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Land of a Million Elephants

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about elephants. I was a little afraid of them,” Son Phet admitted. A 24-year-old mahout, or elephant rider, Son Phet did not look afraid of the giant animal anymore as he stood fully upright on its head. Khoun, the 47-year-old female he was partnered with, hardly seemed to notice his weight.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

After the last week of investigating the impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams on the local populations, we had come to an elephant camp outside Luang Prabang to try and learn more about the relationships between people and animals along the Mekong. We had seen shockingly little wildlife during the the last months of travel.  Apart from a brief visit to a national park and bird conservancy in Vietnam, most the animal populations and habitats we’d encountered had been in bad shape. We needed to be reminded that the Mekong was a river that was not solely the domain of humanity.

Admittedly, visiting a man-made camp where elephants were closely tied to their human partners was not the purest means of learning about the lives of the animals. But as Laos had an estimated population of just 400-600 wild elephants remaining, with our limited resources we stood little chance of interacting with them in their natural environment. Even with this compromise in mind, we felt it was important to try and gain some understanding of the enormous mammals’ situation in 21st century Laos.

After all, the country’s historic nickname was Lane Xang – the Land of a Million Elephants.

Courting an Elephant

“I heard that one of the older mahouts had a motorbike accident,” Son Phet explained when we asked what prompted him to become a professional elephant handler. “I knew about this place because my village is quite nearby and I had played with elephants a little before, and so I decided to apply.”

The process of learning to control with an elephant, Son Phet told us, was an involved one. Captive elephants form a special bond to their handlers and will stubbornly refuse to listen to anyone they do not know. They are highly intelligent animals and can remember and understand a surprising variety of command words, but if they don’t trust a person they project an air of quiet indifference and simply will not move. And weighing at roughly 3 tonnes, there is little a person can do to compel them against their will, save extreme physical violence.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

For Mahouts like Son Phet, whose job security depended on being able to control his elephant while keeping it in good health. Abusing the extremely valuable animal (buying an adult female can cost far more than a luxury SUV) would be a sure way to get fired. On top of this, beating an elephant into submission could create short term acquiescence, but in the long run made sure the mahout would live in perpetual danger.

“Elephants hide their emotions,” Son Phet told us when we asked him about the risks involved with his job. “It can be very difficult to tell if they are happy, sad, or angry. If you treat them badly they will hide their feelings, but they will never forget. They will wait and let you think everything is ok, but they might wait until you are alone with them in the jungle and then kill you. They don’t forget.”

The thought of such a powerful creature biding its time behind a mask of calm until it could exact the ultimate revenge on an abusive human was both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Of course Son Phet was taught this when he accepted the job, and so knew that the only way to gain real control required time and patience.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

The basic formula was simple: stay in nearly constant contact with them for roughly a month until sufficient trust was earned. That contact involved everything from feeding the elephants, playing with them, and bathing them in the Mekong to keep them cool and clean. Except for when the elephants were taken into the jungle where they slept for the night, the mahouts were seldom out of sight of their animals, even long after a trusting relationship was established. Yet like any relationship, complete control was always out of reach. “You can never really have 100% control,” Son Phet explained. “The best you can do is maybe 95%. They can always choose not to listen.”

When we asked Son Phet to describe how he felt about Khoun after spending more than a year together, his response was unashamedly tender: “She is everything. My friend, my family, my wife.”

Beasts of Burden

As much as we were moved by the close relationships between man and elephant we had witnessed over the last few days, we knew that Khoun and the other animals at the Luang Prabang camp were not free in the true sense of the word. They were treated with absolute compassion and kindness, but still they remained indentured to their owners and spent nearly every day carrying tourists on their backs. Yet from our research and pre-trip conversations with elephant experts, we knew that employment in the ecotourism industry was far preferable to the other jobs elephants were often forced into.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

According to the Elephant Conservation Center, there are currently more elephants employed by the logging industry in Laos than there are wild. Laos is rich in valuable hardwoods such as teak, and its mountainous terrain and the low budgets of many logging operations mean hiring industrial machinery is not always the most effective option for harvesting lumber. Elephants, with their enormous strength and ability to navigate both on land and in water, are often recruited into the labour force.

The owner of the camp where we’d been staying agreed to show us where we could see the use of elephants in the logging industry for ourselves, and so early on our final morning in Luang Prabang we were dropped off at a small crossing on a minor tributary of the Mekong.  As we sat in a leaky fishing boat that served as the only means of crossing we could hear the distant sound of something crashing through the water well before we saw it.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

When the elephant, a 35-year-old female names Seub, round the bend in the river, it was a truly awesome sight. Outfitted with a thick harness it dragged a massive section of a freshly felled tree at the end of lengths of heavy looking chains. It was the first time we had actually experienced the full extent of the animal’s power; with each determined heave forwards it was apparent just how strong it was as it heaved the log over a sandbar and into the flowing river beyond.

Its mahout sat cross-legged on Seub’s head just above the river’s current as the elephant swam steadily across to the opposite bank, the weight clearly much easier for her to manage with the aid of the water’s buoyancy. Once ashore, the mahout barked commands to the Seub, provoking the final burst of power needed to beach the log. Seub was then unhooked from her chains and let to a thicket of dense grass to graze for a while before heading back across the river to haul another section of teak.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

In all, Seub would be able to make roughly 10 of these trips in a day, earning around $150 for the loggers for every cubed metre of lumber she delivered. If she wasn’t sick or tired and worked at maximum speed, her mahout told us, Seub could pull more than $10 000 worth of wood across the river in an 8 hour work day. It was difficult and dangerous work for both the elephant and her mahout, and since many small scale logging operations were illegal the risks were substantial.

Back at the Luang Prabang camp, we talked with Son Phet about what we had seen. “I’m a bit worried,” he said about the future of elephants in Laos. “We used to be ‘the land of a million elephants’, but now we’re just a few thousand. They can be valuable, and people sometimes hurt them [while trying to earn money with them]. When I see this I wasn’t to tell people to stop so that we can keep elephants in Laos for future generations.”

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day's tourists have left.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day’s tourists have left.

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Note: We had not gone to Luang Prabang to pass judgements. In an ideal world elephants would be left alone to live without human interference, but reality is not ideal. As populations grow and forests are cut, the habits of humans and elephants are coming closer and closer together, and it is likely that the best hope for a thriving elephant population in Laos is through captive breeding. From what we had seen, the life of an ecotourism elephant was far preferable to that of a logging elephant. 

For anyone looking to get involved, the Elephant Conservation Center works to repurpose logging elephants into the ecotourism industry, expand the country’s elephant population through breeding programs, and protect the habitat of the wild elephants remaining.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Laos: Behind the Scenes

As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos has a special relationship with the Mekong. Over the course of our journey through the sparsely populated nation, we learned how this great river has given rise to great empires, fostered religion and culture, supported huge varieties of plant and animal life, and provided food and livelihood for millions of people.

Starting in the south at the Khone waterfalls, we travelled more than 1000 km north into the mountainous jungle near the Chinese border. Along the way we met hundreds of Laos people, from emigre coffee barons to young elephant handlers (known as mahouts), and everyone in between.

We explored the country’s complex and often precarious relationship with hydropower dams as it seeks to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia”, and learned about the human impacts of this rapid development.

Ultimately our experience in Laos left us with mixed sensations of happiness and dread. There are few other places on earth possessed of the pure kindness of the Laos people, and it’s natural beauty is spectacular. Yet we also witnessed a country plagued by poverty, and we can only hope that in its rush to develop economically that Laos will not damage itself ecologically beyond repair.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes look at some of our most memorable moments on this leg of A River’s Tail, and keep checking back for weekly multimedia stories from the Mekong.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Laos, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Also tagged , , , , |

Coffee, Kingdoms, and the Peace of Southern Laos

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

As soon as the heavy cargo truck pulled onto the shoulder of the highway we were immediately swarmed by vendors. They shoved bananas, plastic bags of sticky rice, and barbecued skewers of chicken gizzard through the wooden slats of the truck walls, sometimes receiving a few thousand kip (the name of the Laos currency) in exchange from the hungry commuters.  5 minutes later the truck’s aging ancient engine roared back to life and we were off again, blasting the vendors with exhaust fumes and gravel dust as they turned to meet the next arriving vehicle.

We were on our way to the riverside city of Pakse, the third largest in the country and the capital of the former Kingdom of Champasak. Straddling the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, it seemed like a logical destination after leaving the un-tameable rapids of the Khone waterfalls, but as had so often been the case during the making of this journey, we had no real idea of what we would find when we got there.

With a population nearly 100 000, it was a big city by Laos standards and it drew nearly half a million tourists per year; we figured there had to be something there. Yet every time we’d asked a local what we should see or do in Pakse they would think for a moment and then shrug: “It’s pretty, but a little bit boring.”

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

Boring, we figured, was an opinion based on circumstance; what might be boring for a local could be fascinating for us.

Caffeine Plateau

Eager to see what Pakse had to offer we arranged for a small truck to meet us at the unfortunate time of 4:30 a.m. to drive us the 100 kms from the city to the Bolaven plateau. A 1300 metre tall edifice of rock that dominated the surrounding landscape, the plateau was once a place of immense suffering as one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Vietnam War, but now was better known for coffee than explosives. Being seriously dedicated coffee drinkers, both Gareth and I were looking forward to pursuing anything that gave us an excuse to drink more of it.

As our vehicle ascended the long, gently graded road that lead to the plateau, our ears popped periodically and we rose further and further into the misty cloud layer that hung over the summit. For the first time that either of us could remember since starting this journey we were not within walking distance of the Mekong or one of its tributaries, and the distance felt strangely unsettling after so many days by the water.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Originally cultivated by French farmers during the colonial period from late in the 19th century and running into the middle of the 20th, coffee plantations began to appear on both sides of the road once we reached the plateau’s flat top. More or less at random we stopped at one, passing under tall gates made of an expensive looking hardwood before parking in the visitors area. Polished wood surfaces and metal appliances gleamed in the various reception facilities and it was clear that these plantations were not casual subsistence operations.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing coffee, and it has become the biggest industry in the area.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau.

As we walked slowly through the plantation grounds, surrounded by coffee trees and squat tea bushes, it seemed odd to find very few people physically working save for a scattering of labourers cleaning debris from between the crop rows. A little confused by the lack of activity, we continued further into the compound until we eventually arrived at a rest area, much smaller and more rustic looking than the modern structures we had seen earlier. A distinguished looking man was the sole patron, sitting alone at a wooden table sipping green tea and smoking a long black cigarette.

Bonjour,” he said in way of greeting as we approached and I scrambled to switch into French, which I hadn’t meaningfully used since leaving university. Pablo, a native French speaker, had returned to Phnom Penh before reaching the Cambodia-Laos border to sort through dozens of hours of video he’d recorded and Gareth, though fluent in multiple languages, spoke barely a word. My rusty language skills would have to suffice.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

“Welcome to my plantation, please join me.” His French was smooth and his accent non-existent. “Would you like a coffee?” He waived to a waiter when we accepted, and he gestured for us to sit down.

His name was Inpong Sananikone, a Laos native who had emigrated to France as a young man before returning to Laos in retirement to buy an existing plantation and reform it according to his own principles. “When I started this business I decided on three rules: It has to be welcoming, clean, and organic,” he said, using simple French vocabulary thankfully within my ability to understand.

As the drinks arrived, we asked about the absence of workers in the fields. “It’s not the season,” he said, “Come back in a few months and you can see the work.” Sliding the small cups of steaming coffee towards and after taking an appreciative sip of his own, he stared thoughtfully at his glass before musing “I had coffee with the French Prime Minister last year. It cost 15 euros and it was not as good as this.”

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Uncertain of how to respond to such an unusual statement, we said nothing and instead sat quietly sipping our drinks. Obviously he had accomplished a great deal during his decades in France if he was meeting with the Prime Minster, but my language skills had already been stretched to the breaking point and I didn’t have the words to question him much further.

It wasn’t until the glasses were nearly empty that we noticed something was off. First my hands began to shake, first only a little, but shortly afterwards degenerating into an uncontrollable vibration. Sweat formed on my forehead and I could feel my heart pumping at close to twice its normal speed. Fearing that I could be on the verge of a heart attack, I looked over at Gareth for reassurance. His face was drained of colour.

“Strong coffee is the secret to staying young,” Inpong said, possibly noticing our jitters. “I put 7 grams of coffee into every cup of water.” Even as habitually heavy coffee drinkers, we were both shocked by the power of the drink. As we stared at him in disbelief, he asked rhetorically “Well, did you want to drink water, or did you want to drink coffee?”

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

The Ghosts of Empire

After the extremely unpleasant caffeine high of the Bolaven plateau, we resolved to stay closer to the water for our remaining time in Pakse. After several days we saw what the locals had been talking about when they said that the city was “pretty, but a little bit boring,” – though for us boring was the wrong choice of word. There was nothing boring about the area; it was both beautiful and welcoming, but things around Pakse just moved at a slower pace.

Rather than fight against the area’s nature, trying to force interesting river-related stories to present themselves to us, we surrendered to the casual rhythm of life in southern Laos and spent several days taking in the area.

We visited the ancient temples of Wat Phu, constructed by the same Khmer Empire that  built the world-famous Angkor Wat complex in the jungles outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. The aesthetic similarities were striking, and compared to the constant crowds and inflated prices of the far more heavily touristed temples in Cambodia, we had Wat Phu entirely to ourselves for several hours.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Later we chartered a boat to the silk producing island of Don Kho, getting back on the the Mekong for the first time in several days. Again, rather than aggressively hunt for river-related social stories to tell we simply walked across the island, talking to people we met from small families digging for edible grubs to young men and women working silk looms under the shade of stilted houses.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

In many ways our time in Pakse was like a holiday within the larger journey. Initially we felt frustrated by the lack of activity, having placed a huge amount of pressure on ourselves thought the trip to find and visually document the Mekong’s stories. Yet once we accepted Pakse for what it was, we were able to step back and enjoy the beauty and history of Laos’ sparsely populated south.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

But all vacations must come to an end, and both Gareth and I were eager to get back to work. Most people we’d talked to in Pakse said that the rest of southern Laos would be much the same as what we’d seen in the last days, so we boarded a torturous 18 hour overnight bus and headed north to start investigating what is arguably the most controversial form development on the Mekong – Laos’ hydropower dams.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Looking Back on the Mekong Delta

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

After months of planning and preparation, when production of A River’s Tail started in Vietnam no one on the crew knew quite what to expect. We each had our own preconceptions of what we’d find in the Mekong delta, and after extensively researching the region we knew that there were a wide range of environmental issues affecting the Mekong. Yet until we’d physically gotten on location they were nothing more than speculations.

We decided to do A River’s Tail in the opposite direction of what logic might dictate, by starting where the Mekong ends and tracing it back to it’s source nearly 5000km away in the Tibetan plateau. The reasoning behind this decision was that we wanted to have a clear picture of the myriad of ways the river facilitated ecology, economics, and culture before we saw its origins. Like being able to travel back in time to visit one of the world’s great thinkers when they were a baby, we hoped that grasping just how important the Mekong is in the life of the 60-odd million people who live downriver would allow us to better appreciate the magnitude of its importance.

And while we started the trip with open (albeit journalistically inclined) minds, the more we explored Vietnam’s Mekong delta, the more concerned we became about the health of the mighty river. Starting on the coast, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, we found fishermen hauling in nets clogged with plastic bags. Moving inland we visited shrimp farmers who were experiencing massive losses as their ponds became increasingly infected with unknown poisons carried by the river’s current, killing up to 40% of their shrimp. Later we would witness the widespread dumping of agricultural chemicals into the water table, rendering the river unusable for most domestic purposes and irritating the skin of those locals who would attempt to bathe in it. River fishermen were abandoning their boats and instead constructing massive inland fisheries, telling us that plying the Mekong had long since ceased to be a viable means of supporting a family.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

We didn’t set out to find a broken river, and it must be said that there are a multitude of global initiatives (both from the government and non-profit sectors) that are working to ensure the Mekong has a productive future. Yet we couldn’t help but leave Vietnam with a feeling of sadness caused by the realization that the Mekong river delta, against a backdrop of great visual beauty and the vast cultural warmth of the Vietnamese people, was a greatly diminished version of its former self.

Even though it would be impossible to completely convey the powerful feelings we experienced after weeks of travel, this short film attempts to bring together some of our final thoughts on what we found during the first leg of A River’s Tail.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

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A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

Vietnam: Behind the Scenes

Vietnam, the first country we visited for A River’s Tail, evoked many emotions in us, as powerful as they were often conflicting: happiness and inspiration at the kindness and resilience of those Vietnamese living in the delta, counterbalanced by sadness and concern over the multitude of environmental challenges facing them moving in to the future. A sense of awe at the region’s natural beauty, contrasted with the shock of witnessing the profound physical impacts the region’s rapid development has had on its ecological health. Hopefulness at the eagerness of many of the people we met to preserve and better their environment conflicting with the despair experienced by those whose lives had been forever changed by increased pollution and the corresponding loss of biodiversity.

Working in Vietnam was, on the whole, a wonderful experience. While in the planning stages of this journey we were worried that the country’s reputation as a tightly controlled socialist state would make interacting with its people difficult, for the most part we were welcomed everywhere we went with a smile and a cup of tea.

Over the course of three weeks we travelled from the Mekong’s terminus at the South China Sea to the Cambodian border, stopping in dozens of locations along the way to try and learn as much as possible about how this mighty river factored into the lives of delta residents. Though we could have easily spend twice as much time without coming close to fully grasping the complex relationship between the river and its people, we learned more in these few weeks than we thought possible.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes video that gives some insight into what happens behind the camera.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Also tagged , , |

A River’s Tail: The Journey Begins

Passengers on the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh bus watch Rambo II.

Passengers on the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh bus watch Rambo II.

A River’s Tail started as few serious endeavours should – with Rambo II. Dubbed into Vietnamese by overly enthusiastic voice actors, none of the local passengers seemed bothered in the least by Sylvester Stallone’s killing spree through the Mekong Delta. Many chuckled periodically as their fictitious countrymen fell to Rambo’s merciless knife.

Col. Trautman: “Where are you going John?”

John Rambo: “I don’t know.”

As inappropriate as the film selection on a Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) bus route may have been, we found an unlikely counterpoint to our own feelings of uncertainty about the journey ahead in Rambo’s ever-stoic words. After months of endless preparation and speculation about how to best document the health of the Mekong River and the stories of the people living from its waters, we were less than an hour from the Vietnam border with no real picture of what lay ahead.

Looking across the isle of the bus, Pablo Chavanel, the project’s chief videographer, was shooting sporadic b-roll footage of the dusty Cambodian countryside while glancing indifferently at the blaring TV screen. In contrast, fellow photographer Gareth Bright – an unapologetic fan of the Rambo series – had his eyes glued to the film, impossibly uncomfortable though he was with our 20kg aerial camera drone wedged under his legs.

Children are splashing by a rogue wave as they hunt for clams int he cracks in a boardwalk along the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

Children are splashed by a rogue wave as they hunt for clams int he cracks in a boardwalk along the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

Where were we going? Perhaps more importantly, what would we do when we got there? Documenting the entirety of the Mekong from sea to source over a one year period seemed like a fairly straightforward idea during our project meetings in Phnom Penh’s coffee shops, but as we drove further and further from the comforts of our apartments, our best laid plans seemed meaningless in the face of the vagaries ahead.

When the middle aged Vietnamese man in the seat next to me turned his iPad to full volume, the bus’ on board wifi allowing him to stream Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to his heart’s content, I glanced back at my colleagues to see Pablo drifting into sleep. The French, it would seem, have little love for Rambo.

Looking South

The border station at Bavet/Moc Dai (the respective Cambodian and Vietnamese towns), provided subtle insights into the cultural and political differences between the two countries. While the Cambodian side was comprised of a relatively welcoming collection of squat pseudo-traditional tiled structures, the hard grey concrete of Vietnam’s immigration checkpoint – alternately adorned with the red and yellow of the Vietnamese flag and the hammer and sickle banners of the Communist party – seemed far more imposing. And while we passed through without any problems, save for a cursory (and surprisingly disinterested) inspection of our Star Wars-looking drone, officially arriving on Vietnamese soil made the start of the project all the more real.

Vietnamese tourists walk along a pier that extends into the ocean near the town of Den Do. The Mekong river branches into 9 major distributaries before exiting into the South China Sea, and is locally referred to as The River of Nine Dragons. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Vietnamese tourists walk along a pier that extends into the ocean near the town of Den Do. The Mekong river branches into 9 major distributaries before exiting into the South China Sea, and is locally referred to as The River of Nine Dragons.

We entered Saigon a few hours later, changed our dollars into dong (Vietnamese currency), and secured a musty dorm room for the night. Our fixer/translator, Mi, arrived late that evening and after a quick meeting to get to know each other and discuss our departure time the next day, we took to our beds. With the approach of sleep the unanswerable questions returned – how exactly were we going to pull this off? Where were we going?

The next morning, over a bowl of wanton soup, Mi pointed out a few possible starting locations on her smartphone based on the minimal criteria we had given her: “We want to see where the Mekong ends.” After conferring over distances and travel times with the driver we had hired to help us move around the sprawling Mekong delta (a relentlessly energetic young man who asked us to call him Stephen) we opted to head for the coastal province of Tan Thanh. In theory, the plan was simple. Get to the sea and then follow the river back to Cambodia, meeting as many people along the way as possible.

A man checks his cell phone at a popular tourist rest stop on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man checks his cell phone at a popular tourist rest stop on the coast of the South China Sea.

Stephen, dressed smartly in dark slacks and a blue button down shirt (neither of which we ever saw him wear again, as he apparently discerned quite quickly we were not formal types), piloted his Toyota Zace 4×4 towards the ocean, stopping only once, at a gaudy roadside restaurant appropriately named The Mekong Rest Stop. As we stood around the car sipping terribly strong coffee, Stephen made the first quip in what was to become a profoundly unorthodox (and wonderful) working relationship. Staring at Pablo’s shaved head he noted gravely, “You look like Vin Diesel. I drive like Vin Diesel. Fast and Furious.”

The Eastern Sea

At its terminus, the Mekong and the sea are barely distinguishable from one another. The river’s sediment-laden water and the ocean’s chop blend together organically, and it is difficult to tell exactly where one ends and the other begins. The only noticeable difference was in the concentration of tourists – nearly all Vietnamese apart from us – who flocked around the coastal seawall, but seemed completely disinterested in the river banks.

We spent most of the remaining daylight bouncing back and forth between the river and the seashore trying to find the first traces of a story. Looking past the throngs of seafood-hungry tourists, our first impressions of the coast were mixed. A beautiful if aging pier extended a few hundred meters out into the water and made for an idyllic evening backdrop, while clam harvesters worked the beach, their backs hunched towards the sand. Stilted wooden houses stood above the tides, their windows opened to receive the sea breeze.

A couple walks above a plastic-strewn beach on the coast of the South China Sea. At low tide, the cumulative waste dumped into the Mekong and the ocean gather around the pilings of coastal houses.

A couple walks above a plastic-strewn beach on the coast of the South China Sea. At low tide, the cumulative waste dumped into the Mekong and the ocean gather around the pilings of coastal houses.

The scene would have been wonderfully picturesque had it not been for the plastic. An endless mottled mass of shopping bags and Styrofoam food containers in various states of decay were bunched around the foundational pylons of the community. After spending more than 12 years in Southeast Asia collectively, we were all aware that the economic realities of lower class life in the region prevent many people from making carbon free lifestyle choices. We understood it was neither fair nor realistic to expect that nearby farmers living near the poverty line could switch to reusable shopping bags or washable diapers, but the sight of such heavy pollution at the absolute start of a long trip was disquieting nonetheless. Where exactly was it coming from and where did it go, we wondered? What did it mean in relation to human and animal health?

Deciding that the touristic nature of the seaside made it an unsuitable place to question locals on the health of the water, we returned to the Mekong. In the quiet town of Den Do, we stopped at a concrete pier and chatted with a few men who were squatting idly, smoking cigarettes. Den Do, they said, was all about shrimp.

A shrimp boat pulls into harbour in the town of Den Do to offload its days catch. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp boat pulls into harbour in the town of Den Do to offload its days catch. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Workers sort the day's shrimp catch and sort the seafood before sending it to family owned processing facilites. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Workers sort the day’s shrimp catch and sort the seafood before sending it to family owned processing facilites.

Twenty minutes later, a dilapidated wooden vessel pulled alongside and seemingly out of nowhere dozens of men, women, and children rushed out to meet it. In a frenzy of activity the cargo hold of the ship was emptied of it’s catch; shrimp did indeed seem to be the main business. Through Mi we learned that the community was entirely reliant on the ocean for their living and used the river solely as a means of transportation and distribution. Though it wasn’t exactly the Mekong-centric start to the trip that we might have imagined, we decided that if that was the reality, then that is what we would start with. With Mi’s help we secured the permission of a gravel-voiced boat captain to join his crew for the next morning’s fishing.

With a 3:30 a.m. wake up looming, we sought out an early dinner. Too tired to look for other options, we ordered from the first restaurant we could find. For a reason that never was made clear to us, the owner was strongly opposed to cooking by any other means than by boiling everything together in a single pot. Yet as we grumbled our acceptance, Stephen leapt into action, forcing his way into their kitchen and shouting for cooking utensils. Ordering three nonplussed cooks to prep specific vegetables and bring him pans, he deftly stir-fried three full courses of clams, shrimp, and squid. When he finally joined us at the table, he brushed off our bemused stares.

“I can drive like Vin Diesel. And I can cook.”

And cook he could. With seemingly half the ocean in our stomachs we found the closest guest house – a sparse and mildewy building shared by a family of dogs who barked furiously at our slightest move – and bedded down for a cruelly short sleep. The perfect start.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my half of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental Also tagged , , , , , , |

Video: A River’s Tail, A Year Spent on the Mekong

Firstly, apologies for the long period of silence. I’ve been more consumed, overwhelmed, and excited by my work in the last few months than possibly at any other time in my life, and that unfortunately placed my personal blog low on the priority list. That failing is something I promise to remedy.

The project that has effectively taken over my life is called A River’s Tail. I’ve already written extensively about the origins and my motivations for undertaking such an endeavour so I will keep the details simple: myself and fellow photographer Gareth Bright are traveling the entirety of the Mekong river for the next year. Our friend and professional videographer, Pablo Chavanel, is joining us for selected legs of the journey to produce short films about the environmental issues we come across, as well as to document the behind the scenes process of what is involved in a project like this.

As I write this, we’ve already finished the Vietnam and Cambodia sections of the trip, and are preparing to head to Laos next month. This is by far the most logistically and creatively demanding thing I’ve ever attempted, and I am learning a great deal about what it means to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. While I am aware that some of photography’s greatest long-term projects have spanned decades, or even lifetimes, this is a step in the right direction for me. I am seeing clearly, maybe for the first time since I started in photography, that in order to tell a story properly I need to slow down and spend more time.

Though my income has shrunk to virtually nothing (we made an executive decision to spend the entire project budget on travel over paying ourselves), and stepping back from the hustle for publication and recognition was initially a hard adjustment (it’s addictive seeing your pictures in major media outlets), I have never been more convinced that this project is the best thing that has ever happened to me creatively and professionally.

The most frustrating aspect of the process has been the necessity of delaying publishing our material – we needed to build up a stockpile of stories in order to make sure the flow of content continued uninterrupted once we launched. I’m not used to keeping my work under wraps, and not being able to share what I’m doing despite this being one of the most productive periods in my photographic career took some getting used to.

I’m happy to say that these days of secrecy are almost at an end. A River’s Tail will launch officially on June 8th, and from that day forward we will regularly release new content for the rest of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy the trailer video that explains our basic goals and hopes for the next year on the Mekong.

If you’re anywhere near as interested in this as I am, the easiest thing to do is head to ariverstail.com and enter your email address. We’re not going to spam people with hundreds of updates, but rather we’re going to curate the best content from each month in one place. If you’re like me and can’t keep up with the countless amount of information to be consumed online, this is probably the most convenient way to follow the journey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this video. We are all learning what sort of material resonates with people and allows them to connect to a subject, so if you particularly enjoyed (or just as valuably, hated) something about the video, leave a comment below. As happy as A River’s Tail is making us, it is ultimately about creating an engaging experience for you, the audience. Your feedback is the best way we can keep telling stories that help you connect to the world, so don’t be shy!

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, The Mekong River, Video Also tagged , , , , , , |

Why I’m Dropping Everything to Photograph a River

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong.

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong, Cambodia.

“When you work fast, what you put in your pictures is what you brought with you — your own ideas and concepts. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.” – Sebastiao Salgado

The last four years have been a slow, single-minded journey as I worked to establish myself as a photojournalist. While I am, in the grand scheme of this industry, still on the lowest rungs of an endless ladder, I can’t pretend that I haven’t accomplished more or less what I set out to do –  support myself as a professional storyteller. Yet at some point during the desperate battle to stand out from the legions of others trying to break in to the market, and the thankless quest for professional validation through publication, I lost sight of why I wanted to do this job in the first place.

Since nearly every photographer of note has at some point been quoted as saying “photography has been my passport to the world” (or something along those lines) I will spare you the cliche, but photography, for me, has never been about the desire to create images. My decision to drop out of a post-graduate program and pursue documentary photography full time was motivated not by a lofty artistic vision about light and tones and textures, but by the rather selfish desire to see interesting places and meet people.

Though I wish I had some prodigious story of learning to develop prints in my father’s darkroom as a young boy, in reality I had already been traveling for nearly half a decade before I learned how to properly expose an image.  Photography, and its ability to communicate the unknown to a far away audience, appealed to me more as a convenient way to support a nomadic lifestyle than a creative calling.

In my naiveté about all things photographic, I assumed that as long as I bought an expensive enough camera and brought it with me as I traveled in Africa or Asia, good pictures would come – followed inevitably by fame and fortune. I vividly remember the feeling of confidence I had after submitting head shots of Himba tribespeople in Namibia to National Geographic that were, in retrospect, nothing short of a disaster. When it became clear the editors were not planning to respond, it started to dawn on me that perhaps I would have to put some effort into developing my craft before anyone started taking me seriously.

And to my credit, I did start to apply myself – so vigorously in fact that I spent my life savings twice before seeing a single one of my pictures in print.  I went from being someone who travelled with a camera to someone who travelled for my camera, so determined was I to break through the barrier separating amateur from professional. Though it seemed utterly hopeless for nearly four years, when I did finally catch my big break things suddenly began to move very quickly. I found I had more work than I could sanely handle, and I was getting relatively high paying international jobs for clients I was proud to have my name associated with.

Yet somewhere along the way I discovered that, while I had achieved more than I really expected in a professional capacity, I lost sight of the amazing opportunities photography provides to learn about the world. It got to the point that if I didn’t think I could sell a story, I wouldn’t bother exploring it. I began to think of my work in terms of a marketable product that had little value if it did not add to my tear sheet collection, which in turn led to pursuing fewer and fewer personal projects – ultimately culminating in the least productive period of my photographic career. Over a few short years I had somehow gone from taking pictures seven days a week, simply for the sake of engaging with the world, to sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

Exasperated and terrified by my own stagnation, I wracked my brain for a drastic solution to break free from this toxic creative cycle. Several weeks later, I arrived at an unorthodox conclusion: I should buy a boat and drive it through the interior waterways of Cambodia.

Reactions from my colleagues were mixed. While some supported the idea for what it was (a boyish journey for adventure’s sake), others quietly doubted the rationale for investing a large sum of money into something with little commercial appeal. Since I would not take a translator with me, they reasoned, how could I hope to accurately craft a journalistic narrative that would find a home in the international media? And while my detractors were actually right (I never did sell a single image from the trip), I stuck to the idea until I found others who were either bored or stupid enough to come with me.

I already wrote about the experience of finding and buying a boat, as well as a short recap of the trip, so I won’t go into much depth about the trip itself here. I will just say that it was exactly what I needed at the time, and it reconnected my photography with the innate wanderlust that got me into this profession in the first place. Though I took an average of less than 20 picture per day over the three week trip, they were images that I enjoyed making – the first such images I had produced in far too long. For me, that was the win. Beyond that, I was quite content for the pictures to occupy a small space on my personal blog and nothing more. I pitched no one and expected nothing in return. For all intents and purposes, the voyage had served its function as a creative catalyst and I was ready to move on.

Months later, however, while on an unrelated assignment documenting maternal health initiatives in Nepal and Bangladesh, it came as quite a surprise to find an email in my inbox inquiring about the possibility of a partnership for the project. The message was vague, explaining very little about what exactly this partnership would entail, and in honesty I was too skeptical to be very excited. Realistically, I reasoned from experience, requests like this most often do not develop past an individual or organization asking to use material for free in exchange for “exposure”. So I responded politely asking for more information and put the idea out of my mind as being unlikely to amount to much.

But when I received a reply almost immediately asking to arrange a time to speak on the phone to discuss possible contractual details, my interest piqued. People who want something for nothing generally do not bring contracts into the equation. Or pay for long distance phone calls.

Over the following days our correspondence continued, erratic and fragmented as it was by my hectic production schedule, exacerbated by South Asia’s often unreliable internet connections and power outages. With each passing email, my excitement grew and I started to send a barrage of online messages to the boat’s co-owner and co-pilot, South African photographer Gareth Bright, hinting that something might be happening.

As I write this, more than a month after that first email, it has become clear that something is indeed happening – and it will almost certainly become the most important undertaking of my nascent career.

I’m intentionally leaving the specifics of the project unclear, as it will be the subject of dozens, if not hundreds of upcoming posts, but in a nutshell: Gareth and I will spend virtually all of 2015 documenting the entirety of the Mekong river, from Vietnam to China through Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). I plan on setting aside time for a select few clients, but otherwise the entire year belongs to the river. As flexible a project description as I could ever imagine, we have been given complete freedom to form our own itinerary with zero obligation to highlight any cause or agenda other than telling the river’s human stories with honesty.

In the spirit of how this project got started, we have elected to spend the entire project budget on travel, only paying ourselves enough to cover rent and utilities. Though we may curse ourselves for this decision when we are financially unable to treat our girlfriends to dinner, we both agree that the spirit of the project is one of creative exploration rather than monetary gain. We bought the boat to recapture something we had both lost during the hustle of trying to carve out a niche in the professional photography world, and I don’t think we could have faced ourselves in the mirror had we sold that out.

While the administrative tedium associated with researching, budgeting, and organizing a project of this scale has been an exercise in patience, the idea of recapturing the essence of why I wanted to become a photographer in the first place has been more than enough to make the headaches worthwhile.

In the words of Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong.” Here’s to not belonging.

Production of this project will start in March, 2015. We will start releasing preproduction material in the next few weeks, as well as launch the official project web site. Stay tuned.

– LF. Phnom Penh, 2015.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , |

2014: A Year in Pictures

Starting with a string of violence and protests in Cambodia, 2014 saw me cover topics ranging from the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda) in the Philippines, to drug addiction in Nepal, to the environmental future of Cambodia’s Lake Tonle Sap.

The following images offer a visual timeline of my year, and looking back on it, it was a busy year indeed.

Happy holidays.

Luc

January 3, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Military police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors. After months of widespread public anti-government protesting, a violent crackdown saw at least four people killed and many more imprisoned.

January 3, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Military police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors. After months of widespread public anti-government protesting, a violent crackdown saw at least four people killed and many more imprisoned.

January 27, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A military police officer beats a Buddhist monk during a pro-freedom of speech demonstration. Crackdowns against anti-government protests continued throughout early 2014, ultimately culminating in the assimilation of the opposition party into the main body politic.

January 27, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A military police officer beats a Buddhist monk during a pro-freedom of speech demonstration. Crackdowns against anti-government protests continued throughout early 2014, ultimately culminating in the assimilation of the opposition party into the main body politic.

February 13, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - For the International New York Times. Mam Sonando celebrates his 72nd birthday (despite what the candles say), in his radio station complex. An outspoken advocate for freedom of speech, Sonando has been a thorn in the side of the incumbent government.

February 13, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia –  Mam Sonando celebrates his 72nd birthday (despite what the candles say), in his radio station complex. An outspoken advocate for freedom of speech, Sonando has been a thorn in the side of the incumbent government. © Luc Forsyth for the International New York Times.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines. Spectators place bets before an underground cock fighting tournament. Cock fighting is one of the most popular sports in the Philippines, with dedicated TV channels. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines. Spectators place bets before an underground cock fighting tournament. Cock fighting is one of the most popular sports in the Philippines, with dedicated TV channels. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines - The bloody hands of a gaffer, or cock fighting doctor. Gaffers act as veterinarians, tending to wounded fighting cocks. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines – The bloody hands of a gaffer, or cock fighting doctor. Gaffers act as veterinarians, tending to wounded fighting cocks. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - Young men play basketball in the shadow of a beached cargo ship. The force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda) drove several of these ships onto land, destroying the residential homes in their wake. Nearly six months later, they were still awaiting removal.

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – Young men play basketball in the shadow of a beached cargo ship. The force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda) drove several of these ships onto land, destroying the residential homes in their wake. Nearly six months later, they were still awaiting removal.

 

 

 

April 18, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - A family watches a re-enactment of Jesus on the cross during the easter holy week. Tacloban is still a state of recovery after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 18, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – A family watches a re-enactment of Jesus on the cross during the easter holy week. Tacloban is still a state of recovery after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - Men sit along the seawall in barangay 68. Colloquially named Yolonda village by locals, the residential neighbourhood was one of the worst impacted by the force of the storm.

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – Men sit along the seawall in barangay 68. Colloquially named Yolonda village by locals, the residential neighbourhood was one of the worst impacted by the force of the storm.

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - A young boy walks through a residential neighbourhood in Tacloban, littered with debris forced ashore by the force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – A young boy walks through a residential neighbourhood in Tacloban, littered with debris forced ashore by the force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - Girls play in the destroyed shell of a home in Tacloban's barangay 68.

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – Girls play in the destroyed shell of a home in Tacloban’s barangay 68.

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - The coastline of Tacloban, still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – The coastline of Tacloban, still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - A young by heads into an illegal mineshaft where he works ten hours per day hauling unprocessed ore to the surface. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – A young by heads into an illegal mineshaft where he works ten hours per day hauling unprocessed ore to the surface. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - A young gold miner loads a bag with raw ore to be carried to the surface. The miners work in near total darkness, and earn a few dollars per day depending on the amount of gold they find. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – A young gold miner loads a bag with raw ore to be carried to the surface. The miners work in near total darkness, and earn a few dollars per day depending on the amount of gold they find. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 23, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - Workers crush raw ore into dust before carrying it to a refining station near their illegal mine shaft. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 23, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – Workers crush raw ore into dust before carrying it to a refining station near their illegal mine shaft. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - Miners give each other haircuts during their midday break from the tunnels. Heavy smokers to the man, a team of six miners will go through up to six hundred cigarettes in a day's work. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – Miners give each other haircuts during their midday break from the tunnels. Heavy smokers to the man, a team of six miners will go through up to six hundred cigarettes in a day’s work. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

May 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A construction worker welds a fence as night falls on Koh Pich (Diamond Island). The island is home to massive development projects, and is planned as a future centre of luxury for Phnom Penh's elite. © Luc Forsyth for the New York Times.

May 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A construction worker welds a fence as night falls on Koh Pich (Diamond Island). The island is home to massive development projects, and is planned as a future centre of luxury for Phnom Penh’s elite. © Luc Forsyth for the New York Times.

May 8, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Residents of a floating village on Cambodia's lake Tonle Sap relax after a day's work. Part of a story funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting about the dangerous future of this important southeast Asian waterway. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 8, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Residents of a floating village on Cambodia’s lake Tonle Sap relax after a day’s work. Part of a story funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting about the dangerous future of this important southeast Asian waterway. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 8, 2014 - Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Fishermen bring their boats into shore at the end of a day's fishing. The Tonle Sap lake is known as "Cambodia's beating heart", and is the source of food and income for millions of Cambodians. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 8, 2014 – Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Fishermen bring their boats into shore at the end of a day’s fishing. The Tonle Sap lake is known as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, and is the source of food and income for millions of Cambodians. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 9, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Fishermen unload their day's catch for transport to local markets. As fish stocks dwindle due to over fishing and industrial development, fishermen report significant loss of income. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 9, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Fishermen unload their day’s catch for transport to local markets. As fish stocks dwindle due to over fishing and industrial development, fishermen report significant loss of income. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 10, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Workers sit on a pipe as sand is pumped into Lake Tumpun. The lake was once a major centre of agriculture, but the land reclamation undertaken by private development companies has displaced many of their farms. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 10, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Workers sit on a pipe as sand is pumped into Lake Tumpun. The lake was once a major centre of agriculture, but the land reclamation undertaken by private development companies has displaced many of their farms. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal - Balloon sellers on the streets of Jawalakhel.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal – Balloon sellers on the streets of Jawalakhel.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal - Cotton candy vendors sell their wares at a religious festival.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal – Cotton candy vendors sell their wares at a religious festival.

June 22, 2014 - Kathmandu, Nepal. A mounted police officer tries to control crowds in Jawalakhel.

June 22, 2014 – Kathmandu, Nepal. A mounted police officer tries to control crowds in Jawalakhel.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A rice farmer stands in front of his field as harvesting season begins in Cambodia. ©Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A rice farmer stands in front of his field as planting season begins in Cambodia. ©Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Rice farmers work to fill in areas of their rice fields where the plants have died. As harvesting season begins, it is essential that the farmers maximize the productivity of their land. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Rice farmers work to fill in areas of their rice fields where the plants have died. As planting season begins, it is essential that the farmers maximize the productivity of their land. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Workers unload sacks of milled rice in a warehouse of one of Cambodia's largest rice exporting companies. Traditionally not known for producing high quality rice, Cambodia has been trying to get a foothold in international markets in recent years. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Workers unload sacks of milled rice in a warehouse of one of Cambodia’s largest rice exporting companies. Traditionally not known for producing high quality rice, Cambodia has been trying to get a foothold in international markets in recent years. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Fishermen wait to head out into Lake Tonle Sap to start the day's fishing. Part of a long term project documenting the health of southeast Asia's waterways. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Fishermen wait to head out into Lake Tonle Sap to start the day’s fishing. Part of a long term project documenting the health of southeast Asia’s waterways. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Workers load basket fulls of snails caught in Lake Tonle Sap. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Workers load basket fulls of snails caught in Lake Tonle Sap. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014, Kampong Luong, Cambodia - An ice factory worker fills rectangular moulds which will be frozen and sold as full blocks of ice. Lacking modern refrigerators, ice is an essential means of food preservation for water-dwelling Cambodians. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014, Kampong Luong, Cambodia – An ice factory worker fills rectangular moulds which will be frozen and sold as full blocks of ice. Lacking modern refrigerators, ice is an essential means of food preservation for water-dwelling Cambodians. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 11, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - A worker shreds a block of ice into manageable pieces. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 11, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – A worker shreds a block of ice into manageable pieces. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

September 13, 2014 - A caged monkey struggles to wrest a piece of fruit from the hands of his owner. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

September 13, 2014 – A caged monkey struggles to wrest a piece of fruit from the hands of his owner. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 14, 2014. Tae Pi, Cambodia - A flower vendor stops in the remote riverside village of Tae Pi. The flowers will be cooked an eaten, and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 14, 2014. Tae Pi, Cambodia – A flower vendor stops in the remote riverside village of Tae Pi. The flowers will be cooked and eaten, and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The annual water festival, celebrating the reversal of the Tonle Sap River's current, returns to Cambodia after a three year hiatus. The last time the festival was held, in 2010, a tragic stampede killed hundreds and led to the event's cancellation. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The annual water festival, celebrating the reversal of the Tonle Sap River’s current, returns to Cambodia after a three year hiatus. The last time the festival was held, in 2010, a tragic stampede killed hundreds and led to the event’s cancellation. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Racing boat teams start practice runs before the day's races start. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Racing boat teams start practice runs before the day’s races start. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Children play in front of the royal palace at sunset after the day's boat races have finished. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Children play in front of the royal palace at sunset after the day’s boat races have finished. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 20, 2014. Nepal - An elderly woman poses with her pug dog in a remote mountain village in the Western Region of Nepal. Part of a project documenting maternal health projects for the United Nations Population Fund.

November 20, 2014. Nepal – An elderly woman poses with her pug dog in the remote mountain village of Khiljee in the Western Region of Nepal. Part of a project documenting maternal health projects for the United Nations Population Fund.

November 20, 2014. Nepal - A man smokes a cigarette in front of his home. Taken while on assignment for the United Nations Population fund on a project documenting maternal health issues in Nepal, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

November 20, 2014. Nepal – A man smokes a cigarette in front of his home in Khiljee. Taken while on assignment for the United Nations Population fund on a project documenting maternal health issues in Nepal, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Nepal, Philippines, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Water Festival Returns to Cambodia

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River – an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture.

After a three year hiatus Bon Om Touk, or the Cambodian Water Festival, returned to the Kingdom last week. Meant to mark the the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river – and the associated fishing and agricultural fertility that brings – the festival is one of the biggest holidays in Cambodia. Over three days of races, long boat crews from all over Cambodia converge on the capital, seeking to win honour (and hopefully a piece of the prize money) for their home towns.

Despite the historical and cultural importance of the festival, the tragic stampede incident in 2010, which saw roughly 250 dead and 750 injured led to the suspension of the event for three years – though strong arguments could be made that the government, fearing large gatherings of people during the past year of civil unrest, had ulterior motives for cancelling last year’s celebration.

Political agendas aside, it was clear from the lower-than-normal turnout that the memories of 2010 have had a stigmatic effect. In past years the estimated number of attendees was somewhere close to two million, whereas this year – despite having very little in the way of official census information – it was widely agreed that not even one million were present. Fear of a repeat disaster, it would seem, has tarnished the festival’s popularity.

Diminished crowds aside, the festival is still one of the most significant events in the Cambodian calendar year, and worth checking out if you’re in Phnom Penh at the right time.

A boat crew dances on the first morning of the water festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew dances in the early morning of the first day of the annual Cambodian water festival, 2014. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Many event spectators have come from distant regions of Cambodia, and camp along the river banks for the duration of the festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A man watches the early morning practice sessions from his hammock. With such an influx of spectators, many of whom have come from the countryside to support their local racing team, parts of the east bank of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh turned into an informal campground.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew move aboard their racing boat in the early morning, warming up before the first of the day’s races. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews are roughly 50 strong, and around 250 boats participated in this year’s festival. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boats move down the Tonle Sap river. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

 

A racing boat crew warms up on the Tonle Sap river before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat from Kampong Chhnang passes under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh before going on to win its race.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Water Festival Returns To Cambodia For First Time Since 2010 Stampede Tragedy

Racing teams speed down the Tonle Sap river. With nearly 250 boats participating, the boats are often moving in very close proximity to each other.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap after having finished a race. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat moves past spectators after finishing their race.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day's races will be held. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day’s races will be held. VIPs, from the King to the Prime Minister, attended the races, often sponsoring teams of their own. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh's royal palace. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Though attendance numbers were much lower than in past years, the riverfront was still a buzz of activity.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh's royal palace.   Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river.   because of the river’s role in previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river after the day’s races have finished.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

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