5 hours and a Sunburn Later – Motorcycling to Trang An

trang an.jpgRising early, I donned the brightest pineapple yellow helmet I’ve ever seen and set off the road to Trang An. Rather than taking the normal 3 hour route that charges straight down Highway 1, I opted to take the longer, more scenic route down the classic Ho Chi Minh Highway, hoping to make decent time and also see more than just the rear ends of other cars.

A spot on sunglasses tan, multiple layers of grime and 5 hours later, I finally rolled up to the Hoalu Eco Backpacker Hostel – slightly fuming over my decision.

While there were roadside peeks of buffaloes and limestone peaks, my cramped legs and sore butt were beat and my nerves shot from the insolent honking of rubble bus drivers. I had completely underestimated what 5 hours on a motorcycle in blazing heat could do to ones’ body.
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Alas, a quick shower and power nap later, and my spirits were up again. Stepping out of the hostel – a new (cleaner) person, I was finally able to fully appreciate where I was. Set in the middle of rice patties, the hostel was wedged neatly in between peaks of limestone that jutted up from the ground and soared overhead. Testaments to the immovable force of nature, they have carved their way through the valley and stretched all the way to my horizon where their peaks seemed to touch the clouds.

A uneven rocky road, the one that I had putted down earlier, was the only one that led to the hostel’s doorsteps. Had it not been for the beautiful advent of technology, 3G and Google Maps, there was no way I would have found my way here.

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Played motorcycle driver for 20 minutes or so.

I had stopped on the side of the road for a couple seconds to check my map when I felt a tap on my shoulder and these ladies (left photo) appeared. While there was an obvious language barrier, I could tell that they wanted a lift from their hand gestures and cheeky laughter. So off we went down the road for a mile or two until a large supermarket appeared and they clambered off, waving to me as they disappeared through the doors.

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With their motorcycles parked directly in the way of the path, this enthusiastic group of bikers wouldn’t let me pass until I joined my bike with theirs, added one of them on Facebook and left with a packet of shredded meat rice crackers – Ninh Bing’s specialty snack.

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^^ got a tad annoying after the 30th one

(perhaps I shouldn’t complain as I took one myself hehue)

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She then gave me food and we became bffs

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BICH DONG PAGODA

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Nicknamed him ‘Grandpa Mountain Goat’ due to his ability to clamber up rocks like no ones business – in thin sandals
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Photo Essay – Ba Vi National Park

Pho in Love

It was love at first bite. From the first spoonful to the last drop, the perfect blend of tangy and sweet hit home with a final kick of lemongrass and fish sauce. “Ngon?” A voice from behind me asked, I swung around and flashed a big smile and thumbs up to the smiling waitress, “Ngon!” – delicious, I replied. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was eating.
 
It was my first day in Hanoi. I had landed at Nội Bài airport only 2 hours ago, weaved my way through the throngs of motorcyclists pressed up against my window, arrived at my apartment to met my new landlord, made certain that I wasn’t going to be taken – Liam Neeson style, happily signed the lease, and flung myself onto bed with a giant sigh of relief.
 
‘This is it! I’m here! In Vietnam! By myself! Ho mah gad!’ My thoughts ran in quick loops around my head and were accompanied by a slight pang of homesickness. Noting that the walls were much too bare for my liking, I quickly dug into my bag and began to tape photos to my wall.
 
Whenever I move into a new place, I immediately put up photos. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am – Portland, Michigan, Orcas Island, Bangkok or Chiang Mai, my photos go up before my clothes or toothbrush are unloaded. When I cover the naked white walls with my friends’ and families’ smiling faces, it pulls them a little bit closer to my corner of the world. They remind me that one day, I’ll be sticking up photos from my time in Vietnam on the bare walls of my future room, and that even though – like any solo traveler, I’ll get homesick from time to time, this is the time of my life to do it, and better yet, to enjoy it.
 
With the photos up, it already felt a little more like home. In the excitement of arriving, I had neglected my stomach – something extremely uncommon if you know me well, and the hunger came pulsating back in giant waves.
 
As I debated between simply roaming the streets or using my second hand Lonely Planet guide, I remembered my driver excitedly telling me “bun cha Obama, number 1! Must go, must go!” To catch you up, in case you took a respite from social media last month, Obama visited Hanoi and casually ate out with Anthony Bourdain at a local Bun Cha street stall. Needless to say, the web blew up and so has the popularity of this restaurant. So I left my apartment, ready to take on the first challenge of living in Hanoi – crossing the street. Luckily, a little old lady with a pineapple cart happened to be moving at a snail’s pace against the traffic, so I stuck with her as motorcyclists danced around us. Blessing her soul in my head, she broadly grinned at me, but I knew better – ‘you wimp’, she was really thinking.
 
I navigated my way through the winding streets, the chaos and frenzy of hawker stalls and zooming motorcyclists nostalgically reminding me of Bangkok’s Chinatown. But after a couple of minutes, I quickly realised that I was lost. None of the restaurants surrounding me matched the names on my iPhone screen.
 
At this point, I was so overwhelmed by hunger, the enticing smells coming from a nearby vender not doing much to help, that I decided to suspend my bun cha Obama search, and instead, follow my nose. Moseying my way to the nearby cart, I caught the eye of a bored-looking waiter and pointed at whatever occupied the glass case of food. It was only after I had plopped myself down on a neon pink plastic stool that I looked up and locked eyes with the sign directly across the road – “Bun Cha” it read. Of course. Regardless, I spent little to no time brooding over my subpar sense of direction once I took my first bite.
 
Over the past two weeks, most of my trips and outings haven’t gone exactly the way I thought they would. Instead of going straight from A –> B, I’d meet random people in coffee shops or lose myself down another alley, to end up making a new friend or finding the best dish of Bun Bo Nam Bo. Not to say that plans aren’t plans for a reason, but I still appreciate that I can bend them however I want when traveling alone. 
 
As long as I don’t end up eating (or becoming) mystery meat or Dingo’s cousin, it’s okay when your plans don’t end up the way you had expected them to. Occasionally, it leads to a less than pleasant situation, but most times, or in my case, it’ll lead to a new-found appreciation for a soup, that I later learned, is called Bun Rieu.
 
 – – – 

I like to ramble and allow my stream of consciousness to run for miles, so I’ll frequently post on here with photos and all that jazz *jazz hands* Will also hopefully get out of Hanoi every weekend – so stay tuned for more stories about me getting lost *intense jazz hands*

– JM
 

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Pro tip: Don’t carry 12 rolls of tissue with you in a sudden downpour/monsoon

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OLD QUARTER NIGHT MARKET

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Bánh Cuốn
Rice roll stuffed with ground pork, minced mushroom, and onions and eaten with Vietnamese ham (cha lua), steamed beansprouts, and cucumbers.

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Bún Chả
A Hanoi specialty – fatty grilled pork served with small noodles, heapings of herbs and vegetables, with a side of cucumber and carrot dipping sauce 

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TEMPLE OF LITERATURE

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HOA LO PRISON ~ “HANOI HILTON”

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Ngô Chiên, Phố Chuồn
Deep fried corn, pork and herbs wrapped in flat noodles served with cucumber dipping sauce

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ST. JOSEPH’S CATHEDRAL
Sunday mass

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Welcome to the Weekend – Phuket

Snazzy eh? ^^ 😉

I figured it was probably time to learn how to put images in words in Photoshop… voila! Google to the rescue.I spent the past three days in Phuket with the executive management team of Buffalo Tours – the same travel company that previously brought me to Om Goi and Cambodia. Their annual general meeting was hosted at Cape Panwa Resort, a beautiful hotel on the South Eastern tip of Phuket where we stayed for three nights.

I, was obviously not there for the meetings, but rather, to shoot interviews and footage for their internal Responsible Travel Tourism video that’ll be shown to update all employees on the coming environmental and social changes within the company. What’s unique about Buffalo Tours is that their employees REALLY DO care about making a difference. They’re all passionate individuals who enjoy what they do, love where they are and simply wish for others to enjoy South East Asia. (I promise that they didn’t tell me to say this). So, if you’re not from the area and are looking for a tour within Asia, look no further.

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Half the time I was sitting in on meetings/filming

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How the other 1/2 of my time was spent (no complaints here)

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I somehow managed to accidentally delete 3/4 of all the photos I took during our cruise… so here are the ones that survived + screenshots from videos. woops!

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Our mini Loy Kratong celebration

old town phuket

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gahhhh such a sucker for houses like these

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Scavenger hunt (which we won, hurrah!)

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The wonderful executive head team

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The team in Phuket

A big thank you (once again) to Buffalo Tours for taking amazing care of me on not one but three occasions. The video will be out soon and I can’t wait to work with all of you again in the near future! 🙂

– JM
Last week in CM before back to BKK – T – 20 days till Europe!

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Had my fair share of seafood in the South

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BURMESE FOOD

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Recently discovered a Chicken Biryani food stall kajhfahsf ❤

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It’s been smoggy in Chiang Mai. Just a bit. To the point where if I go on a morning bike ride, my eyes start to burn from the pollution. Lovely.

Cambodia (I)

After a week in Cambodia and a few days catching up in BKK, I’m back in Chiang Mai!

I’ve split up my travels into two blog posts as there’s too much content to put into one. This one documents my first 4 days in Cambodia in Siem Reap (Angor Wat,  visiting the markets, etc.) and the next will be of the second half of the trip (in the village).

Buffalo Tours graciously flew me to Siem Reap 2 days before the school group arrived so I was able to explore the city with staff from the Cambodian office who kindly acted as my personal tour guides. One of these wonderful people was Vet or ‘Rock’ to his closest friends. Vet was the first person to greet me the moment I touched down at Siem Reap International Airport and was by my side for the entirety of my stay. He took me to the best local eateries, invited me along on a biking trip with his friends and even laughed at my jokes – basically, he was the perfect host.
Huge thank you to Buffalo Tours and American Pacific International School – the students, teachers and tour guides!

Here are some snippets of my Siem Reap. Video to come soon!
– JM

COUNTDOWN TO EURO TRIP: ONE MONTH (just booked our first hostel eeekkkk!)

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Several hours after I touched down, Vet sped me off to the annual Giant Puppet Parade that snaked through the heart of Siem Reap. This annual local children’s community arts project works with a number of NGOs throughout Cambodia to provide a creative platform for disadvantaged children to foster and promote self expression and confidence through art. It was awesome seeing how excited all the kids (and the adults) were to have the chance to parade around the town with their artwork.
To read more about the project: http://www.giantpuppetproject.com/

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Interesting to taste the similarities between Thai and Khmer food – local eats omnomnom

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Also! If you’re looking to help out a unique organisation and also see an incredible showcase of talent, be sure to watch the Phare Circus the next time you visit Siem Reap. 100% worth your time and money. These amazing flame-torch-blowing athletes/actors/dancers  (yes, they do it all) not only transform the lives of young disadvantaged Cambodians but will also make you want to fulfil your childhood dream of hitching a runaway train and joining a circus ahem Water For Elephants.

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Bike ride to the ‘mountain’ with the gang.

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Also, selfies with DSLRs are a lot harder than I always expect.

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Angkor wat

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Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival

Hello all!
I’m currently sitting in the Bangkok Airways lounge, watching the rain drip down the glass walls of the Suvarnabhumi airport as Roo Panes croons through my headphones. After having just polished off half of the free food in this wonderful lounge, I’ll now attempt to blog about the past three weeks rather than continue to absentmindedly stare at the rain outside. (Yes, indie music always has that effect and yes, I’ll also explain why I’m in Bangkok and not in Chiang Mai.)

(PSA to all Documentary Arts Asia interns: February is coming to an end so we can all take a giant sigh of relief.)

At Documentary Arts Asia, we put on two separate, yet intertwined photo documentary festivals in February.

Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival – only the first week of Feb., many events in the space of a week, movie screenings every night, more ‘intense’ festival for photographers/artists, distinguished guests, etc.

F/28 Month of Photography – The whole month of Feb., events are more (physically and time wise) more spread out in Chiang Mai, try to engage wider CM community rather than only prof. photogs., (ex: Instagram photo of the day challenge)

Might I also add that DAA completely relies on volunteer/intern support… meaning that we managed to put on a pretty stellar festival without any funding! And while there were definitely moments of frustration, it was still impressive that we pulled off a legit festival without any $$ large backing $$.

As all the interns have different roles and responsibilities, my ‘official title’ for the festival was ‘Media Coordinator’ – which basically describes the person who captures photo/video content from all events, manages and uploads this material, promotes it to no end on different social media platforms and also runs different social media accounts (insta., fb). Luckily in my position, I was able to use my creativity to find various ways to promote the festival and engage the general public. One of the ways I did so was by creating a summary video for every single day of CDAF (one week). This forced me to take decent footage everyday as well as organise and use it that VERY DAY. By challenging myself, I not only engaged and promoted the festival, but also improved my own time management and ability to work under pressure (videos down below) (Y)

If you take a look at the photos below, you’ll have a glimpse of everything that happened in a month.. which was quite a lot. There were amazing opportunities to learn and see incredible work as well as meet a range of world renowned and aspiring photographers, so thank you to everyone who participated!

Chiang Mai Documentary arts festival
(Feb 1-7)

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Setting up different exhibits at 3 Kings Monument
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Daily movie screening at DAA’s new center that’s under current construction
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Photojourn exhibit opening with Q&A session with photographers

F/28
(month of feb.)

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Annual International Photo Awards Auction with Hossein Farmani, founder of IPA and Lucie Awards
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Q&A session with Philip Blenkinsop
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Annual auction
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‘A Street Odyssey’ by Philip Blenkinsop
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‘Mountain Schools’
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‘My Asian Heart’ movie screening
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Video Drones workshop
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IPA Awards
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Skype Q&A session with photographer Noriko Hayashi
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Skype Q&A session with’ Hounds of Hope’ photographer Julie McGuire
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Print exchange
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Opening party at Alliance Francaise – Paris Photo Prize & visual installation
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Portfolio reviews by Ryan Libre
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Portfolio Reviews by Korean Director Month of Documentary Photography
So why am I in Bangkok? (transiting in the airport?)

Well, turns out that the educational travel tour company that I traveled to Om Goi for really liked the work I produced, so they asked me to travel with them again but this time to Cambodia 🙂 I’ll be in Siem Reap and the surrounding countryside for a week, stopping in BKK for 2 days and then back to Chiang Mai. Very very thankful and happy to be able to travel, photograph and create new adventures without breaking the bank :3

Alright, probably shouldn’t miss this flight. Thanks for reading!
– JM

Welcome to the Weekend – Chang Waeng

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After seeing numerous Instagrams of people candidly posing against a pink, violet and rose colored hillside, I couldn’t help but make last weekend’s plans based around seeing the Cherry Blossoms. There are multiple places one can go to find these mystical colorful flowers (that only bloom for 2-3 months) but I decided that the best bet for my mom and I would be Chang Waeng

Seeing as Chang Waeng is only a hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, the plan was to jump on a song taew early in the morn to pass the first wave of tourists. Great plan! Unfortunately, a 100 other Thai tourists conceived the exact same brilliant idea.

Getting there was A-okay, no problem. Unless of course, you’re terrified of speed driving up steep hill faces and in that case just skip the whole trip. Luckily, I had to acclimate to steep speed driving during my family’s perilous drive to Sikkim, India, where we endured two 6 hour drives (within 48 hours) on a incredibly rocky, cliff dangling, one lane road… yup, still figuring out how we survived that one.

The trees were in full bloom and the landscape was undoubtedly beautiful, but what ruined it for me was us – the people. And by people, I mean the masses of (I hate to generalize, but it’s true) selfie-stick wielding tourists attempting to take new FB profile pics. Half the time, everyone was on their phones, uploading photos or texting, and not actually paying attention to the natural beauty that immediately surrounded them. This might just be me… but why would you spend the energy and money to travel somewhere wonderful if you just end up on your phone the whole time?

Lesson learned – if you’re looking to photograph a place, especially landscape photography, put extra time into going somewhere more secluded…. or just be really really really patient.

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What beautiful landscape with no one there to spoil it
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I think I photobombed at least 20 photos #sorrynotsorry
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Guy on the right exhausted from #overselfiesyndrome
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The only way to keep me sane

doi Pui hill tribe village

Mom and I also quickly stopped at the commercialized hill tribe village of Doi Pui village to grab lunch. We found that they had opium, hill tribe rental garb, and ridiculous photo opps for everyone to enjoy.
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gosh so close
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Mom intrigued by le opium
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2 hours later and you get a really unamused daughter
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Pit stop at doi suthep on the way back

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So far this weekend, everyone at Documentary Arts Asia has been PACKED prepping for Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival and F/28 Month of Photography! Without a doubt, I’ll be too busy here in Chiang Mai to take off for a day in the countryside, however I don’t mind as I’m incredibly excited for our festivals –> check them out here –>
cdaf.asia
f-28.org

Happy Saturday!
-JM