Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Prime Minister Prays

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the recently appointed Thai Prime Minister, prays at a Spirit House at Government House. 

Thailand's new Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, met with his hand selected cabinet for the first time this morning. Prayuth was unanimously selected to be Prime Minister by the National Legislative Assembly, the parliamentary body he personally appointed after he took power in a coup in May. The cabinet, which he also appointed, is made up largely of generals and technocrats who support him.
Prayuth, flanked by security officers and aides, walks out to the spirit house

Before the meeting PM Prayuth walked out to a spirit house near the main gate of the Government House complex. He lit some incense and made merit before walking over to the cabinet meeting room. 
Gen. Prayuth lights candles during his prayer at the spirit house

The whole thing took about four minutes. The General / Prime Minister walked out, lit candles and incense, prayed quietly and walked back to the cabinet meeting. There were tens of Thai photographers and dozens of TV crews there. Cameras started clicking as the General walked in and went nonstop until the General left. 
Gen. Prayuth squeezes around the spirit house

The only "real" moment (and it wasn't much) of the four minute event came when General Prayuth tried to walk between a small alter and spirit house. Other than that it was tightly scripted and executed perfectly. 
General Prayuth walks away from the spirit house after praying

There are more photos of General Prayuth praying before the cabinet meeting 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. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rice Harvest

A rice farmer looks over his field near Ayutthaya while it was being harvested Monday.

The rice harvest is underway in Thailand. Thailand is the world's leading exporter of rice, although India and Vietnam threaten Thailand's supremacy, and rice is hugely important here, both as food and as an economic driver. 

When Thais ask if you've eaten, they actually ask if you've had rice yet. Rice, either as a grain (the way most Americans are used to eating it) or turned into noodles (Pad Thai) or a porridge (congee) is consumed at almost every meal. "Sticky" rice, also called glutinous rice, is used as a grain or starch for meals and cooked with coconut milk as a desert (sticky rice and mango or sticky rice and black beans). Rice does not have dietary gluten, so if you're on a gluten free diet you can eat rice. 
The rice harvest in central Thailand is mechanized, much like grain farming in the US.

The rice harvest in central Thailand starts just as the rainy season is kicking into high gear. Every year, there's a race on to get the rice in before the fields flood. This year is no different. The Thai meteorological agency and flood mitigation agency have advised farmers to get their rice harvest in the next two weeks. Although it hasn't rained much in Bangkok, it has rained a lot up country. Rain has swollen the rivers upstream from Bangkok and officials said they may have to open floodgates on the Chao Phraya River and its tributaries to relieve flooding upcountry. 
Rice is loaded into a truck after it's harvested.

When they do open the floodgates, it could trigger floods downstream especially in Ayutthaya and Ang Thong provinces, both of which flood almost every year. Farmers are busy bringing in their rice before the water comes. 

I made these pictures in Ayutthaya. There are more photos of the rice harvest 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. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hoping Prices Bounce Back

A warehouse worker at a rubber cooperative in Bo Thong, Chonburi, about two hours from Bangkok, stacks rubber sheets sold to the co-op by area farmers on a pallet at the receiving docks.

The Thai rubber industry is in crisis. In just two years, prices have plummeted from a high, in 2012, of about 190Baht (roughly $6.10 US) per kilo to, in 2014, just 52Baht (roughly $1.65 US) per kilo. At the same time it costs about 64Baht (about $2.10 US) to produce a kilo of rubber. You don't have to be a Nobel winning economist to see that with farmers suffering a loss of .45¢ (US) for every kilo of rubber sold farmers are taking a huge hit. 

A rubber farmer in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the center of Thailand's rubber industry, committed suicide over the weekend allegedly because he could no longer provide for his family. 
A rubber tapper at a tree.

Tapping a tree. Rubber trees are tapped between midnight and 2AM, before the sun comes up and it gets too hot. The latex drips longer when it's cooler, before coagulating and sealing the cut.

Tappers, wearing a headlamp so they can see what they're doing, walk through their groves in the dark, cutting a small incision in the bark of the tree. The white latex starts flowing into a small bowl hung on the tree and the tapper moves on to the next tree. They don't work in the rain or when it threatens to rain (because rain water would collect in the bowl and contaminate the rubber). The rainy season is the slow season for rubber farmers. 
Rubber drips down the tree and collects in a small bowl suspended on the tree.

I went out to Rayong and Chonburi provinces this week to photograph the rubber industry. The work was cut short by the weather, not only is it the rainy season, but a rainy front moved in and it rained pretty much constantly while we were out there. I had a chance to photograph only one tapper, and then only for a few minutes. He went out hoping to tap his trees when the rain came. I followed him for about 10 minutes and then he said "finished." I didn't notice it raining but I did hear a sort of drumming that I couldn't place. 

The "drumming" turned out to be rain hitting the leaves at the top of the canopy. Rubber trees have a large leafy canopy that keeps the ground in perpetual darkness and acts as a leaky umbrella. You hear the rain well before you feel it. 

We left the rubber farm and went into town to photograph workers in the processing plants. When tappers can't collect rubber they can't sell rubber and the processing plants were not very busy. 
A tapper on the back of his pickup truck waits to sell a load of rubber sheets from rubber he collected over about a month's time. He said he is now making less than ⅓ of what he was making in 2012. I asked him how he was making up the difference. "We buy less." was all he said.

The rubber processing cooperative we visited in Chonburi normally employs about 200 people in the smoker (rubber sheets are "smoked" to dry them). There were fewer than 35 people working in the smoker when we were there. It's an interesting example of the interconnectivity of life.

I asked why there were so few people working in the smoker. A manager said it was a combination of factors. 

Many of their employees were Cambodian migrants (Rayong and Chonburi are close to the Cambodian border) and the Cambodians fled Thailand en masse in June. A few had returned to the rubber plantations but most had not. The cooperative was hiring Burmese migrants to replace the Cambodian migrants. Because it was the rainy season, there was need for fewer workers and because the price crashed they were not able to hire a full crew. 
A worker in the smoker wipes his brow while throwing rubber sheets into a pool of water to wash them. Rubber sheets are washed to remove surface contaminants and then put into a smoker and dried. They're in the smokers, which burn mango wood, for three to five days. The smell is unique. Not really bad, but a combination of being near a meat smoker and the world's biggest rubber band. 

Workers start by rinsing the rubber sheets then hang them on racks before loading the racks into the giant smoker. The racks of rubber are stacked together and are the equivalent of three stories tall. 
A migrant worker hangs wet rubber sheets on a drying rack.
Dried rubber sheets are pulled off the racks after they come out of the smoker.

What's the solution to the Thai rubber crisis? No one seems to really know. 

Thai rubber farmers are hoping for government intervention. They cite the ill fated "rice pledging scheme" of the now deposed government of Yingluck Shinawatra as one possibility. That program helped some rice farmers, but it was allegedly mismanaged (criminal investigations are ongoing) and it nearly bankrupted the government. 

Politics was a factor in the creation of the rubber crisis. Rubber farmers, especially in the southern heart of the Thai rubber industry, tend to be Democrats and opponents of the elected Pheu Thai government, that governed Thailand from 2011 until May, 2014.  Rubber farmers helped fund the anti-government protests last year and the government had no incentive to help them. 

Rubber farmers are hoping the military government will decide to help them, but the military has so far been hesitant to kickstart another populist program that benefits a special interest group. 

Rubber farmers are in it for the long haul. It can be four to five years from the time a tree is planted until it first produces. Once trees start producing rubber they can be tapped for more than 20 years. This isn't something the farmers can just walk away from or rip out and replant with rice or corn, although some may replace their rubber trees with palm oil

There are more photos from the Thai rubber industry 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. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ganesh Festival

Devotees of Ganesh pray and seek blessings during the Ganesh Festival at Shri Utthayan Ganesha Temple in Sarika, Nakhon Nayok. 

If I use the holidays I've covered to mark the passage of time, I am starting my second year in Bangkok. The first thing I photographed when I arrived in Bangkok in 2012 was the Ganesh Festival at Shri Utthayan Ganesha Temple in Sarika, Nakhon Nayok. I hadn't even found an apartment yet, I read about the festival in a Bangkok newspaper, hired a car and went for an adventure in the countryside. (The temple is about two hours north of Bangkok.) 

To this day, it was one of the most interesting and fun things I've covered in Thailand. Ganesh is a Hindu God and his birthday is one of the biggest holidays in India but Ganesh is also revered in Buddhist Thailand and his birthday is also celebrated here. 
Seeking blessings during the Ganesh Festival.

After that first experience, covering Ganesh Chaturthi has become a fixture for me. 

Thais are Buddhists and Ganesh is a Hindu God. Thais are also very tolerant of other religions and incorporate aspects of Hinduism into Thai Buddhism. Ganesh is revered by many Thai Buddhists and there are shrines to the "Overcomer of Obstacles" all over Thailand. Shri Utthayan Ganesha Temple is a Buddhist temple with huge shrines to Ganesh. 

The festival was a real blending of faiths and cultural traditions in Thailand. Hindus celebrated their traditions in one part of the temple. Hindu priests blessed people at shrines to Ganesh while Theravada Buddhist monks performed their own blessings nearby. There was a battle of the mor lam bands in the parking lots of the temple, while Chinese Lion Dancers (from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition) worked the crowd soliciting donations. At the same time, in the center of the temple, a Buddhist monk was blessing statues of Ganesh, the Hindu overcomer of obstacles. All of this was going on at the same time, and everyone had turned the volume up to 11. It was sensory overload. 
Ganesh statues wait to be blessed. 

When services at the temple ended a large statue of Ganesh was loaded onto a truck and driven to a nearby river for the submersion of the deity. I walked the four kilometers to the river with the crowd. It was a boisterous parade with a soundtrack that was part traditional Hindu music and mor lam. 
Pickup trucks carry statues of Ganesh to the river.
At the river, statues of Ganesh were carried down to the river and gently submerged. The crowds was overwhelming - everyone wanted to touch Ganesh before he slipped underwater. 

There are more photos of Ganesh Utsav 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. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Polo Unbound

Elephant Polo. It's exactly what it sounds like

Late August in Bangkok can only mean one thing. It's Elephant Polo season! At just four days, it's admittedly a short season but it's fun for a good cause. 

Anantara, a family of high end hotels and resorts in Asia, is the chief sponsor of the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. It draws polo players from the US and across Asia (seriously) who come for four days of polo action to benefit elephants rescued from abusive environments. 
Mahouts on their elephants in the corral before the tournament

I know what you're thinking. This sounds like something from The Onion. But elephant abuse in Asia is a big deal. Elephants have a long history of being used as beasts of burden in the logging industry in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Logging is more regulated and mechanized and elephants and their mahouts (trainers) are being pushed onto the streets where they end up begging for handouts from tourists. (I am not making this up.) Ananatara and a couple of other organizations are trying to help rescued elephants. The King's Cup Polo Tournament is Anantara's fundraiser for elephant welfare. 
A "Khru Ba Yai," or Elephant Spirit Man, leads a blessing for the elephants before the tournament. The Khru Ba Yai used to capture wild elephants for the logging industry. There are only a few Khru Ba Yai left since there are almost no Thai elephants left working in the logging industry

Elephant polo is sort of just like horse polo. Horse polo is an exhilarating sport played at break neck speed. Elephant polo is not. It's played on elephants that trundle around the pitch (field). It's so slow the referee runs up and down the field and polices the play not on an elephant or on horseback but on foot. 

There's more than just elephant polo at the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. There's the elephant buffet (a huge table set with pumpkins, corn, pineapple and other fruit) that the pachyderms munch while people watch and try to make selfies. There's human food, booze and lots more. 
A dancer with an elephant hat channels an elephant. 

There are more photos of the elephant polo tournament 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.