Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sawatdee Kaa and Sabaidee

Let's just say I needed this trip.

The day after Christmas 2009, I hooked up with a group of 14 other photographers and set off for a 15-day journey of international photographic discovery. Destination: Northern Thailand and Laos. Our group was under the leadership and tutelage of the talented Ron Zak, a travel photography veteran who brilliantly manages to bring out the best in his students, subtly encouraging us to see the world in a new or different light.

Or maybe it was just me. I certainly was in a place where I was craving - requiring - inspiration, retrospection, creativity. And I found it. Not only in the amazing locales that we visited, but in the very group of souls with whom I shared the journey. To be surrounded by artistic, talented, interesting, smart, supportive, encouraging, new people was every bit as worthwhile as the travel. I was the new kid on the block - the rest of the group has been traveling and shooting together for years all over the world - and I thank everyone for making me feel so welcome. I dare say I've made many new friends. 15 to be exact.

That being said, the travel was what brought us all together.

Thailand was first on the docket. We weren't headed for the sun-drenched beaches of Southern Thailand, or the debauchery-filled streets of Bankok; rather, the mountainous, jungle-filled north, more attune to agriculture than tourism (a scene that's changing rapidly, but still, outside of the cities rice paddies and teak forests rule the landscape). The elevation brought us temperate weather, even cool nights; fog clung to the hills every morning, not so unlike home here in the Bay Area.

From Thailand, it was on to the even more remote and undiscovered Laos for the bulk of the trip. Our initial introduction to the country was via a three day longboat ride down hundreds of miles of the majestic Mekong River, where hours would go by without so much as a sign of human habitation. The country's communist moniker, the People's Democratic Republic (PDR) of Lao, is also affectionately refered to as "Please Don't Rush" Lao... and that pretty much says it all. As a land that's only been open to tourism since 1990 as a result of economic necessity, it is by far the least traveled nation in Southeast Asia. But that is changing swiftly. I urge you to get there sooner rather than later; I understand the sleepy country I witnessed is a bustling metropolis compared to only a few short years ago.

The time went by too quickly - but thankfully, I came home with many megabytes of digital memories; pixels that will remind me of the phenomenal adventure in my travel-less months ahead.

I plan to make a book with some of the images featured in this blog (stay tuned), as well as make prints available for sale. So if you see anything you like, just let me know. Gotta fund my next adventure somehow! :) The group will also be having an exhibit sometime this Spring in Benicia. Again, stay tuned!

Friday, January 15, 2010


You can't help but be drawn to them, to photograph them. The monks are all beautiful - their saffron robes against their dark skin, their closely shaved heads. I find the look stunning and exotic - it's not exactly a sight you see every day here at home. I found the Thai monks to be more shy, more earnest; the Lao monks to be more friendly, outgoing, eager to converse. In any case, they were gentle and accommodating; I, in turn, hope I was respectful and appropriate in my interactions with them. Thought I'd start this blog out with a bang; these are some of my favorite images of the trip.

Giving Alms

In the cold, pre-dawn darkness, we waited. It wasn't long before throngs and throngs of saffron-robed monks took to the streets of Luang Prabang for their daily ritual of collecting alms. (There are more than 4,000 monks in this small city of 100,000.) They had already been up, the first of their daily worship sessions under their belts, before hitting the streets, barefoot and humble, to receive the offerings proffered by the locals that would feed them for the day. Monks eat two meals a day (breakfast and lunch only), but are not allowed to shop or cook for themselves. Therefore, they rely on the generosity of their communities and families, and their daily rounds are a stirring sight to behold. I was very touched by it all. The generosity of some of the poorest people on the planet reminded me that I have a long way to go.

"Happiness does not come from having much,
but from being attached to little. "
Venerable Cheng Yen

Monks in the Modern World

At the end of the day, most robed monks are just regular Joes. Students, tradesmen, even hoodlums. They are not bound to be men of the cloth, simply boys fulfilling their religious obligation (single men/boys in Laos are required to study as monks for a minimum of three months), or obtaining a free education (otherwise, education - even a public education - costs money, of which there is precious little to go around). One of the members of our group came up with an apt analogy: the monks robes are akin to a Catholic school uniform. So throw out your notions that all monks are pious and devout. They very well may be, but real world diversions - cell phones, cigarettes, tattoos - are part of the culture as well.

Village Life

Village life among the hill tribe people of Thailand and Lao is simple. The homes are basic - built on stilts and made mostly of bamboo with thatched roofs. The wealthier villagers might have a home made of concrete or cinder block. They sleep on hard platforms; survive on what they can grow, raise or gather. Paved roads are virtually nonexistent; running water sporadic. The people are desperately poor. And yet, it's not the "untouched" version of life we might idealize; however remote and rustic a village might be, they are not immune to outside influence. Shiny new motorcycles zip over the dirt paths, and nearly every village sports a huge satellite dish. The children mostly wear Western-style clothes, in various stages of tatter (rags that are immediately shed, we quickly learned, as soon as the visitors to the village begin their retreat).


There's something about how effortlessly animals are integrated to daily life in this part of the world. It's more pronounced in the villages, but true in the cities as well. There's a dog in every doorway, chickens in every yard, pigs, kittens and ducks scurrying underfoot. But "pets" doesn't necessarily apply - in the villages especially, the animals are destined for the dinner table. (One woman in our group innocently asked why there were lots of puppies running around the village, but not really any adult dogs. The answer? They eat them, of course. The exception are the cats - they escape the wok in these parts, but the same can't be said in neighboring Vietnam.) Regardless of their fate, the animals, like the children, wander the villages at will, cuddle together for warmth in a patch of sun, hunt for scraps. The people absolutely know where their next meal is coming from; it's a whole culture where a "local" diet is the only kind.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


As we know (or should know) here in Napa Valley, hospitality goes a long way. They have it down in Thailand and Laos. The places our group stayed each had their own unique brand of hospitality, befitting the gentle and graceful people who staffed the establishments. We were always greeted with welcome drinks, and bowls brimming with fruit were at the ready in our rooms. Any request - however outlandish or trivial - was met with an eager smile and ready accommodation. It all seemed so dignified, and I felt very spoiled.

Here's the run-down of the places I stayed, in case you're curious:
  • Royal Princess, Chiang Mai Thailand (Average hotel but in a great part of town; located right in the heart of the fantastic night market.)
  • Phowadol Resort and Spa, Chiang Rai Thailand (Loved this place - fantastic, roomy lakeside bungalows. Far from the city center, but offered shuttles.)
  • Luang Say Lodge, Mekong River Laos (Stunning resort with individual bungalows overlooking the river. Gorgeous location, far from anything, reachable only by boat. Downside: the walls were paper thin - you could hear everything your neighbors were saying or doing.)
  • Kamu Lodge, Mekong River Laos (The only solar-powered lodge in all of Lao. I found the place to be gorgeous and serene; would have loved to stay longer. The rooms were all safari tents, complete with stone-lined bathrooms. Others in my group found the tents to be lacking - I loved them. It was like upscale camping, complete with the amazing jungle chorus singing you to sleep at night. The open-air dining and lounge pavilions in the middle of the rice paddies couldn't have been a more lovely place to relax. Again, you could hear your neighbors and every movement of the extremely loud tent zippers - but I didn't care. The lodge employs and largely supports the adjacent village; it's a model for the country's growing eco-tourism efforts.)
  • Villa Santi Resort and Spa, Luang Prabang Laos (Perhaps my favorite place we stayed. Beautifully appointed rooms, an immaculate and refreshing pool and spa, wonderful restaurant. It also was a distance away from the heart of town, but offered shuttles. Barring the shuttle, it was only a quick and cheap tuk-tuk ride into town. Located amidst lush farms, with beautiful views of mountains, lotus-covered lakes and steaming rice paddies. Can I go back please?)
  • Lao Plaza Hotel, Vientiane Laos (A big, modern, urban hotel. Nice, but nothing to write home about.)