Thursday, November 24, 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. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

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. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Basic Black

A volunteer at Krungthai Tractor on Rama IV Road in Bangkok dyes clothes black for a person. A run on black clothes, used to mourn the death of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered late King of Thailand, has led to a shortage of black in the markets. Volunteer groups are dyeing people's clothes black. 

Thailand entered a year long mourning period when His Majesty the King died on October 13. People were encouraged to wear black in mourning for at least the first 30 days after his death. There was a run on black clothes in the markets the day after his death and before the day was done most market vendors were out of black. At the same time, many poorer people complained that they couldn't afford to buy new mourning clothes. 
The dyeing operation on Rama IV is huge. About 150 volunteers have been helping more than 600 people per day dye their clothes black. 
Many colors go in. One color comes out. Many of the volunteers at the Rama IV dyeing operation are actors in Thailand's entertainment industry.

Before the end of the first weekend after His Majesty's death volunteer groups set up clothes dyeing operations. One of the biggest is at Krungthai Tractor on Rama IV Road, near the sprawling Khlong Toey slum. About 150 volunteers show up every day to help people dye their clothes. On most days, more than 600 people show up. 
A man was accompanied by his pet parrot when he brought a couple of shirts to the dyeing operation.

People get in line and get a number, drop off their clothes and then take a seat. Thirty minutes to an hour later, their number is called, they're given a sack containing their soaking wet clothes and they go home to finish the process, which requires soaking them in salt water overnight so the dye sets. 

If a person brings in more clothes or the clothes are heavier it might take longer. In any case, every set of clothes has to be done by hand and carefully tracked. It's not like the volunteers can hold up a shirt and say "who owns the fuchsia Hawaiian shirt?" Everything coming out of the dye vats is black as midnight on a moonless night.
Steam rises out of a vat of shirts being dyed black. 

The volunteer dyeing operation at Krungthai Operation is scheduled to end on Sunday, 06 November. By then almost 10,000 people will have gotten their clothes dyed there. 
The dyeing operation is a literal sweat shop. The clothes are dyed in huge vats of steaming water. The daytime temperature in Bangkok is in the upper 80s with humidity around 80%.

The government has reminded people that white, dark gray, dark navy blue and brown are acceptable colors during the mourning period, but for most Thais, black is the color of choice, especially for shirts. Some men, especially office workers, wear white shirts with black ribbons pinned to the left sleeve but most people are wearing black. 

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Last Spirit House Factory in Bangkok

A man works in his home factory that makes Thai spirit houses out of teak wood. It's the last spirit house factory in Bangkok.

Bangkok, like many old imperial cities, is a city of old artisans' villages. As Thailand has modernized, the artisans' villages have given way to condominiums and shopping malls. One of those villages in Ban Fuen, on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River near Wat Suttharam. It's the community that used to make spirit houses. 
In the factory, which would be the car port in an American home, Gob, who runs the family spirit house business, works on the frame of a spirit house. 

Almost every home, almost every building, in Thailand has a spirit house. A spirit house is a shrine for the protective spirit of the property. In modest homes in the countryside or urban slums, the spirit house would reflect the owners' modest means. It might be a small spirit house in the corner of the home. In larger homes of the middle class, the spirit house would be on a pedestal in a corner of the property. For large homes of Thailand's elite, the spirit house would be a large, elaborate shrine. 
A midsized completed spirit house ready for shipment to a customer. It takes about three days to craft a house like this and it is completely hand made. 

Spirit houses used to be made of teak and the ones in Ban Fuen still are. But just as monks' alms bowls are now mass produced, throwing traditional alms bowls makers out of work, spirit houses are now made of modern materials in large factories. What had been a community of ten or more families  in Ban Fuen making spirit houses is now one family making them, mostly as souvenirs or show pieces. 
Hong, 77, is the matriarch of the family making spirit houses. She still works almost every day helping her daughter, who now runs the family business.

The family still lives in a traditional style Thai wooden home. It's on stilts, a little over a meter off the ground. Thousands of pieces of teak wood are piled underneath the home. Nothing goes to waste. Large pieces of wood are cut into smaller and smaller pieces, some no bigger than a fingernail, and glued into place on the spirit houses. The home stands out from the neighbors because it is traditional. All around it are four and five story modern apartment buildings. High end condominiums are going up on the edges of the neighborhood, replacing the apartments that replaced the traditional homes. 
Working on an exterior wall of a spirit house.

Just as none of the wood goes to waste, every part of the home is used in the workshop. The main fabrication is done in what would be the carport or garage of an American home. Dowels are sanded in a storage room off the dining area. The figurines that "live" in the spirit house are made in the living room. 
The storage room (what would be a pantry in the US) is used to finish smaller pieces of wood. Like the rest of the home, there's sawdust almost everywhere. 

In the living room, Gob works on the figurines that "live" in the house. 

It takes three days to several weeks to make a spirit house. The smaller ones (and most popular) take about three days. The largest takes about three weeks. Prices start at about 4,000THB (~$115 US). From there the sky is the limit. It's easy, based on size and ornateness, to spend well over $1,000 US. Although the smaller ones are mostly sold as souvenirs, the larger ones still serve an important spiritual function. 
The roofline of a midsized spirit house. The level of detail is astonishing. The frames of the smaller spirit houses are in the background. 

I don't know what the future is for the spirit house makers. Their neighborhood is changing. Hong, the matriarch, is 77. Gob, who runs the business, is 50. I can see a time when the spirit house makers, like so many of the other artisans' communities in Bangkok, are forced out to make way for "modern" Bangkok. 

There are more photos of the spirit house makers in my archive or available from ZUMA Press