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|| News Item: Posted 2013-07-06

From Phoenix to Thailand

By Jack Kurtz

Photo by Jack Kurtz

Photo by Jack Kurtz

A girl on a beach in southern Thailand.
June 1 marked the first anniversary of my “unemployment.” I celebrated the day by drinking a cold Singha beer and enjoying a big bowl of kway tiao reua (boat noodles) at a sidewalk food stand in my Bangkok neighborhood.

I grew up in Bangkok and in some ways I never really left. I’ve been traveling back and forth between Bangkok and Phoenix for the last six years or so. Whenever I had a few weeks off from the Arizona Republic, I would fly out here to work on stories that interested me. When my position at the Republic was restructured in 2012 and I left the paper, moving to Bangkok made more sense than commuting to Bangkok.

One question I heard a lot when I was in the States, from coworkers, friends and family was, “Why Thailand?”

My response was always: “Why not?”

I grew up in Thailand, I have nothing but fond memories of Bangkok and the Thais.

Thailand is still a relatively inexpensive country in which to live. The infrastructure is great here. The location can’t be beat. Thailand’s role as a regional hub means it’s very easy to get to Cambodia, Laos or almost anywhere else.

I considered Laos and Cambodia but neither country has the infrastructure Thailand has (and it’s much harder to get a long stay visa for Laos). I considered Vietnam but Thailand appeals to me in an indefinable way that Vietnam doesn’t. I considered Singapore but it’s way too expensive and too rigid for my tastes (there’s a certain rawness and state of chaos in Bangkok that’s missing in Singapore, but I do go to Singapore when I need a dose of “normality”).

Finally, the stories I want to work on all have strong connections to Thailand.

During my newspaper career, I worked on stories about human migration at almost every paper at which I worked. Most of the stories were about Latin American immigrants coming to the US, but I’ve also reported on Guatemalan and other Central American immigrants coming to Mexico.
Thailand, because it has a very large and diverse economy, faces many of the same issues with immigration that the United States does.

People from Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Cambodia come to Thailand looking for work. Just as American employers hire undocumented workers, who are paid less than legal workers, Thai employers hire undocumented workers and pay them less than they pay Thai workers.
The rhetoric used in Thailand even matches the rhetoric you hear in the U.S.

At a factory in Mae Sot, Thailand, where 100% of the workers were undocumented Burmese, a factory owner patiently explained to me that he couldn’t hire Thais because they wouldn’t do “this kind” of work (tedious and repetitive manual labor) any more. On a corn farm south of Mae Sot, a Burmese laborer laughed at the thought that Thais would do farm work, he said (through a translator), “A Thai do this? They’re too lazy to do this now. They want to work in air conditioned offices in Bangkok.”

Conversely, Thais told me they objected to the presence of Burmese workers because they thought the Burmese workers took Thai jobs and “brought crime and disease.”

What struck me was that the rhetoric was exactly the same in Thailand as it is in the US. Swap out the nationalities and you could have American bosses talking about American workers, Latino farm workers talking about American laborers or nativist Americans talking about Latino immigrants.
During my newspaper career, I had to do an uncountable number of weather stories. (Who hasn’t?)

I thought that in most cases the stories lacked context and were to cover for a city desk that couldn’t plan.

I’ve been intrigued by climate change and I think it’s one of the issues that’s going to define how we move forward as a society. Thailand is on the front line of climate change; weather stories here matter.

Bangkok is threatened by rising sea levels, some ancient temples south of Bangkok are already underwater. Salt farmers south of Bangkok are seeing their harvest seasons shortened because it’s raining so much their fields never fully evaporate.

Upcountry, in Isan, farmers have to contend with more unpredictable weather every year. The water level of the Mekong River fluctuates wildly, dry season lows are lower every year while rainy season flooding gets worse every year. The unpredictable weather is pushing people off the farm and into large cities like Bangkok.

Finally, I thought that during my downtime with the immigration and climate change stories I could work on stories about rapid urbanization in Southeast Asia (which is directly tied to both immigration and climate change), Thai politics and make softer travel feature photos.

From my prospective, as a recently laid off (or “retired”) newspaper photojournalist “of a certain age” moving to Bangkok made perfect sense.
Getting set up here was very easy. There’s a huge expatriate community and a large number of Thais ready to profit from them. I did some apartment hunting during my earlier visits and I knew what part of town I wanted to live in when I got here. I found a furnished place that included “high-speed” Internet for about $350 per month on my second day in town. (The “high speed” part of the internet connection was a bit misleading, although I’m sure it was high-speed in 1999.)

Bangkok is infamous for its traffic congestion and the infamy is warranted - it can take me 90 minutes to take a taxi the 11 kilometers from my apartment to the historic center of the city. But there are also very nice subway and light rail systems that scoot under or float over traffic, so getting around Bangkok proper is pretty easy.

Photo by Jack Kurtz

Photo by Jack Kurtz

A man lifts a side of pork out of a truck to deliver it to a butcher shop in Khlong Toey Market in Bangkok. Khlong Toey (also called Khlong Toei) Market is one of the largest "wet markets" in Thailand.
The food is amazing. One of the reasons my apartment is cheap is that there’s no kitchen - just a microwave. Even if I had a kitchen I wouldn’t use it.

Most of the street food stalls specialize in just one or two things (and street food is pretty much all I eat). There’s a food stall near my apartment that sells gai yang with som-tam (Thai barbecued chicken and papaya salad) for less than $3. I couldn’t make it home for that.

Another food stall near my apartment sells pad gra pow gai or moo (stir fried chicken or pork with basil and chilies) for $1.50 (yes, you read right, $1.50 US). I couldn’t make it at home for that. The beer I had with my kway tiao reua (boat noodles) to mark the anniversary of my unemployment cost more than twice what the noodles did ($2.70 for the beer, $1.20 for the noodles). It’s not the beer is expensive, it’s that most places have just one size, a sort of jumbo size bottle that’s twice the size of an American 12 oz can.

I go out to eat almost every day (I keep a couple of frozen Thai meals in my freezer for those days I can’t get out because I’m editing or writing). I don’t speak Thai. When I go to a new place, I just point at something that looks interesting, get an idea of what’s in it and order. I haven’t had a bad meal yet.

Working as a photojournalist here has been stunningly easy. In most cases it’s just a matter of showing up at something. (It obviously goes without saying that working as a reporter would be a lot more complicated because I don’t speak Thai and would have to use a fixer or translator for almost every story.) I do use a “fixer” or local assistant on some stories, but most of the time I work by myself.

I covered municipal elections in Bangkok earlier this year. One morning I went to an election rally for the candidate supported by the national ruling party and ended up photographing the Prime Minister while she walked around town campaigning for her candidate. I wasn’t in the “pool” or on a riser in the back of a venue. I walked down the streets with her and her entourage, about a meter away from her using my 24mm lens wishing I had something wider.

During a trip to southern Thailand, where the government is fighting a bitter insurgency against Muslim separatists, I wanted to go out with Thai soldiers. My local fixer and I went to a Thai army camp, talked to their commanding officer and was invited out with them. No PIO or flack, no “let us check with command.” Just a “hop in and if anything happens stay low.” (Nothing happened.)

During a trip to northern Thailand to work on a story about malaria, I went to a clinic in the jungle, workers showed me around their clinic and then said I was on my own to photograph whoever and whatever I wanted to.
Access like this on stories in the US is pretty much unheard of.

I got my layoff notice on Friday, June 1, 2012. I started working on a long stay Thai visa Monday, June 4 and moved to Thailand in September.
And while it may not be for everyone, it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done.

Economically it has been tough. There are a lot of photographers in Bangkok and the wire services have staffers here, so competition for assignments is fierce. I’ve had a few assignments, enough to keep me above water and I’ve branched out by teaching workshops. But I’ve never woken up in the morning and said to myself, “I wish I could go back to work today.”

I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been and enjoying my photography again. I used to stay up at night thinking about the stories I wanted to work on as a freelancer in Asia. Now I sleep at night, exhausted after a day of working on stories I care about.

Jack Kurtz was a newspaper photographer in the United States for 28 years, most recently at the Arizona Republic. He is available for assignments in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. His phone number (in Bangkok) is +66-8-8017-7172, his email is:, website:, blog: and Instagram feed:

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