Southeast Asia Redux – unpublished photos from the vault

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In 2010 Don and I travelled for six weeks around the Cook Islands, Australia, and Vietnam. It was the beginning of the blog – sharing the stories and photos of this journey. At that point the blog was not much more than “letters home”. It was in 2011 when we began our nomadic travels that the blog really took flight. With Don’s retirement, a dramatic change in lifestyle, and years of world-wide travel ahead of us, there was plenty to share. In those early years of nomadic travel I would fairly frequently publish posts, written by Don, or by me, that were a deeper dive into our nomadic lifestyle under the banner of This Nomadic Life. Each post was concluded with a “photo of the day”.

At the same time I was publishing posts about our travels that were a combination of photos and words. Inevitably there were photos, thousands of them, that didn’t make the cut. Most have been buried in my photo archives where they deserve to die a quiet and peaceful death. However every now and then I’d see a photo that had “something” – not enough to include it in a post, but not dire enough to discard it outright. These photos were consigned to a “photo of the day” file with the idea that I might use them someday. I’ve used quite a few of them. Others have been languishing there since 2012-2014.

Until now.

Suddenly I’ve been inspired to start editing the orphans in the “photo of the day” file. Poor abandoned things. Why did I save them? What was it in each photo that had originally appealed to me? What could I find if I really looked at them? I was a little more ruthless this time than when they were originally saved. There are many there that will never see the light of day. On the other hand I found plenty that please me, plenty that say something about how I see the world, about what interests me, and what’s important to me about the cultures I’m trying to understand. I found enough for two posts, and it’s time I showed them some love and shared them with the world. Here then are the best from the “photo of the day” file.

Southeast Asia 2012-2013

Laos
Vientiane doesn’t get much of a write-up, but we loved it. We had some great experiences there; from markets to temples to walks along the river to a huge family celebration for two monks, plus a truly wonderful day trip to a national park, and another to a village and some salt works, it was a rich and interesting time.

Child in the market in Vientiane.



Pha That Luang, the “Great Stupa”. Detail. It was initially established in the 3rd century, though the current golden edifice dates from the 1930s. It is probably the grandest temple in Vientiane and is the national symbol of Laos. Sheer beauty despite it being a little the worse for wear. We walked into the main hall, faced the big gold Buddha up front, dropped our bags, and just sat for a while.



Hmong woman, in a village near Vientiane.



Wat Si Saket, probably the oldest temple in Vientiane, has over 10,000 Buddhas throughout the complex, including this impressive line-up.



What a sweet lovely town Luang Prabang is, and a great tourist mecca for no other reason than that really. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site. Many temples, many monks, a fabulous night market for dinner, a beautiful setting on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, some lovely French architecture, and an all round gentle place to just stop for a while. So we did.



Child and baby, in a village near Luang Prabang.



Women with parasols in Luang Prabang. Light skin is highly prized in Southeast Asia.



We went to a fashion show of the traditional clothing of all the different ethnic groups of Laos. What impressed me was the rambling, L-shaped, tri-level stage, the backdrops, the choreography as the models moved through the three levels of the stage in a carefully rehearsed ‘dance’, and the poise of the young Lao men and women modelling the clothing. The owner of The Hive said they were all a bit shy when they first started, but two years later they have clearly morphed into seasoned professionals.



Thailand
The sausage seller, Bangnoi floating market. I confess I have previously published this photo, but I think it deserves a second showing. To get to Bangnoi and Amphawa we took a crowded mini van for an hour or so, and then a tuk tuk to Bangnoi. Bangnoi is a small market along the boardwalk next to the khlong. Jewellery, and fruit and vegetables, clothing, and all kinds of trinkets, and food, for sale.



What is that behind him?!

Father and Child. Thonburi Market, Bangkok. We found a way to get to the khlongs right in Bangkok, in Thonburi. We cruised up and down many canals, some wide, some narrow, most with housing either side, and it was easy to see that the canals were “streets” for the people who live there and that travelling by boat was as natural to them as travelling by car is for those who live on regular streets.



Cambodia
Two monks on the ferry crossing the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to Khsach Village. We went for a day trip across the river to explore village life a little, though it could perhaps not be called a typical village since many people who live there work in Phnom Penh. It is not a rich village but is probably more prosperous than those further from the big city.



Vietnam
This photo was taken near Can Tho. I have no memory of Can Tho. It was part of the boat trip that wasn’t from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Min City. After a rushed visit to the Cham village, the next thing we knew we were taken back to Chau Doc, then taken by bus to Can Tho, and then told we’d be travelling by motorbike to our homestay. A half hour ride, Don and I each on the back of a motor scooter with our cases stuffed down in front of the drivers. God it was fun, but . . . . but . . . . .but . . . . . what happened to: “On arrival at Can Tho, transfer to Phong Dien village by boat. Have lunch (included) with the Mekong Delta people, visit the rice fields, go swimming on river”?



Pop-up restaurant at the night market, Ho Chi Min City. We found the night market of course, the usual vibrant South East Asian treat. The markets of the “civilized” world have all been packaged and sterilized and homogenized and rehoused in chrome and glass and plastic. They lack the life and colour and sense of community of the markets of the developing world. In Asia the markets are alive and vibrant and fun, and entire stores and restaurants get set up each night and taken down at the end of the evening, only to be set up again the next night. We discovered one such restaurant and went there for dinner, having a very expensive, very delicious lobster meal.



Myanmar
Woman in Yangon. Apart from the truly extraordinary Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon is about the people; we found them to be universally friendly and helpful. Many of the women and children, and a few of the men, wear a white face paint called thanaka. It is a cosmetic cream made from ground bark. You can see the remains of it on her face.



Monk at Shwedagon Pagoda. The massive gold stupa of Shwedagon, situated at the top of a hill, dominates the Yangon skyline. Both the stupa and surrounds have been expanded, elaborated, decorated, and plundered many times over the centuries. Today it is a highly revered and much utilized religious centre of great beauty, with an astonishing array of carvings, statues, and covered outdoor devotional spaces, breathtaking in its size, richness, and all its gold gorgeousness.



At the large and famous Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura we arrived in time to see the monks line up for their morning meal; many many of them, so patient, so quiet, so stoic. We also lucked into a special family celebration to send some boys off to join their ranks. The boys are dressed as kings, or princes, for the day, and there is much feasting. By the end of the day the boys will have their heads shaved and will enter the monastery, like this young lad.



Girl and monk at Maha Muni Pagoda. We were lucky enough to arrive in Mandalay at the time of a very auspicious full moon in the Theravada Buddhist calendar, and had read that there would be special celebrations at the Maha Muni Pagoda. Maha Muni is the most revered statue of the Buddha in Burma and always a site of pilgrimage. During this festival especially, thousands come from all over the country. The whole place was filled with people, talking, laughing, eating, exploring, engaging in prayer and ritual, a day out, a special day for their religion, a special day for the family.





Woman on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Inwa. We travelled by horse and buggy all over the countryside; beautiful countryside of palm trees and endless rice fields, rich and green.



Monk on the stairs up Mt Popa. We see it from a distance long before we reach the village at the base. It is prominent, majestic. Taungkalat is a sheer-sided volcanic plug topped by a Buddhist monastery and a shrine to the Mahagiri Nats, or nature spirits. At one time a Buddhist hermit maintained the seven hundred and seventy-seven steps to the top.



Ordinary life – walking to market. Near Inle Lake. We travelled a long way down the lake to one of the five Inle Lake rotating markets. Even though it was still early there were already dozens of boats there. Farmers come to sell their produce, middle men come to buy in bulk to transport it all over Burma, and families come to do their regular household shopping. Crowded and colourful, the sense of community is strong. It’s business and it’s fun. For teenagers I think it’s the equivalent of going to the mall. Only better.



Marionette for sale, Inle Lake market. Marionettes, string puppets, are a long and respected story-telling tradition in Myanmar. They are a form of pure whimsical entertainment, and the puppets were used then, as now, to convey political messages, since the puppets can say and do things a person may be punished for.



Woman with a cheroot. Nyaung Shwe. Quite a few women are employed in the hand-made cheroot industry that Myanmar is famous for, and we visited a factory. There were about a dozen women sitting cross-legged on the floor, their tray of supplies in front of them, their hands flying with the grace and precision that comes from years of practice, rolling a perfect cheroot every time, then tying them into bundles of one hundred. Apparently they make about one hundred every hour, eight hundred in an eight hour shift. They are commonly smoked by both men and women.



In Nyaung Shwe, the gateway to Inle Lake.





The countryside near Inle Lake, where poinsettias grow wild, on a ten-hour hike in the hills and through villages.










All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.