Monday, September 29, 2014

A General or 200 Retire

Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, the commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), prays during the retirement ceremony for more than 200 Thai generals at the Chulalomklao Royal Military Academy

The mandatory retirement age is 60 years old for military officers in Thailand. Since so many officers stay in the army as a career and promotions happen on a regular basis, it means that every year hundreds of generals retire. 
Generals and senior officers stand for the national anthem during the military retirement ceremony. 

This year was no exception. What was exceptional about this year's retirement ceremony was who retired. Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander of the RTA, and instigator of the coup that unseated the civilian government, was one of the 200 retiring generals. 

Prayuth is retiring from the army but not from public life.  He is staying on as leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta that runs Thailand and he was recently selected as Prime Minister by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the legislative body appointed by Prayuth and the NCPO.
Generals walk into the retirement ceremony, which featured a large military parade.

General Prayuth started the ceremony with a review of Thai soldiers. There was a prayer and merit making at a statue of King Chulalongkorn. 

King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, is a revered Thai monarch who is credited with both holding British and French colonizers at bay and kicking off the modernization of Thai society. Rama V founded the military academy that hosted the retirement ceremony. 
A non-commissioned officer marches past a parked tank at the beginning of the parade. 
Soldiers march across the parade ground during the retirement ceremony. 

General Prayuth reviews the troops.

The parade.

Soldiers with Tavor assault rifles, designed in Israel. The RTA used to use a lot of American equipment from the 1911 Colt .45 handgun to the M16 family of rifles to M48/M60 tanks. They've diversified their suppliers and now have handguns from Italy, rifles from Israel, tanks from Ukraine, armored personal carriers from South Africa. 

There was a lot of media attention to this year's retirement ceremony, primarily because of Gen Prayuth's retirement. There are more photos of the ceremony 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, September 26, 2014

Cleaning Up Sin City

Touts lure tourists into a bar on Pattaya's Walking Street.

Pattaya, the beach resort a couple of hours from Bangkok, is infamous as the best known destination in Thailand for sex tourism. Go-go bars line "Walking Street," a kilometer stretch of road that's closed to vehicles from about 6:00PM until at least 2:00AM. 

There's a sort of "Casablanca - ish" vibe to Thailand in general and Walking Street in particular. 

Tourists from around the world come to Pattaya to sample the sins of the flesh. Israeli tourists walk the same streets that Arab tourists do. Indians and Pakistanis frequent the same bars, Christians and Muslims also. 

There are some businesses that cater to specific nationalities. There are a lot of Russian restaurants and several go-go bars advertise that they have Russian women but in general it's very much a live and let live atmosphere. 
Tourists in the neon jungle of Walking Street

Walking Street, along with Thailand's tourism industry, though has fallen on hard times. Largely because of the political violence of the last year and the subsequent military coup, tourist arrivals are down by double digits over last year. Thailand is more peaceful now than it's been in years, but the travel industry seems unconvinced. 

Tourist police told me that the crowds on Walking Street are a fraction of what they used to be. Many bars are empty, the women who work in them standing in front dressed as flight attendants or school girls (the bars have themes) trying with little luck to draw men in. 
A Muay Thai demonstration in a beer bar near Walking Street. There were no tourists in the beer bar. I don't know why the men bothered boxing. 

Thailand's beach resorts, not just Pattaya but also Phuket and Hua Hin, have gotten a lot of bad publicity in the last couple of years because of scams directed against tourists and despoilment of beautiful beaches. 

After the coup, the Thai army started cleaning up the tourist beaches, first in Phuket and then in Hua Hin. They shut down unlicensed businesses that set up on the beach and brought order to an unruly mass transit systems that were allegedly run by "taxi mafias." 
A defense volunteer, a sort of paramilitary militia, checks out businesses that rent space under beach umbrellas to tourists. The beach umbrella business brings in billions of Baht. 

City officials in Pattaya saw what was happening in Phuket and Hua Hin. They decided that they wanted to take control of their own destiny and approached the military government about cleaning up Pattaya on their own, without military involvement. The military agreed and city officials are trying to spiff up their city's image. 

They're regulating the beach umbrella rentals, bringing order to the chaotic transportation system and most surprising, promised to change Pattaya from Sin City to Sun City and make it Asia's leading "family friendly" destination. 
Foreign volunteers who help the Tourist Police are a common sight on Walking Street. These volunteers stopped to chat with an Italian tourist. The foreign volunteers cannot make arrests. They help foreign tourists and assist Thai police. 

The national government is giving city officials time to clean up Pattaya, but they're not saying how much time they have. The army changes in Phuket and Hua Hin came fast. The army announced they were going to clean up the beaches and the next day the beaches were clean. The clean up in Pattaya is taking much longer. 
Tourists on the beach just after sunset. 

There are more photos from Pattaya's Walking Street 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. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Vegetarian Parade

Lion dancers perform during the Vegetarian Festival parade in Bangkok's Chinatown

It's Vegetarian Festival time in Thailand. The Vegetarian Festival is the Thai celebration of the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The festival starts on the eve of the 9th Lunar month and lasts for nine days. 

In Bangkok, vendors line Yaowarat Road, the main street in Chinatown, and sell vegetarian food, lots of desserts but also noodle soups and main meals. The food is excellent and innovative. Traditional Thai favorites, like pork with holy basil and chilies, are widely available only with tofu subbing in for the pork (or chicken or fish or pick your protein). 
A child marches in the Vegetarian Festival parade.

The festival kicked off with a parade down Yaowarat Road Wednesday afternoon. Before the parade started people, dressed in white to show piety, came to Chinese temples and shrines and prayed and made merit. 
Prayers at the Thian Fah shrine near Odean Circle in Chinatown

This year we get a special treat: two vegetarian festivals. This is a Chinese Leap Month, there have been 13 new moons since the winter solstice, so for the first time since 1832 we get to repeat the first part of the month. Hence, two vegetarian festivals
A woman portraying the Goddess of Mercy leads a procession before the parade

There are more photos of the parade 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, September 23, 2014

Seeing Red

A subtle hint of red with this Burmese woman sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other so well. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.

I'm a part of a group of photographers who meets regularly in Bangkok. We enjoy a good meal, talk about photography and make a group assignment - something we're supposed to photograph in the coming month. This time around the assignment was "Red."
Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. I was lucky that there was one red hat on top of a stack of bamboo colored ones.

The challenge on an assignment like this is not to photograph red, but to make an interesting photo of red. 

Red doesn't even have to be the dominant color - because it elicits such strong emotions, just a tiny bit of red in the frame can have a profound affect on your picture. Think of the little girl in red in Steven Spielberg's otherwise black and white film "Schindler's List."
A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.

I didn't go up to Sangkhla Buri to photograph red. I was working on a story about a bridge up there. I spent a morning wandering around in the Mon community and I was seeing red everywhere I turned. Not usually in a big way, but in lots of little ways, like the hat at the top of this post or the woman sweeping the bridge.

It certainly helped that red is such a powerful color. Even in the photo of the hats, where the dominant color sort of an earth tone bamboo, which has red in it, the red in the hat on the left really pops. Red is to color photography what garlic is to chicken - it always makes it better. But you have to be careful not to use too much or it completely overwhelms the photo.
Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red

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 22, 2014

A Penny-farthing

A man pedals his penny-farthing up Silom Road in Bangkok on Car Free Day. Car free did not mean motorcycle free

Sunday was Car Free Day in Bangkok. Several of the city's streets were closed to cars so people on bikes could navigate the city's streets in relative safety. Most of the bikes were a lot more modern than this gentleman's bike, an old "penny-farthing" design. 

Penny-farthings date from the early days of bicycling and reached their peak of popularity in the 1880s. They were called penny-farthing because they reminded people of two British coins, the penny and the farthing. The penny was a unit of currency equaling one two-hundred-and-fortieth of a pound sterling and the farthing one nine hundred and sixtieth of a pound sterling. 

The composition of this photo is 100% luck. I was running along the side while he pedaled photographing. He was moving along at a pretty good clip and I was having a hard time keeping up. 

It wasn't until I got back to my computer at the end of the day that I realized this photo had everything. The "penny-farthing," the motorcycle taxi behind it and then, in the background, the Bangkok Car Free Day advertisement. 

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, September 19, 2014

Building Bridges

Soldiers from the Royal Thai Army work with members of the Mon community to repair the Mon Bridge in Sangkhla Buri

The Mon Bridge is a huge handmade wooden bridge that connects the Mon community in Sangkhla Buri to the Thai community. The bridge, built in the early 1990s, was the idea of Luang Por Uttama, a revered Burmese Mon Buddhist monk who led a group of Mon people out of Burma during one of Burma's many civil wars to the relative safety of Thailand. 
Boys jump into the Songka Lia River from a temporary bamboo bridge the Mon community built to replace their permanent bridge, which is in the background. 

Part of the bridge washed away in floods in 2013. The Mon community solicited donations of cash and materials from their community and set about rebuilding the bridge. Provincial politics got in the way of the repair efforts. 

Sangkhla Buri is in Kanchanaburi province, but in a remote corner of the province far from the provincial capital of Kanchanaburi town. Provincial politicians took over the repair and the work stalled. What was supposed to be done in months took well over a year. Most of the money was spent and there was still a gaping hole in the landmark bridge. 

Mon leaders appealed to the national government in Bangkok. The Prime Minister responded by ordering an engineering unit of the Royal Thai Army to Sangkhla Buri to rebuild the bridge. 
Thai army engineers survey the riverbank down river from the famous bridge, which is in the background

Thai soldiers are now working side by side with members of the Mon community to rebuild the bridge. 

This is old school bridge building. The original bridge was hand made. The rebuilt one will also be hand made. Soldiers and Mon men work side by side with hammers and nails pounding each piece of wood into place by hand. Pilings are sunk with hand pulled chains and pulleys. Some of the workers have small power saws and chain saws but they're not industrial grade saws. They're what you would find in a workshop of a hobbyist woodworker in the US. 
A member of the Mon community uses a small hand ax to trim a piece of lumber on the bridge deck. 

It's a fascinating process to watch. The first thing I noticed is that safety standards here are completely different from what they would be in the US. Most of the civilian workers were barefoot or wearing flip flops. Some of the Thai soldiers had boots, but most wore tennis shoes. Nobody was wearing hard hats. Nobody was wearing safety harnesses. There were no safety railings. Men working at water level were ducking debris thrown off the deck of the bridge by men working topside. 
A member of the Mon community perches on top of a piling waiting for a new piling to put into place. It's less than 12 inches (~ 300 millimeters) across.
And moving onto the next piling. 

The local community is vested in the bridge repair. Much of the lumber being used was salvaged from the collapsed bridge. New lumber is being donated by families in the area or cut from the surrounding forests. 
A monk from the Mon community sits on the edge of the bridge and watches the construction. 

Monks from Mon temples come out every day to talk to workers and watch the progress. Since this is Thailand, there's always food. Lots and lots of food. Local women prepare a daily lunch buffet for the soldiers and Mon workers. Before and after lunch, women from the community bring drinks and snacks out to the workers. One morning I was out there, work started at 8AM and they had the first coffee break at 8.30AM when a group of villagers brought coffee and sweets out to the workers. 
Women from the Mon community walk out to see the construction.
Mon women serve desserts to soldiers working at water level on the bridge. 

The Prime Minister has promised to have the bridge rebuilt by the end of September. That seems a bit optimistic but villagers are confident that it will be done by November, in time for the peak of the tourist season.

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, September 16, 2014

The Morning Alms Round

People in the Mon community in Sangkhla Buri present food to monks during the monks' morning alms rounds. 

One of the rhythms of life in Southeast Asia is the ritual of Buddhist monks going out on their morning rounds receiving alms from the people in their communities. Whether you're in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar, you'll see monks out early in the morning. 
Women pray in the street before the monks reached them

When you've photographed monks on their morning rounds as often as I have you start to notice differences from community to community. 

In Bangkok, by far the largest city in mainland Southeast Asia, monks typically go out by singly and people wait in front of their homes or businesses for the monk to pass by. A donation is made and the monk sometimes prays with the person and sometimes not. 
Monks on rounds in the Mon community

In Laos (and northeast Thailand), monks go out in large groups, sometimes as many as 100, and people line the streets waiting for them. This scene is most famously repeated every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos, but it's common in parts of Lao influenced Thailand, like Isaan. 

Monks in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia wear the bright orange saffron robes most people identify with Theravada Buddhism. Monks in Myanmar usually wear darker, almost burgundy colored, robes. 

Western Thailand, where I am this week, is home to a large Mon community. The Mon people played an important role in Southeast Asia through the centuries. The Mon kingdoms sided with the Siamese (Thai) kingdoms during the Thais frequent wars with the Burmese. The Mon were among the first Buddhists in mainland Southeast Asia (before that Hinduism was dominant - the temples at Angkor, for example, were originally Hindu). Theravada Buddhism was spread through the region by the Mon. 

In the Mon tradition, when the monks approach people sit in the road, face the monks, and pray. When the monks get to them, people stand and present food to the monks, who pass by wordlessly. 
A woman prays as monks approach during the morning alms round in the Mon community in Sangkhla Buri.

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, 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.