Thailand in Summer 2- The Gear

I spent a long time considering what was best to take with me, but there is no getting around it- the best set up is one with two cameras, with different lenses. One taking care of wide, perhaps with a zoom to cover ‘the whole scene’ and the other focusing on details/portraits/ high quality captures. Now, that’s a lot of camera, even with smaller DSLRs and we aren’t always happy to rely on one being a compact. Hence, the advent of mirrorless and large-sensor (1 inch and up) compacts and in my case, my M4/3 babies.

Here was my trip kit-

Nikon

D5100
35mm f/1.8G DX
50mm f/1.8G
18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 DX

Panasonic

Lumix GF-1
14-45mm f/3.5-5.6
25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica
Lumix LX5

0.75x Lumix Wide-Angle Adapter
CPL Polarisers
ND filters
Close-Up lens (for butterflies/flowers)
Gorillapod (for night scenes)
Underwater Case for LX5 (for snorkeling)

It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s more notable for what I left out than what I took. The Gorillapod is a lot smaller than a true tripod and more stable than a mini-tripod. The Nikon zoom took care of reach, enough for me, anyway, in a way a shorter zoom wouldn’t (goodbye 17-50 with 70-300 set). The primes are light enough to carry along and switch to and the configuration meant I could always have a prime on one camera and a zoom on the other. I could just use one camera this way and scale it right down to the LX5, which itself is pretty flexible, or scale up to the DSLR and zoom. Or just head out with a nice prime and see what happens. Just having all that variety was good to have, as I find using the same lens all the time pretty boring.

The GF1 was handy to carry around. It’s sharp, stablised zoom and decent I.Q. made it a great walk around camera.

Just before the trip, I picked up my Panasonic Lumix GF-1, with it’s excellent 14-45 zoom lens, held up as one of the best kit lenses ever made and much better than the newer m4/3 options. This, paired with the incredible Pana-Leica 25mm f/1.4 made my back-up, though with M 4/3 you get a good enough image for it to be pretty much interchangeable with a DSLR, except when it comes to editing, where the added richness of the larger APS-C sensors have a definite advantage. Also thanks to the GF1, I didn’t have to bring a compact around for snaps over dinner, etc. I really don’t like to bring a DSLR absolutely everywhere I go, when something smaller and more discrete will suffice. Alongside this, I had my nifty and reasonably light D5100, paired with either my 18-105mm ‘travel zoom’, or the 35mm f/1.8 DX. Thanks to the ability to have a good zoom in my pocket, so to speak, I felt freed to use the prime option far more than ever before and not just at night, it accounting for more than half of my shots. Meanwhile, I find the 18-105 to be a great travel lens. Not too heavy, it opens up a lot of focal lengths. You are losing a bit of quality, as with any wide-ranging zoom, but having some reach is very liberating.

A prime lens is a great way to communicate. I don’t know what it is, but it always feels more natural than a zoom.

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Thailand in Summer

I recently got back from another trip to Thailand and just think, wow, what an amazing place! The food, the people, the colours, the scenery, all add up to an amazing, phantasmagoric adventure in a land where everything is done so differently than elsewhere. Thanks to low-cost carriers, this time we flew from one place to another at not too much additional cost from our usual night trains/buses, which take so much time out of the trip. We might wake up one day by misty mountains and the next by crystal-clear, emerald seas.

Of course, I took a retinue of photo gear along for the trip, with the emphasis being on finding the right balance between image quality and weight/bulk. Usually this would have meant a combination of DSLRs and compacts, never really being able to rely on the latter, but getting something ‘better than nothing’ from them. Thanks to Micro 4/3, though and also to the new crop of smaller DX DSLRs, I was able to have a much tighter ‘daily kit’ with some very flexible lenses. My setup was basically my Nikon D5100, with a couple of primes and my trusty 18-105mm. For back-up I had a Panasonic GF1 I picked up the day before we left, with its excellent 14-45mm kit lens and the stunning 25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica I already had. I’ll say a bit more about my choices in my next post, to spare non camera-geeks from it all, but suffice to say, I was very happy with both the variety and lightness this setup gave me.

A Tuk-Tuk ‘motor-tricycle’ taxi driver takes a break by a busy Bangkok street.

So, back to my trip, where did we go? We started off in Bangkok, hot dusty and Cosmopolitan, though more recently graced with beautiful shopping malls that are more like theme parks and a fast sky-train to navigate the city. Overall, my favourite moments are strolling through night markets to see all the goods on offer, from jewelry and Angry Birds t-shirts to fresh fruit and riding boat-buses through the city to riverside temples, like Wat Pho, with its enormous, graceful reclining Buddha. Seeing the astonished looks on people’s faces as they encounter it for the first time is worth a million and it probably is one of the wonders of the modern world, which I don’t think anyone should miss.

Golden Arhats (disciples on the way to full enlightenment), in Wat Pho Temple, Bangkok.

From there, we went to Chiang Mai for a short trip, where we explored the temples, including an incredible golden one in the mountains overlooking the city, from where you look down to clouds billowing like candy-floss along the green valley. There was some elephant trekking, white-water rafting and a Thai cooking course thrown in. I love the fact in Thailand everything is so accessible, we signed up for these things the night before and had a fantastic time with all of them.

Green hills overlooking Chiang Mai.

Then came the most ‘paradisiacal’ phase of our trip, with about a week in Phuket, including a few days spent on Phi Phi island, said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world and definitely the most beautiful I’ve even seen, though based on my travels, it has to share that honour with Japan’s Matsushima. We were pretty careful about accommodation here, as after reading reviews we found a lot of it is very sub-par, but can definitely recommend s sea-view room in Phi Phi hotel as an affordable and unforgettable experience. If there are other places like that, I’ve yet to find them.

Approaching the beautiful islands of Phi Phi.

Lastly there were a few days in Bangkok, for shopping, massage and more dining, including a great variety of delicious foods and fruity drinks. Whilst I’m happy with kai yang (roast chicken, usually barbecued on the street) and papaya salad (a spicy,sweet and crunchy salad made with unripe, green papaya fruits), it was a treat to have Tai-suki (the Thai version of sukiyaki) and all kinds of exotic desserts as well.

A singing store-keeper. Bangkok, for all it’s noise and bustle, is a city full of life.

For me, Thailand is still simply the most exotic country I’ve been to. Whilst there are other places that are probably better to travel in simply because they are less touristy and hence less touched by development and commercialism, for fun and adventure Thailand still stands out for me as a place I’ll probably always want to go back to.

Dawn breaks over Phi Phi Island.

Now I have around 7,000 photos (!) and some video clips to sort through, taken on sea, sky and land and pretty soon I hope to post up some of my best shots, including some HDRs and panoramas that need processing. It’s kind of a shame with digital photography that you end up with so many redundant images (especially, I find, when a zoom is involved and you ‘experiment’ with different focal lengths), but I am glad to have the freedom to capture what and how I want. We now have easy access to some excellent gear, that whilst not being perfect, can make for very memorable images without making traveling around too burdensome in terms of lugging things around. I was glad to actively enjoy where I was and capture it, even on the fly at times!

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The Best of Kyoto? (A Poll)

A Short Guide to Kyoto

Kyoto

No trip to Japan could be complete without a visit here. Yet how to make the most of what is usually only a few days, to visit a city that’s evolved over centuries of continuous and even ongoing civilisation? Having been there quite a few times, each at considerable expense, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are indeed a hard-core of ‘must see’ sights, which can fairly be called unmissable. Other experiences await, but these are, for me at least, the highlights that should not be missed.

Ryoanji

The rock garden here is at once mysterious and beautiful. Not the beauty of an ornate cathedral, but the simple beauty of what you would expect from a piece of classical zen art. Contemplate the stones and try in vain to see them all at once (it’s impossible). Then wonder… am I at once being contemplated, too?

 

Kinkakuji

Some call it ancient tack, others a rich experience, but you owe it to yourself to see for yourself. Once a countryside retreat with Chinese-style garden, it only became a zen temple after his death, hence the relatively sumptuous surroundings. To my mind, the sight of the golden pavilion reflected in a lake teeming with local wildlife is unforgettable. It will eclipse any preconception you may have of a temple being a staid place of worship, as you experience the life and dancing sunlight of the gardens surrounding it. Don’t be afraid to have your picture taken in front of it. Everyone does and are you not also both someone and ‘everyone’?

Ginkakuji

Often compared to its golden twin Kinkakuji, this ‘Silver Pavilion’ offers an arguably superior garden, with a mysterious and carefully raked dry sand garden to go with it. The cone-shaped ‘moon viewing platform’ figure is quite unique and has an otherworldly feel to it. Walking along the path will bring you to a viewing platform with some broad views of the city and you will know you’ve been to one of the most highly esteemed temples in Japan.

The Philosopher’s Path

Otherwise known as, “Tetsugaku no michi”, this is a pleasant, canal-side path you can follow from Ginkakuji to the temple Nanzenji. In springtime it is especially nice, as it is lined with the seasonal cherry blossoms, but really any time of year it is a pleasant way to travel between temples by foot, seeing or sampling the various small shops, cafes and restaurants lining it. Watch out for the delicious local flavours of ice-cream, such as sweet-potato or sesame-paste and also for a famous dog who loves along this, happy to pose with visitors.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

If you’ve ever seen photos of seemingly endless ‘tori’ red shrine gates stretching into the distance like some kind of optical illusion, you may well have been seeing images of this shrine. Though many go here for the hiking trails (both long and short, you can go as far as you like) in the surrounding countryside, it’s these gates themselves that make the place so memorable. Who knows, maybe you will feel drawn to the mysterious Inari, the Japanese rice god, who through his fox messengers is at turns both wise and mischievous. Foxes and racoon-dogs are held to be magical animals, capable of shape shifting into humans, often alluring femme fatales, in Japanese folklore. This natural, or even supernatural ambivalence makes for an enigmatic deity, one who must be placated as often as possible, to keep the good fortune flowing.

Kyomizu-Dera

You may think that the Buddhists were too austeer to ever imagine building a Cathedral-like structure. Well, think again. From the massive surrounding grounds to the elaborate, palace-like structures, this is an exercise in (relative) enormity. The views and rich feelings to be had here are quite unlike any other temple I’ve been to. Welcome to a cultural nexus of not only past, but present and probably future Japan. Even more than other temples, this would be good to visit ‘in season’, to appreciate the changing season’s effects on the surrounding nature and indeed the nearby hills’ wilder versions of the same. Yet, it is worth visiting all year around, so don’t let that stop you from enjoying it to the full. High on a hill itself, the walk up passes many small and entertaining shops selling all manner of festive wares, then once up there, the view of the city and fresh breezes will take your breath away.

Gion

If you have any image of historical Japan, it probably includes the geisha. Well, you might be surprised to hear that they are still around, if in limited numbers. This is one of the few districts in which you can see them, or their apprentice . It is also a teeming urban hub with something of the ‘shita-machi’ feel of an old capital’s downtown. Maybe you’ll see something here, maybe you won’t, but you are sure to feel the atmosphere.

Arashiyama

This is more of a place to enjoy nature alongside a canal than a home to temples or shrines, but still is worth a visit for the atmosphere alone. Away from the hustle and bustle of what has become a very modern city, here you can relax beside the flowing water and be surrounded by trees. It’s also a very popular spot with young Japanese visitors, who you can see milling around the waterways, which gives it the sense of being more a living place of celebration than a historical one.

Nara

Nara, though generally considered a companion visit to Kyoto, is in reality another ancient capital, with its own, older history. Some of the oldest remains of Japanese civilisation are to be found in Nara Prefecture, where it is situated and even here you can find a much more primal, ancient sort of place. With the charming deer park to pass through and wooded settings, it is in some ways one of the most scenic places in Japan and a good place to either feed, or watch others feed, the deer. Nara has Todaiji, one of the oldest temples in Japan and coming complete with a colossal 50 meter high pagoda. Nearby, in Todaiji, tremendously sized bronze statues dominate the room of the Daibutsuden (great Buddha hall), in the largest wooden structure in the world.  Don’t forget the extraordinary shrine of Kasuga Taisha which is worth the long walk through the deer park to get to; as with anything, if you have the time.

Ohara

If you have time, this countryside location is home to some of the most serene temples in all of Japan. When Kyoto itself became too busy, some monks got on their proverbial bikes (though more probably horses) and made their way here to set up San-zen-in, a temple whose garden is based around… wait for it… moss! Yes, here you stroll through exquisite and scenic moss, dotted with symbolic objects that make it all seem like a tremendous and even cosmic landscape. The simplicity of being surrounded by nothing but shades of green and the quiet atmosphere, which inspires another type of silence altogether, makes this one of the most authentically ‘Zen’ temples ever to be made.

Kurama

Now this is for those who have a longish time in Kyoto, or just want to make a ‘full Japan’ experience of being there, as Kurama is an onsen town, like Ohara, outside the main city. Here, high in the hills are incredible onsens and a couple of relatively minor, but still dramatically impressive temples. The surrounding scenery is also quite beautiful, though the whole trip will take you a bit out of the way of Kyoto’s more ‘mainstream’ cultural riches.

Thus ends this short guide. It is not intended to be exhaustive and many other sights exist, some of which are a bit out of the way and further from the tourist trail. One such is Kokodera, the moss temple, yet as it needs a reservation, it is something for another trip perhaps. Don’t forget also the treasures to be found in museums, some of which are located in the temples themselves.

Note- All my hyperlinks here are to the wonderful Japanguide.com website, my virtual Bible for traveling in Japan. Be sure to check here for seasonal updates, as they have information about festivals, Sakura and autumn leaves that is hard to accurately get anywhere else (in English). Best of all, it’s all in one place and all free! Many thanks to the writers there for their excellent and even essential service to us Japan travellers.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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