Saturday, May 1, 2010

Phnom Penh

Arriving in the city at the bus station, I hopped aboard one of my favorite vehicles, the three-wheeled Phnom Penh cyclo. My goal was find an inexpensive guest house. I'd had such great luck at one particular place. It's on a side street behind a monastery and only a short walk from the main road along the river. What was, two years earlier, a hidden gem of a guest house, was now a bustling tourist hotel. I negotiated a reasonable rate and walked up the four flights to my room.

I didn't intend to spend more than a couple of days in the city. I'm rather fond of Phnom Penh, but only because I remember how run-down it was on my first visit in 2002. I'm a big fan of old and decrepit (which is a good thing as I'm personally destined to be both). Fortunately, the railroads have remained untouched for decades (which is also unfortunate because it's almost impossible to take a train trip anywhere).

Life on the other side of the river hasn't changed much. There are more houses, but the ramshackle buildings held up by bamboo poles still cling to the riverbank.

Driving along another side street, I saw a makeshift pavilion. Recorded music was being blasted out through public address speakers. It was not until I got close that I realized I'd stumbled upon a traditional wedding ceremony. Well, maybe it's not quite traditional because I have no idea what sort of traditions might have been supplanted by western ideology, but the jewelery and silks were most certainly Khmer.

I really wanted to hang around and see if I could get a formal pose of the bride and groom. However, they did have a young photographer shooting the wedding and another doing video and I didn't want to impose. Ideally, I would have assisted the fellow in getting good poses (I used to shoot weddings), but I was unable to explain to him my idea as his English was so poor.

One type of individual I can always count on for a good pose is the stone statue. There is a studio right on the street near the national museum. It's a great spot for pictures just after sun rise.

There is a large park near the Royal Palace. At sunset, many people gather here at the riverbank to buy food from the street vendors or buy offerings for the shrine there. It's also the time when the local semi-professional photographers try to get locals to buy a posed photo. I turned the table on these two gentlemen, insisting that I photograph them. They were most pleased to comply with my request.

Monks are always a popular subject. I chatted with these fellows for several minutes. They appreciated the opportunity to practice their English.

The next day, it was time to bid farewell to Cambodia. I had one more tour through the streets on my cyclo before boarding a bus to Vietnam.

See a few more photos here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kuang Si Waterfall

The main cascade is a good 50m high!
Walk to the outskirts of downtown Luang Prabang and you might find a little shop that rents motorbikes. Be sure to get one with a basket, though, it's much easier for carrying your picnic supplies (or camera gear). Next, get directions to Kuang Si waterfall ... or just "the waterfall," everyone knows which one you want to see.

Kuang Si is nearly thirty kilometers south of the city. It's not that hard to find as there are helpful signs along the way. If you're not sure of your directions, it's easy enough to follow one of the many tuk-tuks or little tour buses heading that way. Any vehicle packed with young Caucasians is heading to Kuang Si waterfall.

At the end of the road there is a large parking lot and many kiosks selling souvenirs and snacks. Walk up the hill and pay about a dollar for entrance to the site. A mud path leads through the underbrush beneath the huge trees. You'll walk over a few streams on your way to the first pool. It looks inviting, but keeping going up river.

You will pass half a dozen inviting cascades flowing into murky turquoise pools. The formations are the result of a high limestone content in the water. The mushy looking surface is actually hard rock. It's safe to walk through the water. In fact, the pools are terrific for swimming. Wear sandals though, because the riverbed has numerous rough rocks beneath the surface.
One of the beautiful cascades downstream from the main falls.

The travertine rocks make the falls look so gentle.
When you arrive at the main cascade, you'll recognize it immediately. It flows fifty meters down the hillside, in a series of falls, short and tall. On a breezy day, the wind kicks up a fine mist and blows it everywhere. At the bottom of the falls there are a number of vantage points to admire the cascade. The locals have provided short bridges and even picnic benches on which to relax and admire the view. My favorite view is to climb to the top.

The principle falls with tourists for scale.
The toughest route to the top is on the north-west (right hand) side. The path is not maintained and can be very slick from mist. Good footwear and steady footing is required to climb the steep path. The top is most rewarding, however. There are many shallow pools that converge to pour over the side of the cliff. The top is also a nice to place to explore if you want to wander through some untouched Laos jungle.

After walking through the pools on top of the cliff, going down the south-east side of the falls is a breeze. The locals have maintained the path with steps and even a couple of benches for resting. You can access some of the pools right on the cliff face, as well. Although signs strenuously advice against it, you can occasionally find daring Europeans going for a thrill swim near the precipice.

After exploring up and down the falls, I went for a swim at the bottom-most pool. Here, a tree extends out over a large, and reasonably deep, pool. It makes for an excellent diving platform. Someone took the trouble to tie a rope to one of the upper branches making a rope swing. This is where most of the tourists swim. It's a great spot to catch up on the news of the world with other backpackers ... or just take in the sights.

A rope swing adds incentive to go for a swim.

Swimming is not permitted in the sacred pool.
See more photos of the falls here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Morning Monks of Luang Prabang

Sometimes you want to sleep away the morning during your travels, but sometimes you simply must wake before the dawn and greet the sun. That's the photographer's life, but more so when in Luang Prabang. The ancient capital of Laos is the monastic heart of the country and every morning countless monks go through the streets collecting alms.

Shortly before sunrise, the monks gather at the courtyard of the various monasteries and temples as they prepare for their walk. The younger boys mill about, passing time making sure their fellows' robes are twisted and draped properly. The air is cool at that early hour, but they are all barefoot and uncomplaining.

On the street, meanwhile, individuals and small groups gather on the sidewalk. They roll mats on the pavement and kneel, or just bring along a low stool. With a basket of rice beside them, they await the arrival of the monks.

Back in the temple grounds, the monks line up in single file. On some signal I failed to witness every time I witnessed the event, the monks quickly walk from their gates to meet the waiting offerings. As they file past the locals, they open their begging bowls to receive a small portion of rice, barely a mouthful. While seemingly a meagre amount, the number of offerings soon grow. With tourists taking part in the offering ceremony, most monks are actually overburdened and pass much of their collected food to someone who distributes it to the needy.

The tourists certainly do get involved. The main rode is practically clogged with kneeling foreigners, traditional sticky-rice provided by their tour leaders. An army of photographers also greet the procession.

The tourists can hardly be blamed for their enthusiasm. There are some terrific photo opportunities here.

Although the most interesting background, the white wall, is on the main road, the side roads offer fewer crowds to get in the way.

Once they finish their tour through the town, the monks return to their monasteries. Within sight of their home, they visibly relax, no longer walking stiffly, but almost ambling the final few hundred paces to the gates. They finally break the silence of their march and begin to talk quietly but animatedly among themselves.

They have a bit of free tie prior to their morning studies. This is the best time to get photos of the young men. Many of them find a quiet spot to meditate before attending class. I surprised more than a few as I explored some of the areas around the various temples. Of course, it's not all seriousness for these fellows. I would often meet boys eager to practice their English skills. These make particularly good photo subjects because they're all too happy to pose.

A few years ago, I managed to get a nice shot of two monks in front of their temple. On the off chance I would run into one of them, I packed the photo with me. Sure enough, some of the monks at the monastery identified him and searched the buildings until they found him. He was a bit perplexed over the image. I wasn't sure if he'd ever seen himself photographed. When I finally made clear to him that the photo was for him to keep, he was quite pleased. I handed out a few more photos during my trip, but most of the people I sought could not be located.

With morning break over, the monks settle into the classrooms. The younger ones study, the elders and laity teach.

See plenty more photos of the monks of Luang Prabang here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Luang Prabang - Ancient Capital of the Kingdom

Luang Prabang is like no other city in South East Asia. Where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong, a sort of peninsula is formed. a tall hill dominates the skyline here. The town is centered at this spot, consisting of four main roads and numerous intersecting alleys. The architecture is a fusion of French provincial and traditional Asian style. The town is also home to numerous monasteries and temples. There are few vehicles in the city, but this will soon change as more and more tourists discover this location.

My bus pulled in shortly before sunset. That gave me little time to find a decent place to spend the night. I headed through the town center to the back alleys I had explored a few years earlier. The high-end hotels are located at the north-east part of town, but there are some equally expensive places squeezed between the other streets. I managed to find a place that served primarily as a tour group restaurant that had a couple of nice rooms in the back. I negotiated a reasonable rate and dumped my stuff. On the way out I met my immediate neighbors. A couple of guys sitting on the floor of their room playing cards. I always think of playing cards as something you do when you have absolutely nothing else to do. I could not understand how cards could hold more appeal than just standing on a street in Luang Prabang. I mean, you can play cards anywhere, any time, but you can only do Luang Prabang stuff right now.

The main drag, Sakkarine Rd., is one of my favorite for a stroll. It is lined with guest houses, temples, curious shops and restaurants. At night, a large portion of the road is cleared of traffic and a night market established. Here can be found some of my favorite silk scarves in all Asia. I did a quick tour of the place just to get familiar with what was being produced. It had the usual fabrics, t-shirts and knickknacks as well as some nice handicrafts and antiques.

The bank to the river is very steep. The townspeople manage to produce gardens in the rich muddy soil during the dry season. Enterprising restaurateurs build terraced seating on the top of the bank so dinners can enjoy the spectacular sunset every night. This is where I spent every supper hour.

I planned to spend a few days in the town, so I was no rush to get anything done. I did have a plan, though. Every morning was dedicated to following the monks, every evening exploring the market. Day times were mostly open, but I was determined to visit the local waterfalls. To this end I had to rent a motor bike. After a couple of days of exploring, I ran into trouble with the local constabulary.

I had just turned off the main road and took a side street to another road leading to another part of town. A small group of policemen had gathered at the intersection. I proceeded toward them with some suspicion. I could see no reason why they were gathered there. Bike inspection? They waved me over and I pulled up. Through waves and gesticulations, they alerted me to the fact that the road was one-way. Of course, there was no sign indicating that the road was one-way and I politely pointed out this fact. Furthermore, there were plenty of locals dashing up the road not fifty meters away. Would I be let off with a warning or was this a plain ol' shake-down? I brought up the camera to confirm my suspicion.

Yeah, they did not want proof of who was conducting freelance tourist assistance. I asked how much they wanted; twenty bucks. Aside from being way too much, I had no small bills in my wallet (otherwise I'd hand over a five dollar bill and be on my way). I decided to stand my ground. I sat on my bike, shrugged my shoulders and pointed out the local violators. To the only cop who spoke English, I complained of the lack of signage. After several minutes of me not handing over any cash, he got fed up and had me follow him on his bike. I figured we were going to the main police station (fine by me), but he took me to the far end of town where a "don't turn here" sign was posted. Some lot of good that did when almost no one came up this far. I had him follow me to the road I came down, where there was no signage at all. He wasn't interested and kept driving. Now I'm on my own. The cops might still be staked out at the bottom of the hill, so I made my way around the other way and drove off into the countryside.

Arriving back in town at the end of the day, I decided to return the motorcycle in case I should run into that lot again.

See more photos here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Vang Vieng - Party Capital of Laos

A few hours bus ride north of the Laos capital is the little town of Vang Vieng. Visually, it is quite interesting; karst hills jut from the landscape like moss covered teeth. The streets are also interesting if you're looking for fun.

During the Vietnam war, the US built a runway in the valley and used it as a supply depot. Today, it sits unused, testament to troubled past. Instead of airmen, the town is frequented by backpackers looking for the opposite of war. The town is full of guest houses and funky restaurants where visitors lounge away the day watching DVD's of American TV shows or prepare for expeditions into the nearby countryside. The beach-town feel to the place is heightened by the numerous young people decked out in in shorts, sandals and t-shirts.

It's not the airstrip or hills that attract them, but the river. Vang Vieng is now the inner-tubing epicenter of Laos. In the morning, trucks loaded with tubes, kayaks and party-goers head up-river to release their charges into the river. A few hours, and quite a few drinks, later, they arrive back in town, wet, sunburned and happy ... and nearly unable to walk.

The river is on the far side of town. It looks quite peaceful during the dry season, but during the rainy season it can move very fast. In response to the popularity of the town with visitors, the locals have expanded by building guest houses on the far shore; while some distance from the "action," they tend to be more quiet. A rickety bamboo bridge facilitates the crossing.

The far side of the river is rural farmland. The rice paddies are dry, but cows and water buffalo make the most of the minimal grazing opportunities.

Of particular interest to me were the obvious shell craters in the middle of fields, another reminder of the country's recent history.

A terrific place to chill out for a few days, Vang Vieng is an ideal stop over between more adventurous places in Laos.

See larger photos here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Vientiane - Capital of Laos

I had visited the capital of Laos once before, but I was not impressed. A lot of people really like the place, but it doesn't do much for me. However, flying in from a cold week in China, I was just happy to be somewhere warm with good food. I hung around the airport waiting for another backpacker heading into town so we could share the cost and swap stories. Unfortunately, the flight was full of business people or package tour types and everyone was being met at the airport. I met a Scandinavian couple on their way to their flight when they realized that they left something important back at their guest house. We jumped into a cab and they told me about their experiences. They thought, as I did, that Vientiane was not particularly interesting. I vowed to stay only a single night.

It seems that Vientiane had taken on a new popularity after the trouble in Bangkok. There were many new shops and restaurants open. Most of the guest houses were full, but I did manage to find one after a few interviews with other backpackers.

That evening, I attended a local dance troupe's performance. A group of about twenty young dancers put on a show to demonstrate Laos dancing and music. The auditorium is a large open room where everyone sits on makeshift seats and where the stage is just the polished wooden floor in front of the seats. Backstage is just the area behind a heavy red velvet curtain, the theater's most notable decoration. Before each musician or dancer takes the stage, a young woman reads from a cue card in faltering English to explain the next act. The performers are quite talented and give it their all despite an audience smaller than the troupe itself.

After a few weeks of buses and trains and taxis, I was ready for some personal transportation. The next morning I outfitted myself with a rented motorbike and scooted around town to take in the sights. Even with the new development, it was still somewhat run down, but pleasant enough. Now, there are a lot of interesting and unusual things in Vientiane, but I was not particularly inspired on this trip and the typical snapshots just don't do the place justice. For example, Laos most sacred pagoda is in Vientiane, but it's not very interesting looking and makes for a lousy photo. Really. Just look at this. I can't work with this.

Now, I have seen good shots of the place, but they were at night during important Buddhist ceremonies but I wasn't planning to stay that long.

I checked out the used book store, visited the market (that was slowly being converted into a western-style mall), checked e-mail and ate some good food. As I paused on one street, I noticed a typical street dog confronting a kitten on the sidewalk. The kitten was puffed up and hissing and spitting for all it was worth. I decided to rescue the poor thing from it's assailant. The dog quickly backed away as I approached and I scooped up the kitten. I didn't think it was possible that it could get even more frightened and angry, but it cranked up the hissing and spitting a notch. Then it bit down on my thumb. Hard! The little hellion drew blood - if it wasn't hanging on by fang and claw I might has dropped it as I suppressed a scream. I extracted myself from its grip and set it up on a short wall out of the dog's reach. The dog was looking at me with a "better you than me" look. The kitten, now safe, never let up on the hissy fit. I squeezed my thumb to draw out more blood, ever so wary of infection. One thing I noticed about the cat was that it was awfully skinny. I had no food and there was nowhere to buy anything close by. This one would have to be satisfied with what little sustenance it got from me when it tried to eat my thumb.

While I was slightly concerned about infection, it didn't occur to me until later that that would be a minor inconvenience. I started wondering why that kitten was so angry ... mad even. Mad? Was it rabid? You must get a rabies shot within a certain number of days of being bitten. I didn't know how many days, but I knew the shots were hard to get and very, very expensive. I lost sleep calculating the slim probability of being infected against the very real probability of suffering physically and financially as the result of getting shots (even if I could find a clinic who could provide the service). I took the chance ... and survived!

After my tour of the town, I rode south along the river through villages that rarely see foreigners. I didn't stop for much other than photographic opportunities like a group of monks being invested into the community monastery.

Local fishermen catching the tiny riel fish from the shore using an ancient technique.

I was most interested in seeing the Buddha park somewhere south of the city. I drove down the highway, past numerous industrial parks making everything from cement to beer, until I found the bridge to Thailand. I knew the place was somewhere nearby. I found a train station (I didn't even know Laos had a train) then I discovered something with a wall and gate that looked like it could have been a park. It was closed, however. There was a narrow side gate that was open, so I drove the bike through and entered the lost world.

This was not the Buddha park some sort of theme park that had long ago been abandoned. Little theme restaurants were scattered about large picnic grounds with cement cast tables and benches done in a rustic wooden motif. There were several buildings outfitted as traditional Laos dwellings, one for each of the major ethnic peoples, and the shell of a exhibition center that was suppose to represent a palace or ancient wat. It was all so very Laos. What I saw next really took me for a loop.

Seeing those statues, there was no doubt that I was not in the Buddha park. Although a bit corny looking, I have to admit that the work was pretty impressive. That monster on the right was a good four meters tall.

The park had a pretty heavy investment in it, obviously, but I never learned what happened. I never found the Buddha park, either, but my lost world was plenty interesting.

Back in the city, I decided to spend one more night. The thing to do in the evening is grab some supper on the river and watch the sun go down on Thailand. There are a dozens of little outdoor restaurants on the Mekong bank. They all have the same view so you base your choice on what they've got cooking. I placed my order and stretched out on the bamboo mats.

The next morning, I did manage to get a nice shot of the presidential palace.

Vientiane is a nice spot for lounging, but there's a much better place just north of the city. I made plans to leave for Vang Vieng that afternoon.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Life on Inle Lake

Between a ridge of mountains, on the Eastern side of Myanmar, lies a long and shallow lake divided into two parts. Like all lakes in temperate climes, it is home to many people on its shores. Inle is unique in that it has communities living on the lake in stilt homes and artificial islands.

Another unusual characteristic of Inle is the lack of wind. You might see at least one sailboat on any other good-size lake, but not on Inle. To get around here you need an engine or a paddle. The Inle people have developed an unusual paddling technique. By standing and wrapping a leg around the paddle, they can get additional leverage denied to a seated rower. The standing position also enables them to see over the low vegetation separating many of the canals, making it easier to navigate.

A man demonstrates the leg rowing technique.

Fishing, naturally, is the principle pastime of the lake people. In addition to traditional method of catching fish such as nets and lures, the shallow water provides for another technique. When a fisherman spots movement in the water, he will drop a cone shaped basket over the area and spear the fish on a pole.

This young man is pleased to display his recent catch.

Fishing this way can be an individual undertaking, one boat stalking individual fish, or a group effort when several men try to herd the animals.

One of the more curious fishing expeditions I witnessed on the lake brought the workers a boat-load of ... mud.

By the time they are done, the boat is full to the gunwale with heavy mud.

Using baskets on long poles, they dredge up the rich sediment mud on the lake bottom. This is used to fertilize their gardens. Of course, they don't exactly have normal gardens in the lake. While some homes have small island plots, most create floating rafts of vegetation to grow produce for the markets. These are arranged in neat rows and staked to the lake bed with long poles. The farmers attend to their crop by canoe.

A boy makes his way from the floating gardens beside his home.

The homes on the lake are typically modest. They are constructed with bamboo framework covered by woven mat walls and a thin thatched roof. There are many solid wood homes and businesses on the lake as well, but the bamboo hut is the most prevalent.

Drying shallots.

Paddling past one of the grand old homes of Ywama village.

Walk to school? Not in Inle!

There are many, many more photos of Inle Lake here.