Photo Essays

Tet @ The Crescent

The New Year is just about upon us, the longest holiday in the Vietnamese calendar. Most Vietnamese have been planning their break for quite some time by this stage. As a matter of fact lots of businesses start winding down about 2 months in advance. Then as we get closer to the actual day everybody seems to be on the move, heading back to the traditional homelands for the celebration. The government pull out all stops when it comes to decorating the city and Phu My Hung, near where I live has been transformed from public streets to rice fields, boats are tethered to small jetties that have been purpose built, baskets of flowers strung from wires and massive amounts of plants are brought in to the area for the celebration.

People throng to see these decorations and on the eve of the Year of the Dragon it's expected that 2 million people will come into the area to enjoy the festivities and pose for photographs.

 A Dragon year is an auspicious time to get pregnant as the child will grow up strong, so the Vietnamese believe. That means that this year hospitals are preparing for a huge influx of pregnant women and men have their work cut out for them.

Temples of Doom

Last week I spent a bit of time in pagodas here in Saigon. It's odd that I never set foot in side a church if I don't have to but pagodas and temples are another story all together.  I think pagodas, temples and churches are spooky places, often gloomy, incense smoke swirling like lost souls, shafts of light penetrating the cracks and crevices, the mumblings of the devotees, icons nailed to crosses, demons and ogres gazing blankly from various dark corners it all conjures up dark and macabre images to me. Praying to a statue, a picture or an icon believing that it can help you, soothe your troubles, bring you wealth, cure illness or get you pregnant is something I have never grown up with and don't understand. It's not that I disagree with it, I just haven't been brought up this way. However, I do enjoy watching people in these places. Maybe I am intruding on the sanctity but no one has ever kicked me out, nor have they ever asked me to stop taking photographs. In some ways I can pull on my cloak of invisibility and merge into the shadows.

As I looked at the pictures from that day I realised how many sinister looking creatures are in a pagoda. No wonder people are praying.

A pagoda is jam packed with interesting stuff and things you don't necessarily associate with religion immediately. It's a fantasy world mixed with science fiction, weapons, images of demons and dragons, Gods and Demi Gods, ghouls and ghosts reside in these dark places. Incense coils hang suspended from the roof like traps that drop on the non believer.

Being a white face in a pagoda gives you the ability to vanish as soon as you step inside unless you come with a tour group because if you do the reverse happens. The group moves as one with no heed to the praying folk, the men who change the incense nor the old ladies that always seem to be hanging around pagodas. But on your own no one pays any heed to your existence. The devotees are too busy rushing from one deity to another hoping to get their wishes granted and the staff ignore you completely.

Mabul Island, Sabah Malaysia

Mabul is the place to go if you are planning to go diving at the world famous Sipadan. However make sure you have booked in for a permit well in advance. We didn't so we spent our days doing what's called "muck diving." Muck diving is looking for the tiny stuff, things like shrimp, octopuses, cuttlefish and nudibranchs. It took me a while to get my head into looking for things often the size of mosquitoes but once I did it was great but having said that give me mantas and whale sharks any day.

But on arriving at Mabul after a 45 minute boat ride it was quite a shock to see this poverty stricken village perched by the sea, right by the jetty. Apparently these folk are Filipino refugees that the government allows to exist on this stretch of island.

Desperately poor they maybe and there were way to many kids but still they have time for smiles!

Vicious and Scarey Animals

A bunch of primates and some other stuff. I first went to Singapore Zoo in 1991. The two major things I remember from that time was a keeper walking with baby Orang Utans along the public walkway and one of the Orangs coming up and grabbing my hand and the fact that they knew how old Komodo Dragons get, how long the gestation period is etc but not how big they can grow which i reckon is pretty cool.

The Zoo is better than ever and on a day when it was overcast and cool it was the perfect place to be. We made the effort to have breakfast at the zoo as we found out that the Orangs come on down and hang out right near you whilst you are chomping into your bacon and eggs.

November 2011

White Water Rafting Padas River Borneo

The Padas River is about 2.5 hours out of Kota Kinabalu the capital of Sabah in Malalysian Borneo. The pick up van came by at 5.30am to transport us to the town we would be catching "The Last Train of Borneo" from. This would then deposit us at the "put in" point where we would starting the rafting.

The Last Train of Borneo is not an exotic affair in the mold of the Orient Express. As a matter of fact I don't think it has ever been worried about the paint losing it's lustre by leaving the soap suds on too long in the hot sun whilst washing. It was filthy on the outside, just like a jungle train should look.
In 1991 I went for a spin on the Last Train of Borneo however in those days it was just a train nothing "last" about it. Today the passengers consisted of the standard run of the mill commuters coming out of the jungle on their way to work, interpsersed with women and kids heading back up the line having been to the big smoke, railway workers scrounging a lift, rafting guides and punters like us.

The train ride itself is rattling adventure as it follows the Padas River. I love being able to sit in an open doorway staring out in the world whilst travelling. It could from a train, a van or a helicopter. I reckon it's the greatest way of clearing my mind and going into a dreamlike imaginative trance.

There were a couple of kids in our carriage and no matter what I did they wouldn't smile. Tough crowd this one, hardened jungle types. Probably the grandkids of headhunters.

We had to change trains at Heliglot Station to the other Last Train of Borneo which was getting quite confusing for me. The other Last Train of Borneo choofed off  and after about 45 minutes we arrived at a certain point where we were asked to dismount the train and wander up the tracks to a house with a large open area perched on the river bank. We were instructed to get changed into a our rafting gear and leave anything that wasn't coming with us in the raft here, before going back to the train for another 45 minutes up the tracks to the put in point.

We arrived at a house that had a deflated raft and a small kayak in a wire meshed storage area. "If this is our boat we have some work to do." I thought to myself but then lo and behold boats were being loaded on to a trolley back down the line fully inflated and pushed along the tracks. Kitted out in PFD's and ill fitting helmets we lugged our raft down to the bank of the Padas River and climbed aboard. In total there was 7 of us including the guide aboard our boat. We had support in the guise of guys in kayaks and some blokes on the banks doubling up as photographers. These shots were all taken by the back up safety guys.

So, we're off and heading down stream bouncing over some bumps all smiles and jokes. As is often the case the guide was giving us the guff that before too long things would get a bit more hectic but as I had been watching the river intently from the train I had only spied a couple of rapids that looked like hard work. Little was I to know what was waiting for us. Rapids are like climbing routes, boats and race horses and get names that seem weird, off beat or downright ludicrous but the names of these rapids gave us a fair idea of what lay ahead. The plan was to raft through 10 rapids and it wasn't long until we hit the first one, The Headhunter. Either The Headhunter was off his game or we were going to make a good team, so we carved through Scooby Doo like we were a carton cutter and Scooby Doo was just a piece of 2D animation. We wrestled The Cobra no way letting it clamp it's fangs in to us before hitting The Lambada. The Lambada, hmmm what does that remind me of? Ah yes, shocking songs that never go away. Danced to by folk that have drunk too much bubbly, champers or Spy wine cooler. The Lambada is right up there with Nutbush City Limits, The Macerana or The Time Warp.

So, here we are a bunch of folk about to do the Lambada. Well I have no idea what happened but the Lambada had the last laugh as Taren and I were thrown out of the boat, dumped into the angry swirling waters of the Padas River. Alternating between gulps of air and getting slammed by waves as the river carried us downstream for a couple of hundred metres. I was dragged into the boat then we went and picked up Taren who was a little shaken but also pretty excited. But it wasn't long til we hit the "Washing Machine" but just before we got there the guide talked about what to do if the boat flipped and what what to do if you are trapped underneath it gulping for air in the darkness whilst being dragged down an angry river. Comforting? Not particularly. Shortly after his spiel that's pretty much what happened. We got slammed, the boat launched into the air throwing everyone out bar one guy who clung on. When my head cleared the water for the first time the boat was still coming down and coming down on my head so under I went again but free of the boat and in clear water all was fine. It took awhile for us to get back on board. Taren got picked up by one of the kayakers, or in actual fact dragged along by a kayaker before we could recover her. Once back on board we cruised through The Merry Go Round, busted the doors down on Snake House and rode through Barbecue like seasoned hard core rafting dudes.

Back where we left our gear it was time to have a shower and some lunch whilst relaxing by the river. Before too long the train trundled down the line and on we climbed. Then that became another adventure in itself!

Adam, yellow helmet front left and Taren red helmet directly behind me.

Doing the Lambada

The Washing Machine

Civet Cat, Monkeys and Monitors - Kinabatangan, Sabah, Borneo

The Kinabatangan River is the longest river (560km) in Sabah, Borneo and one area where conservation is helping save some of the incredible animals that Borneo hosts. It's terribly sad to see how much of the rain forest has been destroyed, replaced with palm oil plantations. The palm oil is allowed to encroach to a distance of 120 metres from the rivers bank. That means there is just a narrow strip of secondary forest for a huge amount of species to live in. 

This area is home to wild pygmy elephants, orang utans, probiscis monkeys, samba deer, macaques, silver leaf monkeys, hornbills, snakes, monitor lizards, kingfishers, crocodiles and hundreds of others yet it is being cut down at a ferocious rate and it is only a matter of time until it all goes.

Due to this deforestation animals are concentrated in to smaller areas therefore making them easier to find, a kind of depressing highlight, a double edged sword. As someone who takes photographs and is fascinated by animals I get the chance to get up close to wild animals but there is a voice in the back of my head telling me it is wrong, most of these animals should be deep in a forest where humans can't find them, the problem is there is no forest.

We stayed at Kinabatangan Jungle Camp near Bilit, owned by Robert Chong, a man who knows everything there is to know about the animals and the forest. As one of the first "jungle camps" KJC has been replanting the forest and the staff are very aware of the fine line that is being tread between nature and tourism.

Help save the animals and forests of Borneo anyway you can!

Civet Cat nicknamed "Tom"

Forest Gecko, this one was about 30cm long

A Macaque family dining al fresco

A least 4 Monitors patrolled KJC and were incredibly hard to spot in the dappled light. This one was about a metre and a half from tail to snout.

Channel Seven and the UNICEF Program in Laos

Channel Seven's "Sunday Night" program ventured to the capital of Laos, Vientiane to cover a story regarding the immunization of Laos children against measles. UNICEF are providing a vaccine to help curb the number of deaths each year from this very treatable illness. A vial of the vaccine costs 63 cents...that's all, but the hard part is keeping the vaccine fresh in a regulated cool storage facility. 

This maybe an easy thing in a developed country but in Laos it's incredibly difficult due to the fluctuations in the electrical system which is prone to surges and blackouts. The other tricky aspect is having staff that can deliver the vaccine efficiently and effectively in a nation where most of the inhabitants live in rural or remote areas.Therefore "outreach" stations have to be set up so the villagers can bring their children to a designated meeting point on a certain day to receive the medicine.

Working alongside the UNICEF team the crew from Channel Seven filmed around Vientiane to get the local "feel".

Erik Thomson

On the second day the filming was at Mahosot Hospital, Vientiane's main medical facility in the city. The hospital staff were fantastic considering they had just been inundated by an Australian TV star (Erik Thomson from Packed to the Rafters), two camera men, two stills photographers, one sound guy, one TV producer and a myriad of others from UNICEF, the liaison from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a local guide.

We also travelled 3 hours north of Vientiane to see first hand one of the "outreach" centres in action. It really had quite a festive air about the place as mothers carried infants, young ones carried smaller ones and the village in general came out to watch the "circus" that came to town lugging cameras and tripods.

The Channel Seven crew

 A day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Phnom Penh Cyclo Driver

I had to go to Cambodia to arrange a new Vietnamese visa last week. On Thursday 23 September, I hit the streets at 5.30am and wandered around the river front, along the banks of the Mekong River whilst the light was golden and Phnom Penh looks fresh and clean, before the sordid and seedy side emerges from it's bolthole once the sun has gone down. 
Phnom Penh, is a fascinating and complex Asian city with an incredible history combining contemporary issues such as the current trials for Khmer Rouge leaders and the proposal to build one of the world's highest buildings in a country of abject poverty to the horrors of the Killing Fields and S21. From the beauty of Sisowath Quay running along the Mekong to the shanty slums, Phnom Penh has something for everybody, that is if you like a bit of edginess in a frontier kind of place.

Off to the Races, District 11, Saigon

The weather was hot, damn hot as we rode on my Vespa from District 7 through 8, 5, 10 to District 11. Once we arrived at the races things just got hotter. The crowd nearly all men were sporting the latest fashion, where the order of the day was  "casual".

The punters were on their haunches with anticipation as the horses were brought out and betting counters were choked with men hoping to make a small fortune on the choice flesh, increasing the size of the dong in their trousers.

 The fearless jockeys astride their freshly shod mounts strutted nonchalantly around the parade yard soaking up the adoration from the spectators before making their way to the start on the far side of the track. Blasting out of the gates many of the horses had fallen well behind at the first turn and the winner galloped to a magnificent and resounding victory.

Money was lost and money was won and overall a great day is had.

11 September 2010

District 8

Ong Bon Pagoda, District 5, Cholon Saigon

In my constant exploration of Saigon I have rediscovered the intensity, the density and the insanity of Cholon. Today whilst belting around on my bicycle in my current fitness endeavour I dropped in to Ong Bon Pagoda an atmospheric, smoke filled place dedicated to the guardian that oversees happiness, wealth and good fortune.

9 September 2010

Vietnam Swans v Cambodian Cobras

The Swans took on the Cobras at RMIT Saigon this weekend in what was the toughest game I have witnessed in this league. It was gritty, hard, brutal and sometimes ugly but played with an intensity that left a few hurting and the ice put aside for refreshing drinks being utilized for icing injuries.

The Cobras, maybe unaware that Vietnam devours Cobras or turns them into snake wine came full of venom yet the Swans flocked to the task and with the home ground advantage won the encounter.

Afterwards, I interviewed one of the players: "We are just happy with the four pints and looking forward to September."

I pointed out that it is September but four pints will be well deserved.

4 September 2010

Swans Reflecting

A Swan in his natural element

Bathing Swan
Boots 'n Balls
Even the tickling was full on
A Cobra standing tall
Just look at that focus
The SOS International Clinic Doctor was on hand.

A hefty bump bags a Swan
But like a phoenix a Swan rises from the ashes.
A wet day kept the crowds away.
Wow! You have aeroplanes in Vietnam too?
Some go hard at it, others have a little lie down.
Nice advertisement for Sherrin
Late goal
It's like Fashion TV crossed with Spartacus
Now, that has to be a goal!

A three goal victory to the Swans
The victorious Vietnam Swans

Night of the Dishlickers

Dogs & Handlers

 An old Soviet Hydrofoil slammed and sliced it's way through to Vung Tau, 1 hour and 20 minutes from the heart of Saigon. Surrounded by screaming kids and wriggling parents we enjoyed the journey - slightly.

Vung Tau is the only place in Vietnam that has Greyhound racing and people come from far and wide for the Saturday night races. It's a family affair and the standard bet is 10,000 VND which earns a return of about 5000 VND just enough to buy some popcorn and maybe an icecream. 

Saturday 7 August 2010

Shootin' the Breeze
Racing Dogs aka Dishlickers
Captivated Punters
Vina Popcorn
Baby Killer
Patterns of Punters
Pool Smoke

Gun Dog

Van Hoa Park - Saigon

On any given morning there is a myriad of activities going on in the park. This park situated near the Re-Unification Palace is studded with sculptures, towering trees, shrubs in the shapes of dragons and tigers and in it's heart lies a pagoda.

Every morning the locals head to the park to do all manner of exercise including Tai Chi and various forms of Martial Arts. It's also a popular place for power walkers, joggers and aerobics.

On a Sunday morning (and maybe every Sunday) crowds of men bring their caged birds to the park. The men sit and drink coffee and chat and the birds sing to each other. Hearing birds in general is rare in Vietnam, hearing such a cacophony of songs is unbelievable!

Sunday 29 August 2010


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