13 Jan 2014

Amazing Sangkhlaburi. Part I: the landscapes

A chain of disappointing events that were totally out of my control led to a single, devastating fact: I had the whole Christmas week free, yet I was out of plan, and I had nobody to share it with. After a few days of fruitless anger, I took the only decision that made any sense: I would pack my bag and travel somewhere by myself. Once I made up my mind, everything started to fall into place quickly, and, out of the blue, one name appeared in the fringe of my mind: Sangkhlaburi. What brought it there? I'm not sure, but as soon as it did, I had no more doubts on where I would spend the following days. I booked the first guesthouse that I came across in the web, and the next morning I took an early van there. What an incredibly fortunate choice this was, as very soon I would find out!

On harmony and reflections, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The road home, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
I intended to visit Sangkhlaburi during my summer break, last August; I had seen some pictures of its famous handmade wooden bridge, Saphan Mon (the longest in Thailand with 800 meters in length) and it seemed an interesting place to visit, out of tourist's radars and far enough from Bangkok to let me feel that I was on holiday, disconnected from my everyday life. The fact that it is in the border with Myanmar was an added bonus. But last 28th of July the unexpected happened, and the intense rains and currents made the central portion of the bridge collapse. Luckily, there were no human casualties, but Sangkhlaburi's biggest attraction got badly injured, and the prospect of visiting faded in my mind. Until now.

Misleading strenght, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The wound, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Sangkhlaburi, as it is known today, consists on two clearly differentiated areas, both sides of the bridge: on one side, the Thai locals; on the other, the Mon and Burmese community. Sangkhlaburi enjoys a special political status due to its proximity to Myanmar and the high number of Mon and Burmese people who inhabit the area; they can freely stay in this village but are not allowed to advance further inside Thailand without the proper documentation. This status gives the village a special, different vibe, and despite the clear division in 2 neighborhoods, the villagers of  both sides form a unique and integrated community, and they all interact with each other in a seamless way. Proof of this communion is the fact that, in a matter of just one week, they all built a bamboo raft to close the 400 meters gap that separated them until the bridge (God willing) is rebuilt.

Sunset over Saphan Mon, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Saphan Mon & bamboo raft, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
December in Western Thailand is usually cool. This year, however, we could call it cold and we would not be lying. Mornings had a temperature of about 14 degrees and, being beside a lake, another guest used to wander around in the early morning before the sun was too high, a visitor I had never had the chance to see in Thailand during my previous 3 years in this country, not at least this close and powerful: fog. Not traces or shreds of it, but a thick, dense blanket of pale invisibility. I woke up early as I wanted to see the sunrise over the lake, but what I found instead was one of the most surreal and breathtaking scenes I have had the pleasure to witness in this country.

Saphan Mon through the mist, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Floating sleep, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The verge of the hill, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Khao Laem Dam was built on 1968 and what used to be a flat land between lush mountains, bathed by three rivers, became a lake, as it is know today. In the point where those rivers merged, a temple had been built in the decade before, aptly named Wat Saam Prasob for that reason, but what was supposed to be a place for prayers and devotion for the villagers of the old Sangkhlaburi, which laid not far from there, suffered the fate of the whole valley and soon was to be submerged under the waters. The village was then moved and rebuilt in higher grounds, where it remains today. However, the Temple didn't enjoy a second chance and stayed immobile and silent as the waters raised, erasing its presence. Yet the height of the walls was too high for the waters to swallow it completely, and so the uppermost part of the temple can still be seen, ghostly floating on still waters during the wet season.

Wat Saam Prasob, the sunken temple, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The sun that wakes up the waters, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The proud steeple, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
I walked down to the lake shore and took a boat ridden by a local man at the bamboo raft. It was slightly earlier than sunrise and, for about an hour, the wise old man slowly sailed across the lake, making our way through the mist and the silence, my eyes wide open, trying to absorb so much peace and beauty, discovering here and there strokes of a house, a flock of birds catching early fish, a sizzling boat, a distant mountain, outlines of lonely trees, the sun rising.

The lonely hut, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Solitude, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
All fogs eventually clear, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
Wooden legs, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
One thing that became very clear in our voyage is that, during the wet season, boats become the most important and ubiquitous object in these grounds or, should I say, waters: they carry people, old and young, to their intended destinations; they sail and wriggle in search of fish to bring home; they ride curious travelers around to earn an extra bit of income to support their families. The sight of diminutive boats appearing from within the fog, not too far from us, quietly slicing the waters, was one that will stay long time in my mind, as it encapsulates the life of these people to perfection.

Breaking the silence, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The guiding bird, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
A moment of peace, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Nervous waters, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
In the dry season, from February onwards, the waters go out and the sunken temple resurfaces once more, showing its moldy walls and its glassless openings. I visited in the middle of the cold season, when the water level is at its peak, so I will try to come back during summer to discover how different this place looks and feels when I can explore it by foot at my own pace. Not far from it, however, there is another sight that can be enjoyed throughout the year, no matter the level of the waters, as it stands on the top of a nearby hill: Buddhakaya Chedi. As the boat slowly approached the shore below the Chedi, the mist gradually cleared and the sun broke through the fog, which suddenly turned the grey, vague tower into a glittering, golden pyramid high above the waters and the trees.

First glimpse, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Buddhakaya Chedi rises, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Buddhakaya Chedi shines, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Only the Chedi remains reasonably well kept, while the rest of the temple around it suffers a big decay and abandonment; some rebuilding is under place, but it looks like they advance very slowly. Behind the Chedi there is a small path leading to a cemetery, and this side of the temple there is a local market with lots of wood work and handicrafts. It was still very early so there was not much happening there yet, so I decided to walk back to the bridge, some 3 km away from where I was. Little did I suspect then that it would take me some 7 hours to complete those few km to return to Saphan Mon, for I was going to walk through a couple of unexpected places that deserved lots of time and attention, the most important of which was a Thai style temple that rested isolated on the top of another hill: Wat Wang Wiwekaram. There used to be a very revered monk at this temple years ago, Luang Phaw Utama, for whom even the King of Thailand came here to visit. Nowadays the temple remains a very secluded place where a respectable number of monks, both adult and novices, mostly Mon, live in complete quietude and calm.

Wat Wang Wiwekaram I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Wat Wang Wiwekaram II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
I spent quite a big amount of time in the temple grounds, strolling around the multiple buildings that it hosts; the morning light was clear and beautiful, there were very few people visiting and I had, literally, all the time and spaces for myself. I felt so at peace with the environment that I lost track of the time and just leisurely walked, grabbing pictures of every small detail that caught my attention (you can see those images at my previous post here). And when I thought I had seen everything, a silent row of monks emerged from the dark dormitory and started walking towards the community building, where they would have lunch with the neighbors from the village. But that's a story that deserves a post of its own (for all the pictures of the monks and the people I met in this beautiful village, head here). I finally walked back to the bridge, I had a frugal lunch at a local restaurant, and negotiated a trip with a motorbike driver to bring me to the 2 spots that most people visiting these lands want to see. The first and obvious one: the Three Pagodas Pass.

The road to Myanmar I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
The road to Myanmar II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
A few kilometers from Sangkhlaburi, as you ride straight into the mountains, you reach the border between Thailand and Myanmar. This used to be the main pass between both countries for many centuries, and still remains a key communication point by land. There is a small market around the red barrier that signals the border, and Burmese people wander both sides of it selling their goods at ease. Thai citizens can also cross to the other side easily, but for foreigners such as me things are more complicated, so I just had a short look around, tasted some Burmese snacks sold by a friendly vendor, and hop on the bike again to reach our second destination: Songkaria River.

The fallen tree, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Songkaria River, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The same river that a few kilometers down the forest becomes the lake that bathes Sankhlaburi, forms here a perfect mirror of clear, transparent waters as it turns in a big meander between the mountains. Many locals like to gather in the banks of the river to enjoy a meal at some small floating huts that have been carefully arranged for such purpose, while the kids enjoy jumping into the waters and swimming down the river in total freedom. I contemplated these familiar scenes and felt suddenly touched by how simple and quiet are most of the defining moments in a lifetime. No fancy celebrations, events or parties: a lunch with the ones you love by the silent waters of a crystal clear river. But twilight was drawing near and I wanted to see the sun setting over the lake, so my patient rider brought me back to the village in time to see the golden colors in the sky and on the waters. The next morning I was leaving already, so these were my last memories of a trip that happened by chance and that awarded me unforgettable memories. See you soon again, Sangkhlaburi!

Sangkhlaburi evening, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Adrift, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm

6 Jan 2014

From drought to flood: on the inconsistency of photographic hit rate

You are excited: you have been anticipating a trip for weeks, even months, preparing every small detail, planning every visit with great care and enthusiasm. It could be your first visit in a long time, or your first visit altogether; it could be far from your city or just around the corner. No matter the context, the feeling of anxious anticipation dwells inside you, and you can't see the day when you will finally board that plane; when you will finally land and your camera will be ready to capture everything you have been dreaming of. But a few days later, once all is said and done and you are back at home, you insert the SD cards in the computer and, huh, there are not many keepers in there, if any, after all.

Physical memories, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Erawan waterfall, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Shadow map, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
We have all been there, and we all know how it feels, though there's not much we can do about it. Yes, the better observers can probably find scenes in places that remain hidden for most of us, and training the eye is definitely the way to go in order to avoid, or at least minimize, this inconvenience. But it will still happen, from time to time, for a number of reasons that are not easily identifiable. That's what happened to me in my last visit to KL, for instance. Almost none of the pictures I took during that trip made me satisfied, yet I still uploaded some that were merely acceptable because this blog is, above all, a retelling of my memories through the images I capture. My goal is to improve the quality of the photographies along the way, obviously, but that's not the only purpose. Retaining experiences usually comes on top.

Three colors I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Two colors, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Yet there's the opposite malady, as well, and, as unlikely as this may sound, there is such a thing as an overload of good captures. You might not have been expecting much of this trip, or maybe you were, but your mind-frame was busy somewhere else; perhaps you simply let yourself go with the flow, without preplanning anything in advance, or you just felt at peace, content with yourself and with the surroundings. Whatever the reason, this virus that I will call the EGP for the sake of simplification (stands for "Excess of Good Pictures") randomly infects you through still undiscovered means and grants you an unusually high success rate in your shooting. This might seem like a lucky event, but the worse effects are still ahead: a few days later, when you are comfortably copying the loads of files in your computer, the nightmare starts: the monster of culling appears.

The ladder I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The ladder II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Spiral staircase, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
What should be a joy and a pleasure (choosing the most beautiful photographies) becomes an exercise on agony and extenuation: discarding the not so fortunate stills that in any other circumstances would have been the frontrunners in the selection process. This is exactly what happened to me in my last trip, for the first time, and I'm still recovering from the shock. I couldn't believe how many images I had that were exactly as I had envisioned them! But the time spent culling has been so long compared to any other entry I have posted before that it has delayed quite some time the moment of working seriously on the captures and, in the end, publishing them. The pictures that appear in this post are exactly that, the "leftovers" of that long culling process that ended with the favorites that will appear in my next post (which you can see right here). And, to lift the mystery, they are all taken in Sangkhlaburi, a beautiful village in Western Thailand.

The eye that dreams with trees, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Afternoon light, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The watch-tower, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Twin windows, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The wise trick of letting the pictures sleep for a few weeks in the darkness of the hard disk before resuming work on them has not worked that well this time. I usually work on stills that I have captured a month or two before, and this distance truly helps sharpening the critical eye, making it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. But, as I said, this time not even this distance helped that much. I slowly reduced the number, but it was still too high for what I consider appropriate in a post. I believe an overabundance of deserts will weaken the impact of every single one if taken separately or in small quantities, and it's the same in photography. Set yourself the highest standards you can reasonably achieve and, once there, raise the bar again. Be your fiercest critic but also be proud of yourself whenever you achieve something you are satisfied with.

Three colors II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The crematory in the woods, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Parking lot, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
When I talk about quality, obviously I'm referring to our own, personal standards. We are not Adams or Salgado, but that's not the important point here, and I would go even further and say that that is totally irrelevant in this matter. You are at one point in your own, personal photographic journey, you have your own level and standards, and that is comparable with none else but with your own previous production, exclusively. If you feel your work is becoming stronger than before, sharper and more defined, more clearly understood, more consistent and maybe even with a deeper signature style, that's what I call a success. It's the fact that you are able to best yourself, not by a lucky chance but because you are working seriously on it, both on a conscious and an unconscious level.

Perspective and disappearance, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Far ahead, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Distances, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
If you ever reach a level that is comparable (on general consensus) with that of other recognized, renowned or admired photographers, time will tell, but that should not blind your eyes: know yourself inside out, what you want and what you like, what you are willing to sacrifice and what you are not, what you are good at and what puts you in trouble, and work from there to become better, to learn, improve, and feel proud of yourself. Photography, as any other art, is a means of self-expression, so the only measure of success is if you are able to express what you feel within you to a broader audience.

Deserted plant, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Sleeping birds, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
On hold, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
One final word of warning, however: if or when this virus strikes you, because eventually, at one point in your journey, it will, don't fall in the self-indulgent trap of believing this is the beginning of your success, and that from now on all your trips and photo-sessions will reward you with countless keepers, such as in this rare occasion. No. It will not. That's a common side effect of the EGP virus: a boost of self confidence that becomes counterproductive, as it gives us a false sense of proficiency that we, in fact, lack. We are in the right direction, yes, but we should take this for what it is: a proof that we are doing some things right, but an indication that there are so many other things that we still don't get and we have to work hard to get better at them.

Lunch recess, GH3 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Curious seriousness, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
Amicable eyes, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Skipping class, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
All in all, I would say that EGP virus is a bless and a curse at once. The former if we are humble enough to learn from it, the latter if we only take an ego boost out of it. Why were the masters never completely satisfied with their best work when everyone else was praising even their mediocre one? For the same reason that the amateur photographer doesn't fear to recognize he or she has achieved something good: they both have set a personal standard and both are trying to surpass it. No matter the level they both have now, the way up points always in the same direction.

Luggage, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Early learning, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The bright red of earth, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm