Tag Archives: Thailand

Change the Way You See

This will be the first in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

The approach on each photo assignment is different. Even travel photo assignments differ even though they are on the same general topic. Shooting dance on four separate occasions, I learned about how I had to change the way I looked at the subject, so I could tell the story of each performance from a different perspective.

The eyes of a tourist


I love the way the dancer kicks the bottom of the dress to create movement. Burma, 2010. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

When I shot this set in Burma, the assignment was to show Burmese dance as a traveler would see it: in a staged performance, from a distance. I had little background in the dance forms and the stories behind each one. That limited knowledge produced shots from a spectator’s point of view. Luckily I had brought along a long lens, suitable for isolating the dancers and capturing uncluttered portraits showing off the costume and motion against a simple background.

The eyes of a storyteller

Dance acrobatics are important parts of a dance story. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

I love Hanuman, the character in the Ramayana epic. When I shot this assignment at the Chalermkrung National Theatre in Bangkok, it was a behind the scenes story of the dancers who made Hanuman come alive every night at a national theatre in Thailand. I had to shoot the story as I saw it unfold, embracing its unpredictability, paying attention to detail. So I did a little abstraction and a little action. Framing the story with images of detail helped to give the necessary background for the actual dance shots, and the action shots gave me the necessary storyline. Hanuman is a singularly amazing character, but he’s actually several guys in a specially made papier mache mask, whose acrobatics on stage are remarkably demanding.

Symbol in dance can make for some great surprises. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

The eyes of surprise

No one knew that rain was going to come from the umbrella. The dancer at Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok in a free-form modern dance gave us a few surprises. First, he wore an expressionless mask which contrasted with the bright costume and the even brighter umbrella. His movements were quick and energetic. And when he sprung the confetti on us, streaming from the umbrella, it was the biggest surprise of all. Less than a minute of white confetti catching the dim light in the dinner theatre, plus not being able to move because there was simply no time, gave me a limited window for a shot. I put the camera on burst mode and tried to anticipate the next twirl.

The challenges for photo assignments make for fantastic learning. Whether your goal is to get a travel story or capture how an event makes you feel, it helps to look at each assignment with different eyes. Changing the way you see can change the story.

A Changing Story

A primer on travel photography themes, for my friend Mary, who just got her first dSLR

Travel photography is like a timelapse video, except the subject is always changing. Arriving at a new place, your attention is on overload—look at that! The temptation is to snap everything in sight, gorging the memory card with content. It’s fun to be trigger happy on a trip, but it can also be overwhelming. Even if your goal is to make images for the family slideshow, there are some themes that will help you organize your travel photography so you can more fully tell the story of a trip—a story tipsy with content and composed with beautiful imagery.

Reaching a balance between being open to the unexpected and staying true to your themes can produce a travel photo collection that includes a full range of imagery, a complete account of a changing story.

Night photography

I have a friend who puts away his camera as soon as the sun is sinking. But most cameras made after 2007 have really good ‘vision,’ meaning their sensors are able to ‘see’ in the dark and record clean enough images that can spice up your travel photo montage. So don’t put away your camera just yet when you see the sun setting. You might just get some amazing shots.

1/2000 @ f/11, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


30s @ f/22, ISO 125. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


Photos of people are some of the most interesting and memorable images of a place. It may be a little intimidating, but try taking photos of strangers, and when you do, try to tell their story. It helps to include a detail or two that contextualize the portrait: What are they doing? Who are they with? The charm of a portrait is in its details.

1/200s @ f/5.0, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


1/250s @ f/5.6, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


1/200s @ f/4.5, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

Fauna and flora

Animals and flowers are great story bits. I was in Ayuddhya and visited the elephant camp there. As soon as I entered the camp, I spotted a young elephant jogging around the compound, and then caught him when he was tired, plopping down and bathing himself in early morning sun.

1/800s @ f/5.6, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

At another place in tropical Bangkok, there were these lilies all in a row, graceful and delicate in a shallow depth of field at a wide-open aperture.

1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


Images that record events give a depth to travel photography. The story of work, for example, tells a lot about a place. What people value and how they interact with their environment are often revealed when we learn about how they work and live.

1/500s @ f/8.0, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

When we make travel photos, we also make our memories of that place tangible, a story captured that will withstand the passing of time.

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Taking Home the Intangibles

My friends from faraway have exactly 36 hours before they have to go back home, and they know it. In the department store tonight, they race through their shopping —buying a camera, two mobile phones, a wristwatch and a year’s supply of eyeliner and mascara in the space of an hour, and they still need to get the LCD TV and the extra suitcase. The shops are about to close; it’s almost 10 pm. We get back to my place where they’re staying, we cook a meal, and by midnight, the day has finally ended. At home, they sit on the floor discussing how to pack, surrounded by stuff.

I used to buy souvenirs from places I’d been. I have photo frames from Sydney, a “Yak Yak Yak” t-shirt from Nepal, a capiz shell fruit plate from Cebu. Scarves from Bali, a couple of Burmese lungi, a kameez salwar from Rajasthan, the kind with mirrors on the hem. In my closet there are three umbrellas from Chiang Mai, a tie-dye shirt that says “Koh Samui” in fading letters, and fisherman pants from Had Yai. The list goes on of items that I grow tired of keeping. They sit in my closets, unused.

I don’t buy souvenirs any more. But I still have the memories.

There is nothing else like the tinkle of those old tokens we used in New Zealand to buy fresh milk. It was my job every evening to drop a token into each empty glass bottle and place the bottles beside our mailbox in Island Bay, so in the morning the milkman could come by and replace them with bottles full of fresh milk, the kind that leaves froth on your upper lip after a long cold sip.

When we travel we are perpetual strangers, and maybe experiences in a place compel us to buy those souvenirs, little bits of an experience, tangible things we can take back with us and maybe use to recreate what we felt.

Maybe I just like taking home the intangibles.

Scale. 1/800s @f/8, 17mm, ISO 125.

Like values humans share. The photo of a Muslim girl learning about the intricate relationship between monarchy, religion, and nation at the Thai Grand Palace is precious to me. It speaks about scale—the comparison between two things of different sizes. The size of the idea of culture, and the size of the idea of one person’s joy.

Scale and Isolation. 1/800s @ f/5.6, 28mm, ISO 200.

From Burma I take back contrasts. A worker hard at his carpentry repairs the wooden beams at a temple: a man laboring in the heat for a few kyats amidst a glittery splendor.

In another town, I sip the bland loneliness of a tree, flanked by chedi containing stones proclaiming the secret to life.

Perspective. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 17mm, ISO 200.

On a boat in the Shan State, with no stores for hundreds of miles, I float past the isolation of a humble house in the middle of water and storm clouds, summoning a forgotten but beautiful sentimentality.

Isolation. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 19mm, ISO 200.

Some moments are like gems in a secret pocket, worn close to the heart.

I sit with my friend Ye Myint. We’ve been telling each other stories all day, for several days. On this day before I fly to another city, we sit on the roof of an abandoned temple in Bagan. Silently we watch the sky release its chorus of light above the pagodas lining the landscape. All I have from that moment is the song the sky sang, for a few minutes uninterrupted, shared, frozen in a photograph.

1/160s @f/6.3, 70mm, ISO 200.

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Making Eyecandy

Like everything in photography, shooting in color is a decision. That sounds weird, right? After all, the world is in Technicolor and we can’t really turn all the color “off.”

Color has emotional content. We use it a lot in the ways we express our feelings. “Red as a beet” for both embarrassment and anger. “Blue” when we’re sad. “Green with envy.” Our perceptions of color reach far beyond just what color something is. We can add impact to a photo when we use color effectively.

Green is a soothing color.

Farmer and beautiful ricefield, Vietnam.

Some colors are cool—the blue-green part of the color spectrum. These colors are usually soothing. Photos that are mostly blue or green, such as this photo of lush forest around a beach in Krabi, Thailand, exude a sense of calm. The second photo, of a farmer walking across a rice field in Vietnam, is mostly green, and the blue shirt of the farmer gives the color palette in the photo unity. The yellow, although it should intrude on the cool color palette, instead serves to punctuate the blue and green and it also helps give the photo a three dimensional feeling, acting as a gradient running from foreground to background.

A limited color palette can work well in a photo.

The other end of the spectrum—the red-yellow part, are the warm colors. Reds, yellows, oranges are fiery, aggressive colors and we associate them with like feelings. This photo of a swami in Rajasthan, India, is full of red and yellow. The walls, the clothing of the swami, even the ground have reds in them. I think this image works because all the elements in it contain similar hues. This harmony then allows the content of the image to pop out—the humor in the pose of the swami, and the self-deprecating smile on his face, playing with the photographer and the situation.

Morning light at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.

A sense of harmony in this shot from Siem Reap comes from the narrow color palette. The browns and yellows give the photo unity, and since everything is golden from the early morning light, even the green leaves in the photo are tinged with yellow.

But we can’t always photograph still objects, such as Angkor Wat and fallen leaves. A lot of travel photography is of people. One of the most used “tricks” of shooting travel portraits is to find a great background, wait until someone interesting walks past it, and shoot. Usually this strategy produces some gems. But after finding this wonderfully colorful wall in Saigon, Vietnam, I waited and sure enough, a girl in the traditional ao dai dress walks by. Click. Now I look at this photo and think, would it work better as a black and white photo? The clash between the purple tinge on the girl’s dress and the red, yellow and green of the wall might be distracting and does not add to the photo.

Girl in traditional dress in Saigon, Vietnam.

Another photo I think might work better in black and white is this one of a boy surrounded by his family at a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and they are all wearing striped shirts. The stripes on their shirts frames him, and I originally shot this in color but again wonder if the color does not really add to the photo at all.

A photo that might work better in black and white.

Sometimes, when the most compelling elements in a photo are lines or shapes, it works better as a black and white image.

Making a color image is a matter of decisions the photographer makes. Since the goal of capturing an image is to create order out of chaos, to somehow arrange the elements of a scene into a harmonious design, we can’t ignore the fact that there are ways to use color in achieving an image.

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Lessons from Dance

They shuffle through, blind.
Bending slowly from the waist, their arms held in front like floppy fish dripping water, they stoop low to the floor, then slowly raise their torsos again.
When they straighten up, their eyes are white, rolled back into their heads, their mouths contorted in a silent scream. We can hear their ragged breaths, like the mute tolling of ruined bells.
There are only two of us in the audience, but both of us are crying.
“Butoh challenges the idea of beauty,” their teacher whispers. In the two hours as he works with the students through butoh masks—the facial grimaces that signify emotion in the dance theatre—and butoh walks—the ways the dancers move forward, we are transported into Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. We are at ground zero, watching the survivors, their flesh burnt and peeling off, shuffling through the destruction, gasping for life and meaning.

Theatre students at a butoh workshop, Bangkok.

The art form makes me uncomfortable, raises questions.
Last summer, another dancer poses a question to me at his studio near the Chao Phraya River in old Bangkok. He gives me two sets of cymbals, the small ones we call “Ching” in Thai, its onomatopoeic name. He tells me to clang each together and tell him which one I liked.
I try one, then the other. The second one, more battered-looking, a little heavier in the hands, resonates more. The sound it makes lasts some moment longer, and I tell the dancer, “This is the one I like.”

Manop makes the fabric dance, Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

He smiles, takes out a couple of candles from his pocket. He lights them and drips the wax of each on the table where we sit.
Blowing the candles, he takes one puddle of wax off the table. “Look at this one,” he says, holding the sliver of wax between finger and thumb, then breaking it with a fingernail. “It’s brittle. Poor quality paraffin.” The bits of hardened paraffin sprinkle the table like cheap yellow confetti.
Slapping his hands to get rid of the crumbled wax, he takes the beeswax puddle into his hand and begins to roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He kneads it, tells me, “This one I can mold into whatever shape I want.” He smiles, looks away, then seriously pronounces, “Dance is like this candle, and like the cymbals that resonate. The one made of quality matter is the one we like, the one we can mold into something.”
He dances now, at the table, and his eyes hold no emotion. “If I go through the motions of a

A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

dance, but I bring no quality into the motion, the dance fails. But—“ and here I see his face change, he is flirting with his audience and I cough and laugh at the same time, “—if you intend to bring inner quality into the dance, something happens.
“I can tell you something, and you don’t have to know any thing about dance, but you’ll understand.”
See Khun Manop and Patravadi dancers at the Fringe Festival 2011, held both in Hua Hin and Bangkok from January 29th to March 17th, 2011. Tickets range from 300 Baht for students to 800 Baht for adults.


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Koh Chang 18 Years Later

“Jump in water,” says the boat operator, holding his hands above his head like he’s holding up a backpack.

We all tie our sandals to our backpacks, put our wallets in the topmost pockets, roll up our shorts. And we jump into the clear water. We wade for about 70 meters toward a beach with some huts standing on tall stilts.

On the shore, a shirtless man in shorts, smiling, greets us in Kiwi English, “Hello, want a joint?”

My first trip to Koh Chang, 18 years ago, seems like a variation of the “young traveler finds paradise beach” we sometimes find at the airport bookstore, in the section called “Related to Thailand.”

I think of that arrival as I stand on deck of the ferry that takes me to Koh Chang now. The family with two young children are in the car behind mine. A little boy climbs the ferry’s side just to see what it’s like, and some young Singaporeans take turns taking photos of each other against the afternoon sun. There are about 4 backpackers on the ferry; the rest have suitcases with rolling wheels and designer labels.

We’re not going to be jumping off the ferry and wading to some huts this time.

Instead we drive off the ferry and into a mini Krabi town: a strip of hotels and resorts, boutique shops selling swimsuits and sunhats, internet cafes, bars and restaurants. And a couple of 7-11s. The road is smooth although it is still a two-lane street. I call my hotel from the ferry asking for directions. “It’s just the one road,” the receptionist tells me, “and when you get off the ferry, turn right and keep driving for 22 kilometers.”

After the strip, the road winds and dips, climbs and dips. It’s a drive that requires concentration, with a lot of hairy turns and changing of gears with the undulations of the island’s coastal hills.

I remember when this road was nothing but gravel. We rented motorbikes and struggled not to slip on the slopes. A dangerous drive, but we were young then, with the invincibility of the young. I remember having to go to the clinic on the island for a motorbike exhaust pipe burn. The nurse said, “Lucky you. A lot of foreigners slide down the road and get hurt worse.”

I pass short strips of tourist traps. I’m concentrating on the road too much to read too many of the signs, but there’s seafood restaurants, more cafes advertising free wi-fi, an Indian food joint, a Mexican restaurant. The Lucky Gecko. The Happy Turtle. More 7-11s and ATMs. And prominently, signs about The Dewa, a five star hotel similar to the one in Bali that costs more than a round-the-world ticket per night.

Condemned bungalow's windows reflecting the colors of the market built around it.

My hut 18 years ago was a wooden square building with a thatched roof, a porch, and tall stilts. In the high tides the water lapped under the hut; the toilet was a hole in the floor. There was a porch; from there, you got an unobstructed view of the water. If you wanted to go to shore, you could jump in the water and swim to shore. Or walk, if the tide was low. There was no electricity; just a lamp made from a Red Bull bottle with the labels cleaned off, and a wick made of cloth and kerosene inside. If you wanted to shower, you had to go ashore to a row of cement shower stalls, scoop out water from a large plastic drum, and pour water over yourself. I went to the beach where we stayed, and the bungalows are condemned now, roped off, the wood rotting.

I finish showering in my room at the Dusit Princess and dress to go to Barrio Bonito for the second time. Barrios Bonito is a Mexican restaurant serving really good authentic Mexican run by a Frenchman and his girlfriend from Mexico. They are friendly with fresh faces, and they have settled here, running a place with the restaurant and rooms to rent with a pool they share with a diving school. It’s my second time at the restaurant, and this time I order the special. It’s early, and I am the only customer at this hour. The man hands me a bottle of sauce. “It’s a special chili sauce, the best habanero chili in Mexico, I get it shipped here.” The label on the sauce says it’s the personal brand of a Mexican restaurant called La Red, in Mexico City. The sauce is heavenly, not just hot but flavorful. I drip onto my burrito more of the sauce that has traveled far.

I forget what I ate here 18 years ago, but I’m pretty sure it was Thai food.

Where we were on the island, there was a two-kilometer walk through a small cliff jutting out over the water, over sand flanked land that was overgrown with brush and trees, onto a bamboo and wooden deck overlooking the water. The only bar and restaurant for miles around, where they served Thai food and Mekong.

One night that summer, my friends and I shared the food and a lot of Mekong, as the moon rose higher. There was reggae on the stereo. The tide rose. In the

The sun sets over Koh Chang.

dawn, people straggled out of the bar and crawled to whatever huts they were sleeping in, and the four of us started our trek home. Except that the cliff was now under water. We either had to scale the cliff and go over to get to where we were staying, or swim. Full of Mekong, we made the only logical decision. We held hands and swam under the rock to cross the cliff.

We lived through the drunken swim; I woke up the next morning with salt all over my sticky clothes.

I never read any of the books about “young traveler finds paradise beach,” except for the fiction of Alex Garland’s The Beach. All these years, I’ve watched Thailand grow from a place where you couldn’t get a cup of coffee in the outskirts of the capital, to a place where there’s a coffee stall serving cappuccino beside a jungle. They now make lasagna and borscht in places I could only get phad thai and som tam.

But there is a new crop of young travelers that come through here every year, their faces fresh and full of anticipation. I know that they have read the guidebook and loaded the map app into their smart phones; they’re ready for an adventure. And they still think there is a hidden place in Thailand, a secret place with a secret beach that looks exactly like the picture in their minds.


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Living La Vida Local in Ayuddhya

“Apart from the historical ruins and museums, Ayutthaya is not particularly interesting,” says my Thailand Guidebook.

From the Kantary House Hotel, on Rojana Road, I can see the bus stop going to Highway 32 toward Bangkok. The bus stop is actually a shed with about six seats and a few shopping stalls.

I walk for ten minutes West on Rojana, passing motorbike shops, houses, and canals to get to Chedi Wat Samplum, at a busy intersection with the ring road that circles the city. Here at Chedi Wat Samplum intersection, a collection of food and fruit stalls stay open all day.

At six a.m. as the monks walk barefoot past the food stalls, the smell of barbecue and sticky rice and soymilk were irresistible, and I stop for breakfast.

A merit maker early morning, Ayuddhya. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Barbecue pork grilled over charcoal costs 3 Baht a stick, sticky rice 5 Baht a bag. The soymilk lady hands me a warm bag of the drink for 7 Baht. All in all breakfast costs me 50 US cents. As I eat, I watch locals make merit, handing bags of food over to monks in their saffron, and then bowing their heads as the monks chant a blessing.

Ayutthaya is a city of temples, and May 19 is Visakha Bucha, the day commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Buddha. Usually, the streets of Ayutthaya are crammed with merit makers, people from Bangkok and nearby areas flocking to significant temples in Ayutthaya such as Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. Today however, Bangkok and the rest of Thailand are still sore from the redshirts crackdown, and the streets of Ayutthaya are empty save a few cars and motorbikes speeding on Rojana Road, some turning off into Highway 3058, where I finish my breakfast and amble off to the motorbikes.

For 15 Baht I go through a winding road toward the Japanese Settlement, which I pass on account of its whitewashed walls and modern glass windows, and chance upon the Dutch Settlement , where there is a field of houseboats.

3 Baht river taxi, Ayuddhya. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Intrigued, I stop at the Dutch Settlement to gawk at the sometimes brightly colored riverboats and the worn brown houseboats, some with eyes painted on the brow. Ayutthaya was nicknamed “Venice of the East,” when the first foreigners, the Dutch, sailed from Mergui in the South, up the Chao Phraya River, into the Siamese capital. Boatbuilding the old way, carving logs into canoes and using strips of wood for bigger cargo and house boats, is still a trade in Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya remains navigable entirely by long tail boat. Its waterways surround the city center and branch off in smaller canals called klongs. Standing by the Pasak River which joins the Chao Phraya south of the city, I see flat cargo boats loaded with rice slowly being pulled by colorful, smaller tugs.

For 3 Baht, I take a boat down Khlong Suan Phlu and fing a tuktuk. He wants 100 Baht, eyeing my camera, but I smile and, in Thai, bargain him down to the local price of 35 Baht. I bump along in the tuktuk to the North Railway Station, where there are other food stalls for locals looking for their day’s meals.

In the soi or small street across the Railway Station are places to sit. Motorbike taxi drivers and local residents in shorts and some in pajamas sit to have patongco, a chewy fried bread which is made in sweet (salapao) or salty (patongco) varieties. A bag of the patongco costs 10 Baht, so I decide to pick up a bag and munch on the salapao while I walk to the end of the street, waterside, where I take another 3 Baht ferry across to the Chao Phrom Market.

Chao Phrom Market looks like any other Thai market. Neatly stacked pyramids of mangosteen, rambutan, guava flanked by the more exotic dragon fruit in flaming hot pink and rows of cucumber, morning glory and kale. Giant bags of dried fish, baskets of salted fish, and deeper inside, aisles wet from poultry, fresh fish, and meat vendors’ stalls. The smell gets stronger the deeper I get into the market, so I head back to the fruit stalls and buy a kilo of rambutan for 15 Baht and then retrace my steps back to the river ferry

Patongco, fried bread that's a local breakfast fave. Photo by Aloha Lavina.


A private long-tail boat takes me northward on the Pasak River to the Elephant Kraal. Elephants are special in Ayutthaya, having served its kings as battle animals since the city was founded in 1350 by King U-Thong. Presently, there are only about 3,000 elephants in Thailand, and about a hundred of them are in Ayutthaya.

The elephant kraal is not something a local would come to see. When my motorbike taxi driver and I park near the area where a few elephants are being bathed, no one comes to ask me to buy fruit to feed the animals (which is now illegal in Thailand), or approach me to negotiate a ride. Mahouts clean their animals, and then later ride the elephants to the hay pile to pick up a bale and walk back to drop the bale in front of the area where they eat.

It is too hot to stay, and the older male elephants with crooked tusks and their heads swaying to a strange music made me a little sad. The Elephant Kraal staff says that if they do not take care of the elephants, they may not have any offspring to continue the species in Thailand. As the mahout speaks to me, an obviously baby elephant jogs away from its mother and heads in our direction. I laugh, unsure what to do. “What is he doing?” I ask the mahout. He laughs as well and says, “He’s taking a walk around.”

The motorbike takes me back into town through Highway 3060 and back onto Rojana Road, where I ask him to drop me off at the North Railway. In front of the Railway station are some tuktuks waiting for fares. I hire a red one to take me to Highway 3053, past the turnoff to Big C, a hypermarket, past small temples, and then smaller and smaller houses until we reach rice fields. Left side: rice fields. Right side: rice fields. I chance upon Chana Restaurant, overlooking a rice field. The restaurant is open air with wooden tables and chairs. In the front is a stage with drums and some guitar stands, two microphones. No one is on stage in the middle of the day. I sit and order fresh water fish, morning glory in oyster sauce, and a plate of rice. They give me two sauces to go with my meal—the ubiquitous nam pla prik, chopped garlic and chili in a base of fish sauce, and another sauce, nam chim prik, which has crushed chili in a lime juice base. I like the piquant nam chim and drip that over the crispy fresh water fish. The meal costs me 180 Baht or around U$ 5, a splurge in local prices, but which includes a cold bottle of water, a Coke, and an excellent view of the rice fields and blue May sky.

After lunch, I walk on Highway 3053 until a tuktuk stops. I want to go to the opposite end of the city, to visit the Queen Suriyothai Monument off Highway 309. The tuktuk driver wants the 100 Baht, and knowing that it takes a half hour to go to the monument, I agree. We follow 3053 up to Rojana and turn left toward the Ayutthaya Tourist Center, which reminds me of the old Palace in Saigon with its columns and impressive iron grille fence.

We turn left and follow Khlong Tho Road up to where it turns into Highway 309. The parking lot of the Queen Suriyothai Monument is empty. The tuktuk driver parks and I get out, walk to the shrine where incense is burning and there is a padded pew for locals to kneel and offer some thoughts to the revered Queen Suriyothai, whose legend says she died on elephant back fighting the Burmese Prince Prome while protecting her husband King Chakkrapat, whose animal in turn had fallen from wounds.

River boat station and fishing hangout, Ayuddhya. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

I stay under the cool shade of the frangipani trees watching some old men fishing on Khlong Ku Muang at a ferryboat stop. Down the same road, crossing one of the many bridges spanning the Chaophraya River, we head into a dirt road shaded by acacia. A fishball seller attracts my tuktuk driver, and he snacks while I walk around the cool grounds of Wat Choeng Tha. There’s one car here, with merit makers, from Bangkok, their car’s license plate hints.

The only other person here is a man digging a ditch from the outdoor shrine to the river.

“What is it for,” I ask him.

“Preparing for the rainy season,” he says, happy to hear Thai, “so the grounds don’t get flooded.”

“Do you get a lot of tourists here?” I ask him.

He stops digging, leans on the shovel, then says, “I don’t see a lot of farang come here,” using the Thai word for foreigners. “We used to get a lot of Thai people coming here on Buddha’s birthday. But.” And he stops talking. He grasps the handle of the shovel and gives me a wan smile.

The man turns to his task. The only sound between us is the metallic crunch, crunch of the shovel slicing through sandy soil.

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name?” says Juliet to the night sky, in the famous balcony scene of Shakespeare’s play.

I bet she did not know about a baby girl who was so fat that when she sat in lotus position on her grandfather’s lap, folds of  her flesh hung in layers, so he affectionately nicknamed her “Buddha.”

I’ve had a lot more nicknames since then. In 1992, befriended by a couple, a tall, lanky girl from Alabama and her Welsh husband, I was called “Little Bit.” Sitting on their porch in the sleepy Thai town of Minburi, we had actual fried green tomatoes and sips of julep, telling stories, and my friend would drawl in lovely Southern notes, “You’re a funny one, Little Bit. Small, but big on personality.”

In 1994, in the beautiful Berkshires, I painted Melanie’s house with her daughter Alison before taking a three-week train trip across the United States. Sitting in Mel’s kitchen the night before I left, Mel asked me, “What’s the attraction for you with this train trip? Why not stay in Boston with Ali to watch the World Cup match with Colombia?”

“If I had a car,” I told her, “I would have driven cross country. This way is less responsibility,” was my way of telling her I wanted to be in motion. I had an open ended pass for Amtrak; I could stop anywhere and get on again after an indeterminate time; it was at that time, the most liberating travel I knew.

“Well then, you vagabond urchin, you,” Mel gives me the nickname which she calls me to this day,” you’ll have to come back to the Berks sometime after you roam the rest of the world.”

Roaming the world since then, I’ve met a girl named Beer in Bangkok. Her father, she said, loved Carlsberg at the time she was born. “At least I wasn’t named Carlsberg,” Beer said matter-of-factly. The Thai tendency to give nicknames to their children stems from a value. Many Thai names are too long, and calling someone their nickname is more saduak, more convenient.

Names we give our children can tell us what we value. I once met an entire family whose names were golf related. The first born was Birdie, whose younger brother was Par, and whose littlest brother was named Eagle. Their dad loved golf. I’ve also met a lot of Tops, some Firsts, and two guys named Army and Navy. Once I taught a student whose name was Nok, who was so shy she flapped her arms in nervousness. Nok, in Thai, means bird. (She later on became a pilot, but that is entirely another story.)

In Bali, I met six different Wayans. Wayan is a name given to a firstborn baby. The second baby is named Made, the third Nyoman, and the fourth Ketut. Then there’s the caste reference in the names. “I Gusti” refers to the nobility, so my friend named “I Gusti Ngurah Rai” belongs to the landed caste Wesya, is a “gift from heaven,” whose personal name is Rai.


But in Myanmar, names are forever. “We don’t change our names after marriage,” Su Mon tells me. Her name tells me she is born on a Tuesday, since all Tuesday babies have names beginning with S. But no, she says, she was born on a Thursday, which would have meant being named something that begins with P, B, or M. Except the astrologer said no.

“We Burmese consult an astrologer when we have to name a baby,” explains Su Mon. “He tells us the most auspicious name for a baby for his or her birth.”

“But your names are forever,” I repeat the awesome fact.

“Yes,” Su Mon says, smiling, “Burmese names are forever.”

Except of course, in 1988 the military government changed the name of the country without any input from anyone else: from Burma to Myanmar. And many towns had their names changed, too. Moulmein to Mawlamyine. Poor Rangoon became Yangon, and then lost its capital status to Nyapidaw in 2006.

It’s in Burma when I realize that what’s in a name could change with spelling, be meaningful with an intention, or even be eternal, tied to the stars.

When it rains in Rangoon, I feel the Burmese nostalgia as my own, thinking about names. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, another Tuesday baby, wrote in her Letters from Burma, “The word monsoon has always sounded beautiful to me, possibly because we Burmese, who are rather inclined to indulge in nostalgia, think of the rainy season as the most romantic.”

“Monsoon Jazz” by Aloha Lavina.

I remember the romance of rain. South Korea, 1990. The winter Bush, Sr. took soldiers to Iraq. The winter the Bengals won the Super Bowl.

That day in the winter of 1990, I walked from the Hyatt Café where I had been writing all night (endless coffee refills and silence), and Seoul Tower at the top of Namsan was still ablaze. Suddenly, the lights went off. It was almost morning, but the street sweepers weren’t out yet. The men and women in the street market in Haebangchon were quietly setting up. An adushi, an uncle in traditional Korean clothes sat sipping a hot cup of barley tea from the vending machine on the corner and squinted at me through the steam rising out of his cup. Every Sunday I bought a whole roast chicken from him, so I could make roast chicken ceasar salad, my favorite, at home. He taught me a lot of Korean words. For instance, because I always wore black, he called me “Woo Shim,” which is a Korean name meaning “rain heart.”

It began to rain when I reached my apartment, and I was happy, sleepless and simply happy, sitting surrounded by sheets of birthed words. Outside, the sky was calling my name.

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You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing

The Hottest Stuff in Thailand

Thai chili comes in many colors and sizes, all packing heat when eaten. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Nittaya is an hour away from her 6.02 am tee time at a golf tournament in a resort 90 minutes out of Bangkok. She has ordered khao tom, a Thai breakfast dish of rice porridge with shrimps and green onion, and when it arrives, steam rising from it, she pours spoonful after spoonful of chopped fresh Thai chili on top of her porridge. At my horrified look, she quips, “It helps me wake up in the morning.” She tastes the first spoonful of the spicy porridge and smiles. “I usually have one helping of chili in every meal.”

Thai cooking uses the Thai chili, a small sized variety belonging to the plant species Capsicum frutescens, to flavor its cuisine. The ubiquitous nam pla prik, a sauce made of fish sauce, garlic, lime juice and chopped chili is present on every restaurant table and prepared in every home. Thais sprinkle this spicy flavoring over every meal from noodles to fried rice.

Nittaya’s group has teed off, and we are at the par four third hole, waiting for our approach into an island green guarded by a kidney shaped bunker. Ignoring the water behind the green and the bunker, Nittaya takes a club and pulls on her golf gloves to get ready to make her approach. She is smiling. She is also sweating, and it’s only 7.00 am. I hand her my towel, and she laughs, “Yeah, chili makes you sweat. Good for you.”

Chili contains chemicals called capsaicinoids. When eaten, these chemicals dock at pain receptors in the mouth and throat, and that is why the person eating chili experiences a burning sensation. This burning sensation tells the brain to raise the heart rate, and the higher heart rate in turn causes sweating. In the South of Thailand, where Nittaya comes from, dishes are considered spicier than they are in the Central area, where the Thai capital Bangkok sprawls. Southern Thailand experiences the monsoon rains later than the Central areas, and their prolonged hot season, where temperatures can rise above 40 degrees C, may be one of the reasons why Southerners eat such spicy food—to cool down through the spice-induced sweat.

We are on the green of hole number three and see that Nittaya’s ball has fallen short of the green. She’s at the lip of the bunker, and has to hit her ball backward to avoid the penalty of hitting a shot that will bounce off the raised edge of the bunker and fall back into the sand trap. She succeeds in getting the ball onto the green after the extra shot. She crouches behind her ball and marks it with a five Baht coin, carefully slipping the coin under the white orb, then lifts the ball and cleans it while eyeing the path her ball will take to fall into the hole, about 20 feet away. Her decision made, she takes the putter from her caddy and sets up for the putt. She barely taps it, and the ball rolls off the intended path, falls short. Nittaya doesn’t say anything; she’s biting her lip as she sets up for another putt. Again the ball is short. She sets up once more, and this time, the ball rolls into the hole, and we hear the sound most golfers love—of the golf ball rattling in the plastic before it grows still. “Yes!” Nittaya pumps her fist like a true golfer. Her caddy announces, “Eight,” her score for the hole, before taking the putter from Nittaya’s hands and replacing the flag. As we walk off the green, Nittaya looks around and says, “I love this hole. The design is beautiful.” She’s smiling. She takes the scorecard from her back pocket and writes her score. “Had to take my medicine,” she says, still smiling, mentioning what golfers call the decisions they have to make even though it costs them extra strokes.  Then she adds, “Feels good.”

Like with many Asian countries, Thailand's cuisine features a lot of spice. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

When chili’s capsaicinoids dock at the pain receptors in the mouth and throat, the brain also releases endorphins, a compound produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland which is considered a natural pain killer. Endorphins are released in the brain when a person is in pain, during exercise, when eating spicy food, and during orgasm. Endorphins are the human body’s feel good drug!

It’s no wonder then that just about all the foods in Thailand are eaten with the chili, with very few exceptions. Is it addictive? Probably in the same way that exercise is—because of the rush that comes with the wave of endorphins that the brain releases. This rush is most likely why, when I travel somewhere like Australia or the US, I miss Thai food, and as soon as I get back, my traditional first meal after landing at Suvarnabhumi Bangkok International Airport is invariably a spicy Thai soup, tom yum , with an extra helping of chili. It’s a welcome home with a lot of oomph.

Because Thais eat so much chili, people generally have opinions about the ways it is used in cooking. “Thai food is all about balance,” a restaurant chef says when I visit him at his home’s kitchen. “We have to include all tastes in the food or the meal—sweet, salty, spicy, sour. Only bitter is optional. Some people cook and chili is too much. You cannot taste anything else.” He shakes his head and turns back to the wok and his work. When he finishes the stir-fried noodle with kale in soy sauce, he slides some onto three different plates. On one, he doesn’t put in any chili. On the second one, he sprinkles some chili on top, and on the last dish he pours in a very generous amount of the dried chili powder that Thais use in their noodle dishes. “Taste,” he tells me, and crosses his arms, a small smile on his face.

I start with the no-chili dish. The noodles are slightly oily, the kale is slightly bitter, but the oil is all I can taste. I shake my head a little, and the chef nods. He points to the dish in the middle, the one he has dusted with chili powder. I take the spoon and fork and mix the chili into the noodles, then feed myself a spoonful. The chili and soy sauce skim over the textures of crispy kale and slippery flat rice noodle. I want to have more of it, but he is now pointing at the third dish, so reluctantly I turn to it and mentally tell myself to ask him if I could have the second dish for lunch. The third dish is terrible. As I take a spoonful it, the chili powder is overpowering, and although my veteran chili eating mouth can take the spiciness, it is not tasty because there is no other taste other than the chili. Taste test over, and his point made, my friend the chef smiles as he hands me the plate of the really well made phad see yoo, flat noodles in soy sauce with kale, with just the right amount of chili.

The right amount of chili, though, can vary from region to region of Thailand. For the same reasons as the South—its cooling effect—Northeastern people serve their food with chopped chili, using both fresh and dried Thai chili to produce the taste of Isaan food. The Northeast often experiences drought, a prolonged hot season, and eating spicy food cools them down just like it does in the curries of Southern Thailand. But what is the right amount of chili? Some Bangkok residents might say the whispery burning sensation in your nose from a sprinkling of chili sauce might do the trick. A Thai friend I met up with in Paris recently shared a baguette and some pate with me for lunch. While we ate, she popped jalapenos into her mouth with each bite of baguette. “Tastes better with this,” she says. She finished a quarter of the pint-sized jar along with her 12-inch baguette. Later, when she ate some noodles we made in her niece’s kitchen in Nieullly-sur-Seine, I watched her crush three Thai chili peppers into the noodle. Was that enough?

I could cop out of answering this question, except I remember one trip I took to Koh Samui, an island off the southern province of Surat Thani, and my friend Nittaya’s hometown. My golf buddy Ek had been going out with Nittaya for a couple years and the three of us decided to fly to the island to spend some time with her family and play some golf at the challenging Santiburi Samui Country Club. Because the 260-resort island is popular with the whole range of luxury to backpacker tourist groups, food stalls were everywhere and it was very easy just to eat off the street.

Nittaya led us to a noodle stall near Chaweng Beach, crowded with locals, where we had to wait fifteen minutes before the three of us could get seats. When a table had left, paying the 40 Baht for each dish, and wiping dripping sweat off their faces with toilet paper from the roll on each table, we sat down for some khanom cheen nam ya, a Southern dish of rice noodles with a spicy fish based sauce.

The small but potent Thai chili at a market. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

It was my first time eating khanom cheen, so I watched the Southerner Nittaya as she spooned chopped raw long bean, bean sprouts and chopped cabbage into her bowl. I did the same. Then she mixed the vegetables in with the sauce and noodles; I mimicked her. When she spooned a heaping bite of her dish into her mouth, I confidently did, too. And what I felt I have never forgotten. The fire began all of a sudden, spreading quickly in my whole mouth. I felt my face burn red; sweat began to form on my forehead; my eyes threatened tears. I let go the spoon and flapped both hands in front of my mouth. I swallowed painfully, opened my mouth, and puffed air out in a bid to put the fire out. I drank a glass of Coke. And the fire subsided. By this time, Nittaya and Ek were smiling, a Thai reaction (even when they feel sorry for you). When I could speak, I pointed at the khanom cheen and said, “Spicy.” I believe this is the standard foreigner’s first time response to tasting most Thai food. Nittaya grinned. She said, “It’s not spicy until you cry.”

Make the Most of the Floating Market

Local vendor in a pensive moment. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

For a floating market that you can walk end-to-end in twenty minutes (and float in an hour), the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Rachaburi, Thailand has a lot of amusement value. I’ve been seven times, and every time, I get to see something new.

Here’s how you can maximize your stay at the floating market.

1. Have a coffee at Gossip Cafe
Gossip Cafe is a little stall near the entrance of the floating market. It’s open around 8.30 or 9.00 am, and the latte there (none of that iced stuff, we are talking real lattes) is a generous helping of foamy goodness. Sit on the carved wooden bench in front of the Cafe and read the paper, or people watch. You’re bound to see something interesting, such as an elephant and its mahout in the trendy political colors of the times.

A mahout in colorful shirt with his elephant. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

2. Have a noodle bowl or two at Priew’s Place
This large area in the northeastern part of the market is an organized commercialization of the floating market noodle vendors. Here you can sit on long picnic benches, elbow-to-elbow with strangers, and slurp some great tom yum noodles or if you’re more adventurous, the suspicious looking nam tok noodles. One bowl is hardly enough, so you might sample two kinds of noodle dishes.

3. Take photos, but pay attention first
A lot of tourists who go to the floating market snap photo after photo without paying attention. Trust me, you can’t take the sound and excitement home unless you pay attention first. If you sit near the bridge area on the southeastern side, you can watch the vendors paddling back and forth, and sometimes you might see conversations, laughter, interactions that could tell you a lot about the local culture.

4. Buy some fruit and take it home
Damnoen Saduak is near Petchaburi, which is the fruitbowl of Thailand. The orchards in Petchaburi produce some of the juiciest and biggest guava, mango, and other Thai fruits. Although the tourism at the floating market has inflated the prices, you can still get a kilo of fruit for less than it would cost in Bangkok’s supermarkets.

5. Explore the area

Salt farmers harvesting salt in Samut Songkhram. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

There are quite a few floating markets around Damnoen Saduak, such as Ampawa, which is a night market, so if you have a couple of days, you can stay over the area. The only hotel literally in town (3 kilometers from the market) is called the Nok Nok Little Bird, and although it’s basic accommodations (a place to sleep and clean yourself with water and soap), it’s reasonably clean. If you want to spend some more Baht for more comfort, the Baan Ampawa is a boutique hotel with cozy Thai style houses, and it’s right on the Ampawa floating night market.  About half an hour from the Damnoen Saduak site is Samut Songkhram, and along the highway, perhaps as you are coming back from Ampawa, are salt farms. The salt farmers harvest at about any time, as far as I can tell, and when I stopped by, some of them were working in high noon heat. Rest, spend a little time with them, share a liter of a cold drink perhaps, before you move on back to Bangkok.

Trying to spend a little more time at the floating market could be worth it. After all, you can always buy great looking photos of it from a postcard seller, but experiencing the market and its environs might give you a more insightful glimpse into its charm.

Small Streets


May 19, 2010.

My hands move to chuck a pile of old newspapers into the recycle bin when a headline catches my eye: Bangkok Burning. I draw my hands back and grip that one particular paper, allowing the others to fall into the bin. I cradle it and take it back to my desk by the window. Soon, the sun will rise over the Bangkok skyline. It’s quiet at five a.m., even last week when the city was in chaos.

Curfew. Arson. The business district engulfed in a siege. The past nine weeks plunged Bangkok into a living hell where people died. On Twitter, the stories streamed in fast. Journalists shot. Schools and offices evacuated. Train services halted. My friends trapped in their houses, one unable to leave because her street was the setting for crossfire. Get out, girl, I tweeted to @legalnomads. See the map? My apt is RIGHT THERE and I can’t get out, she tweeted back, referring to @RichardBarrow’s Bangkok Dangerous Google Map.

I glance once more at the Thai roadmap on my desk. Quickly, I scan through a mental map of Bangkok, not the Dangerous one, just the one that I’ve had in my head these 18 years, to decide the route I will take to Ayuddhya. Motorway Number 9, the ring road, then highway 32, would take me around the city and drop me off on Rojana Road, Muang Ayuddhya, where small, inconsequential streets lead to rice fields, or riverside villages, or temples.

All Thai Buddhist temples look alike, with intricate spires and brightly colored tiles. If you’ve seen one, you can imagine the temple where Mark McKinnon tweeted from last week, Wat Pathum, the temple to which more than 1500 people flocked after the Thai army, egged on by redshirt arsonists, began an offensive assault on the red’s main rally camp. McKinnon tweeted, “A woman asked me if I could get out, take her with me.” Later on, he posted that people in the temple were asking if the UN was coming to rescue them. McKinnon’s tweetstream talked about a wounded journalist, the elderly huddled on the temple ground, the bodies of medics who were killed. No one could come in or out of the temple; the roads were impassable.

The ring road takes me to the Ayuddhya interchange, and in a few minutes after exiting Highway 32, I am on Rojana Road. I pass Chedi Wat Samplum and turn left onto a smaller avenue without streetlights. The street narrows and curves until it spills into the Dutch Settlement, where there is a field of old boathouses. Parking across the settlement, I walk on a dirt road toward the river. A dog with a bad eye glances at me, his forehead wrinkled, then lopes off to a broken building a few yards away. I pass him and stop at the boathouses. The wooden boats are empty, propped up on cement stilts, some on wooden platforms, worn from rain and heat.

A man comes out of a building flanking the field of boats. “Good morning,” I call out to him. He smiles at me through the smoke of his morning cigarette. I am a crazy tourist in a t-shirt, shorts and Crocs with a camera around my neck. But he tests my Thai anyway. “Ma tham alai krap,” he asks. What have you come to do.

“Ma thai roop kha,” I answer, smiling. I’m here to take photos. When he nods and turns away, a thought comes loose in my head. The photos are just an excuse. Really, I am running away. I am hiding behind the lens, pointing my camera at things that might reveal beauty, because the city I have loved for so many seasons is becoming something I cannot face.

I walk away, turn into another, smaller street and follow the dirt path to a different field. A large chedi sharply juts out into the sky; its bricks are crumbling, but it looks strong. My Crocs are muddy now; I try not to slip on the ground soaked from last night’s rains. An elephant appears  into the frame; his mahout riding bareback guides the elephant to breakfast: a pile of hay. The elephant grabs a bunch and waves it over his head, before his trunk slides the dry grass into his mouth. I watch him eat for a long while, until I can feel the heat of the day burning my neck.

I leave the elephant and get back in the car. I drive on, through more small streets that never seem to change.