siam

Siam and related posts. Historic name of country also known as Thailand.

Trees Of Angkor

By the early 15th century, once mighty Khmer empire was in tatters. In previous centuries it had occupied and vassalised most of Southeast Asia, providing funds for its grandiose building projects. But now Angkor’s irrigation system wasn’t able to provide for agriculture to feed the population, and external enemies sensing their time to come, completed the humiliation in battlefield. Other contributing factors to decline has also been speculated, such as climatic changes, Black Death, and religious schism’s weakening the state internally.


In Ta Phrom.

Large body of population abandoned Angkor in year 1431, once it was considered indefensible against repeated attacks by Siamese Ayutthaya kingdom. Population moved further east to current Phnom Penh region, but some evidence shows also parallel Khmer kingdom’s existing at times in both.


In Ta Phrom.


In Preah Khan.

At its hight, Angkor is estimated of being city of million citizens, largest in the world at that time. However most buildings were made from wood, and had little chance of survival when times got tough. What was still standing after wars, was quickly swallowed by the jungle. Only the largest stone temples had any chance of survival in coming centuries. To witness what massive silk-cotton trees and strangler figs an do over time, Ta Phrom temple has been spared precisely for this purpose. Other temples such as Preah Khan also have them growing on the walls and roofs, slowly but surely twisting, bending and breaking the architecture.


In Preah Khan.


Temple inner yard in Ta Phrom.


Angkor Wat is the largest single temple complex of Angkor.

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Photo Tour — Bangkok National Museum

Touring museums is one favorite pastime of mine, and while am not usually photograph much in them, art pieces of Bangkok National Museum made me make an exception. Museum exhibits lot of religious art pieces through the ages of the nation, and is curated well to inform visitor about specifics of different era’s.


Dvaravati era wheel and statues of Hindu gods from 6th to 11th century.


Buddhism entered Thailand and Southeast Asia replacing the then prevalent Hinduism around 10th century and after.


Statue from Srivijaya period 8th to 13th century.


Famous Sukhothai stone. The Ram Khamhaeng Inscription, formally known as Sukhothai Inscription No. 1, is a stone bearing inscriptions that is regarded as the earliest example of the Thai script.


Sukhothai is considered earliest Thai kingdom, that existed in 14th and 15th century, during the time when Khmer’s (Cambodia) were the dominant power in Southeast Asia.


Buddha statue from Sukhothai period.


Statues of Hindu god in Bangkok National Museum.


Bangkok National Museum spans to several buildings, besides the main art exhibition hall. These large carriages were used in Royal occasions to demonstrate the might of Thai ruler, and museum exhibits several of them in different sizes.


Warfare in Southeast Asia, before combustion engine. War elephants were the all-mighty, albeit unpredictable, force in the war. And more of them meant better chances of victory.


Real size replica of war elephant.


Masks used in traditional Thai dance performances.


Traditional Buddhist temple in Bangkok National Museum.

Photo Essay — North of Northern Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, last of the three part posts.

North Vietnam is mountainous forested eastbound extension of Himalayan ranges that protrude deep into Southeast Asia. For many years now it has fascinated me, and been prowling region in neighboring Thailand [1], [2], and Burma [1], [2], [3]. Region was for a long seen by foreigners as difficult and even dangerous backyard. French geographic surveys, colonial administrators and Christian missionaries gradually begun entering and recording the area at the turn of 20th century. Only after conflicts died down and road networks improve during the last decades of century, it gradually started to open up for wider world.

Found useful summary of hill tribes people living in Southeast Asia (source bellow):

long before there was a Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, there have been people of distinctly different cultures living in the mountainous areas that make up those borders today.

Each group has a separate culture and speaks mutually unintelligible languages. What the different people do share is a probable origin to both their language and their animistic/elder-worship religions.

Each of the peoples’ languages originate in the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group, so they share some phonology.

All of these aspects make the Hill Tribe languages similar to the roots of Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Laos, but the differences are much greater. Most importantly, none of the Hill Tribe peoples have an authentic alphabet (many of their languages have now been romanised). This oral tradition was an isolating factor during the important intermingling periods of the previous millennia that brought together the different peoples who make up the Southeast Asian Peninsula. While the lowlanders were homogenising, intermarrying and strengthening bonds through blending language and culture (perhaps most importantly the acceptance of Buddhism), the highlanders kept apart, not only from the mass of people, but from each other as well.

Source: link.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is popular for doing treks and visiting local villages. Scooters are plenty for rent in tourist agencies downtown. Weather in Sa Pa changes constantly and now in winter its been quite foggy for several days on row. Views in mountain sides down to valleys are great, rice terraces add their own flavor into mix. Its easy to go also to Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam at over 3000 meters with stunning views (first 3 photos in this post are all taken in Fansipan). There is modern funicular taking visitors all the way to the top, a trip that in earlier would have been exhausting endeavor can now be done in half a day.


Sa Pa youth in town square.


Hmong people. Both men and women wear black dress that can be recognized easily.

Sa Pa population census was done ten years ago, which recorded 52899 people living in the region. From this 52% were Hmong (including sub groups), 23% Dao, Kinh 18%, Tay 5%, Giay 1%, Phu La 1%. Due to their isolation, tribes managed to preserve their culture, language, arts and traditions, while modern times entered populous lower lands.


Dao women wearing red head scarf.


Selfie time while heading to Fansipan mountain.


Sa Pa in the mist. In winter time mist often covers the region for several days. Best time to visit Sa Pa is on spring when weather is clear, and rice fields are on fresh green. A lot has been done to improve infrastructure in region, but at my time of visit late 2018, roads were often still in poor condition.


Sa Pa town at night, seen from Fansipan mountain.


Rice terraces in Sa Pa.

Cao Bang. Roads on border town are dusty, heavy traffic keep it in air. Many people still do “honest manual work” and families have first babies in their twenties. Vietnam is a young nation, even compared to some neighbors like Thailand and China. Arriving for first time to remote town, at sunset just as light dims and stores close. Not knowing where to sleep, or indeed where exactly are the hotels and hostels. Just as bus nears, blue dot on a mobile map is moving painfully slow and at the same time too fast. It’s getting cold, smell of burning firewood is flowing low and traffic lights are peering through it. Then, after arriving and finding a place for the night, a sense humble gratitude. Opening the bed with thick blankets, getting ready for asleep and watching river Song behind the window. It is coming across the border from China. Tomorrow watching the scene the magic is gone, but least for a while it’s still there.


Cao Bang region: Ban Gioc waterfall is shared by Vietnam (left side of photo) and China (right bank).


Nguom Ngao cave is another natural wonder near Ban Giog waterfall, both can be visited easily in a same trip.

To the low lands: Cat Ba Island and Hua Long Bay. Cat Ba island is holiday island, only half an hour speed boat from Haiphong so its with easy reach from Hanoi as well. Island has large natural park isolated from traffic, but main attraction is close proximity Hua Long Bay, with its magnificent limestone rocks and isles, in various shapes and sizes. Most tourist visit Hua Long Bay using package tour and stay overnight in a boat cabin. Cat Ba is another good alternative, if feeling like visiting places on own pace and sleeping in hotel room. Island has good infrastructure and plentiful accommodation in different price ranges. Winter time is not warm, actually sea water felt warmer than air above it.


View from Hua Long Bay and Cat Ba island.


Monkey business, Hua Long Bay.

Ninh Binh is often called Hua Long Bay on land, with high steep karst formations, caves carved by the water, and fantastic natural scenery. There are some historic sights for instance Bai Dinh temple complex.


Low lands in Ninh Binh. It is sometimes called “Hua Long Bay on-land”.


Bai Dinh complex in Ninh Binh.

Temple has new large section with impressive architecture, but behind are the caves from where it all begun.

Vietnam’s culture, traditions and fortunes through the history are heavily influenced by one direction: China in the north. For a full millennia, Annam (Vietnam’s earlier name) was a Chinese province. Even during the independence, rulers often chose to show respect and nominal vassalage to Chinese emperor, just not to give him funny ideas such as sending new occupying army south. Mongols tried to conquer Vietnam on three occasions (AD 1258, 1285, and 1287–88), but jungle warfare in tropics was too much for even Mongol warriors and campaigns ended badly for them. Champa culture in southern side of the tall country differs ethnically from north, and was more connected to Khmer’s in Cambodia as well as Javanese and seaborne cultures of Southeast Asia.


Viet youth.


St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi downtown around Christmas time.


Famous Turtle Tower, in Hoan Kiem lake. Hanoi downtown.


Young students often circle the Hoan Kiem lake next to Hanoi old quarters. They approach foreigners to practice their English skills.


Rainy day in Hanoi downtown.

Hanoi. Old town of Hanoi still has its charm, with its bustling markets, street vendors and side streets, small shops, old French colonial buildings. Vietnamese have quick eyes, paying a shop or cafe they somehow always manage to gauge notes in my wallet in a second and telling me which notes to use. Living costs in Vietnam is still bellow Thailand for instance. I visited Hanoi 2012, and while city obviously has developed fast during this time, street scenes do not differ much to 2019. Most rapid pace of change occurred 1986 and afterwards (Doi Moi reforms).


Scenes from Hanoi downtown.

Downtown is photogenic spot, with always something new to observe.


Sa Pa valley view from Fansipan at sunset.

Ha Giang Loop — Scenic Ride in North Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, second of the three part posts.

Ha Giang is famous for its “loop”, which actually consists of several different loop’ish routes, some shorter some longer. Route is best explored on two wheels by riding yourself, although local traffic police require international driving license for Vietnam. If this is a problem, consult travel agencies (often working as part of guest house) in Ha Giang town for options. Shorter route (described bellow) can be done in 3 days, in longer loops one can spend around a week. In many ways, Ha Giang loop, its idea (ride motorbike to mountainous border region), stunning vistas, and hill tribes people living the region. It all reminded me the Mae Hong Son loop in northern Thailand.


3-4 day Ha Giang loop and northern border of the country. Trip is usually begins from and ends to Ha Giang town (south-west in picture). Town that has good selection of rental vehicles and tour agencies. Route can be made clockwise or counter, but best views are on northern portion. If I would do it again, I’d go counter clockwise. A on map is Yen Minh, which can be used as first night stopover although it takes only half a day reach it from Ha Giang. Rest of day can be used for exploring the surrounding region. B is Lung Cu, most northern place in the whole country right next to China. It also can be reached in half day (from A), and book to a guesthouse around mid day. C is Dong Van, after Ha Giang, largest town in the loop. From B to C, it takes only 2-3 hours, so either can be used as a base for night. There are plenty of guest houses and some scooter rentals in Dong Van. D is Ma Pi Leng pass, that has the best views in the loop. Narrow emerald green river snakes deep in the valley bellow! Because road zigzags in mountain sides at this part, there are not much infrastructure like guest houses here. D best explored when leaving or arriving to Dong Van (C). E is Na Phong, one of many smaller villages along the way. Scenes are still nice, but best part of trip is now behind. Its not too much of a stretch to drive from Dong Van all the way back to Ha Giang, if in a rush and starting early.

Map of the wider region, town of Ha Giang marked center.

Preparations. During winter time around December-January, wind proof jacket, long sleeve, jeans, good shoes and preferably glows and helmet with a wind mask help keeping warm. T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops are definitely not enough, and obviously not safe either. For someone not used to riding motorbikes on mountains, its best to practice first on somewhere with less traffic. On the loop, getting used to ways of local traffic needs special attention. Always riding on side of road and especially in curves. You never know if there is overtaking bus arriving head on your lane. Learning how to engine breaking, when going down hill is also good to know. Before starting the trip, make sure tires are OK, breaks grip well, and lights work! There are gas stations all along the way, but some are far apart. If knowing ride ahead can be long, its better fill up just for peace of mind. Oh, and remember to buy a rain poncho, riding around on wet clothes gets old very fast. These don’t take much space and good place to keep them is under your seat (not bottom of your backpack).


My trusty Honda road warrior and locals walking by. Somewhere by the loop.


Ma Pi Leng pass views at dusk.


Typical small town in the valley in Ha Giang region.


While driving around Ha Giang and elsewhere in north, locals were often traveling on foot. Oftentimes they were carrying heavy loads such as firewood or hay for cattle. Could not avoid thinking of how long that will it last? Will younger generation be willing to endure such hardships, while watching scooters and cars buzzing by?


Early morning. Old lady working by the road side.


Viet youth in Ha Giang region.


Morning in Dong Van. Family preparing to head out for the day.


Vistas in the loop.


Hmong “Royal Palace” is nice brief visit along the way, approx. 15km from Dong Van. Without a guide, museum is pretty empty experience though.

Hmong Royals can be considered as their tribes head headmen, local warlords with small militia under their command, and opium traffickers to nearby China. This link provides some insights to two men who were the royals of this palace.


Ha Giang downtown. Town is split into two by small river. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and guest houses, but not major attractions with center itself.

Leica Photography In The Tropics — Then and Now

This is a camera geeking post!

After introduction in mid 1920’s, Leica photography became synonym for more agile and reactive way of taking photographs. It made possible to use a camera in situations and locations that hadn’t been considered with earlier equipment. Bit like iPhone of its day, Leica camera defined a before-and-after point in photographic world. Lets travel back to 1937 and take Leica into a jungle! Quotes bellow are from book The Leica Manual, Willard D. Morgan, 1937.

Kilimanjaro national park, Tanzania.

“Several years of photographic work under difficult tropical conditions … a 600-mile trek across the Central African Highlands in the middle of the rainy season . . . 400 miles by dugout canoe in the humid swamplands of southern New Guinea . . , and the highly variable conditions encountered in the uplands of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, have satisfied me of the singular advantages of the Leica camera, and the Leica method in general, for hot-country work.

One virtue which the Leica possesses is: It is the only camera I know of that when in use is sufficiently sealed to guard the film inside from moisture. Practically no humidity, I find, penetrates the closed camera. If the film has been cared for properly before and after use satisfactory results are certain. Nothing can happen to it while it is in use.”

Infrared photos taken with Leica M8. Victoria Falls at Zambian-Zimbabwean border. Iguazu Falls at Brazilian-Argentinean border.

“My own methods of caring for film under tropical conditions methods which have proven completely successful are these.

I purchase all the film I need before leaving home. Even the less durable grades of super-speed pan will, I know from experience, last at least a year, if one takes care. And, so far as the tropics are concerned, I distrust the mails.

Some travelers order film to be sent out to them at various stages of their voyaging. The idea seems reasonable. Fresh film, straight from the factory, it should be fine. It is, unless it happens on the way to have had a long trip through tropical waters in the mail room of an average steamer. I have been in those mail rooms. They are usually amidships near the engines; near the equator their normal temperature is often well above 120(F). And somewhere, in the midst of it, someone’s film is simmering. For the same reason I allow no cases containing film to be taken to the baggage room. They stay with me in the cabin.”

Irrawaddy, main waterway of Burma.

“Film should be carried in a steel African uniform box. Boxes made in England for use in Africa and well worth the high price one pays for them boxes guaranteed airtight and watertight. I have one which is large enough to hold, except for the cameras themselves, all of a rather extensive photographic equipment. It is roughly the size of an ordinary suitcase. And one should improve it in one particular which the makers overlooked. African uniform boxes are painted black when one gets them. Mine is now painted with a white enamel. When, as it often is, the box is being carried in the sunlight on the top of an African’s head or a South Sea Islander’s shoulders, the difference in the interior temperatures between a black box and a white one is decidedly perceptible. And very important.”

Leica Manual — A Manual For The Amateur And Professional Covering The Entire Field Of Leica Photography by Willard D. Morgan; Henry M. Lester. Source.

Mayan temple complex in Tikal, in the sea of Guatemalan jungle.

Khmer temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Taj Mahal, India.

50 years later, African uniform boxes and steamers had largely disappeared. But world of photography was still analog. Gunter Osterloh, Leica M Advanced Photo School gives few tips about problem fungus can cause to photographic equipment. Quote:

“Long visits to areas with a hot and humid climate expose the entire photographic outfit to the risk of fungus growth. Film, lenses, leather cases, all of them can be damaged by fungus. The more frequently we expose cameras, lenses, and accessories to fresh air, the lower the risk of fungus formation. Fungus growth is much more likely to occur when the equipment is not used very often.

Film react even more sensitively to a hot and humid tropical climate than cameras and lenses. Problems result from the absorption of humidity by the film, causing it to swell and to stick to the inside of its cartridge, for example, or to the take-up spool of the camera. The emulsion may then be torn from its support during the winding or rewinding operation, destroying any pictures that may have been taken on it. Bits of emulsion that remain behind (mostly in the vicinity of the pressure plate) will foster the growth of fungus.”

Leica M Advanced Photo School, latest edition is on Amazon.

My own experience echoes Osterloh. When living in Thailand I foolishly left my equipment into a closed bag for few months. After finally taken out, outer lens elements were already growing fungus, but it hadn’t penetrated inside yet. Watch out especially with expensive gear such as Leica’s!

Golden Triangle seen from Thai side, at the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong River. The location is border tripoint of Thailand (behind), Laos (right) and Burma (left).

Lets go forward 30 years to 2017. World has largely shifted from analog to digital (film is also experiencing a resurgence like vinyl records and tube radios). Photo can be shared instantly and without costs across the globe. Democratization of photography has progressed also further. Where there was perhaps one Mr. Morgan to hundred thousand who didn’t own any camera, and one Mr. Osterloh to ten thousand the same. Today, thanks to phone cameras, figures are opposite.

What else to consider today, if heading somewhere warm and humid? Past several years I’ve been lugging my Leica and other cameras into tropical countries in Africa, South Asia and America. Couple points to take into account:

– Obviously our dependency on electronics has become a norm. Batteries for the camera and other equipment, and needed accessories (chargers, adapters) all add weight to the backpack. Same goes with storage and backups. Connectivity with the rest of the world. Editing and sharing work on the go.

– Electronic dry boxes are nowadays affordable and a cheap insurance against the fungal growth. The device contains a small cooler, which removes moisture from the air by condensing it out. Consider them if you live in tropics for longer periods of time. Silica gel bags are alternative for those who have to change location frequently.

Sunset at Vinales, Cuba and Vang Vieng, Laos.

– Digital sensor is more vulnerable to dust than film. Sooner or later spots start to appear on your photos even if you are careful when and where changing lenses. For a long trip, sensor cleaning solution is must have backup, least for me.

– Developing countries often have shoddy power grids. Leaving a gadget plugged in for long periods risk it to power spikes that can fry delicate electronics. Cameras that can share same batteries reduce need for constant charging. Wall chargers disconnect the device from direct connection with grid.

Then and now, many things are different but some similarities also do exist. Leica’s still a specialist tool and costs a fortune!

Further reading: Article by The New Yorker from 2007.

Seasons of Southeast Asia – in Orwells Words

This post quotes George Orwell describing Northern Burma where he lived in late 1920’s. His lively description applies through the region, for example to North Thailand where I live. Am generalising title as Seasons of Southeast Asia. Quotes are from Orwell’s book Burmese Days, first published in 1934. Photos are mine from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos in between 2012-2015.


Main waterways of the region. Mekong above and Irrawaddy bellow.

“Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October.”

“The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them—honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold.”


Winter clothes have their use. Chiangmai, North Thailand.

“In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”


Temples mountains. Chiangmai above, Mandalay bellow.

Two Years in Thailand, in Ten (plus) Photos

Back in November 2012, I was escaping the rains and cold of Europe to a backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. Guess my plan was to spend a winter here and return to check job markets in Spring. Little did I know then that trip would last this long, today is my last day of that journey. I lived and worked in Chiangmai, north Thailand and kept the camera clicking as much as I had energy and inspiration. Bellow are some that I consider reflecting the experience and life best.

Chiangmai is characterised by a large mountain called Doi Suthep. Mountain is a natural park, has two interesting hill tribe villages, and a monastery with beautiful views to surrounding region. Here’s city seen from the top of mountain.

Happy seller, tired seller.

“I really like this Ranger’s shirt”

Celebrating the birthday Thailands revered old King is one of big occasions in December.

Central west of Thailand. The bridge over river Kwai, built by Japanese during the war, and using forced labor.

Another view of river Kwai bridge.

Yellow shirt street protest in Democracy Monument, Bangkok. Military coup would follow the months long clash between red and yellow shirts in 2014.

Monks and the White Temple of Chiang Rai.

Large python of Black House, Chiang Rai. I almost stumble on its head, while not paying attention of what’s on ground.

Ten pictures… couple more since we are at it 🙂


Another reptile I would stepped on (with flip flops), unless warned by a friend.

Fortune teller, and listener. Chiangmai Chinatown.

“We work hard, play hard, work hard, play hard…”


Rice paddies…

and worker. Rice planting is actually back breaking hard work, but smile never disappear from Thai’s.


Working on rice paddies is dirty job.

Hill tribe games, spectators.

Hill tribe games, players.

Hill tribe games, impact.

I call this shot Horse Muay Thai. Horse Thai boxing!


Anything is possible in Chinatown.

Violin player, and young admirer. Chiangmai Saturday street. Saturday and Sunday streets are every week occurrence in downtown. Its mainly geared towards tourists, but are lively sight also for locals.


Selfies on Sunday Street.


Long corridor in Phanom Rung. An old Khmer ruin in central east of Thailand, near Cambodian border. Prasat Phnom Rung, was an important Khmer city on the road between Angkor and Phimai, during the reign of Khmer Empire (802–1431 ad). Corridor was possibly used by Khmer royals during religious ritual’s.

North Thailand offers some beautiful mountain and valley vistas, especially captivating during sun rise and set. Two photographers in Phu Chi Fa.

Phu Chi Fa.

Obviously, just a brief glimpse of what all is there. Everyone should go visit central and north Thailand as well, not head just beaches in south!