Enter the Dragon

Dateline Penang, Malaysia: (Day 365 with 3640 to go)

The first milestone passes . . .

Yes, it has been exactly one year since I launched my mega marathon vagabond odyssey. Now there are a mere 3640 days to go before I celebrate my 75th birthday and the auspicious end of the first leg of this particular journey. I figure that a decade of continuous travel will just about have me warmed up. However, I will keep the details of the following 25-year sojourn a secret for now. Suspense can be thrilling.

Ten days ago I turned 65 years old and now it’s time for new beginnings.

Soon I will launch a campaign to radically alter my shooting style.

On October 1st I head back to India, only this time I’ll traverse deep into the far reaches of the sub-continent to places I have never experienced–locales where unique indigenous cultures still exist in a country where it’s estimated there are at least ten million inhabitants who don’t even know the name of the nation in which they reside.

For the next three months I will be shooting environmental portraits in the wild, very few of which will be accomplished with available light. An array of mini studio strobe lights and all the necessary paraphernalia will be part of what I lug into the wilderness. One assistant will accompany me during this expedition. I will encounter limited internet connection. My “Fine Art Foto of the Day” venture may well transform into “Fine Art Foto of the Month.”

Meanwhile, I’ve shot very few images here in Malaysia. I’ve taken a month off to play the role of computer nerd and have spent sixteen-hour days developing three innovative Photoshop actions that could vastly expand the way photographers presently shift their images into surreal infrared effects, dreamy pastel passions and thunderous tonal temptation-like adjustments. Some of these actions involve up to a staggering 761 steps in behind-the-scenes Photoshop instructions that I programmed into the effects, some of which generate up to 35 layers in the new files. These marathon products will save photographers endless hours of experimentation.

The formal launch of GASP Actions has occurred.

However, I did take one afternoon and evening off during this past month to join a local celebration of the “Hungry Ghost Festival” when Chinese Taoists believe the Gates of Hell open and phantom spirits freely roam the realm of the living. It’s believed these moody apparitions from ancient times have been denied access to heaven so they visit the living world in search of nourishment and lost souls. To appease the deceased, current believers offer food, prayers, gigantic burning incense sticks and paper versions of material goods in hopes of escaping the wrath of doom. Today inhabitants of many local neighborhoods set up temporary altars and stages in the middle of the street for boisterous singing performances and mesmerizing light shows, all in the spirit of entertaining ravenous demons. The first row of chairs at the stage must remain vacant to mortals and is reserved only for wandering ghosts.

Times change. Today’s appeasers have excess pocket-money to afford rather elaborate Hollywood stages with rock-star-type pulsing strobe lights, fog machines and boom boxes that can numb ones auditory senses permanently. The rather conservative Muslim government in Malaysia seems to tolerate such excesses for these celebrations but the normally skimpy, flesh revealing attire of rock-n-roll performers in the West is, of course, toned down a bit here.

But the music was allowed to blast away and the hot babes danced into the night.

Malaysia, Penang, Hungry Ghost Festival, street stage, girl dancingMalaysia, Penang, Hungry Ghost Festival, street stage, girl dancing

Malaysia, Penang, Hungry Ghost Festival, stage lightsMalaysia, Penang, Hungry Ghost Festival, stage lights

This stage was one of dozens set up on local streets. Surprisingly, at this particular venue there were only about a hundred spectators. A local resident offered me a beer at his front doorstep so I’d have a good view. He proudly stated that he and several neighbors had pooled their money and were spending three thousand dollars a night for five nights to host this glowing shindig extravaganza, which was mainly for the local residents. Of course, traffic was blocked so as not to hamper the wanderings of disoriented, mind-boggled ghosts.

Here’s a close-up view of a dancer . . .

Malaysia, Penang, dancing girl wearing a rainbow-colored top at a street rock music festival

“Rainbow Babe”

And then came dragons . . .

Six-foot tall, dragon-faced incense sticks smoldered at makeshift street altars.

Malaysia, Penang, giant smoldering, dragon-faced incense sticksMalaysia, Penang, Hungry Ghost Festival, Taoist deity, altar

Malaysia, Penang, giant smoldering, dragon-faced incense sticks

And so, my very short respite from computer-thrill-monotony ended and I went back into my little world of creating stupendous GASP Photoshop Actions.

Glen Allison


Burma Splash Bubble

Dateline Myanmar: (Day 330 with 3675 to go)

Sometimes we climb mountains.

Often the tasks at hand seem overwhelming. Nevertheless, I persevered in my quest to conquer the slopes of Mount Kyaiktiyo in southern Myanmar. This is not a mountain to be approached lightly. The devotion-charged Golden Rock at its pinnacle was my reward.

Golden Rock, Kyaiktiyo, Burma, Myanmar

This is the wish-drenched balancing boulder to which all Burmese pay homage–a miraculous pilgrimage site they must visit before they die. Legend has it that a dragon serpent princess found this rock at the bottom of the sea and with her supernatural powers she transported it to heaven . . . or at least about as close as one can get at the top of this mountain. Endurance always pays off. No vehicle is allowed to ascend. Only sweat of the brow can rule the day. One must climb with his own legs toward heaven. Many believe that touching this sacred rock allows wishes to be granted. In the shadows you can just make out the silhouettes of two men who offer scale. But today all is not fair. Once atop, women cannot touch this magnificent stupa-graced wonder even if they want to apply more gold leaf.

In a gesture of solidarity I refused to touch the rock. Who made such rules? I bet the dragon princess is furious. I’ll find other ways to make my dreams come true. Nevertheless . . . I was allowed to descend.

The mountain had proffered its reward but even more treasure awaited.

This–my third visit to Myanmar–still didn’t offer an audience with the venerable Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for to have attempted such indulgence on my part would surely have landed me in jail. This fair lady has enough problems already. She’s the world’s only Nobel Laureate to be incarcerated. Swimming across the lake in an attempt to see her would have only brought more hardship.

Despite her house-arrest imprisonment and the stranglehold of the staunch military government, everyday people in Myanmar seem to be happy . . . and I never saw soldiers on the street. It’s only the Westerner who suffers from the nonexistence of ATMs. Many tourists have been known to have exited the country immediately upon arrival because they didn’t have spare dollars in their pockets for exchange. Only a couple of five-star hotels accept credit cards but for that pleasure they tack on a hefty ten percent surcharge. For currency exchange one must bring crisp US dollar bills in tow. And I mean CRISP. Even a tiny pencil mark or slight abrasion renders such notes useless. There was a half-millimeter, microscopic tear on one of my starched hundred-dollar bills but no establishment across the country would accept it in exchange for local currency, which, by the way, is often found in tatters with dangling bits hanging here and there–just like the sidewalks of Yangon. But maybe you haven’t been there to make such comparison.

I digress.

My self-ascribed mission in life is to find photographic magic amongst the mundane.

razor barbed wire, fine art photo, Mandalay, Burma, Myanmar

Even menacing swirls of military razor wire can bask in a moment of cutting edge glory.

Myanmar is filled with magic. In Bagan more than a thousand magnificent stupas were built about the same time the Renaissance was happening in Europe. What coincidence!  Perhaps such simultaneous artistic expression was coordinated by the heavens.

rainbow, Ananda pagoda temple, Bagan, Burma, Myanmar

This is the shimmering golden spire of the much revered Ananda Temple in Bagan, built in the year 1090 AD. It is located roughly 490 yards east of the awesome pagoda, Thatbyinnyu, 550 yards north of the huge temple of Shwesandaw and about 1000 yards northwest of the magnificent Dhammayangyi. Note that there are another 997 stupas nearby from which distance could easily be measured. But Ananda’s towering, and perfectly proportioned edifice, is the one that heralds the stylistic end of the early Bagan era. When I was there, a blast of rainbow celebrated its existence.

Why have so many people never heard about this marvelous place?

The piece de resistance, however, surely must be the glitter of golden spires and shiny Buddhas that cast an ethereal glow over Burma’s most sacred pagoda, Shwedagon Phaya, which looms above the country’s commercial capital, Yangon, or Rangoon as it was known in a former existence.

Shwedagon can take your breath away.

Myanmar Buddhists dream of visiting here at least once in their lifetimes. No one, even tourists, ever forgets such a visit. It’s said there is more gold laced on Shwedagon’s surface than exists in the vaults of the Bank of England and perhaps even more than the mega tons stored at Fort Knox. Even so, perhaps such overstatement is justified when setting the tone. This is an amazing place.

Long ago Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about this gold-swathed icon, “A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon–a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun . . . “

Let me put this explosion of glitter into perspective by describing just the top portion of the main spire which is clad in 13,153 plates of solid gold measuring one square foot each. The top-most vane of this tower is sliver-plated and studded with 1100 diamonds totaling 278 carats with 1383 other precious stones embedded nearby. At the very top of the vane is a golden sphere enveloped with 4351 diamonds, weighing 1800 carats. And at the very tip of this orb is a single 76-carat diamond perched more than a hundred meters above worshipers below. There’s a telescope off to one side for those wishing a closeup view. These are the facts.

My photo below shows only a handful of Shwedagon’s glorious spires that encircle the complex where local monks circumambulate to pay homage. Perhaps I should add that the gilded glaze you see was granted by an overcast sky. Imagine the spires when the sun shines brilliantly. Your eyes could launch into pain.

Shwedagon pagoda temple, Rangoon, Yangon, Burma, Myanmar

Schwedagon, golden seated Buddha, Rangoon, Yangon, Burma, Myanmar

I allowed myself to be held spellbound.

Shwedagon has existed for two and a half millennia. Perhaps myth makers of ancient times visited here for inspiration. But all that glitters is not gold. Sometimes blue can reign. Clustered around the mighty golden stupa of Shwedagon is an awesome array of temples and zedis and shrines and pavilions and gilded Buddha statues in altars that defy description. One’s imagination can fail in comparison to what exists here. Temple walls are adorned in an endless display of reflective glass mosaic tiles laced with azure-tinted grout that lured me into a fit of fine art photo madness.

reflective glass mosaic tiles, Shwedagon pagoda temple, Rangoon, Yangon, Burma, Myanmarreflective glass mosaic tiles, Shwedagon pagoda temple, Rangoon, Yangon, Burma, Myanmarreflective glass mosaic tiles, Shwedagon pagoda temple, Rangoon, Yangon, Burma, Myanmar

reflective glass mosaic tiles, Shwedagon pagoda temple, Rangoon, Yangon, Burma, Myanmar

The yellow you see is God’s reflection of Shwedgon’s glory towering behind me.

But, I digress again.

Often my eyes are drawn toward distraction. But with Shwedagon my attempts at prosaic amplification fail and my photos struggle to offer validation. But just come here one day and you will understand. This place really exists. Kipling was not lost in a dream.

Then I made my way up-country on “The Road to Mandalay.” Mr. Kipling wrote about this, too, in his book of the same name. Today, the city can be a bit scruffy around the edges but its magic can still be found. Just climb Mandalay Hill for its ecstatic sunset views and see its commanding golden Buddha with outstretched arm.

Mandalay Palace Fort, Mandalay, Burma, Myanmar

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay, Mandalay Hill, Byar Deik Paye pagoda, standing golden Buddha

Most of Burma’s Buddhas are gilded . . .  even the novice ones in nervous pose. Notice how his skin glows.

boy Buddha, Shwenandaw Kyaung wooden monastery, Mandalay, Burma, Myanmar

But I found some moody-eyed white ones, too . . .

white Buddha face and eyes, Shwekyimyint Phaya pagoda temple, Mandalay, Burma, Myanmar

Buddhas are associated with the lotus because this flower signifies the law of “Cause and Effect” or karma. The lotus has the rare quality of manifesting the blossom simultaneously with its seed. More symbolically, the magnificent lotus flower flourishes most when it rises from the muddiest of swamps. If you ever find yourself trapped in such muck, rest assured your life can still blossom.

Being a Buddhist country, there are many historic temples of tourist interest for those who visit Myanmar. Religious structures tend to endure over time. Burma has some of the most colorful, if not garishly outlandish, temple sites I’ve ever seen, some with turquoise walls and red pagodas.

Myanmar, Burma, Inwa, Ava, Amarapura, Kyaw Ang San Thar monasteryMyanmar, Burma, Inwa, Ava, Amarapura, Kyaw Ang San Thar monastery, red pagodas

And perhaps big Buddhas are better. This one towers 423 feet above worshipers. The reclining version nearby is of similar dimension. Notice the tiny people paying homage and lending scale and check out the size of the two people standing just under the “G” of my copyright watermark in the righthand photo below. The tall Buddha stands in the distance just above the feet.

Myanmar, Burma, Monywa, Bodhi Tataung complex, 423-foot standing BuddhaMyanmar, Burma, Monywa, Bodhi Tataung complex, reclining Buddha

Or there’s this moody version of the same reclining giant from my previous trip nine years ago before his big brother was built.

Myanmar, Burma, Monywa, reclining Buddha at Bodhi Tataung temple complex

The ethnic tribes in Burma offer interesting glimpses into unique lifestyles, especially the Paduang long-neck women from Kayah State. From a young age, they insert brass rings around their necks one at a time over time until their heads get far removed. One story has it that long ago village elders wanted to make their women look ugly so marauding Mongols wouldn’t be interested. Today these are some of the most unique women of the world. It’s also said that if they take their rings off, they can’t hold up their heads. Sad, but still this elderly lady has a presence of serene dignity about her even when she naps. At least she has no problem with her head falling over. Of course, this is no laughing matter. I found this other lady puffing away on a big hand-rolled cigarette while she lugged a load of wood strapped to her head. Clearly, her neck muscles are strong.

Myanmar (Burma), Inle Lake, Ywama village, Paduang long-neck woman from Kayah StateMyanmar, Burma, Inle Lake, Inthein village, Shwe Inn Dain Pagoda, old lady carrying wood and smoking cigarette.

I forgot to mention Inle Lake where fishermen deftly balance on one foot at the tip of their boats while their other leg is wrapped around an oar with one end tucked under their arm. They pivot and row in a one-legged corkscrew fashion and their hands are left free for managing the net.

Net Worth fine art photograph, man rowing boat, Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe, Burma, Myanmar

With permission, I climbed aboard this tiny canoe mid-lake for an insider’s view. In the process I almost caused capsize. But this agile gentleman executed perfect counterbalance to my photograph of his precarious stance.

This trip to Burma lasted only eighteen days. Toward the end of my visit I found myself at the remote Buddhist pagoda of Yan Aung Nan Aung Hsu Taung Pyi. Okay, you might need to practice saying it slowly a couple of times. It’s a quiet place; I was the only one there. No crimson-robed monks were nearby. It was just me and the huge outdoor Buddha sitting there in a moment of ponder. I lingered for a while, then carefully folded my umbrella and put it away. The rain had finally departed perhaps signaling it was time for me to bid farewell once again to this incredible country. Reluctantly I slipped back into my sandals and turned to leave. Then, off to one side, I spotted a sacred pond whose waters appeared not to be clear.

Upon closer inspection I discovered rain droplets dancing on a lotus leaf that had risen from the muck.

Splash Bubble fine art photograph, raindrop, lotus leaf, Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar

And so, I leave you till next time . . .

Glen Allison

PS: If you haven’t yet subscribed to my global ramblings and double entendres, you can do so by CLICKING HERE if you desire. Note that email subscriptions to this travel blog are different from that of my “Fine Art Foto of the Day” and it’s possible for you to have both.

Hanoi Turtle

Dateline Vietnam: (Day 300 with 3705 to go)

And then the giant, mythical tortoise rallied himself from deep slumber at a depth far below the surface of the mysterious, murky waters of Lake Hoan Kiem positioned smack in the center of bustling Hanoi. The old turtle chuckled to himself . . .  most locals didn’t think he existed. But many of his adherents ascribe to him god-like powers. Truth be it, he revels in this euphoria. A sub-surface crab had just clinched its pinchers into his leg. Ouch!  So this magnificent tortoise knew what was real.

Let mortals wonder.

His little turtle cousin died in 1968. He weighed 500 pounds, was six feet long and his bronzed remains are now preserved on the surface in display at the nearby Ngoc Son Temple just meters above where skeptics can view possibility. This diminutive cousin represents tangible proof of such huge turtle proportions. But . . . if the world only knew how big this Sword Lake Tortoise species (Rafeus leloli ) really grows.

Legend has it that this turtle is a descendent of the golden tortoise of Le Thai To. But non-believers think that today many replicant turtle siblings are safeguarded in enclosures elsewhere by the government only to be secretly transported to the shores of Lake Hoan Kiem in the middle of the night ever so often when the myth needs reviving–a “big turtle” appearance orchestrated just to keep the legend alive.

Tonight, however, this very huge tortoise at the bottom of the lake knew the truth. Only moody night light could arouse him. Or, perhaps, an admirer who could appreciate his existence. Methodically, the ancient turtle began his ascent toward the surface to greet me . . .

I came to Vietnam as a travel photographer. I leave as a definite believer in possibility. Here are my photos of Lake Hoan Kiem and its famous red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the lake. Just imagine the old turtle ascending.

Vietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Tortoise Tower, Thap Rua, skyline, twilight

Vietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple, Huc Bridge, Rising Sun Bridge, night-time

Vietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple, Huc Bridge, Rising Sun Bridge

Traditional street markets amaze me. There’s fish. There’s magic if you focus tightly amongst the chaos.

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, Cholon Market, circular fish display

Though fish may seem to wander aimlessly, perhaps in reality they adhere to predestined paths–in this case, circular. At least, I’m convinced that my own circuitous path drives me toward such views. So here I am in the middle of Cholon Market in Saigon, 2010, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City. Funny that the airport code is still “SGN” despite the city’s name change that reflects homage to a revered national hero of the past–Uncle Ho.

Graphically arranged boxes of incense seem to reach out and grab my attention . . . as does a cellophane-wrapped scarlet silk fabric with sequins in swirl.

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Sagion, Cholon District, triangular-shaped packets,incenseVietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Sagion, Cholon District, cellophane-wrapped textile, sequins

I love this life. I love the reward.

That mythical turtle titillated my perception of reality, though I must admit he appeared much later in my trip to this previously war-devasted land. But you’d never know it today by looking around. Such past events of destruction seem to have been long forgotten and now prosperity abounds. There’s a pulsing, thriving economy and new skyscrapers are piercing the clouds. The Vietnamese people are great. Forget past distraction. Let’s do business.

Such a refreshing attitude.

Just thinking about that great tortoise mesmerizes me so much that I felt I must tease you with his possibility at the beginning of this blog post so as to set the tone. Events of impact don’t necessarily present themselves in chronological sequence. We tend to think our lives respond to time. But since there’s an eternal aspect to our existence, perhaps time is just following along for the ride.

I love to grab time and perception and twist it around my finger. This is absolutely possible. Take note in this next photo of Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi.

Vietnam, Hanoi, West Lake, Tran Quoc Pagoda, twilight reflections

Never is a water reflection brighter than the sky since a reflecting surface always absorbs light. So take another look. Photographers can wield subtle control. Here I lightened the water reflection just a tweak in post Photoshop production just to flip perception a bit. I do this because it adds a hint of reverse magic to my twilight water photos. Though such simple subtleties in perception can stimulate, I frequently add a measure of exaggeration beyond the balancing act. It was a drab gray overcast evening. I own the blue that you see.

Let’s look at fish differently.

Vietnam, Nha Trang, Dam Market, cut fresh fish displayVietnam, Vung Tau, street market, cut fresh fish display

Perhaps it’s time we pulled ourselves together.

(Note: This dissection was not done in Photoshop, though with some effort I bet I could put the pieces back in place seamlessly though it might appear to be a very long fish.)

Chinese temples in Vietnam are full of surprises. I never thought of incense being coiled. And so this discovery flipped my mind in further twist.

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda, red incense coils

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, Thien Hau Pagoda, coiled incense

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, Thien Hau Pagoda, coiled incenseVietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple, incense sticks burning

Coiled incense viewed from underneath . . . and the uncoiled version burning away.

Sheet metal on a Hanoi street has possibilities of graphic composition.

Vietnam, Hanoi, sheet metal boxes, containers

Many conical-hatted street vendors still peddle their wares from a bicycle.

Vietnam, Hanoi, Vietnamese bicycle flower vendor

In a Chinese temple down the road a wooden red horse takes on magical proportions in my mind as does a golden dragon screaming for attention.

Vietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple, wooden red horseVietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Sagon, Cholon District, Quan Am Pagoda, golden dragon figure

And old coins at a Hoi An street market capture my imagination.

Vietnam, Hoi An, Central Market, old coin display

My thoughts drift to an ancient time when pirates would come ashore for a night of debauchery and glee, their pockets bulging with gold coins to be spent in wild abandon at the smoky opium dens and brothels in the back alleys of Hoi An . . . and those ladies of the evening who traded pirate treasure for pleasure in candle-lit boudoirs of decadence with no shame.

My mind shifts back to the present as I wander from vendor to vendor and I soon discover that the Vietnamese have a penchant for vodka-embalmed serpents.

Vietnam, Hanoi, serpent-filled alcohol bottles

It’s said that imbibing these empowered spirits will make you strong. Embedded scorpions enhance the experience and augment the tart taste.

Artificial empowerment can keep one’s eyes dancing in search of fine art photo compositions amidst the mundane. Then shiny sequins seeking their own glory decide to fill my frame of mind.

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, textile, sequinsVietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, textile, sequins

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, textile, sequins

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, textile, sequinsVietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cholon District, textile, sequins

Graphic patterns abound in the ever-present street market bliss.

Vietnam, Hoi An, textile, red lines, mazeVietnam, Hanoi, colorful streamers

But it’s the circle circus I encounter that keeps me enthralled.

Vietnam, Hanoi, door plates, handlesVietnam, Hoi An, colorful textile, circles

A cluster of blue and red fishing boats with yellow-starred Vietnamese flags in Nha Trang harbor blow me away as do the sunset boat reflections in Vung Tau.

Vietnam, Nha Trang, fishing boat harbor, blue, red

Vietnam, Nha Trang, fishing boat harbor, blue, redVietnam, Vung Tau, fishing boat, sunset

Illuminated lanterns sway in a gentle wind of the night.

Vietnam, Hoi An, lighted Chinese lanterns, night

However, it’s the moody twilight lighting I love most.

Romantic Hoi An in central Vietnam was spared the bombs during the war and today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage town. Historic Chinese shophouses now lend their environs to trendy night-lit restaurants along the river’s edge.

Vietnam, Hoi An, boat, lighted street facades, twilight

But I save my favorite for last . . .

In lingering moments of cobalt blue, a crepuscule sky helps celebrate these fancifully lit boats at a Buddha’s birthday festival on the Perfume River in Hué.

Vietnam, Hue, Perfume River, colorfully lit boats, Waisak Celebration Buddha's birthday

What grabs you?

Glen Allison

PS:  Culinary pursuits in Vietnam offer unique diversions, many of which might not be very palatable to Western appetites. Serpent-ladened martini concoctions probably give you a good idea. I lean toward exploration and I mustered my courage to try many strange local delicacies . . . at least the ones that weren’t still crawling.

But please don’t dare offer me turtle soup.

Laos Wet and Wild

Dateline Luang Prabang: (Day 235 with 3770 to go)

The sun’s lingering reflection rippled across the wine in my glass. Surely this potent, home-brewed Lao concoction was enhancing my view over the Mekong River. My steamed fish, banana-leaf-wrapped selection for dinner soon arrived. The accompanying “sticky rice” was served in a hand-woven basket. It’s lid was tied with a little red string to keep the rice from going astray . . . or maybe just to encapsulate the heat. It’s possible to make a full dinner of just your ever-so-slightly-sweetened sticky rice when it’s dipped into tangy fish sauce laced with a bit of freshly chopped chile. Add your main course from the extensive list of Northern Laos specialties available . . . well, I can only hint at my delight. Lao wine isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for the euphoria. The five-dollar price tag for both meal and drinks made the night quite thrilling.

One could easily while away the evening with a glass or three of Lao wine in hand and so I did.

However, since my life is powered by the reality of taking photos for a living, I still made it up early the next morning and was off for my much-anticipated visit to the most celebrated temple in Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong. But “zing” can’t possibly describe the experience. This could be the quintessential temple visit of a lifetime–depending, of course, on one’s chosen Buddhist proclivity. But Xieng Thong is most definitely the highlight of any visit to this UNESCO World Heritage town.

I, too, must celebrate historic beauty. Wat Xieng Thong was built in the year 1560. The rear wall of the main temple is encrusted with bits of colorful glass depicting the “Tree of Life.” Inside is a serene-faced golden Buddha.

Lao P.D.R, Laos, Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong, Buddhist templeLaos, Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong, golden Buddha

Interior walls are covered in gold-stenciled designs. On one side is a display of ancient gongs.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong temple, gold-stenciled wallLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong temple gongs

The funerary carriage house in the temple complex is home to this group of old Buddhist statues and the interior walls are inlaid with colored glass mosaic designs depicting scenes of local daily life.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong temple, Funerary Carriage House, Buddhist stautes

The exterior walls of the nearby Red Chapel depict more glass mosaic scenes. Inside rests a reclining Buddha.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong temple, Reclining Buddha Sanctuary, Red Chapel, inlaid glass wall

As if to augment my perception of Xieng’s importance on the Luang Prabang scene, the heavens suddenly decided to add exclamation.

Within a minute after I exited the temple the sky rapidly blackened in a threat to unleash fury. I was taken aback. Four f/stops of light had vanished in seconds. Distant thunder intensified and I had the distinct impression I would get very wet very soon so I quickly stashed my camera into my waterproof bag. But little could I have imagined the extent of the inundation that was upon me. Then all hell unleashed . . . on second thought, this deluge was from the opposite direction, of course. It was like a ferocious hurricane had suddenly engulfed me, a terrorizing typhoon or tornado. Trees swayed under the pressure, then trees began to snap and power lines fell. My heart was pounding as I ran for cover under the portico of a nearby guest house entrance. But that didn’t stop the ensuing onslaught. The wind went wild and there was no way to keep dry. I watched helplessly as a house on the other side of the Mekong burst into flames.

And then, just as swiftly . . . it was all over in ten minutes. I was stunned. I was amazed. I wished I’d had an underwater camera to capture the scene as it unfolded. I found myself extremely wet.

Such was my welcome to Luang Prabang.

Most locals I talked to afterwards were equally aghast though many acknowledged this must have been an awesome sign from the heavens that the upcoming “Bun Pi Mai Lao” celebration (the Lao New Year) would be more thrilling than ever.

This normally sleepy, though heavily touristed town, is beguiling with its resplendent temples, crumbling French provincial architecture and its multiethnic inhabitants from nearby hill tribes who smile all the time. The streets are usually calm save for an occasional bicycle or tuk-tuk and some tourists milling about. The old town is cradled on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong on one side and a tributary, the Nam Khan river, on the other, which blocks off any possibility of through traffic. Luang Prabang’s UNESCO designation brought signage control in the old town that has virtually eliminated the visual clutter found in most other Laotian towns. And it’s a godsend that no trucks or buses are now allowed. This is the second largest city in Laos but there are only 26,000 local residents. Perhaps this gives you some perspective about the layback rhythm of this country. Late every afternoon the main drag through the old town section of Luang Prabang converts to a walk street and into a night market where endless displays of hill tribe artifacts and other goodies can be found such as these rice paper umbrellas.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, colorful rice paper and bamboo umbrellas

One could purchase vibrantly colored bamboo cages with a little chirping bird inside to be released at a nearby temple during the Lao New Year for good luck.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, pink bamboo bird cagesLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, pinkl bamboo bird cages

There were displays of hand-wrought knives and Lao silk.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, knivesLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, knives

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, hand-woven Lao silk

Or you could throw darts and try to pop a balloon.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, dart throwing balloons

There were all kinds of goodies to eat. Little fish seemed to be frozen in time. Those straight from the barbecue were strapped between bamboo sticks while other uncooked versions were snuggly ensconced in circular  bamboo containers ready for the flame.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, barbecued fishLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, fish

Or you could choose a tasty-looking barbecued pig face instead.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, barbecued pig's head

I timed my Luang Prabang visit to photograph the colorful parades in which participants wear traditional dress for the festive Lao New Year celebration that occurs in mid-April each year.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year, girl wearing traditional dressLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year, girl wearing traditional dressLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year, girl wearing traditional dress

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year, girls wearing traditional dress

A few other colorful characters joined the parade too.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year paradeLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year paradeLao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year parade

And I was surprised to see there was a gay pride contingent of Laotian drag queens.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year parade, drag queens

A few days earlier Luang Prabang was already teeming with tourists, who had no doubt arrived in great anticipation of getting thoroughly wet. Though this was the driest part of the hot season, the town was soon to be awash in far more water than my welcoming torrential downpour a few days earlier.

In fact, all hell really did break loose the next day when the Songkran Water Festival began.

Locals and tourists alike went crazy throwing water. The streets were lined with huge drums from which people were scooping out water with bowls and pans and tossing the contents in wild abandon at each other and at passersby. If you dared be on the street, you were going to get sopping wet.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year Songkran water festival

Tourists were prime targets but most were well armed for the ensuing water battle.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year Songkran water festival

Open-bed trucks prowled the streets with mischievous youths on board who were scouring the terrain for like-minded compatriots to engage in the most outrageous water fights you could imagine.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year Songkran water festival

Other vehicles had been specially painted for the occasion and many served as party platforms on which youths could get even more inebriated while dancing and thumping to ear-piercing sounds pumped from mega boom box speakers lining the streets. See one of those sound systems near the top left corner of this photo below. Throughout the day the entire town was like a throbbing, gyrating, water-bourne disco gone berserk. It was contagious. I, too, was pulsing with the beat. Maybe that’s why some of my photos have a bit of camera shake.

Lao P.D.R., Laos, Luang Prabang, Lao New Year Songkran water festival

Somehow I kept relatively dry. Perhaps it was because I held my camera prominently displayed . . . or maybe it was the menacing grimace I threw toward water revelers every time my camera and I were about to get doused. 🙂

The formal Lao New Year celebration lasts for a week in Luang Prabang but the middle three days are the wettest and the wildest. Evenings were much quieter. Perhaps the locals and tourists alike were either fully inebriated already or totally exhausted by nightfall . . .  or maybe they just needed to dry out.

So each evening I found my way back to a favorite restaurant on the banks of the Mekong for a quiet and leisurely dinner and to see my new Laotian friends who worked there.

“I’ll start with a glass of that tasty Lao wine, thank you.”

For most people the New Year’s celebration might have ended early that day but mine was just beginning.

Glen Allison

Kathmandu Magic

Dateline Kathmandu (Day 140 with 3865 to go)

Kathmandu . . . the name itself seems to connote an enchanted land. And so, let us allow this amazing city to transport us into our dreams. Perhaps my first image from the Buddhist stupa at Bodhnath might invoke a whispering hint into the ethereal bliss this deeply religious and historical city offers:

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath, stupa

What more to expect?

Well . . . it’s not what you might imagine if you remember the recent Maoist uprisings and blockades . . . or the ruthless murder of eight members of the royal family (including the revered king and his wife) back in 2001 by a drunken, disgruntled prince who was pissed off that his future bride wasn’t on the approved list of his possibilities–or so the official word was put out. He had no defense because they say he turned the gun on himself shortly after his nefarious escapade. Be that as it may, virtually the entire royal legacy of the past couple hundred years was wiped out in an instant–except for an heir who was conveniently in the northern city of Pokhara at the time of the incident. No autopsies were allowed, the royal dead were immediately cremated, and that particular palace was burned to the ground in short order. So lingering doubts as to what really happened still persist. Of course, there are local perceptions about other possibilities such as a CIA conspiracy, or the Indian government’s interference, or a Maoist plot or whatever ones imagination might conjure up with these kinds of national tragedies. But today the country has moved forward from this recent bleak history . . . well, almost. Maoist officials have now been elected into parliament and they espouse peace but during the last decade or so they wreaked havoc across the land. The new king Birendra (the prince who conveniently found himself in Pokhara when the royal tragedy occurred) was democratically relieved of his power in 2008 by a national referendum and he now resides in a humble two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The word “royal” was shortly thereafter stripped from the name of the national airline and the former royal palace has become a museum. Today there is virtual calm in the land and a burgeoning, vibrant democracy is at hand.

On my first day in Nepal I journeyed to the imposing Swayambhunath Stupa perched high on a hilltop overlooking the Kathmandu Valley but, alas, I found the stupa shrouded in scaffolding for renovation. I climbed down the hill feeling a bit disappointed and left with only a photo of the Buddha’s footprints sprinkled with flower petals, grains of rice and red tikka powder as offerings.

Nepal, Kathmandu, Swayambhunath Temple, Monkey Temple, Buddha footprints, red tikka powder

On my second day in this magical city, the Maoists brought the entire country to an abrupt halt with a three-day nationwide strike because they were disgruntled and unsatisfied with results–there’s too much corruption and extreme poverty in rural areas still exists. No vehicles moved, no shops were open, no restaurants served food. Nothing inched along. That is . . . unless you decided to walk.

So I did.

All I found were shop doors bolted shut. And–WOW–did that provide some photo opportunities not otherwise afforded when the doors are wide open:

Nepal, Kathmandu, colorfully painted door, padlockNepal, Kathmandu, painted doors, red, blueNepal, Kathmandu, painted blue doors

(click for larger views)

Doors can be great and it is an aspect of my photo vernacular to honor them.

Allaying my fears of a nationwide renovation of heritage sites, I was relieved to find Bodhnath Stupa not covered in scaffolding. This is one of the few places in the world where unfettered Tibetan Buddhist culture still exists. My visit came with a prize when I discovered the stupa was draped in festive night lighting offering a photo not often seen–something we travel photographers love to encounter. So I found a nice rooftop restaurant with the best angle of view, set up my tripod and ordered a beer to wait for that magic moment of twilight when the night lighting would perfectly balance with the lingering deep blue of a diminishing sky. Hopefully the decorative lights would come on before the sky went black. If not, my plan was to shoot an exposure when the sky was rich in cobalt hues then afterwards sandwich that frame in Photoshop with a later exposure that recorded the twinkling lights when the sky was dark. But as the sky started to wane someone flipped the switch and the stupa was suddenly awash in light–well, half of it, which would have made my post-shot Photoshop efforts quite exhaustive in trying to copy/paste half the lights in perspective to the other side of the stupa. Oh well, another sip of beer. My work would be cut out for me later that night on the computer. But after two or three more sips of Nepali brew the other half of the monument charged to life just in the nick of time before the last color in the sky had gone to sleep.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, Buddha's eyes, twilight

The purity of line in the design of Bodhnath Stupa is not replicated with such grace anywhere else in Nepal. Watchful eyes of the Buddha are painted on four sides of the gilded tower above the stupa dome. On another day and at another rooftop restaurant I waited till the descending sun’s orb offered its reflecting, golden rays.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, Buddha's eyesNepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, Buddha's eyes

Thousands of devotees circumnavigate the stupa clockwise every day in a surging, ritual procession while they chant mantras and spin prayer wheels embedded in the 147 niches of the surrounding wall. Naturally, along the way vendors offer their wares: Gurkha knives, jewelry, butter lamps and incense containers.

Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepalese gurka knivesNepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath , Nepalese fringed jewelry

Nepal, Kathmandu, Swayambhunath Temple, Monkey Temple, burning candlesNepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, incense containers

And the eyes from above keep watching . . . perhaps disconcerted by such flagrant displays of commercialism.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, double Buddha eyes

Not far away on the banks of the holy, though extremely murky, Bagmati River is the golden Hindu temple of Pashupatinath dedicated to lord Shiva where he is celebrated in his form as Pashupati, the lord of the beasts. Non-Hindus may not enter, which severely hampered my taking photographs, but Hindu devotees and sadhus flock here from across the Indian sub-continent. Many Nepalis choose to be cremated on the banks of the Bagmati and funeral pyres smolder around the clock as you can see in this high angle view above nearby stone Shiva shrines on the hillside. Shooting closer photos of the burning bodies at the cremation ghats is disrespectful–not that I wanted gory, bubbling flesh images anyway.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Pashupatinath, stone Shiva shrines

The nearby Kathmandu suburb of Patan is blessed with probably Nepal’s most spectacular collection of towering, multi-tiered temples and pagodas adorned with lavish carvings and decoration. One temple is dedicated to the god of trade and business, which might explain why thriving shops in the neighborhood are filled with expensive treasures for tourists. Street-level vantage points make it difficult to encompass the entire scene in one view. But I always need exercise and look forward to climbing the stairs of every rooftop restaurant in town seeking the best angle . . . yeah, sure.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Patan, high-angle view, temple roofs, Durbar Square

The Kathmandu Valley is filled with magical places. The former medieval city-state of Bhaktapur really sings with its quaint, crooked, cobbled-stone streets, towering temples and teetering red brick buildings. Symbolizing the architectural whimsy of ancient times there’s even a Shiva temple with roof struts on high that are carved into scenes of camels and horses and elephants in various positions of erotic love. Sorry, no picture; this is a family site. 🙂

The grandeur of Bhaktapur’s temples is accentuated by a backdrop of distant, snow-covered Himalayan peaks. Old men with nothing to do gather in the town’s numerous market squares to lament glorious times gone by.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, old men, market square

And sometimes you encounter outlandishly dressed sadhu ascetics who seem to have forsaken their vows of shedding earthly wealth to seek the “way.” Many of these aesthetic ascetics now seem more focused on monetary gain from the tipping tourists with camera in hand. At least I got a model release in response to my token remuneration though I kept wondering how much that jewelry might have cost.

Nepal, Kathmandu, Durbar Square, sadhu ascetic, jewelry

Bhaktapur’s Nyatapola Temple with its five-tiered pagoda roof is Nepal’s tallest such structure. On one side I found a rather stoic stone guard . . . and on the other side I found a bicycle.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, guardian stone statue, Newari Nyatapola temple, Taumadhi Tole SquareNepal, Kathmanu Valley, Bhaktapur, bicycle, ladder

One can spend days wandering Bhaktapur’s narrow back streets and alleyways discovering small market squares carpeted with clay pottery bowls baking in the sun or stacks of hand-hammered brass milk cans on display.

Nepal, Bhaktapur, clay pottery bowls dryingNepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, bronze, stainless steel milk cans

You can browse through endless racks of exquisite Nepalese jewelry or buy some colorful hand-woven mittens if your fingers get cold.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, traditional Nepalese jewelry

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, colorful Nepalese wool gloves, socks

But the artfully detailed lintels and doorway designs intrigue me most.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, door lintelNepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, detail, Nepalese doorway

Nepal has a living child goddess, the Kumari Devi, who lives in the center of Kathmandu in an awesome, ornately carved wooden house 250 years old. One legend has it that the tradition began centuries ago when a randy pedophile king had rather energetic sex with a prepubescent girl who died shortly thereafter. In penance he started the practice of venerating a young virgin as a living goddess. Whatever the history, each new Kumari chosen today must be from a particular caste of Newari gold- or silversmiths. She must be no younger than four and, of course, not have reached the ripe age of puberty. Thirty-two strict physical characteristics must be met including the shape of her teeth, the color of her eyes and the sound of her voice. The potential candidate is then subjected to a scary dance by men wearing horrific masks who surround her with 108 gruesome buffalo heads. If she doesn’t get frightened, she’s the new Kumari goddess until the day of her first menstrual cycle or some other accidental loss of a huge amount of blood. Then she reverts to a common mortal and can one day marry a mortal man. In the interim she lives a very pampered life and each year makes only a few ceremonial forays through the city riding high on a huge temple chariot to offer her blessings. In the past she conducted a royal ceremony once each year to bless the king. But democracy came and the king departed. Today she blesses the president. It’s considered extremely unlucky for a man to marry a former Kumari goddess–most likely, they say, because he must cater to a spoiled brat who’s had life served to her on a silver platter.

I’ve never seen a real live goddess.

So on my last morning in Nepal I strolled past the Kumari Bahal where the young girl resides but was unable to get a glimpse of her peeking out a window.

I sighed and watched my breath slowly evaporate into the chill dawn air of a brisk Nepali winter. I put my camera away, snugged my hands deep into my brand new mittens . . . and bid the magic of Kathmandu farewell.

Glen Allison

PS:  Read an absolutely amazing Book Review in the San Francisco Examiner about my new fine art photo book, “Thrill Me Rajasthan.”

Rajasthani Splendor

Dateline Rajasthan (Day 100 with 3905 to go)

The ethereal white palace seems to float in water. Shimmering twilight reflections gracefully dance across my mind and across the surface of the idyllic Lake Pichola. James Bond came here once . . . well, at least in the Hollywood movie “Octopussy” when it was filmed in Udaipur so many years ago. This is only one of Rajasthan’s magical cities, one that few visitors will ever forget. When you sit at the lake’s edge and allow the approaching night sky to slip into hues of mauve and deep blue, it’s easy to let yourself be transported to another time–one of maharajas and royal floating palaces and extravagance you might only have dreamed about.

India, Rajasthan, Udaipur, Lake Palace Hotel, Jag Niwas, twilight reflection, Lake Pichola

And so, I had left the wild environs of Pushkar camels and frenetic holy festivals and little blue boys dressed as the Hindu god Shiva to continue my sojourn across Rajasthan. Like Pushkar’s dry holy lake today, when I visited Udaipur five years ago the floating palace only floated in dry sand and the magic had escaped with the evaporation. So I am ecstatic to find water this time. My driver informs me that only a couple of months ago in September the lake was barren but then the monsoons came and then me.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to keep a photographer happy.

Naturally, you can indulge yourself in the opulent surroundings of the Jag Niwas floating palace (now known as The Lake Palace Hotel) and experience palatially exuberant surroundings in probably India’s most romantic overnight stay–or longer, of course, if your maharaja whims and lifestyle and stash of cash enables you to partake. Or you can simply revel in the splendor by just having dinner there for a hundred dollars or so.

Both sides of the lake have dream views. While you are indulging in the thrill of your lake palace heaven, take a moment to turn around for the panoramic spectacle of Udaipur’s magnificent City Palace of night-light reflecting behind you.

India, Rajasthan, Udaipur, City Palace, twilight, lights reflection, Lake Pichola

I’m up bright and early the next morning and back to reality. Now my budget has been blown and the wine has worn off and I must find some fine art photos to shoot in the mid-morning light. It doesn’t take long for the color to find me.

India, Rajasthan, Udaipur, Rajasthani traditional dressIndia, Rajasthan, Udaipur, Rajasthani traditional dressIndia, Rajasthan, Udaipur, door, greenIndia, Rajasthan, Udaipur, stitched, embroidered textile

(Click for larger views and captions)

Udaipur satiates my creative bent and then I make my way to Jodhpur–India’s acclaimed “Blue City”–a moniker best explained by high angle views of crowded, crooked maze-like alleyways in the old part of town. This color wash of sprawling blue houses and shops and narrow confines breathtakingly unfolds before me as I lean over the walls of the mighty Fort Meherangarh, whose ramparts soar from an impregnable, sheer-sided outcrop of stone high above the city.

India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, high-angle view, old town, maze-like blue houses, Meherangarh Fort

The bustling main market next to the Sardar clock tower provides an endless array of photo opportunities and the color grabs me.

India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, stack, bundle, cotton textiles, thin red ribbonIndia, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, Central Railroad Station, detail, guard grill, old steam engineIndia, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, old door, green, blue

Then on to the far reaches of the Thar desert, close to the Pakistani border, where lies the quintessential desert fort town of Jaisalmer. Lawrence of Arabia couldn’t have dreamed how magically this golden-hued wonder rises from the sand at sunset. Camel caravans of ancient times converged in Jaisalmer and the city was besieged endlessly because of its strategic location as a life-line trade route. In 1298 the forces of Ala-ud-din Khalji laid a seven-year siege on the city that ended with the men of Jaisalmer riding out to their deaths and the women committing suicide behind them. But the “Golden City” of Jaisalmer lives on.

India, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, fort, crennalated walls, sunset

The last time I was here the fort’s ramparts were gloriously lit at night so this time I find a hotel with a rooftop restaurant that provides a different angle of view and, hopefully, a similar photo experience. But with nightfall it appears that most of the lights have burned out over time. This means a lost opportunity on this trip. I sit for a while sipping my Kingfisher beer, one of India’s most popular brands. “More Thrilling Chilled,” the label exclaimed fifteen years ago. I wonder why they have now removed this phrase. The beer still provides an exciting kick, which no doubt added to my glee of my evening. Now travel photographers coming to Jaisalmer today can’t shoot a photo that challenges the one I did a few years ago, one that resides at Getty Images:

India, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, fort, crennalated wall, twilight

I love strolling through the narrow walkways of old fort towns in India allowing myself the adrenaline rush when I stumble upon graphically bold image possibilities.

India, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, Rajasthini embroidered textile, green, pinkIndia, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, blue shelvesIndia, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, Rajathani embroidered textile

India, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, fabric room divider screen, triangularIndia, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, doorway, blueIndia, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, embroidered fabricIndia, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, sequined dress

Rajasthan always thrills me.

Glen Allison

PS: Read a Book Review in the San Francisco Examiner about my new fine art photo book, “Thrill Me Rajasthan.”

Pushkar Chaos

Dateline:  Pushkar, India (Day 67 with 3938 to go)

And so, once again, I enter the bizarre world of Pushkar:  Camels, sadhu holy men, pilgrims, touts, tourists, snake charmers, lepers.

They’re all here.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, blue boy, Hindu god Shiva, Pushkar Camel FairIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Hanuman manIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, sadhu holy manIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajaasthani tribal lady, Pushkar Camel Fair

(Click to see larger views and read captions.)

This week (the full moon of November) brings a bit of insanity to the local atmosphere–fireworks, glitter, Rajasthani fashionistas–all side-by-side with the filth.

This is India.

The novelty of the Pushkar Mela (or fair) never seems to wear off–this is my fifth visit in two decades. The camel fair culminates on the final full moon day, Kartik Poornima. It’s a holy event, but one that seems to have become the capitalistic god-focus for the ever-growing onslaught of vendors from afar who are drawn to Pushkar’s sanctified lake this particular week . . . and to the money they can garner from selling their trinkets. Hotel rates can skyrocket as much as 500 percent during the event.

But this year perhaps the gods were incensed. Humankind hasn’t been kind to the environment. And so the gods decided to drain the holy lake of Pushkar.

It’s empty. Bone dry.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, dry lake no water

Well, there’s a little bit of water in one corner that the local authorities have been pumping in for the festivities.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, dry lake water

And at the traditional bathing ghats there are some manmade cisterns for the hordes of dipping devotees who have flocked here this week for a ritual submersion in the lake. Like the Ganges, no matter how much the water might be polluted, devout Hindu followers seem determined to immerse themselves. At least there’s now no pollution in Pushkar’s lake. There’s no lake. Only the dust of departing camels.

If you want 20,000 camels, you must come early before the holy festivities begin because most of the camels go back home before the full moon rises. Actually the Rajasthani men barter cattle and horses, too. But the camels are the drawing card and no photographer wants to miss the smoky, dusty sunset photos that have drawn thousands to Pushkar.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, camel, sunset, Pushkar Camel FairIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, high-angle view of camels, horses, cattle, sunset, Pushkar Camel Fair

But now I’m mostly trying to find colorful fine art graphic compositions.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, tikka powderIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, tikka powderIndia, Rajasthan, Japipur, display, combs

So this time I came after many of the camels had already departed but before the influx of kaleidoscopically-colored, sari-clad Rajasthani ladies would invade Pushkar in hordes toward the end of the weeklong festivities.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajaasthani women, colorful sarisIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajaasthani women colorful sarisIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajaasthani lady, traditional dressIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajaasthani lady, parade

By the way, camels can be an arrogant lot. Or, at least, they carry that air of demeanor in their expressions. If they are disgusted with you, they might spit. Or they might kick. Their hips are six feet high. And that means a six-foot arc for a flying hoof. So you must keep your distance when darting between camels on either end.

They, too, dress up for the festivities.

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajasthani hand-wrought camel bellsIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, camel decoration, Pushkar Camel FairIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajasthani camel decorations

Pushkar, being a holy site, is totally vegetarian–not even eggs can be found on the menu. Drugs and alcohol are forbidden in the city . . . well, I did find a couple of restaurants that served beer under the table. Actually, they served it on top of the table but discreetly from a teapot so as not to offend local sensitivities while at the same time being able to cash in on Western pocketbooks. Many of the foreign tourists had a teapot at their table. And the authorities seem to ignore the cannabis that’s readily available to service the ever-present contingent of dreadlocked, new age hippies who are drawn here throughout the year. Marijuana is blended into what is called a “bhang lassi,” your typical sweet lassi (a yogurt-based drink) but this one comes with a bang. Hey, maybe that’s how they came up with the name. So one afternoon when I was offered to imbibe, I partook. “Medium or strong,” I was asked. “Strong,” of course. A word of caution:  Never, never have a strong bhang lassi just before a sunset shoot of backlit camels disappearing over the horizon in a golden fog of dust on their way back home. I almost didn’t find my own way back home and it’s a good thing there’s auto-focus. That evening was very surreal and my Photoshop work was extremely creative.

Of course, there are some guidelines for tourists who come here. Here’s a photo of one sign next to Pushkar’s used-to-be lake:


Note “Avoid accepting eatables from Strangers” and  “CALL  FOR  HELP.”

The former British colonization of India made English quite common here but it’s humorous how it sometimes gets used as noted above. Traversing the desert on the way to Pushkar, my driver and I came across a low place in the terrain where they had built a slightly raised bridge. But it was obvious that during one of Rajasthan’s rare flash floods the road might still be under water. The hand-painted yellow warning sign drew special attention:

“Submersible bridge ahead!”

And I always chuckle at Indian restaurants when given the choice between “Veg” or “Non-Veg.” Funny how the non-veg selections not only include meat but always vegetables. Of course, this phrase refers to the dish being non-vegetarian.

I was surprised to find relatively fast internet connections in Pushkar. The last time I was here in 2004 the internet speed went at a camel’s pace. The influence of Bangalore’s IT phenomenon has spread far and wide. Even so, it’s said that perhaps ten million of India’s tribal nomadic residents have no education and don’t even know the name of the country they live in. But that’s one of the things that makes India so fascinating.

The main drag thru Pushkar’s old town is only about one kilometer long. And in some places the street is just three outstretched arms wide. You can imagine what it’s like with ten million pilgrims abreast and your camera held high above your head so it doesn’t get crunched in the chaos. Even so, I was able to find numerous fine art candidates for my collection:

India, Rajasthan, Pushkar, axe bladesIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar, Rajaasthani ribbon decorationIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar,  colorful Rajasthani braceletsIndia, Rajasthan, Pushkar,  Rajasthani hand-wrought camel bells, leather straps

During the festival the entire city gets temporarily wired with blaring loud speakers to keep everyone informed in Hindi and entertained with the Rajasthani version of Bollywood music full pitch. Last evening was the beginning of the full moon and literally tens of thousands of pilgrims arrived throughout the night. They were welcomed with ear-piercing music just outside my hotel window from one of those speakers blasting away all night long. Now I fully understand the CIA strategy of sleep deprivation and mind-numbing music for hours on end.

But that was last night.

So tonight is really the last night of Pushkar madness, I sit at a rooftop restaurant (teapots obvious at almost every table) while I ponder life surging past in the narrow street just below. I’m fascinated by the endless procession of colorful saris and sadhus and turbans and holy cows and lepers dragging themselves along. A clutch of excited monkeys swinging in wild abandon catches my eye. And then I notice a man with a handful of glowing iridescent blue and red objects. One-by-one he hooks them into a slingshot and propels them straight up a hundred feet into the night sky. He nonchalantly looks around (not upwards) for ten or fifteen seconds, then outstretches his hand to gently catch each glimmering object as they gracefully fall into his fingertips. Like a boomerang effect, the glowing lights came back to him. How did he do that? It was like an ethereal ballet in light. So magical. (No, I wasn’t sipping another bhang lassi.) The man draws an audience. And I notice he’s selling quite a few of his glimmering objects. The holy cows keep flowing with the crowd and are seemingly unaware of the spectacle.

I love India.

Glen Allison

Follow my escapades daily (sometimes hourly) and check out my new pix almost as fast as they are uploaded by following me on Twitter or Facebook.

And check out my latest 2010 calendar–Pushkar Color–that I uploaded today.