Day 2 - Christmas sales, Bangkok style

This morning, it was an early start as we joined a full day tour that would take in some of Bangkok's iconic tourist attractions - the floating markets, The Bridge on the River Kwai and a Tiger Temple.

The Damnoen Sadauk Floating Markets are located about 100km south-west of Bangkok, so it was going to be a big driving day. Nothing like some good quality time in Bangkok's peak hour!

Our mini-bus, weaved erratically through the traffic, dodging vespa drivers who I am convinced had death wishes. As always, some of the sights made me monks waiting patiently in the middle of the street to cross the road, severely overloaded motorbikes and tuk tuks which defied gravity by staying upright and street vendors getting an early start on making their first sale of the day. Sales in the morning apparently bring the vendor good luck.

We arrived at the markets, where we were joined by about 50 people from other mini-buses, and then clambered onto long, square-ended boats called sampan. Each boat held about 10 people, and it felt like our butts were below the waterline. Our lady "helmsman" perched on the back of the boat and set off into the main channel.

Both sides of the canal were lined with stalls and stationary boats that served as both shops and restaurants. The rest of the canal was packed with other boats like ours, occasionally leading to gridlock. It was hilarious!

The deal was, that if you wanted to buy any of the merchandise, you simply asked the driver to pull in to whichever stall took your fancy. The other option was that the stall owner would use a large boat hook to drag your boat over for some more persuasive selling.

You could buy pretty much anything from the floating market - fresh fruit (the pineapple was delicious!), T-shirts, souvenirs, spices and all manner of homewards made from coconut shells. Ladies were also cooking on their boats - their floating kitchens pumped out noodles, tea and coffee, sticky rice and grilled banana...god knows how they did it in those conditions, but it was pretty impressive to watch!

After an hour of floating around the markets, we boarded a motorised long boat to explore more of the surrounding villages. The people of Damnoen Saudauk have definitely adapted to living on the water, which seems to lap literally at their doorstep.Boats of all shapes and sizes are moored outside their homes in "water garages", and other than that, seem to be pretty much like our homes. I wonder how they feel about tourists hooning up their street all day...

Coconut and banana trees lined the canal, and we saw a stack of water lilies, although they seemed to have smaller flowers than the water lillies I'm familiar with.

Despite the long drive, the floating markets were definitely worth visiting. Even though they were set up largely to attract tourists, it gave us an idea of how the Thai people live.

Another hour of hair-raising fun on the motorways ensued, the mini-bus once again driving at break-neck speed, sitting on the tail of more slower cars until they relented and got out of the way.

Lunch was a pre-paid, mass-production of rice, sweet and sour veggies, chicken and cashews, and omelette - not too bad, but I'm hanging for street market food for dinner tonight!

Then it was another 20 minute drive until we reached Kanchanaburi on the banks of the river Kwai. As we walked across the iconic bridge, I realised how little I knew of the history of this area, or its significance in WWII. More reading on that subject when I get home!

On the way back to the bus, we passed a chained leopard cub, which you could pay to cuddle and have your photo taken. We declined on the paid photo, but got some great shots of the cute kitty with our own cameras.

After all the debating, I'm happy I bought the 70-200mm lens with me. There have been times that the 24-70mm lens has not had the reach I needed. The big lens is also great for candid street portraits. I'm also very happy I bought the 85mm Zeiss lens. It was great yesterday in the low light of the markets, and there's just so much interesting stuff to photograph here!

Yet more driving, and we reached the Tiger Temple, which is a huge zoo seemingly run by monks and volunteers.

The main attraction here is that you can have your photo taken with both tiger cubs and fully grown tigers. Tiger Canyon is where the big boys are, and although chained to anchors in the ground and "managed" by at least one, if not two handlers, they still looked pretty fierce. We declined the opportunity to be photographed with the tigers, happy to take photos at arms length. There's still too much of this holiday to go, without becoming an entree. That said, they're such beautiful cats....wish I could have brought one home with me.

We also got to see tiger cubs playing in water, and others being walked on leashes by monks. We'd been warned at the gates not to wear bright colours such as red, orange and pink - the signs said that animals were attracted to such bright colours, which may have posed a danger to us...yet the monks were in bright orange robes. Go figure! My strategy was to hang very closely to the monks, as they'd have likely been entree before me, with all that bright clothing....

With another day of amazing sights under our belts, the long drive back to Bangas began. I could go on about the mental drive home - like the family who drove alongside of us in the back of their looked like all three generations were jammed into the tray; or the workers who were jammed in the back of a station wagon, driving along with the boot door open....

So for the most part, I used the drive home to write this Michael will attest, the less I see of Thai driving, the more relaxed I am ;)

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Day 1 in Bangkok - assault on the senses!

After a l-o-n-g day of flying, a transit in Singapore, and another shorter flight, we finally arrived in Bangkok last night, ready to explore the city that never sleeps.

We're staying in the Grande Ville Hotel in the Chinatown district of Bangkok. It seems pretty central, and even 18 floors up, we can hear the endless din of the traffic, the occasional squeal of brakes, and the incessant car horns. Thai drivers really love their car horns!

I'm on a mission to try something new, food-wise, every day. The hotel puts on a great buffet breakfast, and as well as some fantastic pineapple and watermelon, I tried a fruit that kinda tasted like a cross between a pear and a potato. There was a sugary looking mixture with what looked chilli flakes mixed through it, near this mystery fruit, so I sprinkled some on and had a taste. It turned out to be salt mixed with sugar, which gave it all a fairly bizarre sweet and salty taste. Not sure I'll go back for that tomorrow, but it was worth a go.

We then donned the camera gear and started the day's walk down to the Chao Phraya river. It was looking pretty full and full of debris after the recent floods - I can only imagine how much water came through this city in what were its worst floods in 70 years.

As soon as you step outside the relative peace of the hotel, Bangkok screams at your senses to wake up, and see, hear, smell, touch and taste everything it has to offer.

Tuk tuks, cars, taxis, buses, trucks and motorcycles jockey for position down the crowded streets, changing "lanes" without indication, using their horns instead. People squeeze down the narrow footpath between the road and the shops, with all manner of food, electronics, clothes and kitchenware out for sale.

Narrow, grotty little alleyways spear off to the right and left, with shafts of light beaming down through holes in tarpaulins. Everywhere, there is the smell of something delicious cooking - corn over hot coals, chicken on skewers, and huge pans with hot stuff simmering away. There are also foul smells - the rubbish on the streets, dog poop, and rank water running through the drains.

We walked down to the Pak Khlong Market on the river. It was a huge complex and completely frantic, even at 11am. Fresh food and produce was bundled, bagged and stacked as far as the eye could see - four bwzillion types of "Asian greens"' enough garlic to keep the world's vampire population at bay for the next three centuries, and all of the delicious ingredients such as limes, lemongrass, chillis and basil, that you associate with Thai food.

There were hilarious sighs in the markets - cats making comfy beds in bowls of limes, tiny ladies trying to wheel huge, full trolleys through the tiny, crowded isles, and all sortsa weird offal that I prefer not to ponder too much. We walked past one food stall, where the guy was cooking "spicy chicken" so spicy, that standing within 30ft of him, made us cough in that "chilli's got the back of your throat" kinda way. For 30 baht, or a mere AUD$1, it looked like an amazing meal.

Photographically, the markets were a visual paradise - so many colours and textures, and sights just a tad different from good old Brisvegas. Seeing different things, and how other people live, is one of the reasons I Iove traveling so much.

A photo board showed photos of how the floods had effected this market - it almost looked like the Rocklea markets post-floods. It's great to see the Thai people getting back on their feet and trading so soon after such devastating events...I guess it's the same everywhere - when your livelihood is effected, you do whatever it takes to get back on deck.

We continued our walk through various parts of downtown Bangkok. We were frequently offered tuk tuks to transport us, but preferred to walk. I reckon you see more when you're not hanging off the back of a mobile death trap. I will definitely have a tuk tuk ride at some stage, but it was great to be able to stop and take photos whenever we wanted.

The temples here are large, ornate and everywhere. "Wat" is the word for temple. "Which Wat is that?" became my question du made me giggle anyway :)

We wandered up to Wat Indrawiharn, where the main attraction was the 105ft/32m tall standing Buddha. Good grief it was large! Cats and tourists strolled around the complex, the cats looking for cosy beds in the sun, and tourists seeking the shade.

After being immersed in food markets all morning, we decided to go for the street food option for lunch outside Wat Indrawiharn. We both tried spicy chicken fried with holy basil and rice. Delicious! And such a bargain at 30 baht per dish.

Next stop was the Thewet Flower Market, which is both a great smelling and looking place to explore. Flower sellers sat round plucking damaged petals off their roses and bundling at least two dozen in a bunch, then wrapped the lot in newspaper. In some cases, the buds were individually wrapped in what looked like a specially made foam. I loved how far they went to protect the flowers!

As well as cars and tuk tuks, boats are a popular and convenient way to get around this city. We headed down to the nearest pier and caught the Chao River Express, a "river bus", back towards the Memorial Bridge, where we'd more or less started our day at the markets.

The boats fang it up and down the river with no apparent speed limits. Long boats zoom past tugboats, which are pulling or pushing massive barges. It all feels a bit James Bond-esque. Docking at each pier down the line is a loud and occasionally whiplash-inducing experience, where a boat hand whistles loudly to signal the boat is coming into a pier. Then the captain does an intricate series of movements, shoving the motors into forward and reverse, to shunt the boat (rather violently) into position....but we got to our destination in the end!

Our hotel has a rooftop bar on the 24th floor, which provides a pretty spectacular view over the city. Cocktails on the rooftop seemed like the perfect way to end our first day in Bangkok!

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Hello bokeh!'s one of those times when all the pretty lights scream one thing....BOKEH!

Derived from the Japanese language, bokeh "is the blur or the aesthetic quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas of an image, or "the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light." Differences in lens aberrations and aperture shape cause some lens designs to blur the image in a way that is pleasing to the eye, while others produce blurring that is unpleasant or distracting - "good" and "bad" bokeh, respectively. Bokeh occurs for parts of the scene that lie outside the depth of field. Photographers sometimes deliberately use a shallow focus technique to create images with prominent out-of-focus regions." - according to Wikipedia.

Anyway, last night was a great opportunity to whip out my Zeiss Planar T* 1,4/85 lens and take advantage of its amazing shallow focus, while roaming round the colourful streets of Brisbane's Jindalee.

The first image below shows what the amazing "light house" looked like - some 80,000 hand-strung lights twinkled in an unbelievable 15-minute choreographed piece of blinking artwork. The other shots show slightly out-of-focus shots ranging from f/1.6 up to f/2.8.

My Zeiss lens is manual focus, so it's quite easy to get out of focus shots - simply twiddle the focus ring in the wrong direction, and voila....out of focus shots! But the more I played around with this counter-intuitive, out-of-focus style of photography, the more I liked it. There's more shots from the evening on my Flickr stream.

ISO 1600 | f4.0 | 1/20

ISO 800 | f1.6 | 1/40

ISO 800 | f/2.0 | 1/100
One of my buddies used the Lensbaby Creative Aperture Kit to create some gorgeous heart and star shaped bokeh at the same scene - check out her images here on Flickr.

"Get it sharp" is the mantra that's typically drilled into photographers from the word go, but you can have an awesome time experimenting with out of focus shots and shallow depth of field. Give it a go - it's the perfect time of year to play with bokeh!

Photographing the most important people

Photographs of people capture moments in time, perhaps a particular look, a smile, a baby's first steps, the loving smile between a couple at their wedding...

What is often overlooked is capturing photos of loved ones doing everyday things - a picture of them reading the paper, hugging their kids, patting their pet...and sometimes you really don't get the chance to capture those moments again.

I came across this link to Phillip Toledano's site, "Days with My Father".It's a beautiful, poignant reminder of why it's important to take the time to take great photos of those people you most love.

The photos of Phillip's father show the 98-year old throughout the final year of his life, wrapped around the central story of the man's love for his wife who had passed away suddenly in 2006, and the love between father and son.

It's a beautiful story, with simple but very compelling images. Check it out, and then go and take lots of photos of the people you most love!

15 sleeps and counting! Now, which gear to take?

In 15 sleeps, my partner Michael and I will be heading off to Asia on a 3.5 week trip through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I absolutely cannot wait!

We're spending 5 nights in Bangkok, and will be there for New Year's Eve - it will be so cool to see the fireworks from the top of our hotel, which apparently has a bar, spa and expansive view of the city from the top floor!

Then we pick up an 18 day Intrepid tour called the Best of Cambodia & Vietnam. I haven't travelled with Intrepid, but they run small group tours with no more than 12 people. Here's the itinerary - lots of driving, but SO many fantastic places to see.

Copyright Intrepid Travel -
I've been exploring groups on Flickr to see how other photographers have shot these three very different countries, and am putting together a bit of a shot list. Ages ago, I stumbled across an app called My Shot Lists for Travel, so will also be using this as a prompt to take shots I might have otherwise forgotten.

In exploring through Flickr and photography blogs, I came across the most fantastic time lapse video of Ho Chi Minh City. UK photographer, Rob Whitworth constructed the video from over 10,000 individually shot RAW files - how committed is that! The resulting short video is spectacular, and definitely worth checking out if you're interested in time lapse photography, or the bustling former city of Saigon.

We're also debating what gear to take. We both shoot with Canon gear, and both have the 24-70mm F 2.8 L and 70-200mm f/2.8 L lenses, with a swag of other prime lenses. I learnt from my trip to Japan earlier in the year, that I typically take too much camera gear. Looking back at my photos from Japan, I'm not even sure I used the 70-200mm lens, and it was a heavy chunk of glass to lug around...

I'm sure the debate about gear will continue as we get closer to our departure date. There are still, after all, 15 days left to go.

Stay tuned to the blog as I report on our adventures through the stunning Angkor Wat, bustling Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and the tranquil waters of Halong Bay.

I can't wait!

Playing with the 100Cameras App

I spent last weekend playing tourist in Sydney in between family Christmas lunches and took a photo of the HMAS Vampire at the National Maritime Museum on what was a gorgeous sunny afternoon.

It was an interesting photo, and one which I thought would be good to experiment with in the 100Cameras app which I recently installed on my iPad.

100Cameras is a nifty little app created by travel photographer Trey Ratcliff. Simply import a photo from your media library or one you take using the iPad, and you can then apply one of 100 presets to your image. It's not that different from Lightroom, but I love how you can simply swipe through the library of effects and see how they look on your image.

When you find an effect you like, you can tweak the strength of it, and also wang around with sliders for hard light, overlay, multiple, screen, luminosity etc.

Some of the backgrounds are textures, like rocks, water and brick walls, others play with funky colour and saturation effects, and others do cool things with light and contrast. Some are completely over the top (like the red option i chose below) but it's worth having a play and seeing what's possible.

Can't wait to see how some of these effects look on the photos of Angkor Wat I'll be shooting in a couple of weeks.

Anyway, if you like dabbling with your iPhone and iPad, and want an app that gives you 100 really easy-to-use effects, check out 100Cameras!

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