Sunday, April 23, 2017

Shooting Angkor at Sunrise

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

The Angkor group of temples - the unmatched travel destination, is visited by more than two million tourists every year. Obviously, the Angkor group is the most photographed location. One feature of photographing the temples is shooting the Angkor Wat at sunrise. The silhouette of five spires and their golden hour reflection in the front pool makes it a surreal experience for a photography enthusiast. Shooting Angkor Wat at sunrise has become a part of the itinerary of almost every tourist.

You have to get up early in order to get a good spot to fix your tripod on. Those in the first row along the pond have the best chance of an uninterrupted photo session with the rising Sun. However, with the ever increasing tourist traffic there is no guarantee that someone will not disturb your tripod or poke a selfie stick right in front of your nose when you are about to catch the moment.

The morning I visited, there were approximately one thousand people waiting for the sunrise. There are no lights in the Angkor temples. Tourists have to walk around 500 metres in darkness to reach the pond edge. It is advisable to carry a small torch if your cellphone doesn’t have one.  

The Chinese are the worst tourists lacking etiquette and decency. They will just push others around and jostle to go in front. They don’t speak English and always yell at each other. They are noisy everywhere, be it a hotel lobby, a restaurant, or a tourist spot. And they don’t seem to care about discomfort or displeasure of others because they simply don’t look towards you after an offence. 

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Bac Ha Sunday Market

Bac Ha rural district of Vietnam is located in the northern highlands. Bordering China, the highlands are inhabited by ethnic tribes. One of the ethnic minorities is the Flower H’mong. They are Mongs – of mongoloid race, thought to have migrated from China. H’mong live in southern China, northern Vietnam, and Laos among others.

The H’mong have two distinct identities. The Red Hmong living in and around Bac Ha, and the Black Hmong around SaPa (in Ta van village where I stayed a few days). The Hmong dress in their own stitched clothes. Both Black and Red tribes have their distinct dress style. The Reds are more flashy and vibrant.

The Sunday Market   
Every Sunday there is a market organized for the rural people who sell almost all the commodities. From vegetables to meat, from soup bowls to farm tools and storage bins, from dog pups to buffaloes. From tobacco to sugarcane to traditional medicinal products, all find a place. Tobacco pipes are another attraction as is dresses, décor and finery.  The market is a fair like event with more women visible around both a sellers and buyers of things.

How to Go
A car (taxi) from SaPa (115 km) takes about 2.5 hrs to reach. I paid VND 2,000,000 (about 85 USD) for two-way journey, through picturesque landscape in mountains. We plied two different routes to and from Bac Ha. After crossing Lao Cai we took AH14 and returned via QL 70 (AH and QL being the highway classifications). I spent about 4 hrs in and around the market, photographing and relishing some local delicacies before visiting the Royal Palace of the erstwhile ruler of Bac Ha. It is a beautiful and quite mansion at the eastern end of the lake.


Agriculture tools and storage bins on sale

Buffaloes on sale

Whiling away till a buyer comes
Pup Sellers
Vietnamese dogs are quite feroceous.

The lady selling traditional medicine ingredients

These youngsters smoking the traditional pipe

That's how they light the pipe. Tobacco is placed
on the small nozzle and a lighter does the job.

Wife Stealing
The Hmong have a peculiar custom called ‘wife stealing’. A H’mong man when in love with a woman will abduct her and hold her captive for three days. If she agrees to marry him he will approach her parents seeking her hand in marriage. Incidentally, this custom is also prevalent in many Indian momadic tribes. Seems it is customary in highlands to elope and / or abduct.  

With such beauties around who wouldn't dare an abduction?

Black H'mong

These Black H'mongs are in Ta Van village where I had a home stay.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Kbal Spean, Cambodia

Kbal Spean, Cambodia

Literally meaning ‘Bridge Head’ (Kbal: head) Kbal Spean is a picnic spot in mountains about 50 Km north of Siem Reap town of the Angkor fame. After visiting Banteay Srei – the most minutely carved small temple complex, the next tourist destination, about 18 Km away, is this one. The attraction of this place is the 11 – 12 century sand stone carvings on the river bed. They call it ‘Stung Kbal Spean river’ but given the waterway or flow, it is nothing more than a small stream. It runs as a tributary to one big river of Cambodia – Tonle Sap. They say the stream becomes a river during the rainy season. The Kbal Spean river is also called ‘the river of thousand lingas’ (sahasarlinga in the Sanskrit language). 

This is the rock representing a head (kbal).
It covers the span of the stream like a bridge
The Kbal Spean carvings discovered as recently as 1969 is associated with the Hindu mythology. The Trinty of the Hindu pantheon is represented on the rocks but the main attraction is the thousand or so lingas (The phallic representation of Lord Shiva – the destroyer). They say the river water flowing over these lingas becomes sacred like water of the Ganges. I found people drinking that water. The Khmer civilization is an ancient Vedic / Hindu civilization with the same gods and myths as Hinduism elsewhere.
Remaining distance 1100 m
It is a 2 Km trek of mild ascend, and the spot is reached in 25 minutes if one is good at walking. Every 100 metres they have a remaining distance mark. The forest is thick and walking in shade is comfortable. Generally Cambodia is very hot even in the month of February. It was touching 40 C the day I visited.

Cambodian tree roots have this peculiarity of
entwining everything that comes in the way.
(see my blog photos of Ta Prohm)
This tourist spot is covered under the Angkor Pass (A three day pass is $62). Carry a bottle of water or you’ll have to drink the ‘sacred’ water flowing over the Shiva’s phallus.

When I reached the spot I found a Latino couple (from Brazil) already sitting by the rocks. We struck a conversation and I explained to them the rock carved figures. I told them that the Bull was Lord Shiva’s vehicle. “That’s why the Indians worship the Bull” said the man. I corrected him that it was in fact the bull’s mate that was sacred to the Hindus. The Hindus in fact worship the cow, not her mate.

In the forest I could not see any animal or bird except for some parrots. There is a national park at the foot of the hill from where the trek starts. There some birds were apparently audible. When I asked a person at the gate where they check tickets if any wild animals could be encountered, he mentioned snakes. But I doubt if Cambodians would leave anything away from their kitchen. 

Lord Brahma - the Creator

The whole of Hindu (the Shaivite school)
mythology revolves around Linga-Yoni concept.

Reclining Lord Vishnu in a pool just above the waterfall.
The Lingas on the river bed

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Hang Sung Sot - The Cave of Surprises.

Hang Sung Sot (Sung Sot Cave) – The Cave of Surprises.
(Halong Bay, North Vietnam)

Vietnam has many attributes of history within it. To name a few, it has ancient culture, a history of warfare and military activities, geographical and topographical variety and the UNESCO world heritage wonder – the Halong Bay, with a unique feature of numerous limestone karsts emerging from the sea bed appearing like, what the legend has, the dragon’s teeth.

Tourists have to take a cruise boat to sail through the karst infested lake of sea water. These karsts big as well as small are also called islands. It is on one such island named Bo Hon that the Cave of Surprises is located. This was discovered by a French man in 1901 (the French have a deep rooted connection with the Vietnamese. But that’s another story) and opened to tourism some 92 years later on.

The Hang Sung Sot is another limestone cave that the geology masters call ‘solutional cave’. This cave presents a wonderful photo opportunity to the tourists. The beauty of the cave is the formation by calcium deposits of stalactites and stalagmites. And when these formations meet from floor to roof they present an ornamental design of natural pillars and walls. The colour lighting gives the inside of the cave a magical appearance.

The stalactites are icicle like strands / structures hanging from the roof of a cave. These structures are calcium salts deposited by dripping water. The stalagmites are the structures of the same chemical composition rising from the bed of a cave. Currently, no water was visible dripping from anywhere in the cave except for a small pool of accumulated crystal clear water just inside of the entrance with the stalactites hanging like a curtain in a semi circular formation.
(Clear water pool near the entrance with curtain like stalactites)
Atleast three parts of the cave are widely spacious with the roof heights equal to a three storey building at the highest point. The last part of the cave near the exit is hugely spacious.

They allowed us 45 minutes to get through the cave and reach back the jetty where small motor boats were moored to ferry the passengers to the cruiser boat anchored away in deep waters. But the cave is so enchantingly a photographer’s delight that when I came out there was no one at the jetty waiting for me. I was 40 minutes late.

Meanwhile, a well wisher on the cruiser which had already started sail to the next destination, reported me as missing. Then the crew did the head count and rushed a boat for me. I was picked up from the jetty and had a pleasant ride on the small boat for about 30 minutes enjoying light showers and mist, and photography, of course.

By the time I reached the cruiser, it had anchored near the Pearl Island but they were all waiting for me. The next time when we disembarked to explore another island the caretaker made it a point to put a pretty thing on toes behind their photographer guest so that he was not lost a second time.

Vietnamese dames are real beauties.

 - Raj

(Hugely spacious last part of the cave)

visited March 2017

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