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Angkor Sunset Storm

Admission to Angkor Archaeological Park, to see Angkor Wat and the other temples, is simple: choose a one-day, three-day, or one-week ticket. The multi-day tickets are usable over a longer period (I think a week and a month, respectively).

One really nice thing that I prefer over Machu Picchu: with the one-day ticket, you can enter the park a day before your visit, after 5pm, to see the sunset. Sweet!

Unfortunately for me, the sunset on July 19th got rained out. But I did get to climb up to the “sunset temple” (I can’t remember the Khmer name, but every tuk-tuk knows it). Eventually I will post some HDR (High Dynamic Range) shots of the rain approaching across the low-lying forest. Here’s the temple itself:

Sunset viewing temple at Angkor park

The stairs are quite steep. Go slowly and don’t look down – yeah, that steep. The idea of these temples was to imitate mountains, because Cambodia doesn’t have any majestic peaks like the Himalayas. Gods would be persuaded to visit these simulated mountain peaks, and even the King had to climb hand-over-hand up the stairways, humble before the gods.

Without HDR, the best one can do to capture the majestic clouds is to silhouette the foreground. Fortunately, the temples of Angkor lend themselves perfectly to this strategy.

Silhouette at Angkor park

Yes, that baby thunderhead was an omen of things to come. I waited out a brief shower from the west after talking to a tour guide who said it didn’t look too bad. Ten minutes later I saw another wall of rain moving toward us from north. When the guide saw that, he said, “Oh. That direction it usually lasts longer. I have to talk to my tour group, maybe we go down now.”

I took my cue and headed home, beating the rush to the tuk-tuks by ten minutes. My hotel driver unfortunately didn’t have any roll-down sides for the tuk-tuk (which every other one had), so I got soaked anyway.

Just as an aside: compare the shot above with a similar one where the silhouette is centered.

Example of bad framing at Angkor park

Bo-ring! The more interesting framing of the first shot captures the sky and the silhouette much better. Using the “Rule of Thirds,” place your subject on imaginary lines dividing the frame into thirds (vertically and/or horizontally). This composition makes a much more aesthetic photo.

As for a Cambodian sunset: I did see one a couple days later. Coming up soon! What was your best sunset ever, or worst attempt at seeing one? Flickr links please! <grin>

Posted 7 years ago at 3:17 pm.

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Donate Rice In Person

Help spread the word! If you like the idea in this article, please send it to world-travelin’-friends, tweet or FB it, and mention it to your blog’s readers. The more people who hear, the more rice we can donate!

After the incredible poverty that I witnessed in places like Thailand and Cambodia, I tried to think of some simple way that I (and others) could donate to help these poor people.

Toddler by the side of the road in Cambodia

You should not give money to beggars in poor countries; this promotes begging instead of education and hard work. A good way to help would be to volunteer for several months in a small community. But let’s face it, most of us are not in a position (family, job, and mindset-wise) to do this.

There are charities where one can donate, and some of them are even reliable, using only a small portion of your donation to administrate their charity group. But don’t donate to any charities while you’re in that poor country, unless you do your homework – many are fake!

Do not support beggars - it promotes more begging!

My idea, which I came up with on the last day of my Cambodia trip, is simple.

Donate rice in person.

When visiting a poverty-stricken country: budget as much cash as you’d like, buy rice, and take it to some poor families. Keep in mind that $10 USD will buy 20kg (44 lbs) of good rice in Cambodia, and you can only transport so much at once. For one or two people in a tuk-tuk, 20kg is a good amount.

With the money saved on buying rice, the staple of life in Asia, the families you help will be able to buy their choice of nourishing foods (for example, milk) for their children. Or they can save up for physical improvements to their home, such as buying materials to patch a leaky roof during monsoon season.

If you can afford it, do small rice runs several times throughout your trip. $12, three times spread out over a week’s vacation, will be over 150 pounds of rice. Given to six families, that’s a real difference. Done by a hundred people, or a thousand people – you get the idea.

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Logistics to donate rice in person:

I bought my rice at the Old Market in Siem Reap, scooped out into plastic bags and weighed on an ancient scale. Westernized stores might have higher prices = less bang for the buck, but you can check around.

If you find a nice tuk-tuk driver, just ask him to drive through a rural area on the way back to your hotel. Unless you really trust the guy, I wouldn’t necessarily ask him to find a poor family for you, because you might end up giving the rice to his family.

Just make your own decision as you drive through the countryside. The tinier the shack or tent, and the less-rainproof the roof, the more in need that family probably is.

Poor families on Tonle Sap Lake's floating village

I’d say the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is a good place for this kind of donation. Regardless of where you donate, if you follow this very personal method, you can be sure that 100% of your donation goes directly to the bellies of a poor, rural family – no overhead, no skimming, and no fraud.

No one can use your “dollars for the orphans” to buy beer and smokes.

And best of all, you get to see a warm smile of surprise and gratitude, up close and personal. You’ve just turned one tough month out of a tough life into a month of plenty, for the cost of two or three cocktails in your hotel’s $3-happy-hour bar.

It’s one moment of your “low-cost-country” vacation that you’ll never forget.

Please try it out – DONATE RICE IN PERSON! And spread the word…

_______

If you’ve made the effort and donated rice in person, please let me know by a comment or by email. I’ll make a list of names here for people who have donated, or “10 kg by anonymous” if you prefer.

Posted 7 years ago at 7:26 am.

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Downtown Siem Reap

On July 18th I flew from Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Priority #1: relaxing to recover from a rather travel-weary state. Siem Reap was just what the doctor ordered!

My hotel (Angkor Spirit Palace) is quite nice, for the $20/night I paid via hotels.com. There were a few blips in the description: I had to argue for the complimentary breakfast, my room lacks the promised safe, and (contrary to the description) there is no whale-watching onsite. Shocker!

For the afternoon I headed into town by the hotel’s complimentary tuk-tuk. Here’s what I found around the Old Market. Cellphones are everywhere in the world, even in the poorest of nations:

Mother and daughter with cell phone in Siem Reap

You’ve gotta love some of the restaurant names in Cambodia. The fine print: “Don’t serve dog,cat,rat,wrm. Died in, 1999.”

Siem Reap's "Dead Fish Tower"

I haven’t seen any 7-Eleven’s here in Cambodia. But they have the next best thing, the 6-Eleven! Note the blurry scooter with a whole family riding on it.

It's the infamous 6-Eleven!

Well, just wait a few seconds and another fully-loaded scooter will come by. Then I can get a better focus on what would break about eighteen laws in most Western countries.

How many people can you fit on one motorbike? The answer is five.

I’ll cap today with a shot demonstrating the short depth-of-field of the 35mm f/2 lens. Even on that first taco, only half the cilantro is in focus!

Viva Carne Asada Tacos!

I can recommend Viva as decent Mexican. Especially considering it’s about as far away from Mexico as you can get. More authentic than anything I’ve ever tried in Germany! Plus, you just can’t beat $0.50 USD draft Angkor beer. Which is the standard price all along Siem Reap’s “Pub Street.” So far, an awesome (and very relaxing) experience!

Posted 7 years ago at 3:41 pm.

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Contrasts of Singapore

This city is full of contrasts. For example, here’s one at a food center near a government-subsidized housing block (where Singaporeans can buy a house cheap, 2x in their life). I had local coffee in a bag, with a straw. I’ve since been told it’s more traditional to have it served in the condensed milk can, but how can you beat this?

Singapore - coffee in a bag

My friends, on the other hand, had McDonald’s Cafe cappuccinos and hot cocoa just next door.

Perhaps the cutest picture I've ever taken

In the afternoon of July 17th, I went to the new Marina Bay Sands casino/mall/hotel/skypark complex. To me it’s quite silly. They want to draw international visitors to spend their cash. But Singaporeans (and permanent residents) must pay a $100 SGD/day surcharge just to enter the casino. That’s basically forbidding them to gamble, because… well… gambling is bad.

Unless you are taking the d*mn foreigners’ money.

I also skipped the Skypark: $20 entry, no description of what’s up there, no food/drink/pro cameras allowed. Because then they couldn’t sell overpriced soda, snacks, and postcards!

Anyway, enough about that; it doesn’t matter because I don’t gamble and I’ve been up much taller buildings. Here are some cool contrasts I saw on the boardwalks by the bay. Tall vs small,

Which one of these two is TALL?

Some people have such high hopes for their children:

Red dress string quartet

Others are just happy if they can avoid losing them. Yes, you’ve put your child into a giant hamster wheel.

Water-hamster-wheel for children

Today was the dry run for the first-ever Youth Olympics opening ceremony. Knownst to these people but unbeknownst to me, there were flybys planned. Two pictures are worth…

"Look! Up there, in the sky!"

Opening ceremony practice for the Youth Olympics

I won’t include a shot of the jet flyby, because it’s not interesting at 35mm. But let me just say, afterburners over a city of skyscrapers… LOUD.

I’m going to save some of today’s pics for another post, because there are just too many good ones. So here’s one last shot with the f/2 at ISO3200, in the Pump Room brewpub at Clarke Quay. I thought there would be 4 beers in the sampler, but in fact there were 8!

Lots of beers in the Pump Room sampler!

What was the most beers you ever ordered with those three magical words, “the sampler, please?”

Posted 7 years ago at 3:56 pm.

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Singapore Jungle Nights

Singapore’s Night Safari is quite an interesting attraction. I was expecting more, so it was a bit disappointing when I went there on July 16th, but it’s still worth a visit.

Here’s the skinny: it’s open from 7:30 until midnight. Adults $22 SGD. BUT you can’t see everything from the walking paths! Many of the (granted, less-exciting) animals you can only see from the tram, which costs another $10. This really pi$$ed me off, because I hate touristy tram rides. AND the tram does not stop, so you basically can’t take photos, because with this light you NEED a long exposure.

One thing I felt I missed out on was the lions, which you can just barely see from the walking trail. Here’s a crop of the best photo I got with my mini-tripod: 1/3s, ISO 1600, f/2.

Distant lions at the Singapore Night Safari

The Night Safari is basically a normal zoo with the same old enclosures for the animals. Most of the animals are the same, too. But many of the animals you see at a normal zoo are nocturnal, so they sleep all day. At the Night Safari, they are more awake and active.

But beware: you cannot use flash to take your pictures (though a few idiots try). It’s not good for the animals. And it’s almost impossible to get a decent shot with under $1000 of camera gear, flash or not. You need great low-light performance (non-grainy ISO 1600-3200) and a pro lens of f/2.8 or faster. My D90 with the 35mm f/2 AF-D did okay, but it was still tough. A $2,700 D700 and 50mm f/1.4 would be ideal.

Here’s a great shot that I got when someone else’s flash popped just as I had my shutter open for 1/4s. The hyenas were NOT happy about that flash.

Striped Hyenas that someone (not me) flashed, just while my shutter was open

That’s still 1/4s with a mini-tripod, ISO 3200, and f/2. So I guarantee their photo with a pocket cam (2m farther away than I was) sucked, despite the flash.

The animal show had potential. But most of the animals did not cooperate. The jumping cat didn’t jump:

Come on kitty, jump for the nice people who keep flashing you

The grape-sniffing whatever-it-was could not choose the hand with the grape, it was too distracted by someone’s camera flash. Then, these recycling otters decided to play with the cups & cans instead of tossing them in the proper bins…

No, otter, put the cup IN the recycling, don't chew on it!

Overall, the park was interesting, but as I said my expectations were much higher. If you go in realizing it’s just a zoo at night, and not an amazing safari-like experience, you’ll be impressed. One thing I learned: porcupines do not shoot their quills. They back into their attacker, then the spines detach from the ‘pine and stick in whatever scared them, because of their fishhook-like barbs.

Porcupines rooting for food and squabbling occasionally

For today’s last (and I think best) photo, here’s a clouded leopard. This beautiful cat was about one meter from the camera, through a pane of glass. 4s, ISO 3200, f/2 with a mini tripod. It was pretty funny watching people try to take pics through the tinted (probably one-way-mirror) glass with the flash.

Beautiful clouded leopard at night

By the way, I can recommend the park hopper pass, where you get to go to 2, or all 3 of the Singapore animal parks for one fee: Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, and the Night Safari. For all 3 it was $45 SGD, a very full two days worth of activities. Awesome!

Posted 7 years ago at 4:22 am.

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Chilli Crab

When in Singapore, you must have a chilli crab. If you can take the heat, that is! I love ‘em, and on July 15th I headed to the East Coast Seafood Center my hosts.

Jumbo Seafood is the undisputed king in my book. They have everything known to Poseidon on the menu, and the crab is fantastic.

DSC_7275

One of our number was not yet old enough to take the heat. He preferred the tasty (fried?) buns. Also, did I mention a few days ago that the 35mm f2 lens can practically see in the dark? 1/15s, f2, ISO 1600 on the Nikon D90.

DSC_7285

And here’s a tasty chilli crab claw, coated in glorious chili-egg-sauce:

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At this point, I was (obviously) recovered from the dumpling incident. This means I was ready to get up the next day and visit not one, but two zoos! One in the daylight, and one at night. Anyone ever been on a real safari? I’m dying to try it one day…

Posted 7 years ago at 3:52 pm.

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The birds and the… more birds

Jurong Bird Park in Singapore is an entire zoo filled with nothing but birds. That sounded pretty interesting, so on July 14th I decided to try it out. On the way there I stopped for lunch at a Chinese dumpling place. Bad idea! More on that later. For now, let’s see what I could do with the 18-200mm VR and my D90!

The Birds & Buddies show, which I caught just after arriving, was awesome. I could do a whole article about that, but for now I’ll settle for a few photos. First up: did you know that birds can play basketball? First one to sink 4 shots wins!

Bird basketball

The next birds were just too fast. Even with ISO 1600 (above which it gets too grainy for me), they were still a wee bit blurry with wide-open aperture.

Through the hoop!

The birds-of-prey show had a bit more light. This show was also fantastic! They used fake baits (like a mock-rabbit with a piece of meat in it, and this rubber snake) with the trained birds.

Birds of Prey show

Tropical birds ruled the park. There were more brightly-colored fancy-birds than anything else. Lots of fop-and-dandy avians like these preening pretty-boys…

Some kind of brightly-colored birds - lovebirds?

And now one for the ladies among my audience. I waited a long time to get the perfect pose of these two black swans with their white-feathered baby. I didn’t know that was possible!? Maybe the little tyke is adopted.

Aww, look at the cute swans!

This is one bird for the catwalk. Natural sequins, and such stunning eyes! She was so tame, too; I was about four feet away when taking this photo. Make a turn, baby… show us the back of that dress!

The superb starling notices me

These two were getting friendly. And I must admit, there were children watching… two or three others, besides me.

Aahhh... get a room you two!

About this time, I was feeling unusually tired. On the bus ride home, it only got worse. Let’s just say, I don’t recommend the dumpling place I tried near Lorong Stangee and East Coast Road. Something I ate there caused a few hours of serious distress.

Because of the dumplings, I postponed my plans to visit the Night Safari. But rest assured, awesome shots of animals at night will be coming up soon!

Posted 7 years ago at 3:12 pm.

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The Mer-WHAT?

After weeks of thinking about a fixed 35mm lens with a wide aperture, I finally caved in and got a used Nikon 35mm f/2 AF-D. The used price seems to be the same worldwide, and this newer autofocus lens only costs 30% more than an older manual-focus one. The wide aperture allows some nice foreground/background blur effects, and the lens can practically see in the dark. On my DX “crop sensor” camera, 35mm is like a 50mm on film cameras – the classic fixed lens size.

After buying my lens in Singapore, I walked around the city to see what I could capture with it. Here are some of the images from July 13th. First up, the Swissotel Stamford, where I stayed in 2008 when I visited Singapore during a business trip. In 1986 it was the tallest hotel in the world.

Swissotel Stamford

Marina Bay Sands is a huge new casino complex. It’s open, but apparently not yet completed. I love how the rooftop garden looks like a giant ship.

Marina Bay Sands, not fully completed

Let’s compare the concert hall, known locally as “The Durian,” to a real durian (the stinkiest fruit on earth).

"The Durian" - Concert Hall in Singapore

Now the fruit, which smells like rotting roadkill when ripe:

A display of durians in a fruit shop

Yeah, I can see the resemblance. But I can testify that the concert hall does not smell like rotting roadkill.

Singapore has a lot of rules and regulations. Eating or drinking on the subway: $500 fine. Smoking in public: $1000 fine. Chewing gum: forget about it. Graffiti: caning. How about this one – riding a bike through the underpass, $1000 fine. One sign is just not enough.

Underpass bike fine warnings in Singapore

Finally, here’s the Merlion, symbol of Singapore. That’s right – it’s half mer, half lion. I couldn’t believe how many tourists were trying to get a picture standing in front of this Merlion. More than I’ve seen in front of any other object, anywhere in the world.

The Merlion - symbol of Singapore

I tried to get a shot of the tourist lineup, but space was too tight. Maybe if I had a 15mm lens, haha. In fact it took several minutes to get to the rail for this shot, waiting for this and that big group to get done trading cameras so everyone had a copy of themselves in front of the Merlion.

Merlion crowds aside, Singapore is certainly a beautiful, clean, and impressive city! One thing for sure: the taxi drivers are all polite, use the meter, and don’t try to drag you to shopping malls.

Here’s a question: what was the most touristy attraction you’ve ever seen? Have you been anywhere that you thought, “I wish all these damn tourists would get out of the way so I could get MY shot!”

Posted 7 years ago at 3:43 pm.

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Solid Apartments

One thing I’ve noticed while traveling in Asia is that the nicer houses and apartments are very well built. My friends living there (businesspeople, expats, etc) live in solid concrete buildings with nice floors, high-grade appliances, security guards, and swimming pools:

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On July 12th I headed from KL to Singapore via bus, so I didn’t take a lot of photos. I’ll leave you with a beautiful view over city buildings, framed by distant mountains.

DSC_6869

Tomorrow, the bustling center of Singapore!

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:05 pm.

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Yes, it’s all about FOOD

I’m sure there are more things to do in Penang, but we had our eyes on the local delicacies! Before heading back to Kuala Lumpur on July 11th, we stopped at a food fair and feasted on what the vendors had to offer. Laksa, Hokkien noodles (very spicy), satay sticks…

Satay sticks grilling at the Penang Food Festival

Here’s the spread at our table. On the far right you can see (if I remember correctly) chrysanthemum juice.

Feasting in Penang

On the way out of town we stopped at Ghee Hiang, a gourmet shop that sells buns, cakes, white coffee, sesame oil, that kind of thing. The buns are awesome, but the signage is even better. I couldn’t resist…

Ghee Hiang - poppin' fresh!

I’m not kidding when I say all we did was eat. Here was our delicious pork-soup-stew dinner, called Bah Kut Teh (thanks, JK!).

Tasty pork soup with herb broth

Alright, I promise, no pictures of food tomorrow – haha!

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:28 am.

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