Barbara and I joined seven other photo enthusiasts and our intrepid tour leader, Karl Grobl of Jim Cline Tours on a photo adventure through Thailand, Myanmar (briefly), Laos and Cambodia. We left the US on January 16 for Bangkok, Thailand and headed back to Phoenix on February 4. We hoped it would be a "once in a lifetime" type of trip, and it was. This was a photo tour and we certainly did take lots (and lots) of photos: about 4000 for Jay and 2000 by Barbara. This is a selection of Jay's photos from the trip. After a lot of searching I found the tripntale photo sharing website and am experimenting with it. There are some very good things about tripntale: First, it is free, second, it is easy to populate and navigate, and additionally it has a slideshow capability, although a limited one. I suggest you take a look at the photos and the try the slideshow. It makes the photos become a much more "flow" experience. You don't get the captions or actually see the entire photo, but you do get almost a motion picture experience. Other sites are slicker but this one is doing the job quite well for sharing the images at this stage in the game. I like it.
And now on to the tour!!
We arrived in Bangkok after a 25 hour transit and settled into our hotel. While our tour covered a lot of ground, no tour can cover everything, so we took our first day in Bangkok to visit the National Museum and, on the advice of a couple who had done the same tour last year, went to the nearby Wat Arun. FYI Bangkok is a both old and new city and everything in between. But it is not an ancient one. Bangkok became the capital of Siam in the late 1700's after the previous capital, Ayutthaya, founded in the 1351 and about 30 mlles distant, was sacked by the Burmese.
The National Museum is a sprawling group of building that tells the story of the history of Thailand from its pre-historic beginnings to the present day. It has some remarkable collections, of sculptures, weavings, weapons, puppets and masks, etc. But, the very surprising thing to us is that it is not air conditioned. Here we had our first lesson on this part of the world: that it is hot and humid. The effect on visitors, especially Western visitors, is to sweat profusely. After a while we got used to it, sort of. For whatever reason, the museum staff sat in their starched uniforms and did not sweat a bit. A number sat with little fans at hand, which was about all that was available to cut through the tropical humidity.
On to Wat Arun, which is one of the earlier wats (or temples) in Bangkok and is a stunning collection of towers and smaller temples structures, most of which are covered with mosaic tiles. The tiles came from Chinese trading vessels what used this material for ballast. What a marvelous example of recycling! The collection of towers, gerudas, and smaller shrines was different than anything we had ever seen before. In a sense, the use of mosaics is like the use of stained glass in Western cathedrals. While there I was asked by a Buddhist monk at one of the shrines if I wanted to be blessed. I accepted and it was one of my most memorable events of the trip. After he did his blessing he tied a piece of string bracelet around my wrist in a certain way. I wore it during the entire trip, plus.
The next day a friend, Gordon, who lives in a Bangkok suburb, came to meet Barbara and me. It is always a pleasure to have someone who lives in a place show us around, and Gordon did a great job. We took a river taxi boat to the Flower Market where we meandered through displays of many, many exotic vegetables, fruits and flower taking in the sights and having some great coffee and then hit typical heavy traffic as we headed back to our hotel. This is where I started to take photos of shrines. There are innumerable shrines for good fortune at buildings in all the countries we visited. These are also seen as "spirit house" where guardian spirits of the place reside. No, this is more animist than Buddhist in tradition. I decided to capture as many as I could, as well as local flowers, along the trip, as you will see. Shrines can be elaborate or fairly simple, but each has its own unique collection of offerings to the guardian spirit of that particular shrine.
Day 1: Our Tour officially started that evening with a welcome dinner - introduction to tour pals.
Day 2 of the Tour: We left Bangkok to go to Damnern Saduak (Bangkok's famed "floating market") about 30 miles out of town. Along the way we stopped at on of the salt pans, where workers harvest salt that evaporates from a constant inflow of water. This is hard, unremitting work, a lot different than in the Bangkok. The salt is collected into piles, taken into a warehouse and then bagged for sale. Thailand is a combination of the first, second and third world, with everything is more or less next to one another. We continued onto the floating market which is a collection of canals with innumerable stalls of just about everything a tourist might drag home for sale. Along with that are a number of long tail boats with people selling an array of local vegetables, fruits etc., and some great street food.
It was now time to move back to the first or second world, I am not sure which, returning to Bangkok an on For a visit to the Royal Palace. The Palace is a number of city blocks filled with many buildings stupas and wats, most decorated in mosaic and some gilded. One wat, Wat Pho, is the oldest temple in Bangkok (1781) is the home of the 66 foot long gilded reclining Buddha, a truly remarkable phenomena. The display of the royal wealth and Buddhist wats were one after the other. We spent time taking as much of it in as we could. After dinner we had a lesson in panning, which is is photographing something moving so that it appears to stand still while its background appears a blur.
Day 3 was a trip to Ayutthaya, the first major capital of Thailand. Ayutthaya is not one site, but many clusters of sites located over a wide area. It is the kind of place you dip into here and then there. Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam until 1767, While is was in good part in various states of ruin, there is still much there, it has a haunting quality and is widely revered and visited. Ayutthaya had been recently about six feet underwater during the unusually high floods that ravaged this part of the world in November and December, with cleanup carried on as the waters receded.
That evening we has a marvelous dinner at a teak house that had been dismantled, moved and rebuilt in Bangkok. The space was out of the late 1800's, with about the best Thai cuisine one could hope for and great service, too. Definitely a memorable highlight of the tour.
Following that a bunch of the group went to a nearby somewhat seedy bar that converts to a to Muay Thai boxing club for a couple of hours after 10 PM at night. This is kick boxing close up and personal. Karl told us how to set our cameras to catch the action in continuous mode. And, we did just that.
Day 4: We flew to to the northwestern corner of Thailand, Chang Saen and then drive to the Golden Triangle - which is where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar touch and the Mekong heads further south. The Golden Triangle was a major transit point for opium, heroin and other contraband for decades but that has more or less stopped at this time, or so I was told. We walked down to the small main street and its massive Buddha shrine. Following that we walked up a long set of steps to a Buddhist monastery just before sunset, where a monk struck a large gong, setting off an enormous chorus of dog howls The dogs know they have a steady source of dinner and show up en mass for their evening feeding. It is a combination of sights and sounds you have to be there to believe. The monks were pleasant but more interested in their evening prayers, and congenially hosted us and our photo taking. Being there at sunset with a group of monks chanting is a very tranquil experience, except when the dogs bark.
Day 5: Our day started with a dawn photo shoot on the Mekong River. Lots of photos and learning to use my tripod and settings at dawn with an occasional success. Following that we went to visit the Karen Long Neck village, which is also near other hill tribe villages. The Karen and other peoples are stateless refugees from Myanmar. The have set up their villages, where they continue their traditional ways and customs. They welcome guests who supply revenue for their community development work and sell their weavings and embroidery. They are a lovely people, with the woman, starting in childhood wearing good rings around their necks, arms and legs, as a feature of beauty. At this time children have a choice to wear the rings or not, but a lot do as you can see in the photos.
Then it was on to the border with Myanmar. I had though we were going to a dusty little village, but Mae Sai, the Thai border town is bustling and sizable. We crossed over into Tachilek, Myanmar and its smaller border town, meandering around its outdoor market and then to a huge gilded Buddhist shrine nearby. While we hear that Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a tightly controlled military ruled state, there was no evidence of that during our time there. People live with about 1940's - 1950's technology, but seemed healthy and in fine shape. A main lesson I learned time and again throughout the trip was that the amount of material goods do not determine of the quality of life. They were warm and enjoyed us visiting them.
This was a 3-4 hour visit, since we had to get back across the border to Thailand by 5 PM. The time was short but worthwhile. Just meeting some of the women market food shopping in their traditional dress made it worth it.
Day 6 was a couple of hour drive to the Thai-Laotian border. There we hit throngs of pack packers and others bunched up against a counter window trying to get their visas into Laos. Karl worked his magic and we finally made it through the horde and were into the small Laotian border town. We drove to where the river boats are moored and began our two day sail down the Mekong River.
Day 7: Down the Mekong River - Our boat was just for us. It had everything we needed, lunch and a sunning area, and facilities, We could climb onto the bow of the boat and get an unobstructed view if we wanted and we did. Along the way we saw the pretty unpopulated Laotian countryside. But people and animals were out and about. People were panning for gold, fishing, or just taking a swim. Then there were the water buffalos, lounging on the beaches. We stopped at a Hmong village and had free rein to visit anything and anyone there. The kids, monks, and anyone who lived there were quite welcoming. Housing is just bamboo and animals (pigs, dogs, ducks, etc.) wander about. The Buddhist Wat was both basic and beautifully adorned, all at the same time. And, the weavings were skilled, beautiful and inexpensive.
We pulled into Pak Ben, which was midway on our journey and where passengers from river boats stay on their journeys. Our hotel was French as was the food. If you are in the middle of a jungle it is a good place to be.
Days 8, and 9: We continued down the Mekong, stopping at the Pok Au Caves, which are also known as the Caves of a 1000 Buddhas. And that is exactly what is there. Buddhas of all sizes, from miniature to life size are packed into every cranny of the caves. This is part of the way of life in Laos.
We finally reached Luang Prabang where we ended of boat Mekong River experience.
The couple we met with who has been on last year's tour told us that it was the highlight of their trip. I could not understand why until we walked the streets and just thoroughly enjoyed our too limited time, just several days there. The older section of Luang Prabang is a UN World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. There are no neon signs, all wiring is underground, the wats and monasteries are everywhere and more or less as they have been for ages. The daily walk through the streets of monks for their alms is draws many local residents to offer alms and many tourists to take photos. It is definitely an experience. But it is the at ease experience. The attention to detail and warmth, as well as the slowing down of time is what makes Luang Prabang a place many people come to visit and never leave. Having a coffee at a main street outdoor cafe is something I did not want to get up from. Our hotel was charming,with a lovely outdoor garden where we breakfasted, but some iffy air conditioning.
We had two days with the monks on their morning on their alms walk, plus a trip to a waterfall, came across a wedding at a major temple, had a welcome message for all of $8, visited the former Royal residence, went to the night market twice, walked across a bamboo bridge to across the river to the non UN Heritage side of town, where the real people live, work and shop, with its sprawling market and rice paddies, and closed with a delicious Korean Thai dinner at a riverside restaurant run by a photographer friend of Karl's. Luang Prabang is a place that people drop in on and then decide they really do not want to leave. We would be among them, but the tour agenda said to move on.
Days 10-13: From Luang Prabang we flew to Siem Reip, Cambodia, the jumping off point to the many and magnificent clusters of Khmer Empire temples, known as Angkor. Angkor is also a UN World Heritage site. This was a place I have been wanting to go to for decades. It is the largest temple complex in the world and stunning. The best known and largest temple is Angkor Wat. But there are many more sites scattered over many miles of jungle, each with similarities in design and themes but all unique unto themselves. These structures were built from about 900 - 1300 AD. They were then more or less abandoned for 600 years, although local people and monks kept them as spiritual sites all during that time. Some sites have been restored but many are mostly left as they have been, with tree roots uprooting walls and hundreds, if not thousands of sandstone building blocks where they have fallen.
Superb bas relief carvings and galleries of friezes are everywhere. Tourists are just about everywhere as well. Since the final end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1998, tourism has made a huge come back, and the Angkor complex is one of the most visited site in all of Asia. Somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people come to Angkor, mostly from the various countries in Asia but from Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Being on a tour such as ours enabled us to get to places that other people are not at times when they are still having their breakfasts.
Much of the sculpture and carvings are untouched and as they were left 600 years ago. One can only imagine how rich in complexity, color and vibrancy life in Angkor was then. Near one of the temple complexes we walked to a residence of a group of monks, where people come to get special blessings. I volunteered to be one of two people to get this water blessing. It is hot and humid in Cambodia, but when the elder monk began pouring the well water from the barrel over our heads I let out a huge set of yelps. For a few minutes of refreshing coldness, it was back to sweating profusely again.
We went from the Angkor temples to the vast Tonle Sap lake area. Here people live in stilt villages and fishing is the way of life. The lake rises and falls 30 or more feet during the course of the year. As you can see, people do not have much in the way of material wealth, but everyone we saw looked quite well and warmly welcomed us. We happened upon a wedding reception where we met the bride and could have stayed the whole day if we wanted to. But we had a trip on the lake to see how people live and carry out their lives there. Upon returning to the village we dropped in on a monastery with its school where the kids were learning English. Everyone was barefoot, including the teacher, but attentive after a fashion. We were a welcome guests and left postcards to give some idea where and how we live in our home countries.
There are carvings of dancers, called Apsaras (celestial spirits) and innumerable devetas (guardian spirits) at all Angkor sites. Karl arranged for for a photo shoot with a young woman and man in full Apsara and Geruda costume for us. Later, at the end of our stay we went to a dinner theater with a show of Cambodian folk and Apsara dancing, It is a bit eerie how the people we met in Cambodia today look exactly like those we saw in the bas reliefs from the Khmer Empire.
Day 14: Phnom Phen - It was now time to head to Phnom Phen, the capital city of Cambodia. In 1974, the Khmer Rouge ordered the 1 million people of the city to leave for the countryside under a rouse and the city was abandoned for four years. This was a completely traumatic time for Cambodia, where approximatelly 1.5 million people died. It is very difficult to comprehend that this actually took place and such a short time ago. But Cambodia was operated as closed state at that time. with no one on the outside knowing what was happening within. Even though the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they were still a force until the late 1990's in the forests near Thailand. It was only after the last major Khmer leadership was captured or killed that it was considered safe enough for foreigners to return. A good deal of the city is back but the past lingers not to far from the surface.
We visited a former high school that had been an interrogation center during the 1974-79 period and were given a tour by one of the two living survivors who came through that place, out of 20,000. Each prisoner was photographed before they were tortured and later taken out to be be killed. The Killing Fields, as they became known is about 10 miles from Phnom Phen. We then went out to that site where the is a now national stupa memorial shrine, Choeung Ek, remembering all those that had been killed. It is about 100 feet tall, with a number of levels, each with the recovered bones of victims separated out by age and sex. Sadly there are 20,000 killing field sites in Cambodia.
With it all, Phnom Phen is still a major city. We stayed at the Foreign Correspondents Club that was the locus for international journalists in Cambodia during the Viet Nam war. The bar and restaurant overlook the Mekong River create the sense of pre-1970's Phnom Phen and are just a good place to stay to close out our trip.
Day 15: We flew back to the Bangkok airport, stayed overnight and take that 24 hour reverse set of flights back to Phoenix.
If anyone is interested in photography, this was a wonderful tour. We had a huge amount of diverse experiences, but all was well managed by Karl. We are saving pennies for our next jaunt.