Sunrise on Lantau Peak

Last Sunday, the PASM photo meetup organized a hike cum photoshoot for the sunrise on Lantau Peak.

An event postponed several times

Owing to the spat of bad weather that had been affecting Hong Kong, this hike had to be postponed several times. Obviously, bad weather does not make for very interesting photos, especially when you are in the middle of the clouds.

As a reminder, we had something like 3 typhoons in succession over three weeks. The bad weather scourge unfortunately also affected us this time. In fact, we had another typhoon skirting Hong Kong during this hike (again!).

Stairs, stairs and more stairs

As to the hike, per se, it is not that difficult. You just have to keep climbing unending stairs. Contrary to Kowloon Peak, there are no real dangers here, provided you don’t feel adventurous and decide to test the edges of the cliffs.

The real difficulty instead is the physical effort of climbing hundreds of stairs at night. With humidity, some rocky passages might be pretty slippery. The other inconvenience was that a 30-odd group of youngsters decided to do the hike as well. Where this would be an ideal walk in the night, this became a very noisy occurrence, with yells and music disturbing the peace of the night.

Viewpoints

There are several viewpoints over the Hong Kong airport. Obviously, needless to remind, do not fly a drone over that mountain: it is prohibited by Hong Kong laws to fly a drone within 5 kms of any airport.

Hong Kong airport
The great view from Lantau peak on the Hong Kong airport.

The second interesting viewpoint (at the top of the mountain) is on sunset peak, the neighboring mountain. Apparently, this place can be the occasion of seeing the very interesting phenomenon called the “sea of clouds”.

This requires however certain atmospheric conjunctions which are not always easy to get.

A sleepless night

After having sweated all the way to the top of Lantau peak, we tried to rest a bit at the top, but the wind blowing on top of our sweaty clothes got as result that we could not shut eye. Around 5 AM, we got an alert by the HK observatory that a thunderstorm was headed our way. In order to avoid being too exposed to lightning, we decided to go lower and made our way to a protective rock somewhere lower from the top.

At nearly 6 AM, we got caught in a real rainstorm (with luckily no lightning striking around). The kids who remained on the top must have been even more drenched than us. As the rain stopped, we got lucky and caught a break in the sky with clouds parting to offer us some blue sky and the reddish reflection of the sun on the clouds.

That’s how we were lucky to see something very close to a “sea of clouds”.

sun rising
The sun rises behind the “sea of clouds” on Lantau Peak.
Sunrise on clouds
The sun shines on the clouds on Lantau Peak

Going down

Going down after the rain was an exercise in patience. We had the thirty-odd kids queuing behind, and that put some pressure on me to walk faster. That’s how I slipped and fell down at one point, despite my hiking stick. There are stairs all the way down, but those stairs are very slippery when it rained. I was wearing Lowe hiking boots, but the rigidity of the sole and the slippery nature of the floor meant it was not such a good choice.

However, while going down, you have an excellent view over the coast of Lantau, and in particular the giant Buddha of Tien Tan.

Giant Buddha
A view over the Giant Buddha of Tien Tan from Lantau Peak.

How to get there?

You must first take the MTR to Tung Chung station. From there, you must walk to a bus station where you can catch the bus 3 M. In general, it starts at midnight, and last one is around 1 AM. When climbing, tell the driver you want to go to Pak Kung Au, as the far will be reduced by a few HKD.

When you get down, cross the street, continue walking about 100 m in the same direction and you will find the trail entrance. Thereupon, the trail is very clear, just follow the stairs. To see the sunrise on Lantau Peak, you should ideally start your hike at midnight.

Ekkarat drum manufacturing village in Thailand: a unique experience

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In a previous post, I talked about Wat Sanam Chai, in the province of Suphanburi. When you are there or in Ayutthaya, it does not take much time, to go to Ekkarat drum manufacturing village.

This village is unique in that there are a number of traditional drum-making craft shops which still go on making drums while you visit. An excellent visit outside of the beaten tracks.

These drums are mainly used in temples or for religious occasions and the local craftsmen are proud to let you see the whole drum-making process.

A survival of an ancient tradecraft

While not very known, it is rare nowadays to still see a traditional craft being performed at various stages of development. During my visit in Ekkarat, back in 2016, I was able to see all the stages of a drum making (ok, not the finition).

The start: stretching a hide

It all starts with the hide. A large cow hide is stretched on a portico, to let it dry as well as to extend it to its maximum size. If you are lucky, you will see such a hide hung outside to dry.

It all starts with a single leather hide of a cow which is extended and left out to dry like this.

Obviously, the drum membrane is both thin and dry to give the best sound. ISome smaller parts may be further left to dry for the small drums.

Small leather membranes for the smaller drums

The central part of the drum: a tree trunk

While the hide for covering the drum is stretched and extended, the wooden body of the drum is prepared. For the bigger size drums, they use the whole trunk of a tree, which is then hollowed in a single piece on a machine as you can see in this picture.

It all starts with taking a single tree trunk and hollowing it on this machine.

After the trunk takes its final shape, it is further polished by hand.

A lady polishes one of the elongated drums by hand.

Stretching the membrane

The next important stage is stretching the membrane over the drum and leaving it in that position for some time, in order to avoid the hide retracting once the drum is complete. To do that, the drum-makers use metallic contraptions to stretch the hide across and pull it downward.

Another important step is pulling the leather hide across the wood.

Once this is done, the drum is left to rest for a few days to let the materials take their final form.

This drum’s membrane has been stretched and is left to rest.

You can see below a short video filmed in Ekkarat in the same shop where these pictures were taken.

The final product

Obviously, walking you through each step of the process would be meaningless, if you did not have a glimpse to some of the finished products. Once the drum is completed, it is painted and the membrane is sometimes decorated as well. This drum is huge, basically man-size, so you have an idea of the tree trunk that was used to manufacture it.

At the end, once completed and decorated a ceremonial drum looks like this.

In short, if you want to see a glimpse of traditional Thailand, do not miss Ekkarat, it is a worthwhile visit when you are near Ayutthaya or Suphanburi.

How to get there?

Ah, now that is the painful part. Getting to Ekkarat drum manufacturing village is as difficult as getting to Suphanburi, in fact. Given that the village is halfway between Suphanburi and Ayutthaya, it might be worth hitting it as a mid-point visit between the two cities. To the best of my knowledge, there is no public transportation that takes you straight from Bangkok to Ekkarat, so the best choice is still a private car or a tour visiting that place. You will find below the google maps location to help you.

Bonus

Finally before leaving, let me introduce you to a video filmed by students showing the visit of the village. If you understand some Thai, you might understand the exchanges going on.

Mirrors and illusions

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Sometimes, you can make interesting photography in the most boring of places. Take a mall, for instance. But when you look more closely, you can sometimes take interesting photos. Photos that will bring the viewer to question his eyes in a maze of mirrors and illusions.

Ingredients for this photoshoot

The main ingredient was the place, which is the Festival Walk mall, in Kowloon Tong. The mall has the particularity of having an intricate set of escalators which are equipped with mirrors, hence providing a very interesting visual effect when photographed from above.

I originally shot this series in colors, but then transformed them into black and white, as color detracted from the original impression.

Look at this picture, for instance:

To contrast and show the different effects.

And compare it with this one:

Criss-crossing escalators and their reflections lead to a real visual vertigo.

The force of black and white

The black and white picture takes away all the confusion and the points of attachment (which in themselves could also induce another element of confusion). Look for instance at the blue bag of the lady on first escalator and the blue t-shirt of the guy below. The eye bounces between the two similar colors.

In black and white, the lines and perspectives guide our eye, alone. The picture becomes very simple to read. Intersecting lines and reflections do trouble our brain and lead us to wonder which is real, which is an illusion.

When is color relevant?

In some cases, similar pictures can still be used in color.

Here, another case where you can’t tell what is reality or reflection… Except for a slight deformation in the reflection.

Here, for example, the muted tone of the above scene (reality) is dominated by the vivid tones of the reflection. Hence leading the eye below rather than above. It is a case where illusion looks better than reality…

How to get there?

Now, this is a place which is very easy to get to. Just get down to the MTR station Kowloon Tong. A long coridoor leads straight from the MTR to the mall. For the best effect, go straight to the top.

Talking about Gear: is the new Nikon D850 worth it?

As many photographers, I too have been somehow inundated in the flow of marketing and ecstatic articles about the Nikon D850. The big question nobody asks is whether this new camera is worth it?

Technical improvements

On paper, the camera looks a beast and is looking set to again beat Canon at the game of megapixels and features.

Nikon D850 specs from Nikon USA web site.

In particular, as we are still in a game of megapixels, 45 MP looks like a formidable resolution for a camera. Video with 4K looks also interesting for videographers. It is certain, from the first pics (probably insanely retouched) put out by Nikon, that the camera looks able to produce magnificent pictures.

The question out there is how it performs in real life. While the jury is still out on knowing whether there will be some teething issues, I guess we can expect the camera to be still worth the 3,000 USD it will cost to purchase.

Game changer or consumer changer?

An article posted earlier railed at Nikon for creating a hype around the camera and pushing users to consumption and to “upgrade” their cameras.

If you already read my page “gear“, you know that I don’t advocate necessarily purchasing more and more gear. Nevertheless, purchasing my Nikon D750 eight years after my Canon 40D brought about a significant evolution in my photographic output and practice. In low light, I must say that the D750 beats the 40D from all points of view. New lenses gave new dimensions to my photography too.

Similarly, the increase in megapixel allowed me to improve the overall quality of my pictures.

HOWEVER, the evolution and the “upgrade” was after such a period of time that technology made leaps and bounds. It came also after I progressed personally and artistically, where my old camera felt limited. Getting the D750 a few years back would have been a waste to be quite candid.

The question when it comes to considering an upgrade is whether you are going to change YOUR game with the upgrade, or whether you are just being a consumer going with the flow.

What are your needs?

The big issue is whether you need this camera from a professional point of view. To answer that question, let’s put this differently: are you making money out of your current gear? If the answer is “yes”, then, by all means make a financial analysis of the cost vs return expected. The investment should only be justified if there is a positive equation at the end.

 

In Hong Kong, the D850 retails at 27,800 HKD body alone!

However, if you are just buying cameras and practicing photography as an amateur, spending for new gear should be a careful and considerate decision. All the more as purchasing such an important piece of gear is going to detract money from other important posts in your life.

For example, if you already have a D800 or a D810, the improvement with the D850 is just incremental. You are not going to suddenly expand your horizons, so I guess you can pass on this camera.

With a D750, the evolution is already more significant. You move from 24 MP to 45, which is almost the double. Yes, the improvement will be more significant and your pictures could be marginally better. However, unless you are shooting professionally, the expenditure is not justified, and especially not when the camera just came out (and is sold at its highest price tag). If you don’t have a camera and are hesitating between D810, D750 or D850, then just go for the D750 or D810. Both cameras are excellent and right now, should sell at a discount (even new) as the new big brother just arrived. But there is also another way.

A third way?

Looking at it differently, you may see the second-hand market being flooded by D810 in the coming months. The D810 is an excellent camera and would be an excellent addition if you absolutely need another camera.

While brand new, the D810 was quite expensive, with some luck, you might come across some low shutter-count camera held by a guy having enough money to upgrade (or being foolish). In which case, you might both, satisfy the desire for better gear, and at the same time, avoid purchasing depreciating gear without an income generated by this gear.

Conclusion: upgrade for professionals

In conclusion, for professionals, the upgrade may be quite justified. The camera does progress and offers new interesting features. However, for an amateur photographer, I would say that buying a second-hand D810 might be the wise decision at this moment.

 

Hong Kong, the vertical city

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There is no other way to apprehend why Hong Kong is often called “the vertical city” than to climb upon a mountain and to look down on the city. The pictures in this post are taken in Kowloon.

Human Density

Kowloon is one of the most densly populated areas of Hong Kong and also cumulates a number of the poorest areas such as Sham Shui Po or Yau Ma Tei.

The human density on this part of the city led to a profusion of high-rise buildings erected as far as the eye can see. In some way, this both answers to and replicates the human density with an architectural density.

In a previous post, I wrote about “architectural compression” in Hong Kong when talking about Montane Mansion. Here, we are talking about a different “compression”.

Compression takes place in height, rather than in space. With the limited space available, logically, most buildings are erected upwards.

View from a mountain

All of the pictures featured in this post were shot from a mountain, namely Shatin’s pass, between Kowloon Peak and Wong Tai Sin. It is a lovely hiking route, with almost no danger (excepted the cars attempting to replicate a mountain rallye race). In addition to the lovely route, Shatin’s pass affords some exceptional viewpoints when the sky is clear.

In this case, there was some haze (treated partly under Lightroom), so not the ideal situation.

A vertical city soon in crisis?

Despite the construction craze which can be seen in some of the pictures, the HK Government has kept on warning hongkongers to beware of a backlash and possibly a drop in real estate pricing. Pointless to say that with some cultural factors such as no lady accepting to marry you if you don’t have your own flat, such warnings fall into deaf ears. Real estate prices still climb, fed by cheap money with the low interest rates for mortgages.

How to get there?

Ok, I forgot to tell you how to get there… Two routes. Either you get down to Wong Tai Sin MTR and walk up to Shatin’s Pass, or you take the thougher route which is to climb the whole Jat’s Incline after alighting at Choi Hung MTR. Either way, be prepared for some tough climbing even if it will be on perfectly paved roads.

Full moon on Kowloon Peak

 

I posted a few weeks ago a picture of a moon crescent over Kowloon Peak. Yesterday night, the stars were aligned again, this time with the full moon.

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What is different this time?

For starters, it is a full moon, versus a crescent. I also experimented some more this time. Took shots with faster shutter speed, higher isos…

The clouds gave both a mysterious tone to the mountain, and at the same time, as they covered completely the mountain at times, spoiled several of my shots.

 

 

Photography exercise: panning shots in Mongkok

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Panning shots

Some times, to progress in photography, it is good to oblige yourself to do an exercise in style. Today, my photography exercise was taking panning shots in a street of Mongkok.

Panning shots involve staying put in one position and (ideally) shooting subjects which are passing parallel to your position. Using a low shutter speed (1/30th to 1/25th), you manage to get a motion blur which, when well done, detaches the subject from the background.

The difficulty

Where it gets difficult is that to get a perfect picture, you should have the maximum details on the subject. For that to happen, the speed at which you are moving the camera should be synchronized to your subject. Difficult to do that when the shutter closes, right? That’s why, you must look beyond the viewfinder, above your camera, to make sure you are synchronizing the camera to your subject.

Panning shots in Mongkok (2nd series)

Using the rain and lights

A special case of panning shots can be done at night, but preferably with bikes. This shot was taken in Thailand.

Two girls on a motosai in Bangkok, Thailand.

As this was shot at night, after the rain, it provided interesting reflections on the floor increasing the panning effect. While in Bangkok, there are a lot of bikers, hence allowing to use panning shots, Hong Kong has a bit less of these, but still, some occasion may arise as seen below.

Bikes generally have a fixed speed, so theoretically easier to shoot, but not always easy to align your speed on the bike!

The conclusion is to go out and take one morning obliging yourself only to shoot panning shots. Experience is vital, as even after a while, you may still have a lot of missed shots.

Wat Sanam Chai – An unknown ruin of Thai history

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Wat Sanam Chai, a temple in ruins in the city of Suphanburi, is an interesting visit, far from the throngs of tourists in the neighboring Ayutthaya.

Suphanburi is a city of historical significance as it is located on the direct pathway for invading armies from Burma. That’s why a number of battles were fought on those grounds, and Wat Sanam Chai is a reminder of one of these battles.

A mausoleum

Wat Sanam Chai nowadays is in ruin. Originally built as early as 1203 AD, the current ruins date back to the Ayutthaya period. The main feature is a sort of tumulus, or pagoda, originally thought to have been 70-80m high. In 1961, during restoration works at that pagoda, human remains and ashes were found inside the tumulus. It appears that beyond being a temple, it was also the resting place of warriors who had been killed during the frequent clashes with the Burmese armies. Several battles were fought with Burma in this province in the Ayutthaya period. The symbol of the province is, after all two war elephants fighting…

Peacefulness

Wat Sanam chai sunrise
Sun rising in the morning fog is an unforgettable experience at Wat Sanam Chai.

Where Ayutthaya has too many tourists for its own good, Wat Sanam Chai appears to be out of time itself.

Peacefulness imbues this place, mainly because of its remoteness and the lack of visitors. However, the presence of some Buddha statues do remind that this is still  a place of worship for Buddhists. You should also remember it is a place of rest where dead warriors lie. Just let the peacefulness imbue you and think about the centuries of history and war about which these ruins talk in their silence.

Another Buddha statue located behind the Pagoda itself.

How to get there?

Several ways, the train being the most inconvenient. You are better off if you can drive or have a driver take you there. As this place is a bit off the track, you will have to follow the google maps provided below to reach the ruins. It is not far from the main highway from Bangkok, but you must have nevertheless to make  a dangerous u-turn on the highway…

Ideally, this visit would be combined with the artisanal drum-making village of Ekkarat, and a tour to Ayutthaya.

Of death, ghosts and haunted houses in Hong Kong

Obviously, supernatural is never very far from hongkongese, even if most profess they don’t believe in anything… Hence topics such as death, ghosts, death or haunted houses are quite taboo in Hong Kong.

Why talking about this subject? Over the week-end, a crime took place in Hong Kong, at a luxury condominium called the “Coronation”. From the first facts shared by the investigators, a husband stabbed his wife, threw her from the apartment and then jumped in turn, committing suicide.

This is a tragic event, per se, but a twitter commentator pointed out that the only thing some local medias focused upon, was the fall in property prices resulting from the murder-suicide.

Haunted houses

It has been reported for a number of years now, “haunted houses” sell at a discount on the overheated real estate market of Hong Kong. By “haunted houses”, it is referred to those flats or houses where a crime happened or a death took place. Some real estate companies found an interesting niche by providing a search engine dedicated uniquely to finding those “haunted houses”.

Westerners might wonder what’s wrong with owning a house where someone has died. In fact, death is an event of life in Europe, where old houses have probably seen countless births and deaths. For Chinese, the word of “death”, or anything approaching death like cemeteries, etc, are all extremely taboo. This article is quite informative on the subject if you wish to understand more about it: Unexpected Chinese Customs.

From ancestors to ghosts

Because Chinese believe in the cult of ancestors and, as in many parts in Asia (think Thailand!), believe in bridges between death and living, the fear of ghosts is pretty common. Hence they shun anything even remotely linked to it like the number “4”. In Chinese, it sounds a lot like the word “death”.

But modern society brought a twist to that belief. Nowadays, housing has become less disposable than it was before the industrial area. Before, just as in Japan nowadays, it was easy to get rid of the “spirits”: just destroy the house and build a new one instead. See this comment on the article “why are Japanese homes disposable”:

Some Japanese talk about “memory of the walls”…

As destroying condominiums is not possible anymore, most of the people tend to shun those places where someone died (even if it is not obliged to reveal that someone died in the house, as in Japan).

In the case of the murder/suicide at hand, some tenants who lived on the same floor where the murder took place wished to leave anticipatively (Chinese). The landlords only consented to lower the rent as they are probably aware it will near to impossible to rent the units in the future, without a heavy discount.

Paradox of an advanced and superstitious society

This shows us that Hong Kong, while being an extremely advanced society, still kept elements of old Chinese beliefs firmly anchored. Somehow, ghosts and their beliefs are prevalent in the history of Hong Kong, with a high number of these occurrences linked to tragic accidents or to the Japanese occupation during WW II.

A list of the most famous “haunted” places has been compiled by this web site, but there are many more. A very famous one even is on Lugard road, called the “Dragon’s Lodge”. Here also, a history of deaths and executions by Japanese during WW II.

The fact is that belief in ghosts is so prevalent in Hong Kong that it can also influence the interpretation of normal health issues, such as sleep paralysis. It does also influence the way you want to conceive a “haunted manor”.  In fact, for Chinese, “haunted” is not a concept to be trifled with. Hence, when building its attraction park in Hong Kong, Disney had to tweak a bit the haunted into “mystic” (not scary at all).

To a degree, superstition replaces the lack of religious belief, and even in an “officially” atheist society, human soul cannot function in void. It needs some belief to cling to.

A selfish society?

The twitter commentator lamented the lack of compassion or concern for mental health of the victim/perpetrator in the story related initially. It is true that the other facet of superstition is often extreme materialism, and that is a plague affecting Hong Kong at an extreme degree.

Some Hongkongese justified that “lack of compassion” with impatience of the public towards people who are seen as the “have” vs the have nots. The “Coronation” condominium is one of the high-end condominiums built in Yau Ma Tei, one of the poorest areas of Kowloon. For locals, struggling to survive in “coffin houses”, someone killing his wife and committing suicide and driving down property prices by his act must have been truly selfish to the extreme. It may appear callous, but those people struggle through much worse in their daily lives.

At any rate, in the meantime, about 1,300 people showed up to participate in a lottery to award the right to purchase 4 units at a housing project…. So ghosts or no ghosts, real estate in Hong Kong does not give any sign of cooling down.

Going further…

I would invite you to take a look at the various articles I linked to in this post.

If you are further interested about some aspects of death in the Chinese culture, you can watch my periscope on the Aberdeen Chinese cemetery below.

 

Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok – Memory of times to be no more

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Where some backpackers might be familiar with the Hua Lamphong train station, in Bangkok, most people ignore this wonderful station. It is a rich location for street photography and, depending on the time of day, the colors can be absolutely stunning (see the gallery above).

It was recently decided to move that station away to Bang Sue and to transform the current Hua Lamphong station in museum, so I can only invite you to visit it now, as long as it is still in service.

A classic architecture

Hua Lamphong station’s construction started in 1910, at about the same time that many European train stations were erected. Although railways were still in their infancy, King Rama V launched railways in Thailand already since 1891. At the same time, another Asian power, Japan,  also raced to adopt European technology to modernize its society. Of course, the architect building the train station was European too, and more precisely, Italian, Mario Tamagno (more on his creations here). Being Italian, obviously, he permeated his construction with neo-renaissance style (he also built a number of other landmarks of Bangkok, see the link above).

Photography in the station

Hua Lamphong is first and foremost  a place of passage. While nowadays, planes are much cheaper and more convenient, the train remains the only affordable transportation for country-dwelling Thais. A place where country immigrants land when arriving to Bangkok, or where they transit on their way back to the province, it provides very interesting sights and photographic opportunities.

Using black and white also allows to focus on the essentials in a place where there are a lot of directing lines.

Focusing on the people in the station can also provide interesting photographic opportunities and cute scenes as this lady fanning her puppy.

A lady refreshes a puppy while waiting for a train.

The ultimate adventure: taking the train!

Finally, if you are ready to face hellish travel conditions, grab a ticket and go for a quick trip to Ayutthaya. While absolutely disastrous in terms of comfort, this provides a very authentic experience, especially if you travel in third class. Be advised however that there is no aircon, and fans sometimes don’t even work.

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Thailand is moving towards implementing a high-speed train (when, remains to be seen), so these scenes are liable to disappear one day. I would thus invite you to go and enjoy the extraordinary atmosphere in that station as long as it is still there.

How to get there?

Either you grab a taxi, or you take the MRT to the Hua Lamphong station, either way, there is no way to be confused. There are other minor stations around Bangkok which are just as interesting, but I will address one of those in a future post.

For now, please note that the station is also very close to Wat Traimit, a chinatown temple which features a 2-ton massive gold Buddha statue (more to come soon!).

The map for Hua Lamphong station: