Vientiane may be the quietest national capital in the world. The common aphorism that Lao PDR stands for “Lao, Please Don’t Rush” is particularly appropriate given the laid-back nature of Laos‘ capital. The Mekong river maunders next to the city and seems to vacuum out the impetus and pressure of daily life here.
But quiet though it may be, it is suffering from a growing traffic problem as more people purchase cars. Of course, compared to any other major Asian capital, its traffic jams are laughable. The above photo from Flickr user rkzerok shows central Vientiane around rush hour.
However, Vientiane was never meant to handle much traffic at all. Its tiny roads can seem pretty packed despite only boasting as many cars as a Wal-Mart parking lot. And in response, the Lao government has even implemented laws to ease the congestion.
When I was hiking last year in northern Laos, I came to a break in the forest near the top of the hill. The view was astonishing. The sky was filled with shadowy clouds and where bright sunlight broke through cloud cover, it settled on karst formations hanging with vivid green foliage. I whipped out my DSLR and snapped some shots so I could relive it later. When I loaded up the photos that night, I was beyond disappointed. The greens were dull and the forests were too dark to make out any detail. In my longer exposures where I could see the forest, the sky was blown out. My eye (or rather my brain compensating for my eye) saw the bright colors and dramatic shadows. My camera didn’t.
The human eye is still miles better at imaging a scene than even the most powerful DSLR. That’s why spectacularly lit scenes will often look terrible on a laptop screen. Enter post-processing. On-board camera programs, be they Instagram or other native digital filters, can do all sorts of things to improve your photos. It used to be that red-eye filters were all the rage. These days, even freely available photo manipulation programs can saturate, contrast, tint, blur, invert, soften and cross process. The more powerful tools, like Lightroom and Photoshop, can do pretty much anything imaginable to a photo.
These tools are a blessing, but unfortunately they’re not inherently good for travel photography. These tools are just as readily used for evil. For every photographer who has fixed a screwy white balance in post-processing, there’s another who has maxed out the saturation bar in Picasa or applied an infrared effect just for the hell of it. I, too, have been guilty of these sins. But if there’s one image-editing gimmick that really brings out the pitchforks, it’s HDR: high-dynamic-range imaging.
You’ve certainly seen HDR images before. They’re often eye-wateringly vivid and look off. High-dynamic-range imaging allows a photographer to take multiple exposures of the same scene, and combine them digitally to achieve a better combination of light and dark in the photo. Say you’re trying to capture a beautiful sunset. The range of light intensity is simply too high for any standard camera to pick up both foreground details and the beauty of the sky. HDR offers a magical digital fix for this problem.
Early HDR techniques were massively involved and complicated. Even when digital photography came around, computers were still too slow to handle the complex algorithms. But now, it’s extremely easy for anyone to apply the effect to any photo. In business terms, the barriers to entry are low and everyone’s doing it. The glut of faux-HDR filters and simple HDR compositors like Photomatix has opened the door to runaway misuse. Few people use HDR correctly. And when done incorrectly, HDR images look terrible.
The point of HDR imaging is to make the image look more natural. The high range of tones that the camera can’t pick up by itself can be manipulated and expressed digitally. More often than not, though, HDR images end up looking fake and weird. Why is that? Simply, it’s because people tend to go overboard with the effect. Since the shadows and highlights are easily manipulated during the process, it’s easy to end up with glowing buildings, apocalyptic clouds and cartoonish people. The key to proper HDR use is restraint. The effect works best if no one can tell you’ve used it. If you apply HDR to a set of exposures or you’ve used an HDR filter, ask yourself: Does this scene look real? If it looks weird, don’t use HDR. If you think it looks cool anyway, it probably doesn’t. It looks weird, and don’t use HDR.
Take a look at these two photos, which don’t glow and hum with cartoon colors, but rather use HDR to highlight shadows and tones that would be impossible to capture in one exposure.
Even the second one gets a little saturation-happy. It just goes to show you that it’s easy to let the reins slip.
When you’re traveling and you’re desperate to capture an unforgettable scene, oftentimes using HDR is the only way to pick up on the light and tone variation that your eye is loving. But everyone knows that the Hong Kong skyline doesn’t glow white in the day, and that forests aren’t technicolor. If you’re going to use HDR, show some restraint and don’t just slap on filters willy-nilly. As for me, I deleted my crappy photos of the Laos jungle. My memory of the scene is more vividly colored anyway.
Take a gander at these egregious uses of HDR, and think long and hard if you want your travel photos to look like stills from “A Scanner Darkly.”
AKA: Vesakha, Vesak, Wesak, Visak, Vixakha and many more derivatives.
When? The second Sunday in May OR the day of the full moon in May OR the Sunday nearest to the day of the full moon in May OR the eighth day of the fourth lunar month OR if you’ve decided all that calendric work is too much hassle, like the Japanese, April 8.
Reason for celebration, then? The birth of the Buddha, of course. Though for many, the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment are lumped together in one big holiday. So …
Who died? The Buddha.
Origins: Some 2,500 years ago, Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya Kingdom in modern-day Nepal gave birth in a grove of blossoming trees. As the blossoms fell around mother and child, they were cleansed by two streams of water from the sky. Then the baby stood up and walked seven steps, pointed up with one hand and down with the other – not unlike a Disco Fever John Travolta – and declared that he alone was “the World-Honored One.”
The rest is Buddhist history. The toddler, named Siddhartha Gautama, grew up to become the Buddha and the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in what is now Bodhgaya, India. Later, after amassing many followers, he died, either of food poisoning or mesenteric infarction, depending who you ask, and reached Parinirvana, the final deathless state of Buddhism.
How is it celebrated now? Bathing little statues of the baby Buddha with tea or water, hanging lanterns, extended temple services.
Other ways to celebrate: Freeing caged birds, parades with dancers and illuminated lantern floats, temple offerings.
Concurrent festivals: The Flower Festival in Japan, the Bun Festival in Hong Kong.
Associated food: In many places, varieties of porridge, which commemorate the dish that Buddha received that ended his asceticism phase.
Associated commercialism: Certain companies like McDonald’s will even offer solely vegetarian options on Buddha’s birthday to stick with the spirit of the festival. Precious little, in fact. Though sales of lotus lanterns and baby Buddha statues rocket during this time, the celebrations are remarkably uncommercial.
Associated confusion: There is no reliable record for when the Buddha was actually born, thus the wide range of celebratory dates. This in no way puts a damper on festivities, but does result in a bit of awkwardness when there are two full moons in May, which happens regularly enough. Most recently it occurred in 2007, and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia decided to celebrate during the first full moon of the month, while Singapore and Thailand celebrated at the end of May.
Best place to enjoy the festivities: Seoul really takes it up a notch, planning a week of events and celebrations in the lead-up. It kicks off with the Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend prior to Buddha’s birthday, when tens of thousands of Korean Buddhists parade through Seoul’s main roads under colorful lanterns, bringing the city to a standstill. The municipal government really pulls out all the stops, offering music, dance and theater performances in public places that are jammed with revelers. Take a look at the celebrations in Seoul and elsewhere around the world in this gallery:
In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.
To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.
I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.
Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?
“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”
Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.
Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.
“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”
“And where is he then?”
“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”
Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”
“Is he having tea?”
“No, lunch actually.”
“And when did he leave for lunch?”
“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”
The Wal-Mart Greeter Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.
Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.
I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.
“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.
“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”
“That’s what I’m after.”
“When did you enter?”
“Three minutes ago.”
“You are leaving?”
“No, I’m coming.”
“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.
“I’m not sure.”
“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”
Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.
Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.
The Smuggler’s Dream His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.
I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.
Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.
“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”
“Well, yes, among other…”
“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”
Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.
“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”
“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.
“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.
“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”
Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.
“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.
I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”
The Jailer Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.
After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.
Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.
I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.
My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”
“Not my problem,” was his response
“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”
About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.
“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.
So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.
“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.
He was now my best friend. I was on my way.
Bonus Guard: The Sleeper The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.
I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.
“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”
He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.
AKA: Thai New Year, Water Festival, Pi Mai (Laos), Chaul Chnam Thmey (Cambodia), Thingyan (Myanmar), Water-Splashing Festival (Chinese Dai minority)
When? April 13 to 15 officially, though celebrations may last longer
Public holiday in:Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar
Who died? Nobody.
Reason for celebration, then? The sun has begun its northward journey into the constellation of Aries. Otherwise known as the solar new year.
Origins: Songkran was originally a pious event. Thai Buddhists would go to temple early in the morning and offer alms to the monks. Then they would sprinkle lustral water on Buddha statues. Young people would collect that water, which was now blessed, and symbolically wash the hands of their elders. The water was intended to wash away bad omens. This still happens today, but the spiritual aspect has largely given way to a party atmosphere, much to the chagrin of certain Thais (see below).
How is it celebrated now? A massive, nation-wide water fight that lasts several days, generally with lots of drinking involved. Everyone in the street is fair game for a soaking.
Other ways to celebrate: Releasing fish back into streams, freeing caged birds, bringing sand to temples to symbolically replace dirt that has been removed throughout the year.
Craziest venue: The northern city of Chiang Mai, where the celebration continues long after the holiday is officially over, is considered to be the best place to carouse.
Watch out for: Elephants and pick-up trucks. Both have a very large carrying capacity and high-pressure discharge.Associated commercialism: Songkran today means big bucks for the tourism industry. The government actively promotes the festival on its party merits, much to the consternation of traditional Thais who think the celebrations have gotten out of hand. What was originally a respectful celebration of family and elders has turned into an excuse to get drunk with friends rather than spend time with family. The hand-wringers will have a difficult time convincing the tourist board to change its tune, though: tourists will spend over $1 billion this year during the Songkran festivities.
Associated food: Khanon tom – sticky rice and mung bean balls; khanon krok – miniature coconut rice pancakes; and of course, the ubiquitous pad thai
Best side effect of the holiday: With the mercury bumping up against 100 degrees in much of Thailand at this time of year, a dousing can be a welcome relief.
New rules this year: During Songkran festivities last year, over 300 people died, and there were over 3,000 road accidents. Drunk driving is a major problem. Police have stepped in to curb the chaos this year. Traditionally, pick-ups roamed the streets with massive barrels of water and a team of bucketeers and gunmen in the back, dousing anyone they came across. No longer. They have been banned, along with overloading vehicles, drinking in certain areas and putting ice in the throwing water. The Bangkok Post has published a helpful “10 Commandments of Songkran” for those who need a media edict from within Songkran jurisdiction.