Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Baking in Nuang U

When the sun beats down on the pagodas of Bagan, it's time to see shade. On my first trip I stayed inside the temples, but this time I was smart, or so I thought. I planned to spend the hot noon hours in a cool, air-conditioned internet cafe uploading photos and notes. The Myanmar government, seemingly aware of this situation, decided to thwart me by cutting power to the town every day during the daylight hours. So, instead of sitting in front of a computer, I was forced to explore Nuang U. I'm glad it worked out that way.

The town is not particularly big, but being stretched out along two main roads, it takes quite a while to explore. The buildings, like so many in Myanmar, have a dusty pastel color. Most of the structures were built since the 1980's and the older ones suffer from obvious structural defects (like massive cracks in their foundations). The trees themselves are heavy with dust in the dry season.
The market, at the intersection of the two main roads, is the town hub.

After a couple days in Bagan, I fell into a routine: watch the sunrise over the pagodas, then back to the guest house for a leisurely breakfast on their rooftop restaurant. While not one for routine, I really appreciated the hot omelet breakfast. What's more, I delighted in the opportunity to have the kitchen staff sample the English tea I brought along. Unfortunately, they were not quite as excited by the experience as I'd hoped, but the effort was certainly appreciated. I'd then take to the street, being careful to stay in the shade. A two-liter bottle of water would get me through the morning, but inevitably, I'd end up buying another in the afternoon. Dry season is so named for good reason.

From a tourisitic perspective, Nuang U has few distractions beyond the market and restaurants. There are some interesting shops, and some of them are also workshops.

My favorite was a lacquer shop at the end of town. The front is a typical tourist shop with rows of shelves stocked with crafts, but head to the back yard and you can see the wares being created. The workshop employs at least a dozen people mixing lacquer, weaving bamboo into baskets or boxes, etching designs and applying finishes to a wide selection of products. They sit in the shade on bamboo mats or low wooden stools, painstakingly applying their trade. Even having a stranger photographing them didn't distract them from their tasks. They were so intent that I didn't want to disturb them with questions. The youngest work on projects that require little skill, like mixing the lacquer. As their skills progress, they learn to make the boxes and baskets then how to decorate them, the most detailed work.

Up at the northern end of town is something referred to as the port or the dock or the terminal. What it really is a riverbank where boats stop. I never saw any proper port facilities outside of Yangon, so it was very nearly state of the art. This area has a few restaurants with nice views of the river, however. It's a comfortable place to while away the afternoon drinking gin or beer. It's also a good place to watch sports on TV as at least one of the bars usually has a generator going. My attention was drawn to the boats. Now, I know that the British scuttled every boat they could find before abandoning the country to the invading Japanese, so I knew that there were almost no boats older than 1945. It was interesting to see that boats arriving after the war were fitted out as steam boats. Note the short smokestack. Although now converted to diesel, once upon a time, these boats operated with coal or wood.

Further downriver, I had another surprise, an honest-to-god paddle wheeler! Much to my disappointment, it was no longer in operation, but I did get a tour of the ship. An old fellow, who might well have grown up working on the vessel, showed me the paddles and the boiler. I wandered around on the huge boat for some time, wondering what it was like when it first plied the river. I made note of the registry, it was built by Yarrow and Company in Glasgow. A bit of research revealed that it was one of three ships. Accoring to the Clydebuilt database, it was either the Minlat, the Mingalay or the Minthamee. These three ships were built by the Yarrow yard and sent to Burma in 1947. I'm sorry I could not find the exact name, it would have been nice to update the database accordingly.

A lot of people travel to and from Nuang U by boat. This is a particularly good choice for tourists going between here and Mandalay. Life on the river is picturesque. While there are daily flights to the town, most people go by land transportation. That would either be by rickety old bus or by simply loading into the back of a truck. Whatever works!

Nuang U gets a lot of tourists, but the kids are still fascinated by foreigners and are more than happy to pose for a photo.

The local school was always a good place to find interesting compositions. Every morning, the kids line up for role-call and announcements before going to class. Sometimes they perform synchronized calisthenics.

One morning, walking past, I saw a man leading his daughter from the school grounds. She was dressed in an elaborate dance costume with hair and makeup done and lots of jewelery. Neither father nor daughter could speak English so I was unable to ascertain the purpose of her costume. I could see no other children thus garbed and could only surmise that she was on her way to an event of some sort. Her dad encouraged her to demonstrate her dance skill. It wasn't until the next day that I figured out what was going on.

One of the features of life in Myanmar is a tiny truck with one or more over-sized megaphones mounted on top. These roll through the streets and blare out announcements of some sort. Even if I could understand Burmese, I doubt I could understand the message it's so badly distorted. So, when I heard one of the trucks, I didn't pay any attention. I did note, however, that everyone else was. That was very unusual. I headed out to the street to see a small convoy of trucks moving slowly down the street. These carried any number of children dressed in the fanciest costume, many with money pinned to their attire. Now I knew why the girl I met the day before was dressed up. She was undoubtedly part of whatever celebration was taking place.

The truck would stop every so often and music would issue forth from the speakers. The kids would then perform a dance routine on the back of the truck.

Some trucks carried what could only be described as little beauty queens. Their parents either road in back with them or walked alongside administering water to the kids as needed.

It took the better part of an hour for the procession to move down the street. Traffic, meanwhile, backed up behind them. Fortunately, the parade gave them room to pass.

There is an enormous pagoda complex just outside of town. In fact, only Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda tops it. There are two rather dramatic entrances to the site; through covered passageways.

Unfortunately, one is expected to walk barefoot and I was not eager to remove my boots just yet. I elected to walk along the outside of the corridor. Up ahead, I spotted a few women talking among themselves. I thought nothing of it until they spotted me and started heading my way. It soon became apparent that they were all souvenir vendors. They each wanted to give me a gift, but I declined saying I had no gift to give in return. I knew exactly what they were up to; if they give me a trinket, I would be expected to give them money in return. The gifts they were offering were butterflies: three tiny pieces of thin painted cardboard, cut to a butterfly shape, wired to a safety pin. I kept refusing the gift and they kept insisting I accept and that they didn't want a gift in return. I finally agreed and they pinned the trinkets to my shirt. "OK," I told them, "I know a gift I can give you." I paused for dramatic effect. "I will give you each a kiss!" They laughed at this and waved their hands in reproach. I, meanwhile, was digging around in my bag and pulled out four hard candies. They were wrapped in plastic with the word "Kiss" printed above a set of lips. I handed them each a kiss and was rewarded with laughs.

The golden pagoda is stunning under a mid day sun.

Although my main reason for being in Nuang U was to use the town as a rest spot between trips to the plain of Bagan, I found plenty to keep me occupied, amused and fascinated.

See more photos here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Field test: ThinkTank belt system

After years of hauling around a compartmentalized bag, I was determined to get something with a slimmer profile: a courier style bag. Unfortunately I could not find one that held my full-frame camera with three lenses and flash. A fellow photographer introduced me to the ThinkTank line a year ago. While I could not find a single bag that met my requirements, I was able to build my own using their modular system that used smaller bags attached to a belt. After several weeks of testing, I can recommend the system with some reservations.

The Belt

The foundation of the system is a belt. I chose the thickly padded Steroid Speed Belt because I needed to carry a lot of weight. The first problem I encountered was the size of the belt. The large size was too small for my ample waist. Oddly enough, the extra large size was too large (I had to cinch it up as much as possible). Large is listed as 35" to 41" but that, apparently, only holds is you're shooting naked. Add a pair of pants and a shirt to a size 38 waist and you're now a size 42.

This necessitated a shoulder harness to support the belt. I recommend using a harness anyway as the belt is liable to slip if you attach much weight to it.

The second complaint I have about the belt is the poor cinching mechanism. The clasp is a fairly standard quick release mechanism, but the tightening system is inadequate. To tighten the belt of my hiking backpack, for example, I simply pull the strap (loosening it is a simple matter of tugging the buckle). The ThinkTank belt, however, requires threading the strap through the buckle and clasp to tighten or loosen it. If you put on a jacket, expect to spend five to ten minutes adjusting the belt (instead of five to ten seconds).

The padded belt is equipped with a semi-rigid exterior strip to which attaches pockets or small bags (how many depends on the size of the belt and the bags). The selection of bags is formidable. I chose four different bags for my needs. All four came with waterproof covers. I am disappointed that the bags are not already waterproof but this is likely a design consideration given the different methods for closing the bags.

To keep the belt from slipping, I attached the Pixel Racing Harness. This has two thinly padded shoulder straps that join to form a single strap at the back. The padding is not really required as it supports very little weight. The two straps at the front are equipped with D rings and two small elastic pockets.

The Bags

I chose the Digital Holster 30 as my main camera compartment. It's just large enough to hold a Canon 5D with a long lens. In fact, it can handle a very long lens as the bag has a zippered extension system to increase it's depth. It is actually deep enough without the extension that I was able to keep two filters at the bottom. The bag's thin, closed-cell, padding protects the camera from bumps and jars. It includes a Velcro divider for the interior should you have a smaller lens. The bag also has a long, slim interior pocket and a smaller exterior pocket (ideal for holding media cards).
The zippered lid opens away from your body and has a small translucent pocket on top for an ID card and a larger zipped pocket on the inside (large enough to hold a passport). This bag is a good stand-alone solution for minimum requirements as it comes with a detachable shoulder strap.

While the holster sits on my left hip, the Skin 75 Pop Down holds my medium telephoto on my right hip. This is an unpadded sack with a very long flap top held in place by a generous amount of Velcro. The opening is equipped with an elastic draw string that easily keeps large items from falling out. The sack has an ample zipped pocket on the exterior flap and a large pocket between the flap and bag exterior (large enough to hold a case for sunglasses). At the very bottom of the bag is a small zippered compartment.

Although ThinkTank makes bags specifically for lenses (the Lens Changer line), I had trouble getting my extra-wide lens in and out of the bag easily. I was determined to leave the hood on the lens and this made it too wide. The Skin 75 is very flexible; its large opening accomades my wide lens and it's deep enough to hold even my long telephoto.

I used a Lens Changer bag for my long telephoto lens. The LC 75 Pop Down bag is made with closed-cell padding and has an elastic draw string to keep the lens inside (a fabric flap helps keep out the dust) . The exterior of the bag includes two mesh pockets. Like the holster, the Lens Changer 75 include the ability to extend the length of the bag. Attached to the belt, the bag sits over my back right pocket.

My flash and other accessories go into the Slim Chimp Cage next to the holster bag. This sack is simply a wider version of the Slim 75 Pop Down – which make me wonder why they didn't name it the Wide 75 Pop Down. The bag holds a surprising amount of stuff.

The System In Action

Wearing the complete setup is a delight. With the twenty-five pounds of camera equipment resting on my hips instead of my shoulders, I was able to comfortably spend a full day walking around and shooting without the usual fatigue. The system, I should note, is very ostentatious; don't expect to walk around unnoticed while wearing it. In addition to its vaguely military appearance, your arms don't hang at your side but against the bags.

Picture a cowboy in a showdown in an old western – your arms sort of look like that. The gear bags add six to ten inches to your width so you'll have to turn sideways to get through crowds and other tight spots.

Changing lenses is fast. With the camera around my neck, I could remove the lens and put it into a sack while pulling out and attaching the next lens. It became so second nature that I was able to perform this task in less than ten seconds (while walking through a busy market).

I did not use the system for excursions, but as my main camera bag for three months of extensive shooting. With the bags properly organized and closed, there was no fear of any items falling out. Going shooting meant sliding into the harness and closing the belt.

Occasionally I left the belt unclasped and let the harness carry the weight on my shoulders. I found this balanced the load and was much more comfortable than a single bag on one shoulder. Furthermore, because the harness was supporting weight at the front of my body, it proved to be even more comfortable than a standard backpack.

Holding it from the harness, I found that the belt coiled neatly when I set it down. This kept the kit tidy and easy to put on when I was ready for shooting. The harness was also an excellent way of keeping the bags off the ground by hooking it on a convenient protuberance. While it hung this way, I was able to access all the bags with no difficulty.

Traveling with a tripod turned out to be easier than I had imagined. After some weeks of carrying it in my hands, I discovered that I could carry it on the system with no difficulty. I slid two legs of the tripod between my back and the rear strap. The weight rested on the belt and closing the leg held the tripod in place. This is a viable solution for small or light tripods.

Apart from the excellent design, I appreciate the effort ThinkTank has put into the details. Unobtrusive pockets, cords on every zipper, expandable bags and other details help to make this a flexible system. Apart from issues with the belt, I found no complaints when using this system and have no qualms about recommending it to a serious shooter on the go.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bangkok Movie Theater

I like movies. I don't see a lot of movies, but I manage to get out to the theater to watch big screen movies whenever something appeals to me. I get the impression that Hollywood doesn't really want me to go to the movies, though. The ticket price is on the expensive side, the concession stand snacks are outrageously expensive, the seats are mostly adequate and finally, we are subjected to at least half a dozen commercials (which we've already seen on TV) before we even see the previews. While I appreciate the effort of using the Imax screens for blockbuster films, that is as innovative as they get ... at least in North America.

Going to the movies in Bangkok can be a wondrous experience. The past several years have seen the introduction of some impressive movie theaters in the city. Going to a movie in one of the high-end malls is a real experience. The lobby, for starters, is a great place to explore. In addition to the numerous screens showing previews of current films and coming events, various merchants from the mall and brand vendors have booths set up with special discounts and promotions. Show your ticket to a particular movie, for example, and you get a chance to win an instant prize or a discount to something related to the film.

In addition to drawing the entertainment seeking crowd for movies, the theaters have figured out that their venues can be used for other media events as well. While American theaters nobly experimented with such things as live broadcasts of opera and wrestling, in Bangkok the theaters use their spacious lobbies to host media events. One evening I witnessed the tail end of a presentation that included a number of Thai celebrities.

Walking up to what I thought was an information booth, in one establishment, turned out to be a concierge booth. I wasn't quite sure what their role was, but the fact that they had one implied that this theater is actually thinking about how to serve their customers, not just get money from them. There are typically two different lines to get a ticket. The regular line is manned by three or four ticket sellers while a red carpet line is dedicated to frequent movie-goes holding a special pass. Buying a ticket is not a simple matter of handing over your money and getting a receipt. The ticket seller uses a screen to show you a schematic of the theater so you can pick out the seat you want! No more rushing to find a good seat. You can take your time - which means you'll probably visit the concession stand.

Now, the snacks might be my only complaint about the Bangkok movie-going experience because Thais are not into popcorn quite as much as North Americans (which is probably a good thing). However, if you get to the cinema early enough, you can enjoy a quick meal at the restaurant inside the complex. The restaurant is not a last minute idea, but a tasteful, modern design.

The very best part of the experience is the fact that you have more choice when going to the movies. The regular theater has comfortable seats, but spend a few bucks more and you have an option to choose from a limited number of reclining seats, complete with leg rest, or even a love seat. It gets better. You have the option of picking a premium theater.

Instead of waiting in the regular lobby, there is a plush waiting room at the entrance of each of the movies for the premium ticket holders. Some even provide a complimentary beverage and snack. When the theater has been cleaned from the previous showing, an attendant ushers everyone inside at a leisurely pace.

If the lobbies are not incentive enough, these premium theaters have even more seating options. Rather than a reclining chair, you have the option of a reclining love seat (red), a cushioned day bed that holds up to four people (gray), or even bean bag chairs! Each option, of course, has a separate price.

No sticky cement floors in this place, they actually go out of their way to lay a very artistic carpet. Need a drink refill while watching the film? Just get the attention of the attendant and someone will run out to the concession stand so you don't have to miss a thing.

While the audience is still subjected to two or three commercials before the film, they're not the typical TV commercials. They're designed for the big screen and are usually entertaining even without understanding the language.

While Hollywood demands that we hand over money for the privilege of watching whatever they've churned out lately, the Bangkok establishments recognize that going to the movies is a social event and have worked hard to make that experience a pleasant one ... regardless of the quality of the film.

See larger versions of the images here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Myanmar Dinner Theater

My guidebook described Karaweik palace as a garish tourist attraction, so I didn't plan to visit. Curiously enough, in all my travels I had met no one who had gone. Finding myself hungry one afternoon, I decided to take a chance on the place. The taxi dropped me off at the entrance to the park where the two great golden ducks sat on the lake facing the setting sun. I was stopped at the gate and told that I must pay a nominal fee (about two USD) to enter the park. "But I'm going to the restaurant," I pleaded. I was trying to figure out if this was a tourist tax because I could not imagine the locals strolling through park paying such a hefty sum (yes, two dollars is comparable to ten dollars in Myanmar). The girl got on the radio and spoke with someone. A moment later I was let through but had to wear a colored sticker. I noticed that other people were also wearing them, but theirs had different colors. I could not figure out what the color signified.

I made my way to the duck's butt - yeah, that's the entrance - and was stopped again. I learned that the restaurant didn't open for almost an hour. I was starving by this time, but had no choice but to wait. Of course that gave me an opportunity to wander around the park. The place was chock full of little outdoor restaurants. It was tempting to eat at one of these places because they all looked so inviting. I had to contend myself with a beer while watching the sun drop over the horizon. I did note, however, that there were very few visitors and the restaurants were all but empty. Perhaps more people arrived after sunset? I wasn't sure.

After the sun had set, I made my way back to the restaurant and was greeted by two hostesses dressed in splendid white garb. One took me along the ramp to the entrance proper. The place was as opulent (or garish, if you will) inside as outside. The hall had a royal appearance to it with walls decorated in red and gold and trimmed with elaborate carvings. Careful examination, however, revealed that the facade was somewhat faded. This was, after all, a tourist attraction, not a regal building.

I was seated three tables from the stage. The only other dinners were two couples at a table some distance away. I was a bit worried that I had arrived much too early to see the show, but my gracious host assured me that the performance would soon begin. Within moments the musicians started to appear behind the thin fabric screen on the stage. Meanwhile, I escorted to the buffet table where I choose a number of Asian dishes and a few European choices (I had not had macaroni and cheese in a long, long time). Back at my table, I confirmed that the food was not particularly good, but well worth the price of the show.

I noticed one of the waitresses held something behind he back. I couldn't quite make out what it was and why she was trying to hide it. Then, without warning, she revealed the plastic paddle device by waving it in the air a moment then hiding it again. I was baffled. As I ate, I watched again as she waved what looked like a small tennis
racquet in the air and hid it once more. On the third go, I figured out what was going on. I'd seen that tennis racquet in the street market but didn't make the connection with the mosquito on the package cover. It was a mosquito racquet. As soon as she saw one of the little beasts flying indoors, she smacked the bug with the wire mesh. The electrified mesh zaps the mosquito. Once I was clued in, I started looking for the bugs myself and directing her attention to them. It became a game to see who would spot the mosquito first. She won, of course.

The first performer came on stage. She wore a dress that was entirely too long as it trailed out a good two feet behind her. She stood on a dais and began to dance. The hand and body movements were very similar to the dances I saw in Thailand and Cambodia.

The extra-long dress was a common trait among many of the women on stage that evening. In fact, the dance would often include a back kicking motion to free the long hem from their feet, enabling them to move sideways. Very peculiar.

What Myanmar has that the other countries do not, is puppetry. Thai markets are full of Burmese puppets but you are unlikely to find a puppet show anywhere East of Myanmar. I had tried to attend such a show in Mandalay and in Inle Lake, but couldn't make it. So, I was very pleased to see a marionette theatre being rolled onto the stage.

The fellow did a very good job making the little clown dance. What I found very interesting, however, was the coordinated performance of a girl dressed in a clown costume attempting to mimic the motions of the puppet. She too, did a very good job!

As the show began, a few more people arrived at the restaurant and filled a few more tables. One group appeared to be a contingent of a dozen Japanese and Burmese business people around a few tables pushed together. The two tables in front of me were still empty but had "Reserved" signs on them. The business people tended to ignore the performance as they talked among themselves.

No traditional dance performance is complete without at least one love story. I lost track of how many love story dances there were that night, but there were quite a few - including another puppet plus live dancer performance.

Notice the costume and makeup of the men? Not exactly masculine, is it? This is an interesting characteristic about the culture. In many of the artworks and traditions, men of note seem to be, how do I put this, a bit over done. Thai period movies show the Burmese leaders resplendent in jeweled earrings, gold rings on their fingers and excessive eyeliner. I had suspected that this was a way to belittle the Siamese's ancient nemesis, but it is not so. A good deal of the Burmese art show this very trait. Their religious deities, the Nats, are quite feminine as well. I much preferred the attire of the women. Note the extra long hem on the woman above. The traditional outfits, below, maintain a conservative hemline, but one which is not as restrictive.

Half way through the show, two couples took over the tables in front of mine. I couldn't help wonder where they had been, seeing as how they missed half the acts. One couple were very well dressed and the other appeared as if they had just returned from an elephant safari. The business people, having finished their meal, were now paying attention to the performers on stage. A quick count revealed that there were more people on stage than in the audience. I counted up how much the restaurant would make that evening. It was a wonder they could keep the restaurant afloat ... so to speak. I vowed to leave a generous tip.

There was a bit of commotion at one point. The business people were looking down the great hall. At the entrance was a decoupage elephant. It shambled its way to the stage and climbed up. The two men inside then performed a ritual dance with a spear man battling the great pachyderm. As the elephant left the stage, with a bit of acrobatics, the diners began attaching money to its trunk. Whether this was a tip or just for good luck, I put a few bills in as well.

I finally gave in to the drink waiter and ordered a local whisky. I had to have him repeat the price to me a few times. A shot of whisky cost about fifty cents. It wasn't great whisky, but it was good enough. It's a good thing I didn't visit during my college days. It's hard to imagine going on a bender for ten bucks.

At the end of the show, the diners all filed out. I was expecting the performers to appear one more time on stage for a curtain call, but no such luck. I had wanted to meet some of them, but the curtain was closed tight. I had one of the hostesses give me a tour of the rest of the building. As big as it is on the outside, it's much smaller on the inside. I was hoping there were numerous private rooms for catered parties, but the only such room was little more than a storage space set above the dining halls below. I did get a nice shot of the front of the restaurant, though.

Back in the park, I saw Shwedagon again. That building is magnificent in day or night, but the reflections of the lights on the calm lake made it extra special.

As I was shooting the pagoda, a family passed behind me. It was apparent that they were talking about me. So, I was not surprised when one of the kids came up and said hello. This was the typical English practice conversation I had run into in other countries and I always enjoy the experience. The kids were quite good speakers while the parents obviously struggled to keep up. They left but came back a few minutes later to talk some more. With their parents' urging, they actually invited me to their home. Unfortunately, it was too late to visit that evening and I was leaving the next day. It would have been terrific to have visited with them, but I had to suffice with a group photo.

Larger images from the restaurant can be seen here.