An unexpected self-portrait

Regardless of whether you call yourself a photographer or not (I don’t), the usability of digital technology has made photography far more accessible to the common hoards than before. Looking at many tourist locales, the sight of masses of people trying to up one another on getting that awesome shot sometimes becomes the attraction in itself.

I recently hosted two friends who are just as photo-crazy. I found myself bemused in watching them, especially when their obsession is on taking photos of food. I would wait a good while after our meal is served for the ladies to finish their photographic frenzy.

It took only one meal to spot the opportunity. I turned them into my subjects. Enjoy the photo journal!

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Thank you many times over to ellenita and Tingers for being such good sports with great senses of humour and for letting me post this up on my blog.

After watching them over several days it occurred to me… I probably look like that, too! They just were so amusing to watch especially since both of them do the same things, magnifying the effect.

Up ahead: Mandalay

Mandalay holds the old Myanmar glory of being the last royal capital. Today stands as one of the country’s major cities by its own right.

Yangon was (more on the past tense later) the center of the modern government and its governing interests and international presence. I feel that Bagan is the home of the Burmese soul and Mandalay is the home of the Burmese hearts. Mandalay enchanted me. A bustling city by its own right, Mandalay has a history feel without loosing its sense of growth and development. While Mandalay was the last royal capital, the area still conveys the old dignity in its character.

Most of its old palatial sites was destroyed. A few unexpected survivors dotted the city landscape. For reasons unknown, one of the buildings were moved out of the palace grounds to Mandalay Hill. Over time, it eventually became the  Shwenandaw Monastery until someone discovered the origin of the building and the government turned it into a historic site.

The woodwork is amazing. The building itself has been moved a couple of times and the modern carpentry has made its way into the reconstruction process. However, the intricate foundation on stilts and the detail in the carvings on every inch of the wall, interior and exterior, makes it a formidable feat of architecture and design. Most of the wood carving details have faded or softened over time. But some probably never were there to begin with because the wood was just the base. The building had in its heyday been completely gilded. As the guide was explaining that, I mentally sized up the building and the quantity of gold it would take. Gold is $1500 an ounce today, people.

Nikon D90, fisheye lens, f/9, 1/320

Nikon D90, f/5, 1/30s

Another impressive site is Kuthodaw Pagoda. It wasn’t so much the main pagoda as the environs that was striking. Pagodas often start looking alike to many laypeople. But in this temple, the entire Buddhist scriptures were written out on marble slabs, single spaced, double sided. Each slab stood up housed in individual stupas. It took 729 slabs to cover the entire texts. Which means 729 individual dedicated housing units for each two-sided page. Each slab is about 14 cm thick, 1.5m high and 1m wide. It is said if stacked together, it is over 103 meters high, making is the world’s biggest book.

Nikon D90, f/8, 1/1000

Weekly Photo Challenge: Water

Whew. I love the water. A majority of my sports involve water. I live and breathe to be near bodies of water. So this challenge was difficult because I just couldn’t decide!!!

I ended up picking photos from New Zealand. I’m copping out a bit. While I will submit only one post for the challenge, I am posting two photographs, albeit from the same country. One is to highlight my practicing how to photograph textures and colours. And one because it’s exactly what comes to mind when I read “water.”

Fox Glacier: Ice caves in the glaciers that yield some of the most refreshing water I’ve ever drank. So much so I filled up three Nalgenes with glacier water for the next few days.

Nikon D80, f/7.1, 1/200sec

On my first day, I was searching for a place to picnic.. the parks around the area don’t seem to like to furnish the lots with any picnic tables or benches! Then I found the perfect spot- on the dock overlooking into Lake Rotorua. The only thing that came to mind between my bites of cheese and crackers? Life can’t get any better than this.

Nikon D80,f/8, 1/250s

Topic provided by Daily Post.

First stop: Bagan

Bagan is home to many many religious buildings. Old in origin but many have been restored, renovated and rebuilt. Mostly exposed brick. The kind of construction seen also in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, Thailand, and many parts of Angkor sites in Cambodia. All the sites mentioned, many were made of brick. But then covered with stucco or its ancient equivalent then painted and gilded over. It’s hard to picture what they must have been like as so little of those layers survived. In some ways, that’s part of the charm. It’s up to the viewer’s own imagination to lead him or her down the path or history.

There are over 2000 such buildings and sites. Unlike Sukhothai in which other than a few major buildings is now more foundation remnants than structures, the Bagan landscape is completely dotted with stupa tops. The Burmese have been maintaining the sites on an ongoing basis.

However, unlike all the other destinations I related to, Bagan is not an UNESCO World Heritage Site. While I don’t place much stock on the status as I’ve been to some rather underwhelming designees, I would have thought Bagan hands down would have earned it. Alas, no. Primarily because the sites keep being built on, over. They are modified renovated instead of restored. UNESCO maintains a strict hands-off-unless-for-basic-preservation policy. It’s a difference in thinking. Many Burmese Buddhists believe that many of the pagodas are still religious sites to respect and deterioration is not acceptable. The school of thinking does not accept the sites as “ancient relics.” By refusing to adhere to the strict guidelines of preservation versus maintenance, Bagan would be disqualified.

They continue building. Some of the wealthier want to donate money or integrate their contribution into the historic landscape of Bagan and proceed to build a new structure to blend in or to completely take over an unclaimed ruin. So we see stupa tops of fresh pinkish brick scattered amongst the more aged ones.

I don’t know how I feel about that. A lot of the new structures emit the aura of a wannabe. Up close, some of them look downright fake and cheesy. Yet, from a bird’s eye view, the endless pointed tops, regardless of color and shade is breath-taking. In reality, some of the buildings are at the brink of collapse. Years of neglect, war, and weather have beaten up on some of the structures so badly humans are no longer allowed in it. Many have completely collapsed in the weather, monsoon, and earthquakes of the past 5 years alone. The new ones may look corny, but with this kind of environment, they will look old eventually and be the ones holding up the famed Bagan landscape in the future.

The old

... the semi-old...

... the new (far right)...

... and the view.

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I’ve said to friends and now I’m going out on a limb to publish: this book was such a snoozer. Call me a snob but books should be well written and well organized. That’s why I pay to buy them. Otherwise I could just as well browse the Internet for free and sometimes quite good content.

The book Three Cups of Tea starts of well, detailing how Mortenson got lost and encountered the people who would then dedicate to helping. Adventure sits well with me. His description of the village was colorful, vivid, and empathetic. I especially give kudos for showcasing a people and county of so little resources and so much international political criticism in a more positive light.

The authors also do well in explaining the kind of living conditions the remote areas of Pakistan face. Enough to start thinking no wonder why the US Military wasn’t able to get into the mountainous areas to look for Bin Laden (clearly the wrong path anyway, and now all overcome by events). The recount of the barriers he face in trying to find reputable people to do the construction at an acceptable pace.. I cannot begin to say how that resonated. While I resolve not to talk about work on my blog, the frustration and patience-testing experience of working with local workforces in foreign countries, especially those of questionable work ethics and business practices is hard to explain.

Then the book just fell flat after they talk about the successful building of the first set of schoolhouses. hat was only about one third into the volume. I struggled with trying to finish it over two years. Picking it up, trying to chug on. I hate leaving books unfinished. Somehow I finished it a month ago and couldn’t wait to donate it. It will be put into good use at the library, I suspect. Better there than my eyerolling every time I glance at the spine lined up in my bookshelf.

Mortenson more or less just tallies all the projects from that point on. He then covers his expansion into Afghanistan, which felt anti-climatical when it shouldn’t.

Perhaps I’m not being fair. I generally prefer fiction and travelogues and this book wasn’t intended for the kind of flash and bang with a clean conclusion variety. Running a charity overseas is no small feat. And tedious, I’m sure. The tone and stype just fluctuated so wildly from the beginning to end it was hard to stay focused and my expections got ratcheted up too early. This is one of those when the expression “I’ll wait for the Cliff’s Notes version” finally made sense to me.

I recently heard of the 60 Minutes exposure of the “Three Cups of Tea Scandal.” I have no opinion at this time. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter if I do. I hope, whatever turns out to be the case, that we don’t forget that many people still live in pretty basic living conditions, often without much thought from their governments. Mortenson had done what few people did- brought awareness. Whether his stories are true or not, there are people and villages like Korphe out there. Just remember that. What you do with that knowledge is now up to you.

Myanmar: The dream I didn’t know I had

I mentioned my intention to go to Myanmar. Myanmar (Burma to many of you) is high on my list because it sounded like a land so remote so inaccessible that I wanted to at least make my best effort to get there before I move out of Asia. And I almost didn’t make it. I wasn’t granted my visa until the evening before my departure.. by that point, I had almost given up on the idea.

Goodness. Where do I start? I’ve been to many poor countries with questionable governing systems. I am completely taken back how much I fell in love with Myanmar. I went in with a healthy dose of skepticism, caution, and suspicion. I left wishing I had more time and a reason to go back regularly.

Oddly, its isolation has led to the preservation of old culture and lifestyle. It’s a tough trade off, really. Modernisation brings material goods and higher standard of living. So in essence, yes, the lifestyles I witnessed were products of economic isolation and a standard of living many Westerners consider poor.

Myanmar has thousands of religious sites and Buddhism much more deeply ingrained into the lifestyle and mentality than Thailand. The priorities are reflected everywhere I walk. Monks seem to overwhelm the streets as just about every boy serves in the monastery as a novice and returns to get ordained when a young man.

Bagan- Statue wearing modern day eye makeup!

The country is filled with many tribal ethnic groups living in the mountains. While a source of political unrest, it was to me a source of the beautiful diversity in the cultures. Chiang Mai, Thailand, sells the tribal culture to tourist curiosity, but for the most part more and more people are moving into the cities living in a more modernised Thailand. Myanmar, on the other hand, borders Thailand in a lot of those tribal regions and the clans and villages continue to live traditionally, as reflected in their clothing, daily routine, and language.

More than anything, the biggest appeal is the freshness and openness of the citizens. I interacted with so many locals who want to invite me for a cup of tea and simply chat. Children came up to me asking to look at my photos and offering to pose, no payment needed. Many tour guides didn’t just memorize their script but are eager to understand their foreign clients. The collective eagerness is actually quite contagious.

It is taking my willpower to not just post up all my photos. (I still gotta blog after all!) Facebook friends may remember seeing almost an 100-photo slide show go up. As easy as it would be to do that here or link to the album, I will feed my experiences over in smaller doses.

Tourists suck, Part 2

Thailand is barring snorkeling and diving in a lot of historically popular marine parks. I am not a diver, but even this is big news for me. I love water in general and in principle. I find being near water reinvigorating and reviving.

What bothers me more.. take a look at this except:

[Marine biologist Niphon] watched horrified as a group of tourists swimming and snorkelling broke and destroyed the live coral.

Seriously? I mean SERIOUSLY?!? What is wrong with people?? Just because they are traveling to a country with less restrictions means they can willy nilly selfishly do that?? Shame shame on them.