Photo essay on:
Thailand & Laos
Thailand & Laos—2011
I had been shooting for 2 years. I mostly used the kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm) and the cheap EF 50mm on a Canon 450d. My experience mostly consisted of shooting students during school events, taking excursions in the area immediately around Yichang, and a 10 days trip to Yunnan during the summer before.
For this trip, I borrowed my student’s father’s 70-200mm f/2.8 and headed down to Thailand to meet up with my best friend, Jason, for a trip through Thailand and Laos. Meeting Jason was first and foremost in my mind. I last saw him when I attended his wedding in 2009.
He was happy that I was able to make it out to see him then and he wanted to return the favor. He and his wife loved the pictures I casually took during their reception. I became hooked on photography. Also, he was the first and has been the only friend to make it out to Asia to meet me. I had already been here for six years. Asia was high on his list and caving in Laos was a big interest of his.
The previous year’s trip to Yunnan was so great and the photos were, and still are, so precious to me that I was really excited about returning to Southeast Asia to travel and shoot photos.
I was confident that the photos from this trip would be as dear to me as the Yunnan pictures. Writing this 4 years after the trip just goes to show the lasting effect travel can have on my memory.
The Long Boat
The Mekong in the Wet Season.
This highway turns and bends through Laos from China and travels many more hundreds of kilometers before it passes through the fertile sieve of southern Vietnam and then into the South China Sea. Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country is prone to landslides as the summer monsoons pound away at the loose hills and the swelling Mekong makes itself wider causing the fragile earth to be carried away by the strong currents of the brown muddy water that gets muddier as the warm summer rains fall.
Many travelers like to approach Laos from the extreme north by long boat, travel to Luang Prabang, and then continue by boat or to take a coach to other popular spots like the sleepy party town of Vangvieng.
I think most people can only tolerate the long boat for two days and no more. The wooden hull is lined not with wooden benches or chairs but car seats (yes, car seats) removed from minivans and lined inside the hull of the long boat. They were incredibly uncomfortable but since they were not bolted to the boat, we could turn them around and arrange the seats so to sit facing other passangers who we chatted up. All day on a boat, all we could do was stare out of the window to see brown water running along the foot of green hills under gray rainy sky. This could only captivate anyone for so long. Our attention eventually drew inward. Eating French bread sanwiches and drinking beer, small mellow parties formed that alternated between eating, sharing travel stories, taking photos, and napping.
Click on the image below to play short video of scenery and sound of the long boat trip:
People, mostly from Europe, made up the cluster of foreigners who all seemed to be guided by the same Lonely Planet book—an impressive volume stitched with nylon so to bear the constant wear and tear of being paged. This was not exactly a wild adventure. The tourists had found this river. If a river could be well tred, this seemed to be it.
On the first night, we landed and ate dinner overlooking the river. The friends we made on the boat would join us and we talked and drank beer until late past sundown when the scenery beyond the wooden balcony disappeared into the light-less night.
We sat around the table drinking and smoking and laughing.
Enough of the boat ride had been experienced to last a lifetime on that first day. But we still had more ahead of us. We couldn't simply press stop and be done with it. On the second day, the boat was fitted with even more chairs making the conditions even more cramped, which seemed impossible at first, but soon made me reminisce about how more pleasant the uncomforatable-ness of yesterday was.
I have never been a good tourist. I always have been prone to getting separated from the group, interested in heading my own way and not giving a shit about other people’s schedules. Also, since I often have to travel so far to get where I am going, I often wish my destination involves as little transportation as possible. A short walk around the block in whatever new place I find myself in is enough adventure for me. This is in part why I love photography. Photography rewards you when you are in different rhythm from eveyone else. You look at things longer—considering light in ways unnecessary to people without cameras. On the boat, the camera helped me escape.
There is, of course, more to traveling besides photography. For example, people without a carmera would think that inner-tubing down a river, in the hot summer sun, sounds like a dream come true. A person with camera equippment sees a problem.
But on the other hand, a person without a camera would think disembarking from a coach to walk over a landslide in the rain is a real drag. A person with a camera sees it as a dream come true. Like-minded people suffer together and bond. Me, as a photographer, standing outside of others’ light, aloof, I simply try keep my shadow from falling in their direction as I shoot.
But with all of that said, without friends, there is hardly anything worth a damn worth photographing. I am not talking about taking photographs of your friends. I am talking about friends are the ones who pull you in a direction. They encourage the excursion that a lone traveler would probably not take. They make the pain of traveling to those scenic spots fun.
The very fact that they approach things differently and think differently is precisely how they make me grow. That is not to say that we always get along. But that is why we always remain friends.
Not long after the boat took off, catching the current of the river, and not long after eating my first banana leaf wrapped baguette, and not long after finding out where everyone was from and how long they have been traveling, I entered what I will call River Time. The humming of the boat’s motor became this consant sound in the background. The vibrations of the boat became my vibrations. Everyone settled. Not long ago we all were strangers. Now we were cramped on the same boat, in the same uncomfortable seats. Eating the same dry sandwiches. Looking out at the same scenery. I switched to shooting in black and white.
Long gone are the film days when choosing monochrome film was important. Today's software makes switching to black and white easy. But shooting in monochrome, I could not reverse that through software. But I wanted to be able to look at the images through the LCD as I imagined the scenery. The greens and browns of the landscape distracted from what was really beautiful about the scenery--the shapes and light and textures. Some say we dream in black and white. This sleepy adventure, where our actions were confined to this small wooden boat, became like fitful child-like sleep that alternates between dream-like imagery, fits of bordom, and a disorienting sense of time.
Laos is a country under curfew. But the tuk tuk drivers in Luang Prabang can take you to the outskirts of town to a bowling alley where you can drink as much Beer Lao as you want and go barefoot bowling till three in the morning. Then they will take you to the most delicious nasty water buffalo ramen noodle place you’ve never heard of. And don’t be surprised if both places are full on people and half of those people are also the same tourists you saw on the long boat ride a day or two ago.
If you were to ask those who were there, they would all agree that barefoot bowling was one of the most fun times in Luang Prabang. Water buffalo ramen might have deserved a warning label though.
But one cannot binge on barefoot bowling in Luang Prabang 24/7. There are other things to do and during the day.
There was a beautiful street market along the main street. Vendors sold clothes and woven bags as well as prints and paintings.
Climbing Phu Si hill in the center of town is a favorite place to watch the sunset. As you climb the stairs to the peak (where sits a temple) you can purchase a small caged birds for sale. The Buddhist believe that releasing a bird, or is some cases a fish, (but who can release a fish on a hilltop?) is one way of paying alms to Buddha. You can buy incense sticks and a yellow candle and burn it in the alter on top of the hill.
The Beaded Bracelet Gang
Spend any time in Luang Prabang's small downtown area and you will be absolutely charmed by the colonial-style cafes with their colonial facades where the sunlight shines in approval of late morning laziness. Enjoy a cup of coffee and a croissant in the late morning and be prepared to cough it up. No, not the pastry. The dough.
As a teacher, I could not simply turn my shoulder to them. Having budgeted my trip, only to learn how much lower my daily expenses would be, I knew I could afford to buy some beaded bracelets from the kids who comb the streets for people to buy their goods. While writing this I noticed that I still have three bracelets hanging by my bedroom door.
Just as I had agreed to buy some jasmine garlands from a woman in Thailand, if I could take her photo. I made a similar deal with these Laotian kids.
A Minor Delay
Even though I had not heard very much about traveling in Laos, word somehow got to me that Laos is known for landslides and how the roads, during the wet season, are often blocked for days and even weeks.
We left Luang Prabang in the morning by coach. By early afternoon we were on foot. The bus had to stop and we had to walk a mile or two over the mud-caked road--over the week-old landslide. Inconvenient it might have been but none of us were in any great hurry. I may have enjoyed it more than others, as I took out my camera. They may have even thought I was an asshole for looking so damn happy as I kept an eyes open for interest things to shoot. They were forgetting about getting to Vangvieng any time soon.
Once we arrived to the other side of the landslide, we had to wait. Hot and tired and hopes dashed of arriving to Vangvieng before sundown, we did whatever we could to not feel so annoyed at the situation. As it would turn out, we only had to wait on the side of the road for 4 hours.
When we arrived to Vangvieng it was already dark. Before we could get to the main part of town and find a guesthouse to check into, we helped a young man get to the hospital. He felt awful and had symptoms of what might have been Dengue Fever. In this instance, the Lonely Planet Guide came in very handy.
When we finally arrived to the center of town, bars were bustling with young foreigners who saw this sleepy town as their spring break holiday resort. Shirtless, shoeless men speaking German walking down the streets. I saw a shirtless tattooed man talking to a Laotian woman in what looked like a lovers’ arguement by the quiet side of a thatched hut building.
Opium and marijuana laced pizzas were on the menu. Psychodelic infused milkshakes were today’s special. Just beyond the glow of the main road, which was bustling with wide awake foreign men, were the dark shapes of homes. This probably went unnoticed by most who had too much time, too few rules and fewer women around to calm them down. Perhaps the long road from Luang Prabang made me too tired. But this place did not interest me at all. Apparently one of the hi-lights of Vangvieng was tubing down the river. Maybe I am too cautious. But being around a bunch of dudes getting drunk and high while tubing down a river doesn’t really float my boat. So, I wished my fellow travelers a bon voyage and bought a ticket on a minibus to the capital the next morning.
Riding in a minibus instead of a large coach was the best choice I could have made. I didn't want a party adventure. I wanted to see Laos. I wanted to see people and see how they lived. Doing so is always a challenge when you don't speak the local language, don't plan on staying for very long, and have no local connection. I don't mind the solitary life. I had already been an expat in China for a few years. A minibus, while cramped, had windows at street level. A coach, on the other hand, towers above the street and has darkened windows making proper exposure impossible. The ride was not exciting but I got a few good shots.
Once I got to Vientiane, it felt good to be away from the crowd and explore the city alone with my camera. There is the Friendship Bridge connecting Laos with the northern Thai city of Nong Khai. Both cities have a riverside boulevard that attracts foreigners and has a decent amount of nightlife. I stayed in a hotel about a couple kilometers inland, in the hotel Leuxay which was rather large for Vientiane and had a swimming pool. I spent most of my day walking around the city exploring and then cooling off in the pool at night before bed.
There was not much to explore. Vientiane is not a very exciting city. It was not long before the summer heat soaked under my skin and I was looking for some cool place to dive into to escape.
A Vietnamese man who moved to Laos owns an antique shop that also serves coffee. His pre-teen daughter took this picture of us and served Vietnamese style coffee.
Other Images Around Vientiane
I would reconnect with my friends. Having spent time away from each other meant that we shared the stories of the adventures we experienced apart.
We'd all spend a couple more days in Vientiane until we went our separate ways around South East Asia. But not before a night out. Jason found a bar in his Rough Guide. It was a really nice bar on the third floor of a building. It was spacious and cool from the breeze coming off of he river. Tables of happy people drinking cold Beer Lao. Happy sloppy guys ordering shots at the bar. An older man hitting on a scantily clad local. And then just awkwardly sitting there once he realized that she was a he and was in no hurry to move on from the odd silence that formed between them.
We ordered a large pitcher of Beer Lao and took in the moment praising Jason on the good find and cheers-ing each other on the great trip and together soaking in the gratitude we all felt for having been lucky to have met.
Thank you for reading. Your comments and feedback are greatly appreciated.