The Temple Ruins of Siem Reap

We made our first ever visit to Cambodia in November and, naturally, we went straight to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Siem Reap. Here are my images and impressions of this amazing place.

1. The Angkor empire was massive and lavish in its heyday. The sheer number of temples in the area is quite mind-boggling. They number well over a thousand. Temples like Ta Prohm had thousands of servants to maintain it in its pomp and the Angkor area used to be home to 0.1% of the global population, which is mighty impressive.

2. The restoration efforts at Siem Reap are a brilliant example of international cooperation. Many of the temples are being restored by archaeological teams from as far and wide as the USA, Japan, India and more. They work in conjunction with local Khmer artists to recreate lost carvings and sculptures.

Outer guardhouse at Angkor Wat

Nature takes over at Ta Prohm

3. Whilst all the restoration work is sorely needed, I was more mesmerized by the temples that were left for nature to reclaim e.g. Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn. Having said that, it was quite obvious that many parts of these temples would have been lost forever without any remedial work so I guess it's more getting that balance right.

4. My favourite temple, by far, is Ta Prohm. This is one of the temples that was featured in the Tomb Raider movies. It's rather humbling to see how the trees here have managed to beat the stone into submission. Some of the root systems here seem to go on forever. An awesome show of nature's strength.

5. Similar to a lot of other cities in Asia, the wealth gap in Siem Reap is quite large. Despite receiving two million visitors a year, the province remains the 3rd poorest in Cambodia. Most of the locals live in very basic conditions and life seems tough. Despite the hardships, Siem Reap has some of the friendliest people we've met on our travels. More of those tourist dollars need to trickle down though if the social problems here are to be rectified.

6. Cheap-as-chips beer. 50 cents USD for a Cambodian draft beer! It's not the finest of beers (I swear there's almost no alcohol in them) but at that price you might as well drink it instead of water.

7. The most famous temple here is, of course, Angkor Wat. Said to be the largest religious monument in the world. The massive number of tourists here at sunrise has to be seen to be believed. It does spoil the occasion somewhat when you have people shouting and jostling for position but it is still quite a sight.

8. The civil war here absolutely ravaged the country. Most obvious are the effects of the land mines. It is said that there are still 4-6 million unexploded land mines in the country. We came across many people who had lost limbs to mines and these were just the ones who survived the encounter. Cambodia apparently has 40,000 amputees, the highest in the world. Tourist sites that are only 30km out of Siem Reap are still riddled with land mines and guidebooks advise you to stick to marked paths when visiting the more obscure temples, which is rather scary.

Entrance to Preah Khan depicting the "Churning of the Sea of Milk"

There's something quite poignant and contemplative about slowly exploring the ruins of what was once, quite obviously, a majestic empire. If Siem Reap isn't on your bucket list, get it on there double-quick time!

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8 Interesting Things About Bario

Despite having moved back to Malaysia for almost 3 years now, I still don’t know my country as well as I should. I guess it’s just one of those “grass is greener” things where everywhere else seems more interesting than where you are now. In a bid to correct this, I've decided to make it a point to visit more local places. Over this past Eid-al-Fitr weekend, we went deep into the Kelabit Highlands in northeastern Sarawak, to a place called Bario (or Bareo, as Google Maps likes to call it).

Here are 8 interesting things I learnt while visiting this amazing place:

  1. Bario is remote! It’s in Malaysia, but only about 15km from the border with Indonesia. There are hardly any roads into Bario, only jungle as far as the eye can see. It sits at 1000m above sea level which means it’s actually not as humid as the rest of Malaysia and the temperatures are really quite pleasant.
  2. Flying into Bario is quite the experience. We flew in from the nearest major city, Miri, in a turboprop 18-seater Twin Otter plane. Except for one short flying lesson in a tiny American Grumman, the Twin Otter is the smallest plane I've ever been in. It’s hot and uncomfortable but provides some amazing views of Mount Mulu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). My nerves were a little jangled on the flight home due to some turbulence but it’s all part of the package!
  3. Bario is home to the Kelabit people. At around 5000 people, they are one of the smallest groups of indigenous people in Malaysia. They are an extremely hospitable and friendly people though and I was constantly surprised by strangers walking up to me in the street just to say hello and to have a chat.
  4. The Kelabit traditionally stayed in longhouses. As the name suggests, it is literally a long house, in which multiple families stay. Longhouses are measured by “doors”. 1 door per family. With modernization, most families have moved into individual houses and longhouses are mainly used for tourist homestays now.
  5. Bario is known for rice and pineapples. The land here is extremely fertile resulting in some amazing produce. It’s also well known for salt. There are multiple springs in the area that produce water suitable for making salt. This water is boiled in large stainless steel vats and then inserted into shafts of bamboo and dried out over log fires resulting in cylindrical blocks of salt.
  6. Bario is completely off the power grid. Electricity here is garnered from a small local hydro-dam as well as petrol powered generators. When the rains stop, so does the electricity. When we were there, it had not rained for a while so to conserve fuel, generators were only used between 7pm and 11pm. I wasn’t too bummed though as no rain meant no leeches! It’s also really nice to be forced to unplug every now and then.
  7. Bario is one of the darkest places I’ve ever been to. I thought Death Valley on the American West Coast was amazing for stargazing but this managed to beat even that experience. It just so happened that we were there during a new moon which can only mean one thing: the Milky Way! The combination of the remote location, not having 24-hour electricity, the new moon and the altitude meant that I managed to shoot my most detailed Milky Way shots ever.
  8. A Toyota Hilux pickup truck can carry 9 people! 5 inside the cab and 4 on the back deck. This has to be the best way (if not, the most fun at least) to move around dirt tracks. We could probably have fit one more on the back making it 10 people. That’s almost an entire football team!

And there you have it. If you liked reading this, or if you liked the pictures, and would like to know when I publish a new post, consider subscribing to my blog.

An Insight Into My Workflow

Here's the latest addition to my portfolio. This is the Hong Kong skyline shot from one of the Central Ferry Piers. That gleaming tower in the middle is Central Plaza, once the tallest building in Asia. I love Hong Kong. It has some amazing structures which give an almost Blade Runner-esque feel to some parts of the city. This one reminds me of the king of skyscrapers - the Empire State Building in New York.

Hong Kong Skyline

Quite proud of this image really. Took me a heck of a long time to produce! I originally shot this over 2 years ago (May 2013). What really caught my eye at the time was the shape of the skyline. I thought it looked very interesting from this angle. It was also a really cloudy day so I thought I might get some interesting cloud motion with a long exposure. The actual image did not set my heart alight though.

It looked very bland on first impressions and I couldn’t really figure out how to get the most out of it. As a result, it sat in the deep dark corners of my harddisk until I rediscovered it last week while rummaging around looking for a new image to work on. I figured it might be useful for me to write a little about the process I followed, if only so I can formulate and articulate my thoughts for the next image.

So here’s a picture of the scene in realtime:

The original scene, shot from Central Ferry Piers.

And this is the 2:1 cropped image as it came out of the camera after the long exposure:

The long exposure image, as it came out of the camera, cropped to 2:1.

As you can see, quite different to the final picture! This was a 4-minute exposure in the middle of an overcast day (1.18pm to be precise), conditions which are generally not conducive for good photos. What works in this case, however, is exactly the fact that the light is completely flat. No deep shadows, no strong highlights. This makes for a great starting point with which to introduce contrast the way I like it.

Usually, I like to start by playing around with some Lightroom presets to see what's possible. Essentially what I'm doing is quickly previewing some prototype versions to see what works and what doesn’t. Lightroom is so fast and powerful for this sort of stuff and there are some great presets available on the web.

Once I’ve got a good sense of the direction to take, I’ll then bring the image into Photoshop to do the heavy lifting. Usually, my first step in Photoshop is to choose my selections. This is the most tedious part of the whole process (and the part I hate the most!). The complexity of the selections will depend on the image. For this one, I knew that any processing I did would have to emphasize the Central Plaza building as the main focal point. I also knew that I’d have to introduce some “punch” into the buildings that surrounded it. So, my selections would have to allow me control over that cluster of buildings in the middle. Below is a sample of the selections I ended up making. Took me about 2-3 hours getting all the selections done. I'm very slow!

Selections in Photoshop

Curves adjustment layers to adjust contrast of each part of the image.

Once I’m done with the selections though, the fun begins. This is where I let my creativity loose! I start this part of the process by converting the image to black and white. I usually use Silver Efex Pro 2 to do this but I've also used Photoshop gradient maps for this as well. Most of the time, I'll have one conversion for the sky and another for the rest of the image and blend them together using some of the selections made earlier.

The next step is to “light” each part of the image. For this, I tend to work with curves adjustment layers, only because I’m very comfortable with them. You can actually do this in a variety of ways though. All you need here is a tool which can adjust shadows, midtones and highlights. I ended up with 41 curves layers on this one. The idea is to make each component “pop” and therefore introduce depth to the image. The best way to achieve this is to make sure each component has some separation from the components around it.

Finally, it all comes together with some global adjustments. This involves setting the overall white and black points and adding some vignetting to make sure the eyes really stay within the image. I also love me some film grain so I usually add some in the final stages.

And that’s how this image went from a rather flat-looking after-thought of a picture, to what is now, one of my favourite images. It took about 20 hours of work to process this image from start to finish! Very long for some (myself included), but compared to some other photographers I know, this is nothing! 

Anyway, this is the first time I’m doing a behind-the-scenes write up like this so if you have any feedback or suggestions, do let me know. In the meantime, hope you found this useful and interesting. If you like what I've done here and would like to see more, consider subscribing to my blog. Thanks for dropping by!

Systems Are Go!

Houston, we have liftoff! I've been thinking about getting a personal website for a few years now and I've finally got myself into gear. Welcome to my new online home! Take your shoes off, make yourself comfortable, hope you like what I've done with the place. 

Wanaka, New Zealand.

Most people build a website because they have something to sell. That isn't my aim here. Of course, feel free to buy all my prints if you decide you're so enamored with my work that you must have them! But that’s not what this is here for. My main purpose for this is so I have a place to display the work I’m most proud of. This is the portfolio part of the site. My images are plastered on a lot of social media websites right now. Facebook, Google+, Flickr, 500px, I’m on them all. While they’re all great in their own way, layouts change all the time and I have no control over how images are displayed (I’m talking about you Facebook, quit changing stuff all the time!). Not here though. I have total control here. So if it sucks, I can only blame myself! Hopefully it doesn't suck. Or even if it does suck right now, it’ll be a good learning experience to get it to suck a bit less.

My secondary purpose for this website is a place for me to jot down my thoughts on various things. That’s the blog part of the site. My thoughts might turn out to be as boring as dry toast, or they might be unexpectedly captivating. The truth is probably somewhere in between but it doesn't really matter either way because the important thing is to just write them down. In years to come, it’ll be interesting to see where I've come from. Interesting for me anyway. And if it's interesting for me, then maybe others out there may find it interesting too. I plan to be open and personal with all my posts. Polar opposite to my personality so that should be an interesting exercise.

Anyway, I hope you like it here. Feel free to peruse and comment... or not. You won’t hurt my feelings if you don't. If you do want to hear more from me though, tell me your name and email address and I'll notify you whenever I post a new blog entry, which will be once a week if all goes to plan.

Thanks for popping by.