The Four Pass Loop - The Outdoor-Adventure-Instagram Mind-Meld

The best way to remind yourself that real mountains demand respect is to load up a huge pack full of camping and photography gear and try to slay four formidable mountain passes in three days without having any time to acclimate to altitude.  Did I mention that I live at sea level?  I live at sea level.  

I admit my approach to the Four Pass Loop was a bit cavalier. I've done some mountain hiking before, and I've often had pretty heavy packs, so I thought I could load up all of my camping and photography gear into about 80 liters of backpack and race up and down each pass no problem.  It was harder than that - but was it worth it?  I'd go back at the drop of a hat.  The Four Pass Loop is one of the most epic hikes I've ever done - the views are non-stop jaw-dropping revelations.

What is it?

The Four Pass Loop is a roughly 26 miles loop around the famed Maroon Bells - two huge maroon peaks just outside of Aspen, Colorado.  The loop begins at Maroon Lake (but can also be started from Crested Butte) and can be done clockwise or counter clockwise, I think counter clockwise would be a bit more difficult because it front loads a pretty big climb, but in the end you're doing the same overall elevation each way.  There are tons and tons of summaries of the hike online so I won't get too into the weeds on itinerary.  The rest of this post focuses on pictures from the trip and thoughts I had while suffering up the four long ascents to the top of each pass.

Why go here? Outdoor and Adventure Travel in the Age of Instagram

There is a certain feeling you get after scrolling through your Instagram feed and seeing epic mountains reflected in glassy lakes, occupied by a single bearded guy or a girl in yoga pants and a puffy.  

I must go there. I'm missing out, what am I doing with my life?  I should just quit my job, get a van and go hiking all the time.

This is a new feeling for me.  I have always loved backpacking, hiking, biking, canoeing, you name it, I love it.  I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and the outdoors is just a way of life.  In high school I did a lot of hiking and backpacking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and in college I did a big trip to Mount Zerkel near Steamboat Springs, CO.  The focus of those trips was always just two things: getting outside and away from school or work, and the people you were with.  Nothing more.

I'm not going to say that that's what it should be, any motivation powerful enough to get you into the woods is a good one.  But that's all it was for me up until about a year and a half ago.  The change came subconsciously, there was no major point of departure.  As I've become more and more immersed in photography over the past few years, I've posted more and more on Instagram, and connected my photography to likeminded (and far more talented) photographers through the usual hashtags and tags.  Over time your social media develops into a sort of feedback loop, you are rewarded for posting what interests you by seeing more and more of what interests you.  

Add to that the massive rise of native advertising (brands sponsoring or creating their own posts in social media, instead of making a commercial or a magazine ad) and your feed steadily morphs from a photography or experience sharing platform to a lifestyle projection platform. In other words, in the early days of social media you had control of your feed and you made it what you wanted, but today your social media feed has control over you, and tries to make you what it wants you to be.  That's the "mind-meld" moment that I had leading up to, and during this trip.  I realized how much I had subconsciously moved from an outdoor and photography enthusiast to someone who subconsciously desperately wanted to get "those shots" out in the wild.  This wave of self-awareness led me to several thoughts:

  1. Awareness:  I don't think all of the above is a bad thing, but it is definitely something you should be aware of.  Be aware of the fact that much of what is streaming at you is backed by someone trying to sell you something.  Be aware that these streams are leading you to a lifestyle image that may or may not be what you truly seek in life.  I'm a firm believer in consciously seeking the things that are most important to you in life, rather than being led by whatever is coming at you, which today includes huge amounts (hours a day) of media content.
  2. Choices:  The #wanderlust #vanlife lifestyle is attainable in our rich-world environment, but it comes with costs.  What do you want in life?  Do you want to start a family and save a nest egg for retirement?  Vanlife will put you back a few years.  Do you even like vans?  This is why I'm not totally against native marketing - if you learn to be aware of it, it can force you to think about what's really important to you, and reassure you that what you have in life is what you want, or challenge you to get busy and seek what you currently don't have.
  3. Focus:  The most important lesson of this trip - focus on the fact that you're with four awesome friends in one of the most epic landscapes in the world for four days.  Really, that's more than enough, you are blessed.  Take some pictures, sip some whisky, make some campfires, tell lots of stories, nothing more.  

Golden Aspens, Big-ass Peaks, Starry Nights - Highlights from the trek

 

The aspens were at peak when we arrived.  I shot these right by Maroon Lake, on the trail up to Crater Lake, which sits at the base of the Maroon Bells.  I shot this with a 16-35mm lens, on a full frame DSLR.  I picked up this lens specifically for this trip and it didn't disappoint.  It is so crystal sharp all the time, and can perform in all light environments.  The ability to get wide opens up so many more opportunities, and this shot of the trees really highlights that - I'm standing right next to them, not setting my telephoto on a tripod from the highway like most of the photographers I saw on the way into Aspen, CO.  (BTW Aspen is well named, there are seriously a lot of aspens in the area)

Our first campground for the night was between Crater Lake and West Maroon Pass, about halfway up the trail.  The crazy lighting to the bottom right was my buddies searching for me in the dark, thinking I'd been eaten by a bear (no actual risk of being eaten by a bear).  Their headlamps created a cool effect.  This was a bit late-season for shooting the milky way, since it is less visible in cold months in the northern hemisphere.  Still, I was happy with my new wide angle picking up so much galactic detail.

The view from the top of West Maroon Pass, looking down the valley leading to Crested Butte.  If you hug the ridge to your right, you stay on the trail toward Frigid Air Pass.  The views in this section were epic - huge grasslands as far as you can see.  I would have loved to camp by one of the little lakes in this area had we had more time.  

Coming down from the top of Frigid Air Pass, the sun sets over the Elk Mountains.  The ridge on the right extends from Maroon Peak in the east, to Hagerman Peak in the west (visible).  Snowmass Mountain is right behind Hagerman.  The ridge is a beast to walk over with a heavy pack.  Below the ridge is the Fravert Basin, which keeps descending further and further down into a lush basin full of gurgling springs, huge waterfalls, and thick forest.  I would happily spend three days camped in this basin and enjoy the super-sized nature all around.

Exiting the Fravert Basin, which is so far below that you can't even see it, the valleys are so deep that when you get toward the tops of the mountains you see superficial mountain valleys between the peaks.  That's how epic the landscape is, there is an entire ecosystem hidden between the blue ridge in the distance, and the hinterlands below Trail Rider Pass in the foreground of this shot.  

The lighting here was not good, but this is the Fravert Basin.  To my right is a 200ft waterfall that spills into the basin.  This place would be paradise in summer.  Down at the end of the valley, you hang a right and make a brutal 3,000 foot ascent to the Trail Rider Pass.  

Contemplating life from the top of Trail Rider Pass, looking down at Snowmass Lake.  

The last day saw bad weather come in, winds got up to what felt like 40mph, and snow pelted us in the face.  I think it was my favorite part of the trip.  This is the top of Buckskin Pass.  Maroon Peak is in the background.  

4 loop-8308.jpg

Victory!  We made it out in one piece.  Can't wait to slay the next mountain. 

I'll leave you with this incredible video that Eric Raum made of the trip.  He's a talented guy, and this captured the thrill of the hike.  

Happy trails.

Interview with Anywhere Apparel

Travel is a two way street: what you bring to the place and what the place brings to you...

I wanted to share a recent interview I did with a new travel apparel company out of LA/Minneapolis: Anywhere Apparel.  They have a simple, super functional, yet fashionable design that I think is going to be really successful.  The outdoor/functional fashion scene has exploded over the past five years, everyone is wearing Arc'Teryx and Patagonia, and while those looks share an active and outdoorsy vibe, it's not always the one you want to convey when traveling.  Yet the market for functional and fashionable travel apparel hasn't quite arrived yet - there are a slew of functional jeans and t-shirts aimed at NYC and SF bike commuters and skateboarders, but not as much that aims at a functional take on the Bonobos/JCrew worlds.  I'd say Anywhere Apparel is a less preppy, functional take on the low-key-yet-fashionable aspects of those two companies, and others like it.  I wish them the best.

http://anywhereapparel.com/blogs/journal/122561155-a-picture-of-a-place-only-you-visited

Upcoming Gallery: Far Away Everyday. December 5th @ Mediterranean Way

The Far Away

Everyday


A Gallery by

Bryce McNitt

 

Bryce McNitt’s upcoming gallery “The Far Away Everyday” at Mediterranean Way focuses on a diverse portfolio of portraits from around the globe. 

Fisherman in southern Thailand.

From the frozen lakes of northern Wisconsin, to the mountainous jungles of northern Laos, to the outskirts of fishing villages in southern Thailand, Bryce carried his equipment on his motorbike or back and worked with those he met along the way.   The use of off-camera flash adds a dramatic flair to the experiences of the everyday, giving energy to portraits of people in their local environment.  The gallery is compiled from travels undertaken from late 2014 to mid-2015 through North and Central America, and Southeast Asia. 

 
December 4th-December 10th

Mediterranean Way

1717 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009

Gallery Reception December 5th 5pm-8pm

Children in northern Laos.





Thailand and Laos Video

I finally got this video together - it's a slideshow of all of my photography from the trip through Thailand and Laos this spring.  I hope to be getting all of my Guatemala stuff up on the site in the next couple of weeks.  Enjoy.  

Adventures in Nong Khiaw and Kuang Si

The first time I had ever ridden a motorcycle with a clutch was when I rented one in Laos.  I hopped on the cherry red Zongshen 150cc bike with knobby tires and cargo racks as gracefully as I could.  I consciously put on a face which approximated knowing indifference toward the bike.  Nothing new, old hat, NBD.  Back in Washington, DC, in exchange for professional headshots, a friend had shown me how to shift a motorcycle clutch, but I hadn’t actually started the thing up.  It weighed 400 pounds and it was 15 degrees outside, less than ideal for learning the ropes.  As it turned out, the guy renting me the bike was totally indifferent toward me and my skill level.  I walked the bike about 50 feet away from him, started it up, and rode away.  Bike clutches are a lot easier to learn than car clutches.   

The beauty of the deal was that it was a one way rental – for about $110 I had a durable, rugged, albeit light bike for up to 10 days, and I could drop it off in either of the two largest cities in Laos.  Deals don’t get better than that.  I strapped my bag to my bike with some rope (always bring rope), and set off for a little town called Nong Khiaw in Northeastern Laos. 

Riding the open roads of Laos on this bike was totally exhilarating – Laos is a developing country that has only just begun to develop, and in the northern part of the country there is still essentially just one two lane paved road – everything else is dirt track or foot trail.  Thus traffic is minimal, except for the occasional Chinese-owned Mercedes going twice the speed of everyone else, or huge Hyundai freight trucks leering around mountain corners and sending your heart into your throat.  The locals mostly drive Toyota Hiluxes or Ford Rangers – although by far the most common vehicle was the motorbike. 

Beer on Ice in Oudomxai

The ride to Nong Khiaw took two days – while the road out of Luang Namtha was straight and flat, it soon climbed into the mountains and followed a ridgeline for the rest of the day.  The end of day one brought me to Oudomxai, the commercial and industrial trade hub of Northern Laos, through which goods make their way between Laos, China, and Vietnam.  In Oudomxai you are as likely to hear Chinese being spoken as Lao, and so I brushed up on my Chinese, which consists of one word – Xie Xie (thank you). 

Although Oudomxai was considerably larger than Luang Namtha, I was the only tourist there.  The town is strictly an industrial hub and has only recently tried to jump into the tourist/trekker game.  In the evening I walked about a mile to a beer hall that Lonely Planet said drew a “young crowd”, only to find that “young crowd” in Laos is 16-20, vs the 25-to35 crowd I’m used in DC.  I had half a mind to turn around and walk right back the way I came, but it had been a long walk full of extremely aggressive guard dogs that reminded me of movies about the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so I stayed for a beer.  This was a wise choice.  Not only because Beer Lao, the state produced beer of Laos, is deliciously served with ice, but because I found sudden unexpected fame in short order.

Beer on ice – I realize that sounds jarring, or perhaps blasphemous to your European or American ears.  But if you’re from SE Asia, or any other area with a hot climate that didn’t have ubiquitous refrigeration  until fairly recently, your beer was tough to keep cold.  And who likes warm beer?  Very few of us.  The solution was to just pour your beer into a small glass with a couple of cubes of ice, gulp it down, and repeat.  Try this.  For real, it’s awesome.  Only try it with an Asian or Latin American lager though, or a Heini. 

Back to the beer bar.  After ten minutes of hanging out sipping on my big Beer Lao and updating my Instagram account, I got a tap on the shoulder.

“I want to be your friend!” said a young guy in a soccer jersey.  Behind him were a dozen of his friends smiling.  Soon I was literally surrounded by a crowd of young Lao asking me in their collective English where I was from, what I was doing, and more importantly, friending me on Facebook.  This was a surreal experience, and incredibly fun.  I stayed for a second Beer Lao and headed back through the gauntlet of insanely aggressive Soviet German Shepherds to my guesthouse.

The Road to Nong Khiaw

In the morning, after a delicious breakfast of noodle soup and Lao coffee (so sweet and decadent – if you like condensed milk and sugar, this is for you), I set off for a small village in Northeastern Laos called Nong Khiaw – it’s known for its access to adventure tourism and for the breathtaking limestone kharsts that dominate the landscape. 

About five kilometers outside of Oudomxai the road deteriorated into a deplorable state.  Travefish.org described it as “literally like the surface of the moon” and they were spot on.  The next 100 kilometers were brutal, full of huge washouts, loose gravel, potholes, and giant Hyundai freight trucks taking wide turns around blind corners.  Add in searing heat and choking dust and… well I was in my element. 

My Zongshen on the road to Nong Khiaw.  This was one of the nicer strettches.  Taken with my Lumia 1020.

Adventures in Nong Khiaw

 

Nong Khiaw is epically beautiful.  The landscape is dramatic and lush, the kharst mountains rise precipitously from the river valleys and form fertile crescents between them, cultivated by local tribes and grazed by water buffalo.  I settled into a cheap guesthouse that was spotlessly clean and had a breathtaking view.  I threw my bag into my room, strapped my camera pack on, and took the bike off-road.

My sole guide for three days in Nong Khiaw and surrounds.  

This is the map I would use for the next three days in Nong Khiaw, Google Maps and Here maps were both hopelessly inaccurate, showing phantom highways going over mountaintops.  Nong Khiaw is full of hand drawn maps of the surrounding area, since no official maps seem to exist at that level of detail.  I simply snapped a pic of one of them and planned my own adventures from there.  This mostly worked out.

The first night I took my motorcycle onto a rough dirt track that followed the Nam Ou north through several villages.  At one point a stream about knee deep and thirty feet wide crossed the road.  I had never driven through water on a bike.  I dropped the bike into second gear and pulled the throttle all the way back.  Hell. Yes.

Some friendly people out on the trail.  This is the most literal translation of a "horseless carriage" I have ever encountered.  They were common throughout northern Laos.

Clearly I love this bike and want to put it in every picture.

The Nam Ou River and a hazy sunset. 

Nong Khiaw

The next day I woke up early and rented a mountain bike from one of the local outfitters.  I grabbed my camera bag and headed out along the main highway (a small paved country road) and toward a dirt path that was supposed to take me through a series of villages and finally to a fishing village on the Nam Ou River.  Locating this road was difficult, as I had to simply say the name of the first village on the road over and over again and point north.  Most people were simply baffled, but eventually I found the right dirt path. 

The path wound through tight valleys filled with rice paddies and thatch roof shelters, water buffalo laying in mud holes, and small, idyllic villages where the children were clean and played with that happy, blissful abandon that only country kids have. 

Finally I came to the fishing village where I was told by the ferry master in Nong Khiaw I could hire a fisherman to ferry me across the river to a popular village called Muang Ngoy.  This also proved difficult, and required using sticks to trace out the price of the journey in kip, the Lao currency.  Finally I found a man that agreed to the price of 50,000 kip, or at about $6.  I carried my bike down to the river and put in the boat.  He handed me an oar and had me row us out into the river while he worked at getting the motor started. 

Everything fit a bit precariously, but it fit.  Taken with my Lumia 1020.

Soon we were cruising north, along small flat islands, under towering green kharsts, passing fisherman casting nets.  One island we passed was covered in small black pigs that strutted about with an air of extreme self-importance.  I was reminded of Washington, DC.  I named it Pig Island.  Along pig island we came into a bit of a hitch.  Our two stroke engine (maybe three), was not cutting it anymore, clearly this boat was not made for transporting large Americans.  The current was faster along the island and our boat was literally holding perfectly still in the river, going neither forward nor backward.  Each time he threw his body weight forward the boat would move six inches up stream.  I grabbed my paddle and began to paddle wildly, but to little avail.  I locked eyes with him and we silently seemed to agree that we had to synch up our efforts.  I made a big deliberate swoosh in the water and at the same time he bent forward violently.  The boat surged forward a foot.  We repeated this at a furious pace for a couple of minutes – the pigs looked on unimpressed as sweat streamed down my face.  Finally we broke free of the current and continued on, both of us laughing at the level of effort we had to put in for this $6 boat ride.

We proceeded north; passing water buffalo that looked at us as alien.  We passed a girl fishing in the river, wearing a cowboy hat and a baggy orange sweater and a long brown skirt.  She looked straight out of Brooklyn, or a Huckberry ad, except that her outfit wasn’t ironic.  That is the first and only time I will see a girl in a sweater, skirt, and cowboy hat standing in a river un-ironically.  That is, I suppose, part of the draw for me and many others.  To escape the trite world of faux-originality, the fitful pursuit of something unique in a world of ineluctable self-awareness that often leads to mere novelty.  And even these moments of purity, of true innocent, unconscious beauty are few and fleeting.  They are to be stored away and savored only seldom, in the quiet moments of the evening, or pausing at the end of a pier.

I spent a relaxing night in Muang Ngoy – a small village packed with European tourists.  The village is only accessible by boat, but ferries run all day from Nong Khiaw and it keeps a steady stream of tourists passing through.  Even with the tourists the village had a placid feel to it, nestled high on the river bank, I sipped Beer Lao with a few other travelers and enjoyed the cool night air.

A fishing boat in Muang Ngoy.  Hats that say "OFF", "BOY", "GIRL", "FUN", are ubiquitous in SE Asia.  

More boats in Muang Ngoy.

Muang Ngoy - a peaceful place.

Adventures at Kuang Si Waterfall

In the morning I hopped a ferry back to Nong Khiaw, throwing my mountain bike on the roof.  This was the last leg of the journey – a blazing-fast motorcycle trip down to Luang Prabang, where I would tour one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, the pictures speak for themselves.

The lower reaches of the Kuang Si waterfall.  These girls were having the most fun. Ever.

Peace

Double peace.

A truly beautiful place.

Playing the light differently.

I asked a Chinese tourist to stand in the frame and she completely freaked out with confusion. I was like, uh haven't you ever used Instagram?  She spoke no English.  

Trekking Luang Namtha - Northern Laos, and a stay in an Akha village

Departing from Chiang Mai I took a bus north to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong where I crossed the Mekong River and entered Laos at the city of Huay Xai.  Laos would be the highpoint of my trip.  Comprised mostly of rugged, jungle-covered mountains, and possessing only about 530km of paved roads, it is a place dominated by the rural and remote.  The people are shy but friendly, the cities had a small-town, country vibe to them.  Opportunities for remote, rugged adventures – just my type – abound, from trekking through the mountains to off-road motorcycling and mountain biking, to simply wandering through remote villages, the outdoor explorer will find him or herself in a state of bliss. 

I stayed just one night in Huay Xai, which is a stopover for tourists heading further into the interior of Northern Laos.  Attractions were few, but when I walked a couple miles from the hostels I was happily surprised to find a country tavern perched on a steep slope that ran down to the Mekong River.  It will be prime real estate one day, but for now it’s a true gem enjoyed only by the locals and the occasional wandering tourist.  Inside I found a true country tavern experience where young kids gathered around huge wooden tables to gossip and drink Beer Lao. Country living has a flare of giddy inhibition, unsullied by the attenuating burden of metropolitan political norms. This was good living, honest and free; this was the northern Wisconsin of the 1970s, of my parents’ generation. Surrounded by jungle-laden mountains, in a communist country, I felt right at home.

A view from the tavern, looking at a neighboring tavern.  Below is the Mekong river, the opposing bank is Thailand.

In the morning I took a bus northeast to the city of Luang Namtha, a popular destination for eco-tourism.  The main street is populated almost exclusively by small restaurants and eco-tourism offices.  There you can sign up for trekking (hiking), kayaking, mountain biking, village homestays, jungle camping, or a dozen different combinations of all those activities.  It’s hard to plan ahead for these trips because the offices won’t send a guide out until enough people have signed up, so they put big whiteboards in front of their office stating how many people have signed up for a particular excursion.  I found a whiteboard with five other people and signed up – a three day trek through the mountains of a nearby national forest of sorts, the Namtha NPA. 

Jungle Trekking

The trek was easily the highlight of the entire trip to SE Asia.  When I arrived in the morning the group had split into two; four Israelis decided they only wanted to trek for two days, so it was a French girl named Aude and our guide Xiong (which actually sounded like Saul when he said it).   You can find Aude's blog here.  Amazingly, she worked in advertising and one of her accounts was Lumia France - Lumia is what launched my photography venture.  The three of us set out on a path that ran through bone-dry rice paddies (it was the dry season), eventually coming along a small stream that plunged suddenly into dense, lush jungle. 

A little bit of jungle - shot on my Lumia 1020.

Initially the hiking was easygoing, we followed the stream along the jungle valley and the air was cool and moist.  But suddenly we turned sharply upward, using our hands to grab roots and branches to steady ourselves as we climbed.  We climbed about 1,000 feet and came to the top of the mountain where the air was hot and dry, and dead leaves crunched beneath our feet.  Xiong immediately set about getting some lunch together, which he had packed in his day pack.  He went into the jungle with his machete and cut down a few large banana leaves, which he spread out on the ground.  On the leaves he placed sticky rice, which was packaged in leaved bundles, and a few main dishes like chicken with coriander and mint, cooked eggplant, and pork skin. 

Typical meal in the jungle, this table was made mostly of palm fronds and other leaves.  Taken with my Lumia 1020.

This was our pattern for all three days of the trek; work up a healthy sweat climbing up a mountain, have a bite to eat, plunge back down into the cool jungle basin, and head back up again.  Because I was carrying my photography equipment and my hiking equipment, I had a 50lb pack on my back, which Xiong was initially skeptical of, but I’ve been hauling heavy packs through North American mountains for most of my life, and I relished the blazing heat and physical challenge. 

Xiong was the most interesting person I met on my entire journey.  He was also probably the most unique guide one could hope for.  Growing up in the Luang Namtha area in a Hmong village, he left home to get a college degree.  Living in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, he worked for several years as a human resources assistant in an office.  As his twenties waned, he began to lose interest in the single life, and his parents convinced him that he could save more money by moving back home than he could by keeping his own apartment in the city.  He returned home, started a family, and began guiding, essentially the inverse of what he was doing in Vientiane.  I loved this versatility, and the placid manner with which he related this major life transition. 

Not only did Xiong know the ways of the forest well, but he had a thoughtful, reflective way about him, and would share his insightful opinions on topics ranging from government policy to gender norms, all while slicing through the jungle flora with his machete.  He was a small man, probably 5’2” and weighing no more than 110 lbs., but he could really move through the jungle, and seemingly never grew tired.  When we would stop to rest he would never sit, he would instead squat down and “hang in the knees”, something that most Americans are far too huge to do. 

At the beginning of every meal he would take a few pieces of food and walk to the edge of the clearing where we were eating.  He would then speak to the spirits of the forest, he was an animist, he explained, and gave thanks before every meal, throwing bits of food out into the jungle.  After meals he would, like everyone on earth, play with his smartphone.  We are all tied together by our fascination with little touch screens; it is the bond that holds humanity together, makes us one.

The first night we camped in the jungle in a little open-air hut.  The light slowly began to fail, leaving pools of darkness in the jungle around us, interrupted by shafts of golden light from the setting sun.  The atmosphere was sublime.  As the darkness gathered strength, a column of hill tribe women passed near our camp.  As the trail came near, they hurried their pace and turned sharply up a ridge behind us.  Once a safe distance away they stopped and waved, singing “Saibadee! Saibadee!”

We made a fire, cooked dinner, and went to bed early.  Before bed I saw a few rats scampering around the stream bed.  In the morning I found Xiong cooking up about 20 packets of sticky rice to sustain us through the next two days of hiking.  Next to the pot of sticky rice packets were two rats… ready to be cooked.  Apparently Xiong had also seen the rats and decided it would be a nice complement to our lunch.  He set traps overnight with bits of pork skin in them.  Soon they were both skewered on sticks and were roasting over the fire.  He charred the hide, rubbed it off, then charred the meat.  He then took everything but the head and feet and pulverized with a piece of bamboo, which left something that looked like shredded chicken and little rat femurs and spines.  To that he added fresh coriander, mint, and a large amount of salt. 

“Wow, Xiong, I’ve never seen a rat look so good.” I said.

“No, no, my friend, it’s Arrrra.  Arrrra.  Don’t call it a rat, it will taste better.”

Try as I might, it tasted like rat.  Salty. Rat.

A couple packets of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf, scrambled eggs, and some delicious.... rats.  

Village Life

In the afternoon we arrived in the Akha village where we were making our homestay.   Laos is home to hundreds of small tribal ethnic groups – a full 26% of the population is comprised of over 100 different tribal groups.  The Akha tribe is one of those many small tribes.  The Akha people originated in south China and immigrated into Southeast Asia around the turn of the 20th century.  They build villages in dense forested mountains at high elevations.  There are an estimated 400,000 Akha people that are dispersed across south China and the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. 

The village was small, comprised of about 400 people, maybe less, and was built in a long strip on top of the spine of a mountain.  In either direction epic view of the jungle-covered mountains dazzled the eye.  As we moved through the village we passed huge water buffalo that stared at us dispassionately, women washing after a long day’s work, huddled in groups around the few water spigots in the village.  We saw troops of children, almost all young boys, sprinting freely about the village.  Young men hardened their jawlines and straightened their backs as they straddled their motorcycles, probably to impress Aude.  Village elders paid us no mind, by now bored by jungle trekkers passing among their homes.

                                     Entering the village - shot on Aude's Go Pro.

I called this road "Bachelor Row", these little huts are home to young men from other villages that are searching for a wife.  They build these homes, that literally are just big enough to sleep in, and from what Xiong told me, just chase after women until they are lucky enough to marry one.  As the sun set the young men sat on the little stoops with a light on, doing their hair and straightening their shirts in a small mirror.

We settled into our little bamboo thatch-roofed lean-to and immediately went out to have a look around.  The trekking company in Luang Namtha had asked us to bring gifts for the children, so I had a bag of chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, and a huge bag of balloons, which I thought the kids might get a kick out of.  Aude opted to think about the children’s best interest and brought notepads and pens.  I regretted not doing the same.

I had my camera and equipment pack on, and we made it about 20 yards from the front door of the homestay before we were swarmed with children.  It was an experience, both hilarious and sometimes saddening.  The kids pressed in on us with hands outstretched, screaming “SAIBADEE! SAIBADEE!” which was perhaps the only Lao word they knew, and used as a catch-all for ME! NOW! MORE! HELLO!  Many of the kids were very aggressive, hitting and shoving one another to get closer to the free stuff.  I wasn’t putting up with that, and every time someone gave a shove I’d stop doling out goodies and make them form a little line, which would hold up for ten of fifteen seconds before descending back into chaos.

Once the chocolate and balloons were exhausted, I took out my camera and showed them how to use it.  I put it in aperture mode and just let them go to town, all the while keeping my hand on the strap so it wouldn’t get tossed and tumble down the mountain.   A few of the shots below were taken by then children, and they captured the frenzy-like atmosphere.

Mid-frenzy, taken by one of the kids.

After the frenzy.

Goofing off.

As quickly as the frenzy had started, it was over.  We walked along the main path of the village to a flat rise in the middle of the village that offered a panorama of either end of the village and the mountain ridges beyond.  On the rise, a young man lounged on his motorcycle.  He had his hair slicked over and a crisp collared shirt on – he had a debonair look about him.  This was the Brad Pitt of the village.  As soon as I saw him I sitting on that rise I saw the amazing composition clearly.  I set up my light stand, flash, and remotes as fast as I could.  Soon a crowd of village men gathered in an arc behind me – about 25 of them.  When I had set up my equipment I pointed to my camera and then at Brad Pitt, and gave him a look that tried to say “Hey man you’re lookin pretty cool on that bike, how about a photo?” 

Appealing to someone’s vanity is an easy task, and in this case didn’t even require a word.  I took a few shots and seeing the flash go off seemed to really excite the crowd; I think it’s fair to say that not many trekkers bring professional lighting equipment in a 50 pound pack through the mountains.  At this point a purely spontaneous village photoshoot developed.  Kids jumped in and posed, a man with his baby stood proudly – the baby was terrified, and a friend of Brad Pitt’s jumped in as well.  Most of the rest of the crowd was too shy, but everyone was laughing and having a good time.  It was an amazing experience.

The Brad Pitt of the village.  Really suave.

A proud father, a terrified child.

Aude and a couple of our friends.

One of my favorite shots, ever.  Amazing experience.

                                     During the shoot - shot by Aude's Go Pro.

 

I could write another 1,000 words about the other things I saw and learned while in this village, but perhaps that’s best saved for another post.  A few more coming in the next week or so. 

Mae Hong Son Loop - 550km of Motorbike Apocalypse. Plus, World History.

Nothing like the hot summer wind on your face whilst racing across the Thai countryside on a motorbike… mind you this wind is so hot that at times you imagine a giant oven door swinging open and you speeding directly into it at 80km an hour, wholly parched and yet still sweating out whatever water your body has reserved.  Let us not forget the giant metaphorical roast that has burned badly and is gushing smoke out of said metaphorical oven –this is March in the mountains of Northern Thailand.

After leaving Ko Lanta I took a sleeper train back to Bangkok, the highlight of which was me being served a large bottle of beer in a tea pot and the food car staff panicking and running away with my tea pot of beer when the state inspector entered the car, which is a fun story for another time.  From Bangkok I flew to Chang Mai, and in Chang Mai I rented a 125cc semi-automatic motorbike to undertake the famous Mae Hong Son Loop.

The Loop  is a 550km network of roads that arch north and west from Chang Mai  toward the border with Myanmar, then straight south through amazing mountain terrain punctuated with lush rice  paddies  and small villages, and then back east through incredibly steep mountain roads passing through lush jungle and barren mountainside wastelands – victims of slash and burn agriculture.  The loop is best attempted in December or January when the mountain air is cool and moist and the rains keep the jungle florid, the waterfalls gush with fresh rainwater, the air is clear and clean. 

In March the conditions take a bit of a turn for the worse. The temps soar into the upper 90s and low 100s, the hill tribes in the area gather organic matter and burn it in huge piles (leaves, sticks, trash, etc.), or set huge unattended fires that roll across whole mountainsides.  More than once on my tour I saw whole mountains on fire, issuing forth a thick haze that turned the sun orange and left an acrid taste in my throat.  With the air so hot, charred earth all around, and the relentless orange haze, I felt as though I was in some sort of ‘last man on earth’ apocalypse film, like Charlton Heston or Will Smith, but  with fewer zombies and more banana trees.  In spite of the harsh conditions I immensely enjoyed the loop and did find some areas that weren’t so badly affected by the brutal heat and roaming fires. 

Pai

Pai was the first stop on the loop – a very small town which serves as a hippie-backpacker’s oasis.  If you go to Burning Man, or if you have circus skills, or if you smoke eucalyptus cigarettes and have dreadlocks, this is your town.  The town was dominated by European girls with huge baggy pantaloons (they look a bit like pajama pants with elephant print on them), half shaved heads and nose rings, boys with blonde dreadlocks and linen shirts, or hippie-bros wearing tank-tops with beer ads on them.  This was definitely not my kind of place, but I’m not one to let broken expectations ruin my travels.  I just had to readjust a bit, put on my best dirty shirt, and not let anyone discover that I’m terrible with a hula-hoop.  I want to return to this point in a later post – tempering expectations is a hugely important aspect of travel, I met so many disgruntled travelers during the course of my journey that complained  - in the midst of amazing natural splendor – that it wasn’t what they had expected, or that they were tired of eating rice (what?!).  Travel is a mixture of expectation and discovery – you must adjust yourself to what you find and focus on the best aspects of it.  If your happiness hinges solely on realizing your expectations, you’re relegated to a life of Starbucks.  The whole point of Starbucks is providing you with exactly the same experience anywhere in the world, it’s a great model.  However traveling through developing countries is not like going to Starbucks.  This may appear self-evident, but I met many a traveler slogging through a lot of misery on their way to realizing this nuance.

The smoke in the air made for a nice sunset outside of Pai.  Shot on my Nokia 1020.

 

On the whole I enjoyed my one night in Pai, I met an American and a Brit at a nearby waterfall and we had a really great time hanging out in a Bob Marley-themed bar and playing Jenga with a group of Israelis.  When the sun came up, I got the heck out.

Mae Hong Son – and some World History

I spent the next day cruising through extreme heat and smoke and generally suffering, but it was the sort of suffering that was ultimately enjoyable, like riding over a mountain pass on a bicycle.  From time to times the smoke gave way to beautiful valleys with lush fields and picturesque villages tucked up against densely forested mountainsides.  And, since I mentioned Starbucks, it’s also worth noting that the riding was broken up by dozens of little espresso shops along the way.  I felt at times like I was riding through a tropical pacific northwest, with its thousands of roadside espresso huts.  This surprised me, and the story of how this coffee culture emerged is worth noting. 

A young Italian with an old soul.  Shot here between Pai and Mae Hong Son.

 

The mountains of Northwestern Thailand were, after WWII and through the course of the Vietnam War, a prime location for the cultivation of poppy, which is ultimately rendered into opium and heroin.  The mountainous regions that comprise the northern sections of Burma, Thailand, and Laos were all major cultivators of poppy, and the revenue generated from that crop were used by various factions to fund other endeavors.  While most of the actual farmers were hill tribes that had been living in and migrating across this mountainous region for thousands of years, other major players included the KMT – the Chinese Nationalist Army that was defeated by the Chinese People Liberations Army, a.k.a. the Communist Party of China, which rules the country to this day.   While the bulk of the KMT retreated to Taiwan some factions from Southern China moved into Northern Thailand and took up the opium trade.  For decades the KMT, hill tribes, the Shan United Army, and other players produced opium, which found its way all over the world. 

No poppy here.  Shot in one of the few locations had no smoke at all, just east of Mae Hong Son.  

 

During the Vietnam War a major customer was the CIA, which used proceeds from end-user sales to fund secret operations in SE Asia.  One of those operations was Richard Nixon’s secret war on Laos, which few Americans know about even today.  Tricky Dick dropped hundreds of millions of bombs on to Eastern Laos, along the length of the Vietnam border, killing an unknown number of Lao Communists and likely a lot more Lao and tribal civilians.  That story I’ll save for another post.

So, this story ultimately leads to coffee how?  After the era of warfare passed from SE Asia, the Thai and American Governments, along with NGOs began an effort to convince and/or coerce Thai hill tribes to give up the opium business and pile into coffee.  From what I’ve read, the real success came from NGOs going into villages and demonstrating that in the long run the tribes would actually make more money from coffee than opium since the market for coffee is robust, and government forces won’t show up and burn your coffee crop to the ground without notice like they do to poppy fields.  Over time the coffee business took root, literally, and along with it came a rich coffee culture.  Today in Chiang Mai you can find Brooklyn-style coffee shops selling cups of single-pour coffee for the same price you’d get it in Brooklyn, a testament to the total embrace the region has given to coffee.  

Today the coffee trade dominates, but the hill tribes still cultivate a bit of the old stuff for low-key sales made to Western travelers looking for a mellowed out experience during their holiday.  When I was motorbiking around the outskirts of Pai I got a first-hand example of this.  In one village a group of women waved me down, at first I thought they needed help.  She pointed to a fold in her dress, "Ganja Ganja, Opium Opium" she repeated quickly, even giving me a wink.  My eyes opened wide, I gave her a big smile and a laugh, "Not for me, but that's so considerate!" I yelled, pulling on the throttle as I spoke.  

Back to the trip.  I spent a quiet night in Mae Hong Son, which had about 10% the number of tourists, and precisely one European with blonde dreadlocks, which was an improvement for me.  I ate some delicious and spicy papaya salad, and later in the night joined up with some locals who were having a great time with a bottle of Thai whisky.  They taught me some Thai, specifically how to say, no scream, POM RAK WAT! POM RAK WAT!, or, I LOVE TEMPLE! I LOVE TEMPLE!They were a lot of fun to say the least.

POM ROK WAT!  This is the Wat they loved so much.

A professional painter at work in his shop/studio.  This sums up the atmosphere in Mae Hong Son, a peaceful place.


Onward

The next day I made an epic 300kms back to Chiang Mai, it was the hottest day of all and was totally exhausting.  From Chiang Mai I made my way into Laos – where the real adventures began.  Those stories will be coming shortly. 

I have to apologize for the huge three week break between posts.  Laos was non-stop excitement which included jungle treks, mountain bikes, river boats, off-road motorcycles, and epic waterfalls.  I had no time to write, just to relish my time in paradise.  Upon returning I was thrown into an intense work schedule and have just come up for air.  More soon!

Ko Lanta: Part 2

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to put anything up on the blog about the trip.  After leaving Ko Lanta I have been on the go nonstop all over northern Thailand and now northern Laos.  I’ve finally had a few minutes to post up some pictures from my last few days on Ko Lanta – I’ll likely have to post most of the rest of my pictures and stories when I’m stateside. 

Sometimes Epic Yoga Portraits Happen

Imagine forty European hippies, or quasi hippies, all lined up in the sand, butts in the air pointing to the east, faces lifted toward the horizon watching the big orange sun set over the Andaman Sea from the downward dog position.  I’m in there somewhere. 

Every evening on Ko Lanta, a young South African yoga/fitness instructor and aspiring life coach leads a free yoga class.  As I’d recently injured my knee in a skiing accident in West Virginia, I decided to join a few sessions.  Yoga can do amazing things for your muscles and joints, don’t be afraid to try it. 

Jaco (pronounced YA-KU), the instructor, took about half the time to share his life philosophy and the other half to lead yoga.  He also had a phenomenal talent for remembering names – at the beginning of class he would go around and shake all thirty to forty students’ hands and then about two thirds of the way through the class he would say “Great job Lisa!  Great job Bryce!” etc. etc.  It was impressive.  His life philosophy centered on: a positive self-image, positive thinking, internalizing the aspects of the person you want to be into the sub-conscious mind, and the interconnectedness of all matter in the universe via energy flow.  It was a bit far-out, but the core of the message was simple, and different only in the delivery from other forms of personal improvement psychology that I’ve come across in the past. 

Ultimately what I liked about Jaco was that he was a positive, optimistic, self-motivated person who was providing free exercise and a constructive message to strangers and asking nothing in return.  Those are good vibes.  So naturally I offered to take some epic beach yoga portraits for him, partly to expand my portfolio, and partly to give him some material for marketing if he should decide to push forward and expand his outreach in the future.  He has some grand ambitions, and I wish him the best.  Below are the best of that shoot – down on a hidden beach that was a five minute jungle hike off of the main road on the island.  I also threw in one picture from some fire dancers on Ko Lanta. 

I wish I could write more but I’ve got to pack up my motorcycle and hit the road here in Northern Laos.  I’ve have many more stories and pictures to share from other motorbike tours and a jungle trek, those will be coming shortly.  

Jaco

 Sometimes epic yoga portraits just happen.

Sometimes epic yoga portraits just happen.

A long exposure and an off camera flash can freeze a subject for a moment while still capturing motion.  This guy had some real skill.


Travel Journal: Ko Lanta Part 1

Ko Lanta, a rather large island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, features a well-developed western coast with at least 100 resorts stretching over twenty five kilometers.  The farther south you go the more mountainous the shore becomes, and thus the more remote the resorts begin to feel.  By the time you get to the bottom of the island you’ll find resorts on beaches with only a dozen people out in the sand at a time – a truly secluded feel.  The islands eastern coast features no beaches, and almost no tourist development, and there you can find village life proceeding normally, albeit with dozens of pink-skinned Europeans zipping by on their motorbikes taking in a tour of the island.  Ko Lanta is said to be the best island for motorbiking in Thailand – a full circuit of the island takes about an hour and a half and is about 70 kilometers.  It features beach riding, city riding, and winding mountain riding.  I was on my bike at least an hour a day, often much more.

Scouting Compositions and Impromptu Portraits

My second morning on the island I got up at 5:45, put my photography backpack on, and got on my motorbike.  It was dark, but still pleasantly warm.  The humidity seems to drop a bit in the night and the sea breeze is surprisingly refreshing.  I cruised down the narrow roads, climbing high ridges and then plunging down along beautiful beaches studded with large rocks.  I stopped briefly for gas and as I waited the Muslim call to prayer issued forth on loud speaker, seeming to come from the depths of the jungle itself.  It was another twenty minutes to the location I had scouted out the day before.  Behind an abandoned public park on the outskirts of a fishing village was a large, decrepit, wooden fishing boat set up on a stand framed by a large bush on the right and a view to the sea on the left – all facing east – a perfect sunrise composition.  As I set up my equipment, standing in a tidal mudflat strewn with a few large mangrove trees and longboats, an old villager approached pacing meditatively with his hands clasped behind his back.  He wore a long plaid traditional wrap around his waist which extended down to his ankles.  He came down off the walkway, surveying the equipment, then looked me in the eye and pointed to himself, “Me,” he said. 

“Ahh, yes ok,” I answered back, pulling a couple Thai bows impulsively.  I was so excited my hands were shaking a bit as I scrambled to reconfigure my equipment for a portrait.  I had to set up my remote flash triggers, light stand, etc., which took several minutes.  The old man grew disinterested and walked away, at which I nearly despaired.  When I finished with the equipment I skip-sprinted* after him, urging him to return and throwing in a couple of Thai bows for good measure, although the bows were probably more humiliating than anything.  The result speaks for itself, one of the photos I’m most proud of to date.

Sometimes the universe just smiles  on you.

I threw in this epic self portrait for good measure.

On the Beach

The beach was small, secluded.  It was bordered on either side by high rock walls topped with jungle.  There were only three small resorts on the beach and none of them were busy, so that during the day there were never more than twenty people out on the sand, moving slowly.  The sun was oppressive, and after two days I was forced to avoid it for most of the day.  Many peaceful moments were found sitting on the veranda, reading Burmese Days by Orwell, watching fat cicadas buzz about clumsily, the light coming off the sand glimmered onto their decorative scales, making them glow like little green lanterns in the shade. 

Sunset on an adjacent beach.


*I’m still recovering from a skiing injury.

Travel Journal: Bangkok

I didn’t have much time in Bangkok because of a terrible 30 hour delay in DC which involved an ice storm, and an Emirates Airlines that seemed not to have considered contingency planning or developed any sort of communications strategy for when things go wrong.  In the end though, everyone got to Dubai, and on to their final destination safely, which is the only important detail.

Bangkok is a massive developing city.  The thought of touring the entire city is daunting, as it appears to sprawl out endlessly in every direction from the sky.  The central area of the city, which is nestled against a large bow in the meandering Chao Phraya River, is quite large by itself, and contains attractions like the Grand Palace, Chinatown, the backpacker epicenter cum New Jersey boardwalk Khao San Road, and many other attractions, few of which I was able to see in my 36 hours there.  Two things stood out to me while I walked around, and I’ll leave you with those observations.

A Chinatown wood-fired noodle soup restaurant.  In the US we'd call that "artisanally fired noodle soup".  Delicious soup, for only $1.50.

Space

Because Bangkok is either hot and dry or hot and wet year round, nearly all space becomes usable all the time.  Thus, walking along the narrow neighborhood streets one finds small food stands consisting of a one or two burner gas grill – which often sits on a table top, I didn’t see a range on the street – a cooler with soda, water, and sometimes beer, a few plastic chairs and some tables.  They are everywhere, thousands of them, usually with no sign or any discernable menu.  This proved to be a bit of a barrier at times, as I was at a loss for how to order anything at stands where the proprietor didn’t speak English or have a menu with pictures.  Sometimes I just pointed at things that other people were eating, and that sufficed.

When space isn’t utilized by a bare-bones bar or restaurant, it’s personal space.  Walking along canals and narrow alleys, families relaxed just outside their houses in plastic chairs, sometimes with a sun umbrella up, and passed the time chatting, smoking, and laughing.  Their houses were nearly always wide open, with a few people lounging about, perhaps a TV on in the background.

Anything that fits can use a path in Bangkok.  

 

As I continued to walk, I Bangkok began to feel like one giant common area, where the barriers between the public and private were blurred or overlapping, sometimes indistinguishable.  This sense was compounded by the fact that streets often terminate in someone’s house.  As you are walking, you realize suddenly that the street has ended, and you are standing on the porch or entryway of someone’s home.  More than once I found myself scrambling to escape unnoticed, a bit mortified, as walking into a strangers house in North America is alarming at best.

Safety

While you very likely may get your bag snatched if you leave it unattended for a few moments in a busy area, and while there is likely other petty crime about, I was struck at the mix of people on the street after dark, and the fact that private homes continued to be wide open, lights on, family lounging by the TV.  Many small streets, which could only accommodate one motorbike or perhaps four people walking abreast, were shrouded in total blackness, which was cut by the greenish fluorescent lights of a home spilling out into the street, or a laundry station (where yes you can just put your clothes in, pay, and come back 20 minutes later – except that the machines are right on the street), or a small market.  The darkness at times felt a bit menacing, but to my surprise I was passed by schoolchildren still in uniform, often with toddler siblings in tow.  Families of Western tourists, with golden haired young children sometimes in strollers also passed by, plodding like cattle from restaurant to restaurant, or back to the hotel to cool down in the pool. 

Tuk Tuks in Bangkok, a cheap easy way to get around.

The experience couldn't be more different from DC, but I won’t go into that.

Thanks for reading , next post will be coming from the beautiful, laid back island of Ko Lanta.

A new project

This is my first foray into a full-fledged website promoting my photography.   Just one year ago, I bought the Nokia 1020 as a means of pursuing photography as a hobby.  Very quickly, that hobby turned to a passion, and I pushed that phone to its limits.  Last month, I bought a full-frame sensor Canon DSLR, and a 2.8 24-70mm lens to compliment it.  This website and blog will be a window to the continued development of my work, and also a gateway to collaboration, traditional and adventure portraiture, and exploration.

Here's to new endeavors.