Posts Tagged ‘Asia’

Da Nang and Hue in black and white

August 19, 2013 1 comment

Here are series of photographs taken on the trip to Hue and Da Nang converted to black and white. They are mostly street and candid photographs taken by small Fuji cameras processed with Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro. I cannot stress enough the advantage of having a small camera for this kind of shooting. In many occasions subject had no clue they are being photographed. Also I often shot from hip or any other awkward position without being noticed at all.

Vietnam is very picturesque country and there is lots of things to be photographed. It is a never ending source of inspiration and country of awesome coffee :).

Article and some other photos from this trip can be found here “In Da Nang and Hue“.

Categories: Photography Tags: , , , , , ,

In Da Nang and Hue

August 13, 2013 1 comment

This is third time I am going to visit Vietnam. I have been north and south before so it was time to pay visit to Central Vietnam. With 5 days to spare (including flights) there was not too much time but I was hoping to see some of Da Nang ans Hue. This was also the first trip I solely relied on small cameras, in my case Fuji X100S and Fuji X-E1 with 35mm Fujinon lens. I figured the Nikons are to heavy for street walkabouts and I left them at home.
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Annapurna Base Camp Trek

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

I landed in Kathmandu, Tribuhvan international airport on 21st December 2012 early afternoon. After getting through immigration and picking up the baggage I went through exit door looking for my friend Agasta who is awaiting me. Soon I spot him in the crowd. It was nice warm greeting after two years. We took the tiny taxi from airport and of we went to infamous Thamel district in central Kathmandu. Not much has changed since my last visit. City looks like war zone. Lots of dirt, rubble, dust, bad roads and traffic. I spent the night in Thorong Peak hotel, in the heart of Thamel but nicely tucked away from the main street. Agasta invited me to his place for dinner. His wife cooked my favourite sherpa stew and after dinner we had some Nepali whisky. Feeling like home. Life is good.

Flight to Pokhara next day is smooth. Windows on the plane are so dirty, that it is impossible to make any usable pictures. There is not much on on today, only short stroll in the city and along the shores of Phewa lake. Air is dusty and horizon covered in haze. I didn’t even get a glimpse of the mountains. Pokhara is the second biggest city in Nepal, although cleaner than Kathmandu, yet still suffering from dust, dirt, rubbish and regular electricity outages.

My body, still still functioning according Singaporean time, woke up pretty early. I quickly run to the lake to take some early morning shots. Then back to hotel for breakfast and after that I meet our porter Dawa. Next 60 minutes we spend driving in the smallest taxi in the world to Nayapol, the trekking starting point. Around 10:30 am the adventure continues on foot.

Passing several settlements, forest, hillsides. after few hours we had lunch at guest house of interesting name “Welcome to See you Hostel”. Also almost every guest house has word “welcome” split into two words, something like “well come” or even “well.come”. I found it funny 🙂 After lunch we climbed up long rigorous steps to a small village called Uleri where we stayed over night. I really liked the people living there. I felt a sense of community that holds together and works together towards common goal. Food was excellent, as always. A warm fireplace just added something on top of already nice experience. Agasta and Dawa had huge portion of “Dokeh” (I think that is how it is spelled). Dokeh is a traditional “mountain” food. Nepali people living in the mountain regions eat it often as it is rich on carbs and energy, thus well suited for the mountain life. Tt looks like chocolate cake (according to them) but to me it looked like …..ehm. You know what. I had a bite and just by itself it is fairly tasteless however they eat it with veggies, curry and some sauce (maybe dahl). I found the portion they got big enough for entire expedition but the managed to finish it all. Amazing….is this the secret to strength in mountains?

We wake up next morning bright and early. After quick breakfast and hot coffee we left the village and continued our ascent to Gorephani, which is the largest village on the route. Something like “Namche Bazar” of Annapurna region however not nearly as big. We walk mostly in Rhododendron forest. I encountered something similar in Tengboche (Everest region) however there were Rhododendron bushes as opposed to trees. At Gorephani we stayed in a big guest house with bunch of other groups. This village has an excellent view of Dhaulagiri (8,167m), the seventh highest peak in the world. I walked around a lot and tried take pictures from every possible location, not forgetting the interesting subjects in the village along the way. In the evening all people gathered in big dining where we sat by fireplace (lucky ones who managed to snap the place). I tried the Nepali Roxy (lical drink made from millet) for the first time. As it was the Christmas Eve, it was welcome addition to dinner. Nepali Roxy tastes like rice wine. Not very strong, not very tasty for European mouth but still good nevertheless. We didn’t stay up late, since early next morning we were about to hike up to Poon Hill, a traditional viewing point of Annapurna Himalayan range. If we are lucky and have visibility we can spot another eight thousand-er in the distance, Manaslu, at 8,156m the eight highest mountain in the world.

Next morning I wake up way too early. First, the sleep hasn’t been good. Gorephani is in 3210m and thinner air affects good sleep when not acclimatised to it. Second, I forgot to set my watch to Nepali time. Anyway, I crawled out of sleeping bag at 3am morning (as I determined later when I realised my mistake). Got dressed and headed out. I was surprised that I didn’t see people gathering but on the other side I really enjoyed quiet although freezing night. The sky was full of stars however the light pollution from guest house and other buildings around prevented the full on enjoyment or perhaps sight of Milky Way. I didn’t have headlamp with me so I opted to stay in lit areas or close to it and prevent broken ankle or leg. Eventually, the time has come and people started gathering for Poon Hill hike, which is another few hundred meters vertical distance from Gorephani. We climbed it pretty fast since it was very cold and the workout kept us warm. Around 7am the theatre performance began. The view was breathtaking. Yes it is a very touristy spot (similar to Mt Bromo sunrise spot) but still. Sight of Himalayan peaks lit by the first sun rays is something you don’t get to see every day. And as always I say, no sunset beats early morning light. It is just beyond comprehension how beautiful it was and I don’t think any photograph make justice to what was unfolding in front of us. Sadly, sunrise is a fast process and time has come to head down for breakfast and then start another leg of the trek.

Trek to Tadaphani was not eventful. We dropped to 2680m. Next 2-3 days we spend in similar altitude before we go up above 4000m to Annapurna Base Camp. This is very good way of trekking because by the time we reach the base camp, we will be well acclimatised. Going up to fast increases the chance of getting AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Tadaphani is a small village with good view of Annapurna South and Fish Tail given the good weather conditions.

Our target for another trek day was Chomrong (2170m). Although almost in same altitude as Tadaphani, it sits on completely different mountain rib. So it means get all the way down to valley and then climb it back again. I was surprised to find a German bakery in the village. Cinnamon roll was a welcome change to rather boring food routine. It was nearly frozen but tasted bloody good. After ice cold shower I warmed up by fire, drying clothes, brewing tea and drinking roxy. I was the only tourist guest there, all others that gathered around the fire were locals, guides and porters. I loved every bit of it, although I didn’t understand what they were talking about, Agasta here and there tried to translate the main point of discussion to me. Every time they mentioned roxy, the grin on our faces turned into broad smile and we happily had another sip.

I found myself walking in deep in the canyon that leads to Annapurna Base Camp the next day. As on many previous locations we walked down what we climbed the day before and then climbed it back again on yet another mountain rib. We made couple of stops to rest and replenish. About half way we learned that there might not be enough room in Himalayan guest house (where we intend to overnight) for everybody. To gain advantage over other people on the way I rushed ahead to reach the guest house first and book the room. I was literally running up the hill/stairs. To my surprise I did quite well, although out of the breath I was not that tired (my endurance is not the best in the world). I reached the “hotel”, booked the room and we were safe for the day. As the place was deep in the valley it got limited time of sunshine and it felt quite depressive. I was quite happy to leave the place and get on with rest of the trek. About half way to Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) we left the tree line behind. Now it looked more “mountainish”. Following the river stream uphill (probably of glacial origin), crossing few side streams on the way we caught up with other group who’s lead guide had to go down due to his AMS (acute mountain sickness) symptoms. Upon reaching the Machapuchare Base Camp at noon, Agasta said “very fast walk”. I was quite pleased with myself. Everest trek two years prior was not so smooth for me, but that was of course in much higher altitudes and with no acclimatisation stops. Still I felt in a great shape. There was a discussion whether to continue to Annapurna Base Camp the same day. I voted for staying at MBC. We had time, this stop was planned so I didn’t see reason to rush up the mountain. The place was very nice, with rocks, grassy hillsides covered partially by snow and with good view of Fishtail. There was lot to see and photograph especially on very nice and sunny day we enjoyed. I was running around the camp, climbing the ridge above it and looked into huge glacial valley between the camp and Fishtail. The sheer size of mountains is just breathtaking. After the sun hides behind the mountains the temperature drops rapidly and soon it reaches zero before dropping even further. Weather also tends to change in matter of seconds. We are in Himalayas, it can be unpredictable. I remember the morning in Dingboche two years ago. We arrived in a scorching heat and by the time we had dinner we were freezing in the dining room. Next morning we woke up to a different landscape, covered in few inches of fresh snow, at the end of May.
I was photographing a sun just hiding behind one of the smaller peaks. In less than 30 seconds that peak was completely hidden behind thick fog and clouds which were rolling into valley at astonishing speed. Cold and freezing wind forced me to go in, warm up with cup of tea and fill my stomach with huge portion of dahl bat.

Sleep was restless that night. I woke up couple of times finding myself gasping for air. I slowed down my breathing and took few deep breaths. At least on two occasions I was awaken by a distant rumbling which I learned later was sound of avalanche. And finally about 5am it was a dog barking. I felt for the poor bugger as he followed us all the way from Chomrong. At MBC the dog was quite sick. Yes, even dogs get mountain sickness. I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag and went outside to check on weather. I really wanted to shoot Milky Way and at this altitude I though the sky will be pretty clear. So it was but also the moon was extremely bright and it made lots of stars “disappear”.

I washed my face in icy water, packed the sleeping bag and got ready. Hour later people started to wake up. Quick coffee followed by breakfast and short after we were on our way to Annapurna Base Camp. As it turned out, it was not that far away. Well rested, we managed to cover the distance fast. Landscape was lit by beautiful morning sun and now I really felt I am in Himalayas. Soon the nearly 4km high face of Annapurna I emerged from horizon and I was looking at the most deadly mountain in the world. Although I couldn’t see the peak due to parallax, it was huge. Technically not the hardest mountain but it is very avalanche prone and frequent weather changes turned it into a beast in the course of history. Less than 150 people climbed the mountain, more than 50 died trying.

Base camp is a bunch of stone built buildings with simple rooms, dining and kitchen attached to each building. Its sitting at 4130m. Behind the camp is a huge ridge which is the edge of glacial valley starting at Annapurna’s footstep. Glacier is mostly covered by rock and dust and sits at the bottom of the valley, constantly on the move. Climbing the mountain means to rappel down into the valley, cross the glacier and start the climb on the other side. Already quite dangerous prospects as glaciers are known to be very unstable.

I wanted to take advantage of sunlight and climbed the ridge together with Agasta all the way to where grass stops growing. we stopped right at the foothill of Annapurna South. It was (according to Agasta) about another 200 vertical metres above base camp. We took couple of snapshots. As we sat there in the grass we heard sudden rumbling. Quickly turning around I spotted a bunch of rocks and ice sliding down the glacier on Annapurns South’s face. It happened just in a blink of a second. Enough to grab few (hopefully ok) shots. Just behind the base camp sits the memorial site for climbers. The biggest one belongs to Anatoli Boukreev, one of the best climbers of his time that was swept from the mountain by avalanche in 1997 and never seen again. It was quite humbling moment for me. I stood there few minutes in silence to pay my respects to a man who single handedly saved 3 lives during 1996 faithful season on Everest. Most leading climbers at the time it was described as almost in human effort and I think this man was a hero (no matter what Jon Krakauer and his likes say about him).

You do not understand what kind of person Anatoli really was. You are American, he was Russian. You’re a newcomer to the Eight-thousanders, he at this level was the best of all time. You are a normal mountaineer, he was a great athlete and an animal of survival. You have financial security, he has known true hunger .. I think you’re like one of those who, after reading a medical book, claims to teach one of the most skilled surgeons in the world how to be a doctor … if you really want to pass judgment on the decisions taken by Anatoli in 1996, remember this: No client of his expedition died.” – Simone Moro

I returned to the camp for lunch. I put my camera on the table and went to grab something from room when I heard already familiar rumbling and screaming from outside “avalanche, avalanche”. I rushed out, grabbed camera and pointed towards shown direction. It was Machapuchare with huge snow cloud forming on it’s slope. At that point my camera turned into “Kalashnikov”. The avalanche was quite major taking into account that we were at that point few miles from the mountain. The snow cloud felt big. I took a few shots and luckily they turned out quite good. Shortly after a helicopter landed in base camp bringing rich and lazy tourist for lunch/dinner. With USD $3000 for one hour of flight time it is rather hefty price to pay. Millions of photos later, that people took posing in front of helicopter, it finally lifted and disappeared in the distance.

Later afternoon I returned to a big flat area behind memorials and set up for photo I had in mind for a while. It was to promote foundation which I am supporting. Sun came down faster than I though and building the url from little stones was little more laborious than I initially thought. But I made it, although it is not a pretty picture it will serve the purpose. Later in the evening, around 10:30pm I ventured out again to take night shots. Moon was once again too bright, nearly could take hand held shot. I tried star trails but there was only few above Annapurna. So I turned back to face Machapuchare with much more stars in the sky however the overly bright moon would spoil the shot. I returned to my room by midnight since my fingers were frozen to the point I could not operate the camera any more.

After very short sleep, I was out of sleeping bag again at 4am. That’s a dedication 🙂 Set up for sunrise I was waiting for first rays to peek through the mountains. Whole sunrise theatre is quite short but it is spectacular. By the time it was nearly over other people in the camp managed to drag themselves out of the sleeping bags. At 8am the sun was already too high in the sky. It’s strength was amplified by snow reflecting the rays back. One could get snow blind without sunglasses. After quick breakfast I was ready to go down. We were about to cover a distance that took us 3 days on the way up. After about 8hrs of walking, climbing and descending we reached a village of Sinuwa, just across the valley from Chomrong. On the way it was slippery due to a layer of snow, the result of yesterday’s big avalanche. Today was the first day i was really tired. Distance we covered was big. I allowed myself to have a can of coke and also took a shower, first time in last 3 days.

Next day we stopped at Jhinudanda. We had some awesome relaxing time in hot springs, two small pools of hot water next to the river. As it was little crowded we left little earlier than we planned. That day it was New Year Eve. Surprisingly, everybody went to bed early. We wished Happy New Year to each other next morning as we were getting ready for another day of walking. After 8 or so hours we reached the village of Pothana, the last mountain village on the way. This is the place where I saw the most beautiful and colorful sunset on the trek so far. Last destination we were about to visit is  Serangko, a small village or rather group of hotels and guest houses on the hill just behind Pokhara. With excellent views of Himalayan range as well as whole city is popular destination for tourist who don’t have time or interest in trekking. It is also a place for ever popular paragliding. At the times there is no less than 20 para-gliders in the air at one time and all relatively close proximity to each other. Local people here are definitely different from mountain people. Place is not so clean as mountain villages as they are more oblivious to what condition their environment is. Views of the Himalayan peaks were negatively affected by dust andthick haze. Photographs came out with extremely compressed histogram and I will have to rely heavily on camera’s ability to capture as much information as possible given these conditions.

After descended to Pokhara  next morning, we officially finished the trek. I said goodbye to Dawa as he headed home to Kathmandu the same day. I shared room with Agasta since hotel was full. Next morning we boarded the bus to Kathmandu and of we went. It was supposed to take 7-8 hours. Approaching the 5hr mark I saw a table clearly saying that our destination is only 30km away, so I though we might do it below 6 horus. How wrong I was. There is a mountain range to cross before bus enters into Kathmandu valley. Road is extremely narrow, barely enough for two truck to pass next to each other without collision. And boy, there are hundreds of trucks stuck in the biggest mountain traffic jam I ever seen. In the next hour we barely covered 1km. At the times we came so close to the edge of the road that I really feared the worst. As we finally reached top of the hill with check point I though things will go faster. It took one more hour till we reached our destination not far from Thamel district. We opted to walk to the hotel and in less than 30 minutes we reached the Thorong Peak guest house. I finally got a hot shower and after evening at Agasta’s place over bowl for my favourite sherpa stew I finally set to rest. Next day I spent exploring Kathmandu’s sights. The end of the trip was here and it seemed to be so short. I wished I was back in the mountains but it was time to say goodbye to Agasta and Nepal. I really hope I’ll be back….sooner rather than later 🙂 Namaste.

Categories: Travel Tags: , , ,

Kathmandu, the gateway to heaven

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Or is it? I would say yes and no. With the only international airport in the country, Kathmandu is the only destination for all international flights to Nepal and so all tourists visiting Nepal and the Himalayas have to go to Kathmandu. Most tourists get settled in the infamous Thamel area in the center of the city, with its narrow streets, markets, trekking shops, and the nearby Durbar Square.

Kathmandu is the capital and, with almost one million inhabitants, the only metropolitan city of Nepal. The city is the urban core of the Kathmandu Valley in the Himalayas… (Source: Wikipedia)

To get there, one must endure a taxi ride from the airport through a city I would describe as the capital of dust. Getting a cab at the airport is an experience in itself as cabbies fight amongst themselves to get the client. Often, as it happens in the nature, the strongest survives. Observing the streets from the cab, one wonders how a human can survive in so much dust. The occasional face protection offers very little help against it. The visibility of the whole Kathmandu Valley from viewing points is poor: barely half a mile due to a thick haze of dust. That is the case even in the morning when the air is supposed to be a little clearer. And I noticed this time (2012) that it was much dirtier than during my first visit in 2010.

Although Kathmandu is at a relatively high altitude of approximately 1400m above the sea level, the heat can be scorching in summer months. Even in the winter, one is able to walk around sans a jacket or in short sleeves without getting cold. Other than the dust, the rubbish is the big problem: it is literally everywhere as it appears that the city has no communal garbage disposal or collection service in place. The people don’t seem to care as they throw cigarettes, paper, bottles etc around carelessly. And I have to mention the spitting as well. Everybody, including women, girls, and kids, spits in Kathmandu like it was the national sport. It happened to me several times where a guy just spat at my feet right before he offered me a rickshaw ride.

Especially in tourist areas, it is quite common that you will be offered marijuana or hashish or other kinds of drugs. Once, while waiting for my friend Agasta, I had three different sellers approach me in less than five minutes.

Kathmandu is very rich in historical and religious sites though. The main religions are Hinduism and Buddhism, and there are many temples, stupas, and shrines of all sizes scattered around the city. Buddhist sites are generally cleaner and better maintained. One of the biggest is Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the whole of Nepal. The other one is Swayambhu, commonly called Monkey Temple. Swayambhu is both a Buddhist and Hindu religious site, and in cases of good visibility, it offers a great view of the whole city and a big part of the Kathmandu Valley. These two are the most visited sites by tourists, with exception of Durbar Square.

For a photographer, Kathmandu is a golden mine. Sometimes it is hard to decide where to point the camera. Things are happening and life is unfolding right in front of you. If you walk away from the tourist strip of Thamel, you can get better idea how the Nepali live in the city. And you don’t have to walk that far. People are generally kind. However at tourist spots, they’ve learned to appreciate the tourist dollar and might ask you for money in exchange for permission to take their pictures, especially the very poor or the beggars. One needs to use common sense and good judgement about when to ask for permission or to just snap a candid picture. Generally, people are fine with you taking pictures as long as you don’t push the camera right in their face. I would advise waking up early and visiting the streets between Durbar Square and the tourist strip of the Thamel district. It is a fairly short walk, but in return you experience the morning “rush” which is quite exciting and also inspiring for a photographer. Generally, mornings are better since many tourists opt to stay in bed rather than go out. Also, the air is  a tad cleaner. As the first morning sun rays hit the streets, the whole scene turns more lively, and with the slight golden hues, they are perfect for taking pictures. Soon though, the sun gets stronger, turning the streets into really contrasty subjects, which is hard for the camera sensors to handle. Also, it is a good idea to use a smaller camera. A big DSLR with a huge lens may scare some or trigger the “asking for money” process. A smaller camera allows one to be unnoticed as a photographer in many cases.

If you stay in Thamel, avoid taking any transportation to Durbar Square as it is within walking distance. I was offered a rickshaw ride there while I was standing just few blocks away. When taking a cab, negotiate the price. Taxi meters are non-existent. Avoid using motorbikes.The traffic may be dense, and the ”loudest horn’ rule applies everywhere. Here and there, you might spot traffic police basically doing nothing. The air is so polluted and dusty that after a motorbike ride you will be coughing out dust for days to come and your dust-caked hair turns into concrete. I had one motorbike ride myself and I suffered all the aforementioned consequences. At the end, I was happy it was over even though I was riding with my friend Agasta.

When you come to Kathmandu, your aim is probably to trek somewhere in Himalayas, most likely in the Everest or Annapurna region. There are plenty of fellows in Kathmandu claiming to be guides, and while they are mostly very kind and helpful and can take you to places, they may also show you “Everest” in the Annapurna region. A tourist who does not know their geography may get the misguided impression that they saw the top of the world (as I witnessed  in Poon Hill, Annapurna region). Always check if the guide has a valid guide licence. I will try to get a copy from my friend Agasta for you to see what it looks like.

There is an abundance of guest houses in Thamel and also around Boudhanat. As I only stayed in one (Thorong Peak Guesthouse), I cannot really say anything about the quality of others. Check the room first before paying. Also, beware of electricity problem in Kathmandu. There is no way you can get power during the day. It is usually turned on in the morning and the evening for couple of hours. The better guest houses run generators which give you an hour or two extra, but that is it.

Food is still relatively cheap in Kathmandu, and you can find all sorts, from Nepali to European or Asian. I recently discovered a few German bakeries along a trekking trail in the Chomrong, Annapurna region which were quite nice. I didn’t really eat street food due to its exposure to all that pollution. Restaurant food is fine though.

Kathmandu is an exciting city and it has lot to offer. On one hand, it is dirty, with bad roads and dust; on the other, it is rich in cultural, historical, and religious sites. If you go there, just accept it as it is and enjoy. Remember, it is most likely a culture very different from yours. Just embrace it and enjoy.

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Preparing for Annapurna base camp trek

December 13, 2012 4 comments

I am very excited about my second trip to Nepal. In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit the country for the first time, and I made it up to Kalapattar, just across the valley from Everest. This time, I’ve decided to visit the Annapurna base camp which is the second most popular destination after the Everest base camp. I am doing it off-season in winter, so I am hoping for less tourists and more snow. Let’s see how it comes together.

This circuit is considered one of the best treks in the world though road construction is threatening its reputation and its future as a classic trek. Yet no one disputes that the scenery is outstanding: 17 to 21 days long, this trek takes you through distinct regional scenery of rivers, flora, fauna and above all – mountains. (Source: Wikitravel)

I’ll be on the road for 15 days and mainly following the traditional trek route. I am quite happy that I will be joined by my friend and guide from 2010, Agasta. He is a great guy with extensive trekking experience and knowledge about the mountains and the people. He also speaks many of the dialects used by the people in the mountains. It would be possible to do this all by myself, but I don’t need to be a hero. Besides, altitude sickness can strike anybody, even a seasoned mountaineer, so it is good to have somebody around, especially one who speaks the local language.

As I am an avid photographer, cameras will be an essential part of my outfit. There are a few important things to note. On this trek, we will be going up to altitudes around 4300m above sea level. That is not the highest that regular treks go to, but it is high enough to test the physical fitness, especially of somebody like myself, who was born in low lands and spends all day sitting in the office. When it comes to gear, the most important consideration is weight. Everything you carry feels at least twice as heavy at 4000m as it would at sea level. The less gear you have, the more freedom you have to move around and “work” the scene.

On a trip like this, recharging batteries might be a problem. First, there is either no electricity up in the mountains, or it is provided by generators that are costly to run, thus you will be charged for recharging batteries. Another issue is the cold, which drains batteries much faster. As a solution, it is good to travel with 2-3 spare batteries (depending on how much you shoot). Always keep batteries warm; the best is to place them in pockets close to your body. Putting the batteries into your sleeping bag during the night is a good idea as it usually gets very cold.

Then there is an issue of image backup. Since I am not a professional photographer, the loss of images wouldn’t be so crucial to my business. However, if possible, it is always a good idea to have at least one copy of your images stored somewhere else besides the memory card. I usually take my laptop on every big trip I go on. I had a small netbook the last time I went to Himalayas. This time I am considering leaving it at home and taking only a whole bunch of memory cards with me. This way, I would save 1kg in weight and that can make a lot of difference.

As I do lots of landscape photography, and now that I own a D800, a tripod is essential. My “lightweight” tripod is about 4.5 kg and that is quite heavy to carry around. But that’s the price you pay for steady shots. I am definitely planning to take it with me.

I have to note that I will use a porter for my main bag so I can run around with my cameras. If one wants to make the most of photographic opportunities along the way, this is the best, although not the cheapest, option. Last but not least, I have to mention clothing. If you are wondering how it relates to photography, I say it does in some way. Some of the best pictures are taken in not-so-good weather. If my warm clothing allows me to stay outside longer while I wait for that perfect light, then I would consider it as essential gear to have.

So now, let’s see what I am actually taking with me:

  • Nikon D800
  • 14-24mm 2.8 wide angle zoom
  • 24-70mm 2.8 all purpose zoom
  • 2 extra spare batteries
  • remote shutter release
  • Manfrotto tripod
  • Lee filters 0.6 ND Pro glass and 0.3 ND grad
  • so far I have 100GB worth of CF cards
  • Fuji X-E1 with 35mm Fujinon lens as a backup camera
  • small items like lens cleaning kit, torch light etc.

This may seem a lot for some and too little for others. I’ve decided to leave my 80-200mm zoom at home. And I will probably leave my Macbook Air at home too. I am little undecided on that one. Honestly, I would not feel comfortable without having my images backed up.

Well that’s it for now. I will definitely let you know how it goes. I am very excited about this trip and literally counting the days till departure. I’ll talk to you all again after the trip.

Categories: Travel Tags: , ,

Myanmar, The Golden Land

October 30, 2012 3 comments

I was sitting on the plane to Yangon, excited about upcoming adventure in Myanmar. As plane approached the land, I was anxiously looking out of the window looking at flat land with lots of green paddies, very few roads or signs of industrial development. Then first buildings of Yangon emerged from behind clouds as plane entered the final stage of approach. Few more minutes and plane has touched down. It is October 19th 2012 15:00, Friday afternoon local time.

Burma, also known as Myanmar is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. One-third of Burma’s total perimeter of 1,930 kilometres (1,200 mi) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. At 676,578 km2 (261,227 sq mi), it is the 40th largest country in the world and the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Burma is also the 24th most populous country in the world with over 60.28 million people. (source: Wikipedia)

Immigration procedure went fast and smooth, literally from getting off plane till leaving airport it was less than 20 minutes. It is good idea to change US Dollars to local Kyats on airport. As it turned out, the best conversion rate is available on airport. One thing that is important to note, only nice clean and unmarked USD bank notes are accepted throughout the country.

Burmese woman with tanaka

Burmese woman with tanaka

I had first glance of the surrounding during 30 minutes taxi drive to the hotel. First thing that strikes me, is the complete lack of bicycles and m motorbikes on the road which is something unheard of in South-East Asia. As I learn later, this is true only for Yangon, not the rest of the country and only government officials are allowed to use motorbike in the city area. Another interesting thing is, that cars drive on right side of the road here, however driver seat is on right side too. So it feels like driving English car in lets say USA or Europe.

Most of the buildings are quite run down which gives the place  a kind of magic charm of the past but streets are fairly clean. Men wear traditional Burmese longyi, which is a sheet of cloth widely worn in Myanmar. Females are mostly dressed in the htamein, one of the traditional dresses of Burmese women. It is very simple, yet it looks nice and girls, similar to Vietnamese, look way more feminine than in other countries. Most of the people, especially women, children and youth have thanaka on the faces.  Lots of the people, but mostly men chew betel. Betel nut is ubiquitous in Myanmar. Many people chew betel incessantly, despite half-hearted government attempts to curb the practice, or at least to stop the spitting associated with chewing. The streets are covered with big red blotches because, when locals finish chewing their quids, they hawk red gobs and streams of juice onto the roads and walkways, permanently staining the concrete.

Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of Myanmar (formerly Burma) seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys. The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand. (source: Wikipedia)

I caught up with a friend Nyi Joe. He was kind enough to buy bus tickets to Bagan since it was scheduled for next morning. After a dinner and short grocery shopping I am back to hotel for early start tomorrow morning. First impressions are very positive. People are very kind and smiling. Apart from place where we had dinner I didn’t see any tourists. It feels great.


Boy with his horse

Boy with his horse in Bagan

Bus ride to Bagan was long. There is a long debate about whether to use bus or local airline supported by government. Facts are that bus is much cheaper but entire day is lost. Distances are big, roads are not up to western standards and trip can have many unplanned breaks as I learned later. You have to make the call. I opted for bus  as I was also on the budget. The bus turned out to be faulty. The engine was overheating and it had to be cooled down with water from rivers, lakes or puddles about every 20-30km. Eventually after few phone calls they managed to send another bus. But it was little too late to make up for lost time. Bus arrived to Bagan in complete darkness, even though it was only 7pm. To clarify things, the bus arrives to the biggest village called Nyaung U ina Bagan area. This is where most of the restaurants, hotels and guest houses are. There is also Old Bagan and New Bagan. All these are about 5km apart from each other so it is easy to cover that distance on bicycle, horse carriage, taxi or even on foot.

Weather in Bagan is hot. It feels like being closed in the oven right from early morning. There is not a single cloud on the sky. Day starts with short stroll to the local market which is actually quite big. It is definitely not designed for tall guys like myself. It rather feels like walking in the cave with all the stalls are cramped together with fabric sheet cover on the top. I have to bend a lot to be able to walk underneath. Looks like any other market in Asia which means it is interesting to me. Until I cross to the “souvenir section”. Mistake. It is too late to escape now. Vultures spot the prey and they are right on me. I somehow managed to stay of their interest but friend that was with me had no such a luck. We are pulled to the right, to the left….”come to my shop, looking is free”. I thought I am used to this from other Asian countries but I never thought how aggressive it can get. I though the local ladies just pushed the whole thing to the new level.

Budhist monk from bagan

Budhist monk from bagan

It’s time to explore the surroundings and temples. That is ultimately the reason to visit Bagan. Probably the best way to do it is to rent a bicycle. What can I say, only blind can miss temples of Bagan. There is hundreds of them. The first one on the list is the biggest biggest one in Nyaung U, the Swezigon Paya. Not knowing the direction I came to pagoda from “back door”. No problem for local ladies to spot me though. I was waved at to come in. No problem, they will look after shoes (not allowed in pagodas) and bicycles “for free”. Of course there is nothing for free. I knew what I will have to go through once I come out. There was no other way though and I have to chew this through.

Nuns collecting alms

Every morning nuns and monks come out to the streets to collect alms

The main pagoda is beautiful, painted in gold which nicely contrasting with blue sky. Young monk novices as well as old ones are walking around accepting morning offerings. The pagoda is relatively quiet at this relatively early hour. It still has the magic charm but it was soon to be filled by more tourists. On the way out, exactly as I expected, I was welcomed by “our” ladies offering me a little chair to rest. It was conveniently turned towards all the souvenirs. I knew I have to buy something. Bargaining is not my nature and I don’t really enjoy it and I decided to go through this as quickly as possible. Picking a little decorated bamboo box I was ready to pay and leave, but the kept filling it with bunch of other souvenirs. They just couldn’t get that I want only the box. After I finally managed to escape I continued riding bike towards Old Bagan. I visited few temples on the way but sun was baking really hard and I decided to pick only the major pagodas, stupas or temples. As there are literally hundreds of them it is simply not possible to visit them all. My bicycle was too small for me and after I first time used the rear brake it stayed half locked so I had extra resistance to fight with. Just as sunset was approaching it was time to look for a spot to take good sunset pictures that Bagan is famous for. The place I found wasn’t a great one but sunset was approaching fast so I decided to stay. After it was over there was still 4-5 km bike ride back to the hotel. That last leg was though, hot sun and half broken bike sucked out the rest of the energy from me and I was back to the hotel completely wasted. Generally it is not smart to go out during middle of the day. Sun is just too strong and from photographic point of view even the beautiful temples of Bagan look flat and uninteresting in harsh light.

Swezigon pagoda

Swezigon pagoda is the biggest golden pagoda in Bagan area

The next day I moved to another hotel. I dropped a class but saved half of the price from previous one too. Short morning stroll to the river was refreshing and I had good time and chat with local family while sipping the coke and looking at surroundings. There were lots of scenes to photograph. Nuns in pink clothing going out to collect the offerings, women bathing in the river, horse carriages and generally family life to be observed right on the street. Afternoon I stumbled upon pagoda where I could climb up and have pretty good view over the Bagan temple area. I thought it is quite good spot for sunset viewing. I met a local painter Aung Aung who showed me around. Since I still had some time I went on exploring some other places but later on I returned and claimed my spot up in the pagoda. Few other tourists gathered there too but it was not crowded so the whole experience was pleasant. I didn’t have my tripod nor ND filters so I was heavily relying on the dynamic range my camera can produce. As it turned out later it was rather impressive (I mean dynamic range of the file).

Kids from Bagan

Kids from Bagan are very camera friendly

If you visit Bagan you will be constantly being offered a horse carriage which takes you to places of interests as locals know quite well what most of the tourists want to see. I politely kept refusing them. I really do not like bicycle as form of transportation but in this case I opted for it as it gives me the freedom to go where I want and for how long I want. Bugging the driver to stop here and there all the time seemed to me pointless. Also there is lot to discover just by walking on the streets. And I encourage everybody to do that. It is good idea to turn into some smaller side streets where there is more likely to find some good photographic opportunities as well as get more immersed into local lifestyle. And there is more chance to interact with people this way. Tourism industry is still very young in Myanmar however people quickly learned the value of tourist dollar. Occasionally you will be asked for “donations” or “money present”, also little change for exchange for photographs. This happens across Asia and I assume other parts of the world. The moral story is up to you to judge but it is generally not a good idea to give money or candies to children. Easy income in form of money can keep them out  of school. With no dental care in place the sweets can do a lot of harm in long term. If so it is good idea to give them different presents and they are appreciated like hair clips for girls, balloons, pens and notebooks. On this morning I discovered a pagoda that looked like dupplicate of the one from previous day. It had almost exactly same shape and floor plan as well as access to the top. In fact there was a local boy who joined me and led me to it. I met a monk there trying to talk to me in broken english. He said something like he foreseen that me and my friend will come and visit the pagoda and such. It sounded quite funny. He smiled from ear to ear showing his teeth in horrible condition, probably from chewing betel

Maung Maung Suu

Maung Maung Suu, the face of my trip in Myanmar

I have to mention the hotel Eden where I stayed and lovely Mr Maung Maung Suu. I really have to give a lot of credit to this uncle. He runs the hotel, always smiles and he is an extremely kind and helpful person. Anybody who visits Bagan or rather Nyaung U and are after budget accommodation, I can recommend Eden hotel. I will miss mr Maung, but it is time to move to the next stage of the trip.

Inle lake

The bus ride to Inle took about 8 hrs. This time there were no unexpected breaks although on one occasion they had to cool the engine down with a hose. This happened during regular break though. There were 4 young monk novices on the bus. They were definitely not used to it. Two of them got sick and I felt for the fellows. It was quite though ride when crossing the mountain range between Inle and Bagan area. Bus climbed quite high and road was winding with hundreds of sharp turns. Not easy even on seasoned traveler’s stomach as bus’ suspension was quite soft and it felt like being on the ship during the storm.

Bus reached Nyaung Swe village near Inle lake still in daylight. I checked into the hotel and went for first exploration. I noticed already from bus this area was definitely more “modernized” also with signs of industrial development on the way. Along with development came dirt and trash on the streets. As Bagan was quite clean, Inle is not so clean….there is lots of rubbish on the streets and it is very noisy as well. There is Festival of Lights going on so there are many markets and big crowds around. Youth is not dressed in longhyi any more as they wear jeans, have fancy hairstyles and they play “macho game”. Actually my first impression of the place is not the best and all of the sudden I miss the peacefulness of Bagan and mr Maung’s smile.

Fishermen village on Inle lake

Fishermen village on Inle lake

It is much cooler here during the night. Lake is about in 850m altitude and I feel it. Especially during breakfast on the hotel’s roof it was quite chilli until first sun rays started to peek out from behind mountains. Whole lake area is surrounded by mountains which keep out all the clouds. Sky above lake is crystal clear. as there is no plan about what to do I stroll down to jetty and hire a boat. I learn there will be a Buddhist “boat”procession on the lake later and I didn’t want to miss it. As I said that nights are cooler, the sun is as strong during the day as in Bagan. Even more so as sun rays reflect on the water surface giving them more strength.

Boats for hire are small narrow motorized sampans. They are very common here in various sizes. The ones for transporting tourist have 4 to 5 chairs with soft cushions and umbrellas to protect against the sun. Too much luxury I thought. It cost about 18000 kyats for a day and you get to see the life on the lake, visit fishermen villages and other places of interest. Inle lake is famous for Intha people living around and from the lake. Their distinct rowing style with using a leg made them famous but in the age of motorised transportation is nearly instinct. I got a feeling it is kept alive only as a tourist attraction.There are few other interesting places on the lake to visit. Firs to all the big market where you can see the locals selling and buying various goods. There is a weaving workshop where clothes are made from fabric which is waved from threads they produce from lotus flowers. Next one is the cigar making workshop. All these places give you a good insight into local way of life. Even though it is getting quite a tourist attraction, it is still worthwhile to visit. There are also few bigger villages on the lake with restaurants that mostly cater for tourists. These villages are like small city with waterways and smaller sidewise canals. Most of the buildings and huts built on poles. There is very little and most of the places are actually floating islands made of lake vegetation. Also the shores of the lake are not distinct. It rather turns into something like swamp or rice field and then it gradually blends into firm soil.

Fisherman from Inle lake

Fisherman from Inle lake in Myanmar perform traditional fishing technique

Today is the last day of Paya Pwe, The Festival of lights. Boats with tourists and locals are lining up to observe the procession of dragon boats and big golden bark. As local police patrol makes the way I spot the dragon boats slowly approaching. Each of the boats has different colour and decoration as well as differently dressed rowers. I assume, each boat represents a village on or near the lake. Big golden bark comes last and it is followed by army of curious onlookers.

There are few places around Nyaung Swe to visit. There is hot spring nearby where you can relax although with hundreds of people trying to get in 3 tiny pools I skipped. Also the prices seemed to raise a lot compared to 2011 (source Lonely Planet) in some places by 100%. This is true also for hotels food and other services. There is winery nearby and Inle resort which you can get inside and have a look on the lake from pier. It looked deserted (no wonder for that price tag). Built for wealthy tourist it was absolutely uninspiring for me though. Personally I prefer to explore villages or go on lake again. Late afternoon boat trip can be nice especially with possibility to stay on lake and watch the sunset from boat. Visiting a fishermen village is a nice experience. As boat slows down and engine runs more quietly you can enjoy the tranquillity of the place. Water is calm almost like mirror only disturbed occasionally by people paddling little sampans. Huts are neatly organised into rows and “streets”. It is quiet, clean like from other world. Occasionally we are greeted by kids who are waving at passing boats.

First time since I landed in Myanmar I saw clouds rolling in and storm was brewing. Temperature dropped significantly, clear skies disappeared behind cloud cover and soon wind turned the smooth lake surface into choppy seas. As it got darker it looked the storm is eminent. All boats, with locals as well as tourists rushed to the jetty or home. Storm somehow avoided Nyaung Swe.  People, mostly youth prepared for big concert right next to our hotel to officially close the festive season.

Motorised sampan heading to Inle lake

Motorised sampan heading to Inle lake just as storm is brewing

Early morning boat ride is the best to see fishermen. This time they were real ones too but they style of fishing seemed to be different to those who performed the traditional way of fishing. Times are changing everywhere and Myanmar is not an exception. The “leg” paddling is still present though but motorised transportation is the future. Hope this tradition will not go instinct completely.

Back to Yangon

The overnight bus to Yangon leaves at 5:00pm from junction about 30 min drive from Nyang Swe. As the time of departure came closer the skies got dark once more and this time there was a downpour. I got little wet and first time since I arrived I felt little cold. Bus to Yangon was a little late but eventually it arrived about 20 min late which I thought is not that bad. It is generally very cold in overnight bus. It felt like being closed in fridge. I am sure aircon inside bus ran on 200% capacity. As in previous bus trips, the continuous stream of local cheesy love songs with volume bumped up all the way was the main “in-flight” entertainment. With couple of break on the way the bus reached Yangon pretty much on time. It seems that generally buses have regular problems with overheating. Once again major stops they cooled down the engine with water.

Burmese women lighting sticks

Burmese women lighting sticks at Swedagon pagoda before her prayers

It is a good idea to book a hotel in Yangon ahead. Most hotels a re expensive and cheap ones fill up quick. I had no booking and I relied on luck. I was about to fly off just after midnight but spending another 20 hours in Yangon with big backpack and without shower was not a good idea. I put my bet on YMCA but they were full. Weather is very hot even more so when caring heavy luggage. It seemed really hard to find a hotel or guest house. I nearly accepted the reality of next 20 hours sweaty and tired when I noticed a guy that I saw on one of buses to Yangon. Thanks to him I got directions to  Mahabandoola Guest House near Sule Pagoda. As mentioned on Lonely Planet with warning to be used only as last resort. This was the last resort so I got a very shabby basic run down room for $10. Still I thought it is God sent. Refreshed and showered I dropped  to Bokyok market to change some USD to Kyats as I run of money. Unfortunately it was early morning so everything was closed. Finally I managed to change some at Central Hotel but it was for very bad rate. I was desperate, and hungry so I changed 20 USD and went back to guest house to get some sleep.

Novice monk at Swedagon pagoda

Novice monk at Swedagon pagoda in Yangon watching sunset

A must visit spot in Yangon is famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It is Sunday so it is no surprise it is full of tourists and locals alike. Admission fee is $5 for foreigners it is well worth it. This pagoda is huge, 99m high and simply stunning. Especially late afternoon as sun gets lower in the sky and gets dark the golden shape nicely stands out against dark blue sky. Later it gets lit up and it is nicely glowing in golden orange colours.

Swedagon pagoda

Swedagon pagoda after sunset

The time of departure is getting closer and holiday is nearly at its end. Surprisingly I didn’t have to pay departure fee which was mentioned in Local planet.  Waiting for the plane I realised how little I saw from Myanmar and there is so much more to see and discover. But I go home with great deal of experience and hope to get back to Myanmar again. Shortly after midnight I boarded the plane and as it took of I observed lights of Yangon, the biggest city in Golden Land, disappearing in the dark.

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Camping Bangkok style

May 15, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s 7th May late afternoon and I am waiting for my flight to Bangkok in Singapore’s Budget terminal. Despite the advice of singaporean government not to travel to Thailand I am taking the opportunity to have a weekend getaway in the “City of Angels”. Lat couple of weeks were pretty though in Bangkok, with worst ever clashes between demonstrators and police in two decades which resulted in more than 20 dead including Japanese Reuters cameraman. With my love of photojournalism I set myself to take some pictures of demonstration and people affected by it. Read more…

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Kawah Ijen

February 16, 2010 1 comment

Have you ever complained about your job? Try to mine sulfur in Ijen Crater, East Java, Indonesia. The Kawah Ijen volcano complex is a group of stratovolcanoes, in East Java, Indonesia. It is inside a larger caldera Ijen, which is about 20 kilometers wide. The main attraction is Ijen volcano, which has a one-kilometer-wide turquoise-colored acid crater lake. The lake is the site of a labor-intensive sulfur mining operation, in which sulfur-laden baskets are carried by hand from the crater floor. Read more…

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