For the ‘best of’ Laos Photography – click here!
Note: The various photo documentaries will be in separate posts, so stay tuned on the site. The pictures you see in this post – well, these are the ones that didn’t make the ‘cut’…but I like them anyway!
I left Singapore on a photographic journey to head back in the world of rice fields, $4 massage, spicy food, small villages, and hill tribes – Laos. I hired Jonathan Taylor, a professional photojournalist out of Bangkok, to accompany me and tutor me for the next 9 days. These 9 days were the least planned of any of my travels to date; all I knew was that Jonathan and I were to take an overnight train from Bangkok to the border of Laos, cross over by foot, and the rest was a great big mystery to me. We would figure it out as we traveled. Jonathan would use his fluency in Thai to talk to locals and suss out some local ‘stories’ that I could photograph in a documentary style – and he could critique. I didn’t even have a travel book on Laos – I didn’t know what the currency was, what the map looked like, nor did I even know that it was a communist country…but the least planned trips are always my favorite.
The Thai train system was actually surprisingly nice. We traveled 2nd class, and had little chairs that folded out into a bed. We didn’t have a private cabin, but instead we had a little curtain that we could pull for privacy…think Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. A waiter came by and brought us beers…what more could you ask for? We lugged our gear across the border into Laos. After the myriad of paperwork and purchasing of tickets to get into the country (you gotta love it when you have to pay to get in and out of a country in addition to the visa fees…they LOVE tourist money!) we hopped in a cab to head off to the border town, and capital of Laos, Vientiane. In the cab Jonathan was busy chatting away to the taxi driver, trying to perfect his Laos/Thai language mix (supposedly the languages are rather similar – or he’s a genius – I’m not sure which!). Pretty soon he turns around to me and says to me matter of factly – “I’ve got us all sorted out”. “You’ve got what sorted our?” I reply. I was hoping that he meant a hotel to sleep for the night as we didn’t have any plan for that yet. Instead he said the taxi driver said that there is a local boat race this coming weekend on the Mekong River amongst various villages. The taxi driver’s sons are on the team and they practice every night in the village, so we will go cover the practice and then attend the festival this weekend and photograph the race. He finished this news by telling me that the man said that I would even be able to ride on the boat and take pictures.
Wow…Jonathan does work fast. I have traveled through countries, taken tours, talked to locals – but I have never been able to get access to cultural experiences this fast. Jonathan turns around and says – “Taxi drivers are a great source of information. They always know what’s going on in town.” I’ll be damned…I guess he is right. The taxi driver, Mr. Sawatdee, was the ‘chief’ of his village and apparently was in the know – or he simply likes the idea of getting his village’s boating team photographed. Either way – it worked for me as I’ve always wanted to get involved with something like this…it’s sporty, different, and dripping of local experience and culture!
Within the next 10 minutes of the ride to town – we have a place to stay, a plan to be picked up at 4PM by Mr. Sawatdee to take us to practice, and a driver to potentially drive us further into Laos for the remainder of the week. Mr. Sawatdee apparently doesn’t do long distance trips, but as I survey my surroundings, I really think it’s that his car doesn’t do long distance trips. I doubt his car will make it anywhere further than 30 km. It’s an old, beat up steel machine, with a manual transmission on the steering wheel. Therefore we set up an ‘interview’ for later that evening with Mr. Sawatdee’s friend and long-distance taxi driver to meet him and to inspect his car.
Over coffee at the local Scandinavian bakery, we decided that if we worked on this boat racing story today (Tuesday), and then made sure that we were back in Vientiane for the festival by Sunday, that would leave the rest of the week to get to some other towns in Laos and find more stories. I had read once about the monks who take alms in Luang Prabang. They actually parade every morning at 6AM in a large group – it’s quite a site to see supposedly – and it’s very different from the normal process of a couple of monks going door to door to collect alms (trick-or-treat style) as you normally see. Therefore I was in favor of trying to make it to Luang Prabang (the middle of the country) to see and photograph the monks. There were many fun stops along the way that we could make, so we decided that if we could find a suitable driver, we would head off towards Vang Vieng, and then to Luang Prabang for the rest of the week. Great – we had a loose plan and story ideas, now we needed a driver.
After a long, wet night of photographing the team practice, Mr. Sawatdee drove us back to our hotel where we met his friend, Pang, and his car. It was late, I was tired, I was hungry, it was dark – my mind wasn’t really fully there as my stomach had taken over my brain about 30 minutes ago on the long, slow bumpy ride back to Vientiane. We met Pang, he seemed nice (I base this solely on his looks and demeanor as I don’t understand a word of Laos), and we looked at his car in the dim light. It seemed a step better than Mr. Sawatdee’s, it was clean, it had air conditioning (a requirement for us!), and it seemed to run as somehow it made it to our hotel. Pang was from Vang Vieng, our first overnight stop, so he would be able to help us find interesting stories and access to thing happening there. Perfect – we would leave in the morning for our roadtrip. That night we found happiness in French food and wine. I must admit, Vientiane didn’t really have a ton going for it – but it had some stellar coffee shops and restaurants. The food was incredibly cheap and good.
The next morning we took off early towards Vang Vieng. In the bright morning light, I got my first good look at Pang’s car…an old, circa 1975, Toyota Corolla that looked like a steel tank. The steel industry would have been proud that this substantial relic was still running. I surveyed my interior surroundings, 4 speed stick shift on the floor, some old levers for air conditioning and fans, the typical gods and charms hanging from the rear view mirror, door handles that didn’t work, tinted windows, and old seat covers. All of this was fine – as long as the car worked…and it did – so we took off. I also noticed that his steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car for Laos driving, this didn’t seem to bother Pang, so I decided that I needn’t worry about it either. As we drove I reminisced about how this car reminded me of our old family car – a two door Ford Maverick, 3 speed. It was the same ugly color as this car, and I think they were both built in the same year. I wondered if our old Maverick was still ‘alive’ somewhere in middle America. We made it to Vang Vieng shortly after lunchtime, found a hotel for the night and took off exploring the town.
The area around Vang Vieng was stunning – green, lush, and limestone rock formations jutting up high into the sky. I had seen terrain like this before – but never in the middle of a country. I’m used to seeing these types of formations in southern Thailand or New Zealand near the coast. Laos doesn’t have any body of water surrounding it – it’s a land locked country, yet the landscape felt like it was nuzzled up next to an ocean. Thanks to these rock formations there were caves everywhere. I wandered around in the rural areas near Vang Vieng, stumbled across some caves, and scenic rice fields, mating butterflies, and monks.
One of the things that stood out to me about Laos was all of the school children on bikes. I never saw a school bus, but everywhere I went there were school children riding bikes in large groups to and from school. They had an amazing sense of balance as most of them carried umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun as they rode. Thoughts of the circus popped into my head every time I would see a group of kids riding their bikes, balancing with an umbrella in one hand and holding on to the handle bars with the other. They didn’t carry these umbrellas to avoid getting wet in the rain, but instead they carried them to shield themselves from the sun. One of the great unexplained mysteries of the world to me will always be why ‘westerners’ all want to be tan, yet all of Asia wants to be pale.
As I walked back towards town I was bombarded with tourism shops selling rafting tours, hiking, mountain biking, and caving. This small town catered to the adventurous, budget backpacker. That lifestyle of adrenaline, drinking, cheap food, and drugs…this was a backpacker promised land. However – I passed up the traditional backpacker nightlife and tried to focus on photography like a good student. That evening Jonathan and I went through the first of many painful editing processes. Painful because I needed to reduce the hundreds of pictures that I had already shot of the boat practice, and Vang Vieng down to about 5 to 10 shots. When you become attached to photos, it’s hard to cut them…they are my babies! Yet Jonathan remained professionally focused…”Too much going on in the background”, “There’s no composition to this one”, “That pole is in the way and distracting”, “The subject has no relationship with the camera”, “You are too far away”, “ You cut off his elbow on this one”, “There’s nothing that grabs your interest”, “I’ve seen this shot a million times, and it has been done much better than this”, and the list goes on and on. Each criticism was hard to take, but necessary. This is what I was paying him for. Shooting people is hard…very hard. There are so many aspects to it – and you just can’t really control your subject – or the background of your subject. I’ve always said that the hardest part about managing people (my previous career) is that you just can’t control human beings. They will do what they want to do, feel how they want to feel. It’s the same issue with documentary photography. I thought I was running away from my old life and the unpredictability of people – yet here I am again – right in the middle of it. Jonathan did teach me ways that I could work with the subject or my surroundings to improve the shots. Most of this required some strange contortions laying on the ground, running ahead of people and taking photos as if you are paparazzi, standing on a chairs, or getting up in someone’s face literally; all things that intimidated me. I also found that I really needed to pay more attention to my frame…what was in the frame and what wasn’t in the frame. I had become good at framing things from a landscape and building perspective – but when you add people to the image, I get very caught up with trying to capture the people that I don’t notice what’s happening in the rest of the frame that could distract from or ruin the picture. I begrudgingly edited my boat photos from 200 down to 5 that would work for the story. Jonathan was a trooper to put up with all of my pushing back. I find that I become attached to my photos – especially if they elicit a strong, positive memory for me. Yet – I know none of you want to look through 200 photos – so I have to learn to trust Jonathan on this!
The next day Pang picked us up after breakfast and we took off for our long, scenic drive to Luang Prabang. Pang said that the drive would take about 5 hours. As I settled into my seatbelt-less rear seat, I noticed a mosquito out of the corner of my eye. As I followed it and focused in on it, I realized that there were about 10 different mosquito’s hovering around the inside of the car, just waiting for their breakfast…me. Of course, just last month in India I ran out of my malaria medication. I had decided to play malaria Russian roulette in Laos – little did I know that I would be trapped in a mosquito infested car for 5+ hours. I quickly found my deet and lathered up as Jonathan swatted at the mossies. I swear – either Pang slept with the doors open in his car at night – or these mossies lived in this car…I imagined that they had little neighborhoods in the cracks of the doors, and upholstery, as I have no idea how there could be so many mosquitoes in this car! We stopped, opened up all the doors and hoped that the mossies would fly to the great outdoors as opposed to staying in their steel condo. With the mosquito problem under control we pushed forward. After about 5 hours of driving through lush mountain landscapes, I realized that we still had 100 km to go. At our average pace of 30 km per hour – it would be at least another 3 hours. Since I had so much time in the car that day – I had a chance to really look at the car finally. I noticed that the dashboard didn’t work at all. No speedometer, no gas lights, no lights at all. The upholstery was ratty and mosquito infested, the horn didn’t work, the windows rolled down, but you had to push them up. Every couple of hours Pang would pull to the side, roll down his window, stick his hand out and open the door from the outside, run out into the bushes to pee and then literally run back into the car and keep going. I chuckled to myself as I imagined that I was riding in the Dukes of Hazard General Lee with doors that didn’t work. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pang had slid across the car and hopped into the front seat via the open window. As we drove through the hairpin curves, we passed broken down buses, slow fuel trucks, and cars even older than ours slowly chugging up the mountain passes. However – the concept of passing was a whole new life or death activity. Visibility was already low on the mountain pass, to top it off, our driver was sitting on the wrong side of the car, and our horn didn’t work…every time he pulled out to pass a big truck I would say a little prayer thinking that we would surely die.
However – all of this was fairly typical Asian travel for me…until I heard the noise….the grinding noise coming from under the hood. It sounded like a blender trying to puree screws and bolts – clanking and grinding away – a noise that would make anyone cringe…but not Pang. Pang just kept on merrily driving up the hill. As the noise was crescendo-ing, Pang finally pulled to the side, rolled down his window, opened his door from the outside handle, jumped out, looked under the hood, fiddled around with the gear shift, got back in and resumed merrily grinding up the hill. Jonathan and I looked at each other in confusion. The metal blender only seemed to happen when we were in 2nd and 4th gear; however, 1st and 3rd gear seemed to be fine. Pang continued to drive in 4th gear, ignoring the blender noise. Jonathan asked Pang if everything was ok, and Pang turned and said that everything was fine, there was no problem. This is it…this is the one thing that drives me a bit crazy throughout Asia…the concept of ‘saving face’. I call it lying…they call it ‘saving face’. Tomaaaato, Tomotto….either way – the car was clearly not OK. After 10 more minutes of grinding along, as well as people staring and pointing at us, Jonathan asked him to simply drive the remaining 35 km in 3rd gear. I was starting to envision us hitchhiking down the mountain. Somehow, we did make it down the mountain and coasted into Luang Prabang right at dusk. We stopped at the first hotel we could find, got a room, and sent Pang on his way to go fix the car. Luckily we were planning on staying in Luang Prabang for two days, so we didn’t have to rely on the mosquito filled Toyota for a while. I was just happy to have arrived in one piece.
For the next two days I got up before dawn to spend hours taking photos of the monks taking alms. There were also sweaty afternoons spent photographing local women weaving, medicine men, newborn babies, and villages making whiskey (yes, of course there were samples involved). Evenings were spent enjoying the nightlife and painfully editing through the multitude of photos. However – we never heard from Pang about the status of the car which was a bit troubling since we needed to get back to Vientiane by Sunday for the boat race. Finally we had to go to our ‘plan b’…the friendly skies…Laos Airlines. Domestic flights are rather reasonable, and it beat spending a whole 10 hr day driving back in a ‘fixed’ car. Pang did eventually get the car fixed and showed back up at our hotel, but we had already decided upon plan b at that point so we agreed upon what to pay him and wished him the best of luck with his newly fixed car.
After an uneventful flight back to Vientiane, Mr. Sawatdee picked us up Sunday morning to take us to the festival and boat race. It consisted of a full day of being out in the sun shooting about 400 photos. It was a wonderful experience, one that was cultural, unusual, and just plain fun. I was able to ride in the judges boats and snap pictures of the race. Granted, I had to spend hours editing the hundreds of photos down to about 10, so this wasn’t an easy task. We celebrated our boating story by going out for one last night in Vientiane and then took the overnight train back to Bangkok.
My experience with Jonathan was educational, cultural, fun, and a lot of work…just what I was looking for. You will have to be the judge yourself as I have added the photo documentaries as short separate posts for you to view. The most important thing is that I will be thinking about my photography differently going forward – thinking about how to get the best shot, how to capture moments, how to tell a story – and hopefully taking fewer shots (less to edit through!).
Jonathan was fun to travel with – it certainly was crucial that he was able to communicate with the locals. We have a lot of fun memories from the trip – and we became versed in all of the modes of travel throughout Laos…luckily we didn’t have to hitchhike! The final piece of advice that Jonathan provided me was where to get a real burrito in Bangkok. I was in heaven…I had been searching for a burrito for the last year unsuccessfully. But his advice once again paid off!
To see the rest of the photos that ended up on the cutting room floor – click here!
Photo: Me and a Tia team member