Monday, June 27, 2016

A Funeral in Laos

A funeral procession goes through the fields on Don Khon, in the 4,000 Islands archipelago in the Mekong River, Laos.

I had a chance to photograph a funeral while I was in Don Khon. I noticed some people setting up tents and food tables when I walked through the town very early in the morning and made a note to go back and check it out later in the day. 

I went back at lunch time and a Danish gentleman who lives on the island said there was going to be a funeral for one of the community's more important members. He owned a guest house and restaurant and was the island's "electrician," which means he had a government appointed job to collect the monthly electric bills from the island's residents. 

One of the things I love about being a photojournalist is that I get to see how people live. I went to the man's home and introduced myself to his family. They invited me, no encouraged me, to stay and photograph the service. One of his daughters said I should accompany the funeral procession out to the rice fields for the cremation. 

So I stayed. 

(More after the jump...) 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Lady Visits

A Burmese supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi cheers after stopping a car from going into her speech in the fish market in Mahachai. Tens of thousands of Burmese migrant workers live in Mahachai (also called Samut Sakhon) but only a few hundred people, carefully screened, were allowed into the venue where ASSK spoke. People who wanted to hear her responded by blocking the road in front of the venue. 

Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand this week. She met with Thai government officials and visited the Burmese migrant community in Mahachai. 
A man in traditional attire dances while other migrants wave the Burmese flag. 

Suu Kyi is revered by most Burmese. She is the only daughter of General Aung San, the Burmese independence leader who negotiated Myanmar's independence from Britain. He was assassinated shortly before he could take office as the leader of independent Burma. The Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights advocated battled a corrupt military government that imprisoned her. 

Barred from the Presidency of Myanmar by a constitutional clause specifically meant to exclude her, she led her party (the National League for Democracy) to victory in the 2015 election. After the election the NLD created a post for her (State Counsellor of Myanmar, roughly similar to Prime Minister) that ensured her primacy in Burmese politics. She's also the country's Foreign Minister. 

Myanmar, once the most repressive country in Southeast Asia, is now the region's most promising democracy. All because of Suu Kyi's iron will. 

I've been photographing the Burmese community in Mahachai since 2009. Almost every home displays a photo of Suu Kyi and a photo of her father. Burmese flags hang in the shops and homes. I was happy to be photographing in the community on the day her visit. Tens of thousands of Burmese migrants live in crowded tenements in Mahachai. Many of the migrants and other Burmese people in Thailand came down to Mahachai to see her.
People wait for Aung San Suu Kyi. One man held up a photo of her father, General Aung San. 

Thousands of people came to see "the Lady" speak but only a few hundred carefully screened guests were allowed in to hear her. People were angry that they couldn't get in. Some blocked the roads, others talked about human rights. Others waited quietly with flowers, hoping she would stop her motorcade to talk to them.
Aung San Suu Kyi waits to speak...

...While some of the 250 or so invited guests, all workers in the seafood industry, wait for her to take the podium. 

She didn't stop though. She drove in, spoke with the invited workers for about 45 minutes and left. I was a little surprised by the brevity of the event. 
ASSK at the podium. 

When she finished the media was hustled out of the room. We joined the crowd in front of the venue and waited for her to come out. By now it was absolutely pouring, the mother of all tropical rainstorms and everyone was soaked. But the rain didn't dampen spirits or break up the crowd. People waited, some chanting others calling her name, in the rain and when she came out they erupted in applause. With a wave she got into her limousine and left. The crowd trudged through the rain after she left, back to their tenements in town. 
Part of the crowd waiting in the rain for Aung San Suu Kyi.

I walked, with the Burmese, back to my car and rode back into Bangkok, editing in the backseat as we ploughed through heavy traffic and flooded roads. 

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, June 21, 2016

The Slow Life on Don Khone

A man rides his motorcycle into town from the rice paddies in the center of Don Khone island (also spelled Khon). None of the roads on the island are paved.

I spent a fair amount of time exploring Don Khone while I was photographing the fishermen on the island. It's the southernmost point in Laos, as far as you can get from Vientiane and still be in Laos. Most of the people on the island either work as farmers or fishermen (or both). 
The old elementary school in the main town on Don Khone. There are a couple of small villages on the island, one on the north end (where this school is) and another on the south end. The villages are connected by a dirt track that used to be a railroad track. 

South of Don Khone is the Mekong River and Cambodia. The island has become a backpacker / travel hotspot. The north end of the island, closest to mainland Laos, is dotted with hotels, bungalows, and restaurants. Tourism has sparked the local economy in a huge way. 
A traffic jam on Don Khone. Restaurants and travel offices on the left side of the photo. Restaurants and hotels on the right of the photo (the Mekong flows past the town on the right). Electricity didn't come to Don Khone until about 10 years ago. Now all of the restaurants and hotels have wifi. 

The travel revolution hasn't changed Don Khone as much as it has some parts of Laos, like Luang Prabang, but the island has been transformed. Riverside properties are being turned into hotels and restaurants. People who have lived in the center of the town are selling their homes and moving out of town, into the countryside, and the in town property being built into a tourist oriented businesses. 
Restaurants and guesthouses and hotels line the river. 

The amazing thing is that there isn't much to do on Don Khone. You can go to the waterfalls on either side of the island and watch the fishermen. It's a three kilometer walk (almost two miles) to the waterfalls on the west side of the island and about a two kilometer walk (about a mile and a half) to the waterfalls on the east side of the island. 

You can walk through rice fields in the center of the island, but they only grow one rice crop per year on the island (many parts of Laos grow two rice crops per year, some parts of Thailand grow three crops per year). There's nothing going on in the fields when the farmers aren't working. So there's nothing going on in the fields about 45 weeks of the year. 

You can rent a bike or motorcycle to get around the island. Renting a bike is out for me because it's almost impossible to carry my camera bag and pedal a bike. I rented a motorcycle one day (helmets not available) and drove off the road three times in the short ride to the waterfalls on the east side of the island. The roads, (there are four roads on the island) are all unpaved. When it rains, they become mudslicked, puddle riddled, paths. Let's call it an adventure. 

(More after the jump...)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fishing on Don Khone

A fisherman jumps into the Mekong River at the end of his early morning work on the fish traps on the east side of Don Khon. 

The Mekong River provides sustenance for most of Southeast Asia. It starts in the Himalaya Mountains in southern China and winds through the mountains before entering Southeast Asia at the Thai/Burmese/Lao border. 

There are a series of waterfalls on the Mekong in southern Laos that have long prevented the river from being navigable from its mouth in Vietnam to its headwaters in China. French colonial expansion in Indochina was driven, in part, by efforts to find a shortcut to China. The waterfalls in Laos killed that dream. 
A fisherman relaxes near the fishtraps at Don Khone. 

The waterfalls that stymied the French though help feed southern Laos. Fisherman on Don Khone, one of the larger islands in the 4,000 Islands of southern Laos, built a vast network of fish traps that bring in tons of fish that are sold in markets throughout Laos. 

The fisherman have plied their dangerous trade for centuries. They've built a system of rope and bamboo bridges that go from trap to trap and they work, like a aerialists as the river's waters swirl beneath them. 
A fisherman walks on a bamboo bridge that runs from the fish traps to the shore. 

The fishermen's days may be numbered though. The total size of the catch has not gone down much in recent years, but the size of the fish caught has gone down. In other words, the fishermen are bringing in more but smaller fish. The Lao government blames the drop on over fishing, and over fishing may contribute to the size of the fish caught. But fishermen say the real problem is the dams that are being built all along the Mekong, from China right through to Cambodia. The fishermen think these dams are dramatically impacting the migratory routes of the fish. 
A day's work in the bottom of a fisherman's nylon bag. 

The Lao government has ordered the fishermen to stop fishing. Although they haven't given them a date that they must stop by, the fishermen only work the traps during the dry season, when the river is low. The rainy season is starting on the river and river levels are rising so the season will end soon and the question is whether or not the fishermen will be allowed to start fishing again next year when the river levels fall. 
A fisherman stands near his traps and looks upstream. 

A fisherman uses a rope bridge to cross the river. They grab hold of the rope, step into the raging river and the currents pull them through the maelstrom to the other side.

I'm glad I was able to go to 4,000 Islands and Don Khone when I did. I was privileged to see the fishermen work. I'm not sure how much longer they'll be on the river. 
A fisherman pulls in his nets on the other side of the river.

While another fisherman walks back to shore with his day's catch. 

There are more photos of the Don Khone fishermen 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, June 16, 2016

A Traditional Tak Bat in Pakse

Monks gather in front of Wat Luang, one of the larger Buddhist temples in Pakse, before the morning tak bat. 

I got up early on my first morning in southern Laos to explore the city. Pakse is a nice little town on the Mekong River. It's the gateway to Laos' coffee growing region and the 4,000 Islands, on the southern edge of Laos, close the Cambodian border. 

The monks from Wat Luang go out very early every morning for a tradition tak bat, or alms gathering. People come out of their homes and present the monks with rice and other necessities. It's a form of merit making for the Buddhist faithful. 
A woman waits for the monks to come to her. 

The tak bat in Pakse is still very traditional. I've photographed the tak bat in Luang Prabang several times and up there it's become a tourist spectacle. To the point that there aren't very many Lao people participating anymore. Most of the people waiting to give rice to the monks in Luang Prabang are tourists. 
Monks line up to get alms from a resident in Pakse. 

Several groups of monks went out from Wat Luang. There were 15 - 20 monks in each group. They walked silently and barefoot through the city. Not everybody gives to the monks everyday, on some streets there were only one or two people (usually women) waiting to give alms to the monks. Interestingly, to me, women kneel on a mat they put on the ground while men stand. 
Monks walk past a house in Pakse. 

Women drop balls of cooked rice into the monks' alms bowls. 

There were not many people out the morning I walked with the monks. It was a very relaxing way to start the day though and I ritual I never tire of seeing. 

There are more photos from Pakse in my archive and 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, June 15, 2016

The Mighty Mekong

The Mekong River from seat 10D on my Lao Airlines flight from Bangkok to Pakse. We're somewhere in southern Laos. 

I'm in southern Laos working on a story about the fishermen who live in the 4,000 Islands area, a picturesque part of Laos where the Mekong becomes a series of waterfalls before cascading into Cambodia. 

I will be posting a couple of entries from here as time allows. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

70 Years On

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister of Thailand, bows his head while giving alms to a monk at a special ceremony honoring Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, Thursday. The ceremony marked the King's 70 year reign. He is Thailand's longest reigning monarch and the longest reigning monarch in the world today. (Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 w/ 1.4X teleconverter = 210mm, or 420mm in full frame terms)

There was a special merit making ceremony for the King at the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (which is in the palace grounds) Thursday to honor the start of the King's 70th year as monarch. 

More than 700 monks participated in a special chanting service in the temple. Thai government and business leaders lined the streets around the palace and silently dropped alms into the monks' bowls as the monks filed into the palace (and temple) grounds. 
A worker arranges flowers at the base of a portrait of His Majesty in front of the Ministry of Defense. (40-150 f2.8 @ 46mm, 92mm in full frame terms)

I went down to the palace to cover the merit making. Normally when I photograph here I use Olympus' excellent (and tiny) prime lenses. On events though where our mobility is limited, like this one, I haul out my Olympus zooms (photographers who photographed the Prime Minister were restricted to a small area across the street from his location). The 12-40 f2.8, 40-150 f2.8 and the tiny 1.4X teleconverter for the telephoto zoom. 

I work with the 12-40 on one OM-D E-M5 Mark II body and the 40-150 with the 1.4X teleconverter on the other body. This gives me the ability to tremendously change my framing without moving or changing lenses. 
People get ready for the alms giving in front of Wat Phra Kaew. This was made at more or less the same spot where I photographed PM Prayut. (12-40mm zoom at 13mm = 26mm on full frame) 

We couldn't move once the Prime Minister arrived and the ceremony started. With the 40-150 and teleconverter I was able to photograph him giving alms to the monks and from the same position make a variety of photographs of monks filing into the palace grounds and people making merit. 
Monks collect alms as they walk to the Palace. (40-150mm w/ 1.4X teleconverter = 210mm, 420mm on full frame) 

Turn to the right, and the acting Supreme Patriarch, the highest ranking monk in Thai Buddhism, is escorted into the ceremony. (Also 40-150mm w/ 1.4X teleconverter = 210mm, 420mm on full frame) 

When the politicians and business leaders left we had more freedom to move. I crossed the street to the Palace gate and, still using two cameras, photographed monks walking into the ceremony. 
An elderly monk is helped into the palace, (40-150mm w/ 1.4X teleconverter = 210mm, 420mm on full frame) 

From the same position, monks walk through the palace gate, the spires are Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. (12-40mm zoom at 12mm = 24mm on full frame)

When all the monks went into Wat Phra Kaew I walked over to Sanam Luang, the large parade ground across the street from the palace. The government set up a viewing area so regular Thais could watch the ceremony, which simulcast on Thai TV. (The ceremony in the palace was in a very small space and open only to very high ranking government leaders and select business leaders.) 
People at Sanam Luang hold pictures of the King and pray during the ceremony. (12-40mm zoom at 23mm = 46mm on full frame)

The longest Olympus prime lens I have is the 75mm f1.8. It's an excellent lens, probably the sharpest Olympus lens I own (I think it's better than Canon's legendary 135mm f2 L lens). It works for about 90% of my telephoto needs but it's just not long enough for events like Thursday's merit making. The Olympus 40-150 and its companion teleconverter gives me tremendous reach (like a 420mm f4 in full frame terms) in a package about the size of Canon or Nikon's 70-200 f4 zooms. But relative to M4:3 it's a huge lens, so I only break it out when I know I need the extra reach. 

I normally use the Olympus primes on the street because I love the super shallow depth of field I get with a f1.8 or f2 lens. It's only a little faster than the f2.8 zoom, but when you're working in the dark confines of a market or temple every stop helps. The 12-40 is a fraction of the size of the 40-150 and about 1/3 the size of the competing Canon or Nikon lenses, but the Olympus primes are so much smaller that it's easier for me to carry a couple of tiny primes instead of one midsized zoom.

There are more photos from Thursday's 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.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Siem Reap Bubble

A pedestrian foot bridge over the Siem Reap River in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The bridge connects two tourists' nightmarkets. Most rural Cambodian villages don't have enough electricity to burn it on decorative lights.  

Siem Reap, like Luang Prabang, Laos, is a product of our smaller world; the mass tourism that is swamping parts of Asia. The world famous ancient city of Angkor is just a few kilometers from downtown Siem Reap and a brand new international airport connects Siem Reap to the world. You can literally have breakfast in a hyper modern city like Tokyo or Seoul and dinner in ancient Angkor, a city that at its prime was bigger than London or Paris. A city that was thriving before the European powers had even heard of a place we now call the Americas. 
"Pub Street" in Siem Reap is the center of the town's nightlife. This is less representative of "real" Cambodia than Broadway is of the United States.  

Tourists who visit Siem Reap see a city that has many of the conveniences (but on a much smaller scale) of any modern city, whether it's Bangkok, Chicago or Sydney. An abundance of restaurants and hotels. Air conditioning, paved streets and running water. Widely available wifi and 4g cell service. 

But Siem Reap exists in a tourists' bubble. You don't have to go far out of town, really only a couple of miles, to see Cambodia as it still is. 
A woman sells baguettes from her bicycle. Excellent bread is one of the legacies of French colonialism. 

People still  use oxen and water buffalo to plow their fields just 10 miles from downtown. Fields that during my first visit 10 years ago, were littered with landmines sown by the Khmer Rouge and unexploded ordinance from almost 20 years of constant warfare. 

The pavement ends at the main highway, most of the roads into the villages are still dirt or laterite. You don't have to go too far off the paved road to get beyond the reach of Cambodia's nascent electrical grid. And water is from local wells and boreholes (wells and boreholes that are running dry because of the drought). 

Tourists get "fish massages" in a sidewalk fish tank in Siem Reap town. 

Cambodia is a disconcerting place for me to visit. I'm of a certain age and I remember well the "secret bombing" perpetrated against Cambodia by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. I remember reading about and seeing news reports of the Khmer Rouge atrocities committed against the Cambodian people. I think the "secret bombing" (which was only secret to the American people, the Cambodians knew exactly who bombed them) further radicalized the Khmer Rouge and led directly to the Cambodian genocide.

I'm glad the Cambodians in the tourist industry in Siem Reap (and Phnom Penh and tourist centers on the Cambodian coast) are bettering their lives, the challenge is to expand the bubble so all Cambodians benefit.
A market in Siem Reap. 

There are many more photos of Siem Reap 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.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Drought in Cambodia

A worker walks away from the Tara, a riverboat that has been left high and dry because of the drought in Cambodia. The Tara was built in a French shipyard in Vietnam (then a French colony) in 1927 and survived the three wars in Indochina - World War II, the Vietnamese War for independence against the French and the Vietnamese war against the US. Most recently, the Tara has been taking tourists on cruises across the Tonle Sap, Cambodia's great lake. The owner is refurbishing and repairing the Tara during the drought and hopes to refloat it during Cambodia's seasonal flooding. 

I've been documenting the drought in Thailand for almost two years now. The situation in rural Thailand is dire - farmers don't have water for their fields and people's wells in the countryside are running dry. But as bad as the situation is in Thailand, it's much worse in Cambodia. 
A farmer plants rice in his fields near Seam Reap. The land is dry as concrete but the farmer, who has been farming in the area all his life, said this is the driest his fields have ever been. He said normally at this time of year there are 3 - 5 inches of water in the field. He said he was worried about whether or not his rice crop would survive but that he had no choice. If he didn't plant, his family wouldn't survive. Better to plant and hope for the best. 

Thailand is better situated to ride out the drought because it has much better infrastructure. More paved roads, so it's easier to get water to dry communities (although trucking water to communities, whether in Thailand, the US or Cambodia, is not a sustainable solution to water shortages), more reservoirs and canals to move water, and Thailand is further north along the Mekong, so it's easier for Thailand to draw water out of the river. (A point that angers the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam because every gallon of water Thailand draws from the river is a gallon that doesn't make it downriver.) 
Walking through the field, planting rice. 

The drought in Cambodia is the same drought impacting Thailand and Vietnam. All of Southeast Asia is wrestling with it. The drought was spawned by the strong El NiƱo weather pattern that also dried out subSaharan Africa, India and Australia. 

There's enough rice in storage to get most people through this season, into November. But if the rainy season or the crops fail there could be significant food shortages. There have already been spot shortages of proteins throughout Cambodia. Fish is the most important source of protein for most Cambodians. There have been large fish die offs in Cambodia's lakes and reservoirs as water levels have dropped. 

(More after the jump...)