Saturday, October 29, 2016

Waiting to See the King's Urn

Thousands of people stand in line on the Palace grounds waiting to view the funeral urn of the late Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand.

Thailand's mourning for the late King continues. The mourning period will be a year. Thais are expected to wear black when they go out in public. Foreigners who live in Thailand are encouraged to wear black to show respect for the Monarchy and Thais appreciate it if tourists wear black, or at least subdued colors.

Earlier today, the King's funeral urn was put on display. This is similar to lying in state. In Thai tradition, the King's body is stood up in the urn, which is then cremated. King Bhumibol, a thoroughly modern monarch, is breaking with the tradition. The King is in a coffin in the palace while his urn contains some strands of his hair and is more representational than literal. 
A member of the Royal Household, the quasi government agency that oversees matters related to the Palace, watches mourners file into the throne hall to pay homage to the King's urn. 

The government made an elaborate plan that was supposed to allow up to 10,000 people per day see the urn. On Saturday, the first day the urn went on view, well over 10,000 people got in line. By the middle of the morning, the government scrapped the queuing / ticket system and said anyone in line would be able to view the urn. By the end of the day Saturday, nearly 20,000 people reportedly viewed the urn. 
A man waiting to see the urn holds up a photo of His Majesty.

A Boy Scout pushes a woman in a wheelchair into the Throne Hall so she can pay homage to the King's urn. 

The media is not allowed into the throne hall to photograph people paying homage to the King's urn. We are allowed onto the Palace grounds to photograph mourners, but to do so we have to be properly attired. Men have to wear black slacks, black suit coat, white or black shirt, black tie and black mourning arm band. Women have to wear black long dress or skirt and a black long sleeved blouse or a black formal Thai woman's outfit. This is not negotiable. If you are not properly attired you can not photograph on the Palace grounds.
A woman carrying a photo of the late King walks towards the Throne Hall. 

The initial shock of the King's death has passed and Thais have gone into deeply sad reverential mourning for the Monarch they loved and the only Monarch most Thais have ever known. I think it will be like this for first 50 days after His Majesty's death.

The 50 day mourning period ends on Friday, December 2, and the late King's Birthday, a national holiday, is Monday, December 5. I expect that the deep mourning we're currently experiencing will continue until December 5 but I have no idea what will happen after that. The official mourning period is one year, so people will continue to mourn. 
People who paid homage to the King's urn pose for a photo in front of the Palace walls after they left the Palace grounds. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Back to Burma

A Burmese woman waits to be taken back to Myanmar from a refugee camp in Thailand. 

Thailand  repatriated a handful of Burmese refugees this week. About 65 people from the "Nupo Temporary Shelter," a refugee camp in Tak province, about five hours south of Mae Sot, were voluntarily returned to Myanmar. It's a proverbial drop in the bucket for the total refugee community though. There about 11,000 refugees in Nupo and about 150,000 Burmese refugees in camps up and down the Thai-Myanmar border. 

(That is only "official" refugees. If you include undocumented Burmese workers laboring on farms, fishing boats, and factories throughout Thailand and undocumented refugees living along the border, there are well over a million of Burmese in Thailand.) 
In the Nupo camp, a refugee walks past a vendor selling produce. 

Myanmar has been wracked by decades of political violence. Most of the refugees in Tak province are Karen people, one of Myanmar's ethnic minorities. The Karen have been waging a guerilla war against the central government since shortly after Burmese independence. People displaced by the fighting have flooded into Thailand. 

Political unrest in 1988 forced thousands more people from central Myanmar to flee fighting and exploded the refugee population in Thailand. 

Recent democratic reforms and an improving economy in Myanmar coupled with less fighting in the Karen areas, means it might be possible for some of the refugees to return. And Thailand is eager to have them go back. 
A refugee family waits to board the bus that will return them to Myanmar. 

I traveled out to Nupo camp and across the border to the refugee resettlement center in Myawaddy, Myanmar, to document the repatriation. It's normally difficult to get access to the refugee camps, but in this case media coverage was welcomed.  
An official with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) helps returning refugees with last minute paperwork. 

On one hand, this was a publicity effort by the Thai government and refugee support groups but on the other hand this was the first step of a long process of resettling the refugees. The refugee situation has been a thorn in the side of Thai governments for a very long time. There have been Burmese refugees along the border since the 1960s, but refugee numbers soared in the 1980s as an already unstable situation in Burma crumbled.

Burma wasn't the only source of refugees in Thailand. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees came to Thailand in 1970s fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge and another wave came in the 1980s fleeing civil war (sparked by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia). There was a smaller number of Lao refugees, fleeing the communists in Laos, along the Thai-Lao border. At one point, Thailand's borders were ringed by refugee communities. 
A returning refugee with his life's possessions in a vinyl bag. 
Thai defense volunteers help a woman and her child board a bus.

I don't think the Thais were happy about the refugee camps on their borders, but I have to give them credit. They stepped up and did the best they could. Compared to the shameful response Middle Eastern refugees are getting in Europe and the US and the disgusting greeting Central American children fleeing violence in El Salvador and elsewhere got from Republican leaders in the US, the Thai response was positively enlightened. 

The Cambodian camps were closed more than a decade ago and the last camp for Lao refugees was closed about three years ago, leaving only the Burmese camps. 
Leaving is bittersweet. A woman going back to Myanmar (in the bus) says goodbye to a friend remaining in the camp. This repatriation was voluntary - no one was forced to go back.

Repatriating the Burmese is going to be a monumental challenge. Many have been in Thailand for decades and have never lived in Myanmar. As people left their homes, the land was occupied (or confiscated) by Burmese generals and their cronies. Squatters moved into homes in urban areas. The refugees are returning to an uncertain future. 
A bus full of refugees leaves the Nupo camp. 

Burmese refugees in Thailand have a difficult life. They're confined to the camps and not allowed to work outside the camp. The UNHCR and NGOs provide rations, medical needs and schools but as Myanmar has democratized and "normalized" rations and budgets for the camps have been cut. Although the border region is relatively peaceful now, it was only a couple of years ago that the Burmese army (or militias allied with the army) would periodically send mortar rounds into the camps to harass the residents. People don't become refugees on a whim. 
In Mae Sot, at the border crossing to Myanmar, a Thai defense volunteer helps a family off the bus. Refugees (and the media) attended a short ceremony before the refugees got back on the buses to go to the reception center in Myawaddy. 

Although the repatriation was completely voluntary (initially we were told more than 90 people would be rapatriated but by the time the buses left the camp the number was down to about 65), you could see that there was a sense of apprehension. Some people were smiling as they boarded the buses but no one was celebrating. 

In Myawaddy, the refugees were met by armed militia members who watched over the proceedings. 
A soldier in the Border Guards Force (BGF), a pro-government militia, watches returning refugees at the Myawaddy reception center, a few years ago they were enemies. There was a large Thai military and law enforcement presence in the camp and at the border crossing. The Thai police had their handguns, but the soldiers were unarmed. The BGF soldiers were fully kitted out with assault rifles and grenade launchers.

Life in the reception center in Myawaddy won't be easy for the returning refugees. In the Thai camps they lived in thatched huts, but each family had a modicum of privacy in their own hut. In the reception center, families are housed in long, roomless buildings, each family separated from the other by just a curtain. 
A Burmese government official walks through the living spaces in the reception center. One family lives on the raised platforms between the orange curtains. About 10-12 families live in the building.
A family looks over their new home in the resettlement center. 

There are more photos of the repatriation in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

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, October 22, 2016

Mourning His Majesty

Mourners at Sanam Luang hold up portraits of His Majesty while they sing the King's Anthem Saturday. 

Thais continue to mourn the death of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, their revered Monarch. There have been large crowds at Sanam Luang, the Royal Ceremonial Ground in front of the Grand Palace. The government has set up a system of shuttles from major transit points in Bangkok down to the area around the palace to make it easier for people to get down there.
People pray for the King at one of the shrines set up for His Majesty on Sanam Luang.

A sea of flowers left at one of the shrines for the King.

There's a sense of community at Sanam Luang for Thais united in grief. People are sleeping at Sanam Luang, Thai community groups are serving free food, the Thai Army and Navy have set up their mobile kitchens to provide food. Rescue groups, hospitals and the Ministry of Health have set up free health care, mostly emergency care for people affected by the oppressive heat but also care for people with other health concerns. Barber schools are providing free hair cuts. Vendors are selling portraits of His Majesty and flowers. Girl Scouts line the walkways fanning people with large pieces of cardboard as they navigate the crowds. It's an astonishing scene. 
A barber school provides free haircuts. 

The government has mandated a year long mourning period, the cremation date has not been determined yet but is likely to be at the end of the mourning period. Government employees are supposed to wear black for the entire year (unless they're wearing their uniform, in which case they should display a black arm band or black ribbon). Other Thais, and foreigners who are being respectful, are supposed to wear black for the next 30 days. 
People dressed in black, carrying pictures of His Majesty, walk down the street next to Sanam Luang. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that millions of Thais across the country are in mourning. Yesterday, the government said there were more than 150,000 mourners at Sanam Luang. 

I don't know if that's true. I have been to Sanam Luang for political rallies, holiday events and the King's birthday. In all my years in Thailand I have never seen Sanam Luang as crowded as it was yesterday. It was packed with people in black. The streets around Sanam Luang were packed. Aerial photos in the Thai media showed that the roads leading to the streets around Sanam Luang were packed with people walking into the ceremonial ground. It was so crowded it was almost impossible to move through the crowd. 
A woman sat under an umbrella with a portrait of the King during one of the rainstorms that passed over Sanam Luang Saturday. 

This despite oppressive heat and monsoon storms that passed over Bangkok during the day. The King has long been revered as a unifying figure in Thailand's turbulent political history. We are seeing that reverence expressed in big ways and small ways right now. 
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, October 21, 2016

The King Has Died

Thais at Siriraj Hospital in Thonburi react to news that Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, has died. 

The day most Thais knew was coming and dreading at the same time arrived last week. After a prolonged illness, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, died. Millions of Thais across the Kingdom are in mourning, missing the only monarch most of them have known. 
A woman reacts to news of the King's death. 

The King is deeply revered by the Thais. He reigned for a little over 70 years, becoming King when Thailand was still shattered by World War 2. (Thailand suffered through a brutal Japanese occupation during the war and American and British planes bombed Bangkok and military targets throughout Thailand during the war.) Thailand's neighbors, all of them, were entering dangerous phases of civil war and anti-colonial insurgencies. It would have been very easy for that violence to spill over into Thailand. 

But Thailand persevered and became an island of stability and economic development in very stormy post war seas. 
Mourners at the hospital. 

The King made it his mission to see to his subjects' needs. He made regular journeys to upcountry Thailand, places that the Bangkok elite ignored. Thailand (then Siam) was a constitutional monarchy when the King inherited the throne - the absolute monarchy was deposed by a coup in 1932 - and the King had little official power. He couldn't tell officials how to govern, he had to lead by example. And the Thai people responded to that.

We were in Bali when news broke that the King's health was "unstable." We discussed our options and decided to return to Bangkok because I felt like I needed to be in Bangkok when the King died. 

We got back to Bangkok Wednesday night. I went to Siriraj Hospital early Thursday morning and photographed people praying for His Majesty. The King has lived in Siriraj for most of the last six years I've spent a lot of time at the hospital the last four years (since moving to Thailand) photographing people signing get well wishes and praying for the King. But this time it all felt different. 

In the past, there was always a sense that he would recover. That optimism was missing this time. About 7PM the Royal Household (which oversees matters related to the monarchy) issued a press release that at 3:52PM on Thursday, October 13, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, had died. As news rippled through the crowd people erupted in cried of anguish. People chanted "Long the King" while they clutched portraits of His Majesty. They hugged each other, comforting themselves in a moment of collective grief. Some people fainted. It was not like anything I had ever experienced. 
Friday morning, after the King's death Thursday, people gathered at the Grand Palace with pictures of their beloved Monarch. 

The mourning process started almost immediately. I went to Sanam Luang and the Grand Palace Friday morning. There was a large crowd of people, most carrying portraits of the King, waiting to get into the Palace to pay respects. The King was 88 years old and had reigned for 70 years. He was the only King most Thais knew. 
A woman weeps at the wall of the Grand Palace. 

The Royal succession has been in places for years. At some point in the near future, the King's son, HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will become King. The exact date is not known yet and depends on the mourning process. The Crown Prince said he will be ascend to the throne after he helps the Thai people mourn his beloved father's death.
The area around the Palace and Sanam Luang is crowded with mourners. 

The Thai government has been critical of western news agencies for under reporting the total number of mourners. It's hard to estimate the size of the crowd because the mourning is being done over a large area in a congested part of the city. But Friday afternoon it was so crowded it was nearly impossible to walk through the crowd. The government said 500,000 people came down to the area around the palace.

What is inescapable is that people everywhere in Thailand are mourning His Majesty's death. From Sanam Luang and the Palace to temples in rural villages, millions of Thais are mourning the death of the King.  
Thais file into the Grand Palace to sign condolences for the King.

It's hard to explain this kind of reverence to Americans. There is nothing in our national psyche that can compare. I've traveled throughout Thailand, from Bangkok to small villages on the Burmese or Lao borders. To impoverished hamlets in Isan. And all have one thing in common. In every home and shop, restaurant, bus station or train station, in many taxies and buses, a portrait of the King is prominently displayed.
A mourner prays for the King on Sanam Luang, the Royal Ceremonial Ground. 
Royal Thai Police watch a crowd of mourners at the palace walls.

There are more photos related to the King's death in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.

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, October 11, 2016

Ubud's Traditional Market

People walk through the morning market in Ubud just as the sun starts to come up. 

Most people who come to Ubud see the tourist market in the center of the town loaded with knickknacks, ukuleles, tiny surfboards and tropical kitsch and don't realize there is also a thriving local market at the same place much earlier in the morning. 
Buying fruit at the morning market.

You have to get up very early to see the morning market. Like 4.30AM early. I walked up to the market from our Ubud hotel about 5AM and it was packed - not a stall was empty. Market vendors  were hustling to sell fresh off the farm produce while shoppers hustled to get the best deals. The best part, for me, was that I was the only non Balinese person there. It was a chance to see Balinese people going about their daily lives in a very real way. 
Part of the morning market.
Nearby a child sleeps in a stairwell. 

The Ubud morning market opens about 4.30AM and starts closing about 7AM. It doesn't really close though as much as it transitions. The produce and food stalls in the market close up, but they're replaced almost as soon as they close by stalls selling tourist kitsch. 

What you barely notice at 7AM is inescapable by 7.30AM. And by 8AM most of the market vendors selling tourist stuff. (This is not quite true in the small downstairs part of the market, which retains much of its local ambiance through the day.)
A produce vendor in the morning market. By 8.30AM this part of the market is shops selling sarongs and souvenirs. 

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.

NOTE: My blogging schedule has been thrown off by recent events in Thailand. These posts are dated by when I did the photography. I will have more on recent events in Thailand soon. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

And They're Off...

Buffalo racers pass a puddle during buffalo racing in Jembrana, Bali

We are in Bali to photograph buffalo racing in Jembrana, on the far west end of Bali. 

Hook a pair of buffalo bulls up to a small cart, put a driver in the cart and watch them careen down dirt roads that wind through rice fields. That's pretty much all there is to it. 
Racers on the muddy straight away. The road is too narrow for the competitors to race side by side, so they run in tandem and are timed with stopwatches

The buffalo races are one of Bali's signature events, but the location, hours from the tourist centers in Kuta and Ubud, means that relatively few tourists go to the races. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Balinese at the races we went to. There were fewer than 10 foreign tourists. We pretty much had the races to ourselves. 
Members of a race team haul the cart (with yoke attached) to the starting line.

The carts are pretty small, about twice the size of an American child's little red wagon, with bamboo floor and wooden spoked wheels. The buffalo are medium sized, probably adolescent (I'm not a buffalo expert). The drivers, always men, sometimes sit but usually stand in the cart flogging the buff with spiked sticks. The buffalo are decorated with colorful banners and bells. 
A farmer gets his buffalo ready to race. 

The track is not closed during the race. Spectators and community residents wander along the side of the road, carefully looking both ways before running across the road. The crowd at the finish line pushes well into the course, making it part demolition derby part race. I was a little surprised no one got hit or hurt. 
A pair of racers break for the finish line while a woman carries her son up the track. This is normal.
Crossing the finish line, just a few feet from where I was standing. 

The buffalo races in Jembrana are a seasonal event. They usually start in July, the last race of the season is usually in October. Races are normally held every two weeks, but may be postponed because of weather. The location changes from week to week. 

There are more pictures of the buffalo racing in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
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.