Early this year I was lucky to have the chance to make my first trip to Southeast Asia. I had a little time, a little money, and my window of opportunity happened to line up with that of a good friend and co-worker. I thought I was pushing the envelope, going out on a limb, by deciding on a whim to try traveling in Cambodia and Vietnam. I didn’t know what I would find, nor could I predict that it would be much easier and overall more pleasurable than the traveling, or daily life for that matter, I’d been experiencing for almost three years in Ethiopia.
It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, 17 days in all without the transit through Bangkok on each end. After coming back here, the trip faded away quickly enough as I became saturated again in the details of work and life in Addis. At some point I wanted to recall the trip, to reflect on it, so I set my desktop image to scroll trough all the photos from the trip at regular intervals.
After weeks of these images cycling before my eyes and through my sub/consciousness, I finally decided that I ought to do something with them.
Process and Approach
Ever since the concept was first introduced to me by one of my university film professors (or was it Brian Eno?), I’ve enjoyed setting up artificial constrictions as a way of squeezing out or distilling creativity. In this case, I knew that I needed a device for paring down the huge number of photos (over one thousand). Thinking of the range of possible numbers of final photos I would want, I came up with the idea of choosing three from each day (with seventeen days of travel this would result in a manageable number, fifty-one photos).
I knew this would be challenging. Some of the days around Siem Riep in Cambodia were full of visits to temples, with hundreds of potentially interesting images to choose from. The challenge I didn’t predict was the fact that, on travel days, I might not have many more than three images to choose from, with most of them being casual snaps or throw-away shots.
I started out with my usual focus of late: look for the most visually interesting images, regardless of topic or narrative value. Before long, though, I couldn’t help including more informational photos, shots that captured cultural elements that I had been curious about or fascinated with. In some cases I found myself wandering away from both of these values and indulging in personal, temporal connections, such as the very first shot in the series, which might not do much for the viewer, but takes me back to The Moment of Arrival on a warm night in Cambodia, being transported by private tuk-tuk into the unknown of a new continent, region, and country.
After finishing the long selection process, I debated captioning the photos to give more context to the viewer. Out of this debate came the idea of a mini-narrative … maybe I’d write one sentence per photo and string them together and leave it to chance as to whether this approach resulted in a coherent whole. You can judge that for yourself by reading the next section.
The warm smile and chuckle of the hotel tuk-tuk driver holding a sign with my name, at the moment we spotted each other, gave me the best possible feeling on the moment of arrival; his easygoing manner put me at ease immediately and led directly to me enjoying the warm, open-air night ride through Siem Reap. The thing I wasn’t prepared for was Pub Street, the closest thing to Bourbon Street that I couldn’t imagine in The Developing World. Pondering the huge water wheel in the Siem Reap River in the quiet of the late night wasn’t what I had expected either, not that I had expected anything that I could describe in any tangible way. Was it really on our first full day in Cambodia that we rented bikes and rode out to purchase our three day passes for the temples and took advantage of the free bonus evening to find ourselves in the famous Angkor Wat? Was this to be our Way of Visit? Is it a cliche to say that I couldn’t take it all in? The grandeur and scale of the most famous of the area temples was something that I couldn’t capture with my camera, but I think I did better with some of the small, alluring details. On the second day another tuk-tuk driver from the hotel took us on the grand tour; we visited a handful of temples, each stunning in its own way. Although I tried my best to photography these spaces for what they were, it was impossible to ignore the hordes of tourists who had come from around the globe (although I think my friend and I were were the only ones coming from Ethiopia) and it was only natural that I found myself capturing us in our unfortunate, if not unseemly business. A big part of the experience of the third day was getting out into the countryside beyond the city and experiencing what “real” Cambodia might look and feel like; this put the day’s additional temple visits into a better, if still limited, context. Stopping off on the way back for a visit to the Land Mine Museum provided a deeper historical reality check. Day four was dedicated to bumming around, getting ready for transit, paying bills and getting papers in order, eating “amok” from a coconut shell, and flying away to another unknown land. Late at night we arrived in a frigid Hanoi. A driver who spoke not one word of English drove us the 45 minutes or so from the airport to our hotel, which was disorienting and cold, but would in time become our home away from home. On day five we were happy enough to explore freezing Hanoi on foot, seeing the Temple of Literature, observing street scenes and culture, ordering and eating a delicious lunch that we had no idea what to call or how to order, and stopping in at an island temple. On day five we were already on a train south to Hue, looking for warmer temperatures and new scenes. The rice farming and small towns and villages made for pleasant scenery out the window and we were lucky that vendors came by with carts of delicious food and iced coffee (since we had no strategy or plan for getting through the 16 hour journey comfortably. Hue was full of interesting cultural scenes and places to visit. We had an embarrassingly hard time finding the one permissible entry point to the Citadel and Imperial Enclosure, but our struggle was well worth it. The depressing part was seeing the destruction, still obvious, caused by American bombing decades before. Meanwhile some themes of the trip and my photography of it were beginning to emerge, such as cafes and coffee, and offerings and displays for gods and ancestors. The scenes along the Perfume River were dynamic and captivating and the long walk to the Thien Mu Pagoda was perfectly rewarding; we were pleasantly surprised by the expansive grounds, which included an impressive rock/bonsai garden and views of the surrounding countryside; we found this a much more worthwhile destination that the highly touted Temple of Literature in Hanoi. On our final day in Hue we hired a private driver to take us out to several Royal Tombs. Again, just seeing the scenes in the villages and countryside was priceless, but the tombs and their grounds were beyond impressive (we had debated bothering to see these, but the day turned out to be full of highlights). The rest of day was spent eating street food and lounging around cafes in Hue, and I couldn’t resist photographing the strange relic sign in one of them that seemed to serve as a monument to the Dutch soccer star Ruud Gullit, whom I was once lucky enough to see score a couple of brilliant goals in Eindhoven long ago. On day eleven of the trip we were back in Hanoi (having flown the night before) and we were really hitting our stride with Vietnamese food, downing heaping portions of cheap and delicious bun cha. It was warmer in Hanoi this time around, allowing us to enjoy wandering around the old quarter on foot, which included a random, unplanned stop at a coffee vendor to ponder the merits of the outrageously expensive “weasel coffee” (with real and fake versions on offer). On day twelve we were off to Halong Bay, still waiting for the sun and warm temperatures that were continually forecast but never seemed to materialize. We’d spend the next couple of days on the bay, visiting a huge cave and a pearl farm, kayaking and drifting, before being expelled from the bay with all tourists because of an alleged, incoming storm. Our Plan A (for biking and hiking on Cat Ba Island) quashed, we found ourselves back in Hanoi chowing on bun cha and visiting the highly recommendable Museum of Ethnology while pondering what our Plan B should consist of. It was our third stay at the same hotel, the one that had arranged our two airport pickups, our train tickets to Hue, our trip to Halong Bay, and our taxi to the museum. They’d been pretty much flawless, so we booked another trip through them, our last, to the interior mountains and an ethnic White Thai rice farming village called Mai Chau. Warned about the cold temperatures that would come with the higher altitude, we received the best surprise: the warm (hot, actually) and sunny weather that had been promised, but never really delivered, day after day throughout our short stay in Vietnam. Mai Chau was a real hit. If the bicycles we borrowed from the lodge had been better and more comfortable, I could have spent a whole day just tooling around on two wheels — that’s how pleasant and downright gorgeous this little bowl of a valley between picturesque mountains was. We met three Japanese students (who seemed so much more calm and mature than most Americans of equivalent age) on holiday and enjoyed going around with them, including a visit to an awe-inspiring cave that was accessible only by climbing a thousand steps up a steep hill. Back in Hanoi for our last day, we didn’t want to stray too far from the hotel and our arranged driver, so we indulged in the simple pleasures of the Old Quarter and our final cups of top-notch Vietnamese coffee.
Here you see all images in a gallery by clicking on the first image that appears and then using the arrows to scroll the whole set of images in a larger format. This is not necessarily the best way to present the images, but until I redesign and reactivate my website, this will have to do. As I finish the process of uploading, it also appears that the mercurial WP interface has provided some odd results in terms of image order. Ah, the randomness! Enjoy!