Posts Tagged ‘Brunei’

SOTM World Tour – Ten Top Travel Photos

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_n“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” Robert Capa once said.

Unfortunately for the poor bugger, he got too close to a landmine one day. Still, this is one of my favourite ever quotes.

While he was clearly talking about getting close to your subjects – he was on one of the barges which landed on the Normandy beaches for D-Day – I also like to think that to get closer to the world is also to improve your photography.

And that’s what the SOTM World Tour did for me. It took me out into places I’d never heard of, to busy, neon-stained alleyways, across African plains with skies that last forever and fighting arenas stacked with sweating, shrieking, betting-slip brandishing crowds.

These are ten of my favourite images from my year-long trip around the world, from the many thousands that I took with my Nikon D5100, my iPhone 4S and then, toward the end, my Nikon D7100 after my 5100 fell apart. It was only a few months old but I guess world travel was just too much for it.

I’ve only ever self-taught myself how to take pictures, and being out in the world was the best lesson of all.

The top image shows pupils from Sekolah Rendah Batu Marang school, in Jalan Batu Marang water village, Brunei. The charming Kathy Wharton is their English teacher and she kindly took us around, showing us her school and the water village, perched on top of perilous-looking stilts, where her charges come from.

After I posted some of these images on Facebook my friend Helen, with whom I stayed, told me I’d “captured the real Brunei”. Which pleased me greatly.

999168_10153125055170241_2082429276_nThe throbbing Shibuya Crossing, in the heart of Tokyo, has many smaller roads and alleyways running away from its busyness.

The gentleman above was the waiter in a noodle place, cheap and very tasty, in one of these veins. I fully intended to return, so good was the food, but was distracted by Tokyo’s many other shiny attractions and never made it back.

So it’s fortunate that I did ask him for a photo upon my only visit. He didn’t speak English but when I smiled and pointed at my camera, posed with great confidence and grace. And I liked his white wellies.

1379715_10153361940225241_114641734_nWhen in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, I was taken to the remarkable Shamwari Game Reserve by my friend Kimberley. There I went on three safari rides and was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place.

One time we spotted a serval hiding in the bushes. I saw it twitch through my viewfinder and instinctively pressed the shutter. When I looked at the screen afterwards, this shot is what I saw. It’s my best action photo, I think.

1025647_10152945200410241_220286925_oThere isn’t that much to do in Geneva. It’s pretty enough and very clean, but a bit too sanitised for my liking.

But at least Lake Geneva has public pianos for people to tinkle. I saw this young woman sat at one while delving into her bag. My camera was completely the wrong exposure levels so I was rapidly adjusting dials, willing her to hold her position for a few seconds longer – when she looked up.

I knew my exposure was wrong, but took the shot as I liked what I saw in my viewfinder. The moment then passed.

I looked at the image I’d taken and it was virtually black, totally underexposed. But as I was shooting in RAW I had hope. When I got it onto my computer, I was able to change the exposure – and was thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you’re not shooting in RAW, you should consider doing so. There may come a time when it will save you.

1377245_10153328471465241_1474946143_nI have always wanted to visit Uluru, fairly in the centre of Australia’s outback. When I was a boy it was more commonly known as Ayers Rock.

But even though I was enthusiastic about it, I was still hugely surprised about just how hypnotic it is. Enormous, red, hugely different to the landscape around it, a monstrous pimple squeezed up from the earth, back when the planet was still being formed.

Looking at the rock during sunrise and sunset is to experience kaleidoscopic colours and shapeshifting shadows. You might think staring at a large rock can’t be that exciting, but somehow, it is. You’ll never feel old again when you consider how what stands before you came into being more than 600 million years ago.

Also, about 2.5km of Uluru is buried below the desert soil. Mind. Boggled.

I chose the shot above because I got Kata Tjuta in the background, once known as the Olgas. They’re a collection of 36 domes and in many ways are even more remarkable than their neighbour.

She’s the flashy one, who puts out with her russet looks, getting most of the attention, hogs all the postcards, while Kata Tjuta is visited as something of an afterthought, an added extra for tourists who’ve come to see the hot girl in the neighbourhood. But I loved them both.

1497771_10153699331050241_17606286_nThe Lumpinee stadium is beautiful because it’s fragile. It’s about to be knocked down and relocated, which makes the sweating, kicking, yelling all that more intense.

Like the last time you make love to someone you’re soon to part from, you savour everything because you know it won’t happen again. Their imperfections become adorable because it’s about to be all over.

Built in Bangkok in 1956, the stadium looks like it might not last too much longer. Look away from the shiny ring, where respectful Muay Thai fighter knee and punch and kick one another.

The apparently leaky ceiling is made of corrugated sheets, with many long-stemmed fans shivering like leaves on a trembling pond. The cheap seats aren’t even seats, they’re benches and people just stand anyway.

And the VIP seats are just part-plastic chairs, although they do afford an excellent view of the action. Despite this, I really wanted to move into better positions but was restricted to shooting where I was perched.

As a result, my 18-200mm Sigma lens came in handy, and of all the shots I got that night, this was my favourite. I turned it grayscale to add a bit more mood to the young man’s determined glare.

1656396_10153863531660241_1299583810_nI was on a food tour in Hong Kong and was taken to a dim sum place for breakfast by the smashing Laura, who runs Hello Hong Kong Tours. 

It was a local place for local people, and I loved it immediately. It’s one of the places in Hong Kong that still has people pushing food carts round, which supply you with your choice of dishes.

While there I spotted this chap walking around with a big metal kettle, topping up the ubiquitous Chinese tea that sloshes around in eateries all over the city. I was desperate to photograph him, he looked fantastic.

I grabbed some half decent shots of him at the next table, and then suddenly, out of nowhere he shimmered and appeared at our table, directly opposite me. I managed to take this photo, and then another.

I preferred the second image, but it’s not pin sharp because the focal point was over his shoulder. So after suffering that slight disappointment, I decided to have my camera on autofocus sometimes, especially in an unpredictable environment, to ensure that focus isn’t an issue at least.

After my shutter had flickered a couple of times, he spoke in Chinese and apparently said: “You have to pay me now, because everyone wants my photo, because I look like Buddha.”

We all laughed, and he said: “No, seriously, you have to pay me.” But he was joking, and when we left I shook his hand. It was like a lobster with a grudge.

1521421_10153707330765241_2000555735_nThere’s nothing so good for the soul as seeing a happy elephant.

There are plenty of these at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand. These remarkable, beautiful creatures have been abused at some point, often by some of those in Thailand’s logging industry. The guilty ones must have black souls.

Eye-gouging, beatings, pelvises broken by forced matings, the stories run a chill though your blood. And if you ever want to ride an elephant, do bear in mind that they are beaten and broken as babies, treated horribly, in order to get them to allow humans to ride them – so don’t.

At least they are happy here in this sanctuary. This chap was having a damn good scratch of his nads on this concrete pole. Or it might be a female. I was too polite to ask.

photoWe were out of Kampot, at the very bottom of Cambodia, when a tremendous storm shattered overhead.

After making it back via a slightly traumatic tuk tuk journey, we found the town flooded. This is a common occurrence in these parts, and the population were clicking into gear, chucking out buckets of floodwater from shops and restaurants, using squeegees to push back the tides in a well-practiced fashion.

The local children seemed to delight in all the fuss. These two characters were going up and down the flooded road, so I got several shots of them with my camera. But this one was the first that I got, grabbed with my iPhone as they rode past and run through an Instagram filter.

It’s not totally sharp but captures their spirit best of all the ones that I took.

993629_10153064585165241_104983892_nThis lady lives in a shack in Missionvale township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

She lives alone and says she is lonely. Someone told me later that her husband had died in a fire after they lit a stove indoors, which also destroyed all her possessions. She is also HIV positive and washes clothes for her neighbours, in exchange for food so she can go on living.

She has had her room tidied up by Missionvale Care Centre, a charity which does incredible work in the community. The floor is mud, so they’ve put mats down, but when it rains the ground is still soggy beneath her feet. The roof leaks also.

The light was perfect as she sat near the doorway, so I took her photo with her permission. I’m very fond of it, and yet it upsets me whenever I look at it.

The world is both a beautiful canvas to work with and a terrible sight to see. Thank you for looking at my pictures.

SOTM World Tour – Brunei

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_nI confess that when my old friend Helen invited me to Brunei, I had to look it up on a map as I wasn’t exactly sure where it was.

My blushes were spared when I was told by some of the folk living in this part of Borneo that it’s a common problem. People seem to get sultans and sheiks mixed up, it seems.

So, not knowing what to expect, Kate and I packed up, bid a fond farewell to marvellous Thailand, and flew smoothly into Brunei.

What we found was absolutely fascinating, but before you run off and book your flights there, bear in mind that having insider knowledge of the place, courtesy of meeting locals and expats, really made our short trip a very enjoyable one.

If you didn’t know anyone there, and wandered around on your own, it would be a different experience altogether.

It’s the people of this oil-rich, tropical nation that makes it a unique destination. I was tickled to know that while it’s much, much bigger than Malta, Brunei has the same population size.

An example of the warmth and charm of that population can be found in the top photo, where our new friend Kathy is seen with the pupils she teaches.

But let me begin with Brunei’s more ostentatious side. The Sultan of Brunei was once the world’s richest man, known as a playboy in his younger days (he’s now 67) and educated at Sandhurst.

He is supreme leader, overlord and demigod among the populous. His word is law, and that word has also decreed that Shariah law is going to start being enforced onto this Islamic nation. It’s already been technically in place, but not widely employed, for a while now.

The trappings of his fantastic, oil-derivied wealth are commonly seen. This is Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which dominates the centre of the nation’s petite capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

1654136_10153786110345241_1188310171_nSee the gold bits? They’re actual gold. Not solid, but the paint has real gold in it.

This beautiful building is apparently rather sumptuous inside also, but is only fully functional for two weeks of the year when the Sultan and his ministers debate the forthcoming budget. Aside from those two weeks, its use is quite limited, I was told.

1514290_10153786050385241_1982378209_nThis is the Sultan’s polo club. A high quality hospital was built right next to this, ensuring that should His Majesty ever fall off his steed, he’d be able to receive medical treatment very promptly.

1497448_10153786045140241_1677519658_nThis is a roundabout decoration. Yes, it is a giant diamond ring replica. No, I don’t know why it was built, either.

1779241_10153786042695241_1793821859_nThere are other impressively structured, but rather soulless buildings to be seen in Bandar, but this isn’t really giving you the full picture.

Brunei is a smashing, interesting destination because of the people who live there, both locals and expats.

When Kathy, who is a top-notch and highly qualified English teacher, learned Kate and I were in town, she invited us to her school, on the edge of a water village. She teaches the children English, and kindly agreed to tell them all about Someone Once Told Me. 

994106_10153786073420241_2106784417_nThe kids were brilliant – a little excitable but I like to see kids with a bit of life in them. And Kathy had them firmly under control.

1601248_10153786070455241_1922540329_nSo, they listened attentively as Kathy got across the mechanics of how SOTM worked.

1480632_10153786068980241_1696050172_nThen Kate and I set about taking their photos for SOTM. It was a lot of fun and the children tried very hard in their best English.

After taking their shots individually, we gathered them for a group shot.

1514960_10153786074445241_285881954_nHere’s one of the chaps, the mischievous Nasrul, whose photo I took.

And I was pleased to see how neatly the children kept their shoes. This is what my shoe cupboard looks like generally (at last count, I had 33 pairs of shoes pre-yomping around the globe).

Soon it was time to say goodbye, so Kate and I gave Kathy the bag of notebooks, pens and colouring pencils that we’d brought along. Kathy said she gives out prizes for those pupils who achieve certain academic goals, and assured us that our gifts would be used in this manner.

After all that fun, it was time to meet the school’s headmistress, the charming Hjh Noraini Binti Hj Timbang who insisted on having her photo taken with us.

1011982_10153745661870241_216549647_nIncidentally, Kathy’s air conditioning unit wasn’t working in her classroom, meaning it was quite stuffy in there. But the day after our visit, her headmistress arrived with the repair man, who skills must surely be regarded as essential in this tropical nation, where temperatures can be fixed in the 30s Centigrade (80-90s Fahrenheit), both day and night.

After all that excitement, Kathy took us on a tour of one part of the nearby Water Village, also known as Kampong Ayer, guiding us around the section where most of the children she teaches live.

This is a remarkable place. It is what it sounds like, a group of 42 villages located a few feet above the murky, crocodile inhabited water. The structures spread along the banks of the bay that has burrowed its way into the heart of the capital. Apparently some 10% of Brunei’s population, or 39,000 people, live in the Water Village.

What you see here is only one part of the entire village. The buildings I saw were quite sturdy-looking, and generously sized.

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1013855_10153786056565241_1985442986_nHowever, they are perched on a series of concrete or wooden stilts, and these supports don’t look all that steady to my untrained eye.

1656257_10153786080445241_1243085560_nThis is one property that had collapsed, possibly done on purpose as sometimes families break down shaky parts of their dwellings when they can afford to replace it with better quality living space.

1000224_10153786066320241_999046251_n The entire village is connected by a series of wooden walkways which spread more than 95,600 feet (29,140 meters).  They don’t have sides to them, are slippery when wet and the odd one is loose, so you do have to watch your step somewhat.

1607077_10153786061905241_1960550207_nThe people living there were very friendly, and we got lots of waves and posing for photos. It was a brilliant spot to visit, although it must be said that the people living here are doing so in poverty.

When you hear so many stories of how wealthy the Sultan is, the question arises as to why more of that wealth hasn’t been funnelled this way.

1017358_10153786093145241_1101384797_n I was trying to get this guy with my long lens, but then he spotted me and wouldn’t stop waving until I’d definitely taken his shot.

The place is a normal, working village, filled with people going about their daily lives, which are a far cry from the opulence of the nation’s ruling family.

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But here’s another building that had fallen into the river, demonstrating that life here isn’t always that secure.

1554337_10153786062840241_990448216_n This is a new structure that was going up at the time of our visit.

1554541_10153786089165241_819633475_nI spotted something that I really liked – not only do a lot of these houses have (apparently illegal) satellite dishes, but they often have their own little islands built to house them, too.

Now, at one point Helen took us to a supermarket called Supersave, which is known among the locals as Monkeysave. This is because monkeys congregate there and loiter in hope of getting food.

I actually spotted a couple of women throwing food to the critters, which might not be the best move. They are cute, but can become aggressive and giving them food will make them see all humans as a definite food source.

They’re certainly smart. I saw this one test the roof of the light, making sure it could take his weight before he clambered on top of it.

1625752_10153786048795241_975333473_nWhile Kate and I were there, we also spoke to pupils at Jerudong International School. I jabbered on about journalism, the importance of a free press (Brunei doesn’t have one, its media is controlled by the state) and naturally, Someone Once Told Me.

photo 4Kate talked about the joys and perils of travel blogging, and shared a few tips with how to get started in blogging.

photo 5The kids were great and we had a smashing time talking to them, both this (unexpectedly) large group, and a smaller set we chatted to in the school library afterwards.

Once again, thanks to Helen and her fine efforts, Kate and I both ended up in the local newspapers, the Borneo Bulletin and, seen here, the Brunei Times, who both covered our time spent at the JIS school.

1507370_10153763001400241_774863366_oAnd as if all that wasn’t enough, Helen managed to secure a chat for us with the British High Commissioner, a fine chap called David Campbell. He was very interesting to talk to about the past and future of Brunei.

Here’s the girl of the hour herself – the brilliant Helen with an inspiring story from her youth.

Finally, I also got to get a little time in the jungle, courtesy of Helen’s excellent husband Kris (closest to the camera) and his friend Neale, who do a regular walk on a trail at Bukit Shabander and invited me along. It was a hot, sweaty, green and pleasant afternoon.

This was the view at one point, and it was sumptuous. Welcome to the tropics.

1654398_10153786118635241_52814837_nKris advised me not to lean against this tree. Upon closer inspection, I could see why. Mother Nature was clearly having a bad day when she came up with this design.

1689032_10153786137050241_1590580866_nBrunei is a place to pop into for sure, as there are many fascinating sides to it. But it would be a difficult place to visit on your own, without any help.

Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, for those who care about such things, although foreigners can bring in a small amount for personal, discreet use. There is no nightlife at all, but if you’re hanging around with friendly locals/expats then that can make for a perfectly entertaining stay. Shariah law will tighten behaviour still further, but no-one is quite sure how, as yet.

Many of the folk I met, such as Kathy for example, are keen to show off their part of the world in that kingdom, so if you’re going to Brunei for any reason let me know and I’ll see if I can put you in touch.

They’re hugely friendly types there and are always pleased when visitors pop in, because not too many do. I understand that tourism in Brunei is shrinking and recently stood at around 200,000 people in a year.

Considering the nation’s natural beauty, this seems a low number – but then again, the Sultan is keen to preserve that very natural environment, so perhaps they don’t want too many people trampling all over their tropical forests.

So I recommend securing a contact prior to your arrival, someone who can show you around a little – public transport isn’t great and a car is fairly necessary – and give you an insight into life there, because that will unlock some of this nation’s secrets.

Next stop on the SOTM World Tour? The Philippines, where I find Manila to be a happy hunting ground, whether it’s among the middle classes or people living in one of the city’s cemeteries.