popular personally and events like this always draw big crowds, regardless of its sponsorship. Still, I was surprised at how big the crowd was. 
Yingluck, in the lower center of the photo, surrounded by media and the public. Most people were wearing black out of respect for the late King. 

Yingluck sold a few sacks of rice from each truck to waiting consumers. As she moved from truck to truck, her assistants stepped in to finish selling the rice. By the end of the event, all of the rice was sold. 
She sells a sack of rice to a man. 

The government has chosen not to respond to Yingluck's rice sales. It's a complicated situation. On one hand, she's not allowed to politick and these events are not overtly political. On the other hand, it's clear that she's still very popular personally and these events are raising her profile. 
She greets people as she walks through the crowd.

And poses for selfies with them. 

The problems Thai rice farmers are facing are not unique to Thai rice farmers. American farmers battle every year with falling commodities prices while production costs go up. So do Australian farmers and Vietnamese farmers. It's a systemic problem around the world.

I hope to get out to the rice fields in the next couple of weeks to photograph rice farmers, who are busy harvesting a crop that they can't sell.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

That Did Not Go Well

This is not a normal entry about Bangkok or life in Asia. These are some of my thoughts about the decision made by my countrymen this week. There are lots of links to follow for more reading.  
Women at the Democrats Abroad Thailand election watch party (I use "party" loosely) sit in stunned silence as the US election results come in at the Roadhouse BBQ, an American restaurant in Bangkok. 

The United States' held its Presidential election Wednesday (Tuesday night in the US, but I watched results come in from Bangkok, which is 12 hours ahead of Washington DC, so it was Wednesday morning). 

A lot of people, including me, are disappointed with the results. Most of us thought the country would pick a flawed but qualified technocrat to run the country over a man-child with no impulse control. 

To me, based on character alone, it wasn't even close. The eventual victor is manifestly unqualified to be President. 
The mood at the Roadhouse was dour all morning. 

I always felt being a photojournalist was close to having the best job in the world. My life behind the camera exposed me to people and circumstances few others get to experience. 

I saw, during my travels in out-state Arizona and elsewhere in America, how shallow the economic recovery was and how angry people were. From ranchers and farmers who could barely make ends meet selling their products to middlemen who reaped disproportionally higher profits to copper miners who suffered through paycuts, loss of benefits and layoffs and worse as the mines, that once supplied copper to a nation, closed up and their communities became literal ghost towns, to factory workers who lived in permanent fear of their jobs being shipped to Mexico. 

I knew I was incredibly lucky and privileged to be getting paid well to do something I loved and I something I thought was important.
There was never anything to cheer about during the long morning's election watch. 

I know people are/were angry. NAFTA and other "free trade" agreements left them behind while corporations reported higher and higher profits. Not one banker was prosecuted for causing the world's greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. 

What I don't understand is how people channelled their anger. In the states hardest hit by the Great Recession they voted for Republicans. Republicans who cut their unemployment benefits and social services. Republicans who laid off their teachers and closed their schools. Republicans who railed against minorities and created fear of "people not like us."

As the situation in those states got worse, they reelected the Republicans. They voted against their own interests over and over and over again.  

Kansas, Louisiana, Arizona, Wisconsin, all kept voting for Republicans who, while they cut taxes, also gutted social services and education, and let infrastructure crumble. The tax cuts disproportionately benefit the elite at the very top of the social ladder. The education and social services cuts hurt the people at the bottom of the ladder. They've guaranteed a permanent underclass that scrapes to get by.

States that elected Democratic leadership, in comparison, did and are doing, better. Things are not perfect and there's a real urban/rural divide but places like Minnesota and California have worker shortages and higher wages while Wisconsin and Arizona flounder. (Professional sports stadiums in the Twin Cities bus in workers from out of state.) Taxes are higher but people are seeing benefits to those taxes in stronger education systems, better infrastructure and better social services. 
Nothing to cheer about. 

I'm not surprised a protest candidate won came in second in the popular vote.