Monday, December 22, 2008

Cambodia: Photography Notes

It was my first night in Cambodia, and I was in a restaurant ordering an authentic Cambodian dinner:

“I’ll have the Amok Curry. Which is it better with; fish or beef?”
Fieef”, the waitress said.
“What was that again?” I said, "fish or beef?".
Fieeef”, she replied.
“Ok. That sounds good. I’ll have that.” I said.

I like surprises, and Cambodia would be full of them.

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng, Siem Reap. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, Program mode at -1 EV, 1/500 f/11, ISO 800.

One of the big surprises was the Cambodian people. I’d read about how it was not safe to travel at night, and given their war-torn history, I was expecting a crime ridden, battle-hardened, every-man-for-himself culture. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Cambodians are genuinely friendly, honest and have a strong sense of community. If you ask to take a picture of someone, you almost always get a positive response.

Photography Notes:
I brought my Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR and a 10.5mm Fisheye. While that two-lens combination works well when I need an ultralight setup, I would have been better served with a 12-24mm and 50-150mm combination. I pulled out the 10.5mm Fisheye whenever I needed something wider than 18mm (which was often), but the fisheye look gets old really quickly if you use it too much. The 12-24mm would have been better here, and when I needed more reach, it would have been a quick and easy swap for the Sigma 50-150mm out of my shoulder bag. I might have just thrown the fisheye into the bag as well because a fisheye is just too much fun!

Catch of the Day. Shot just after sunrise at a fishing village near Siem Reap. Nikon D300, 10.5mm Fisheye, Program Mode at -1/3 EV, 1/250 f/3.5, ISO 200, pop-up flash with 1/4 CTO gel at -1 FEV.

I did convert some shots to black and white. My visit to the S21 Tuol Sleng torture prison was a very sobering experience, and I felt that black and white was the way to convey that feeling across.

A visitor examines the prisoners quarters at Tuol Sleng. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, Program Mode at -1/3 EV, 1/50 f/3.5, ISO 1600. B&W conversion done in Lightroom.

I couldn’t have made my Angkor Wat sunrise shot without a tripod. A small tripod is certainly nice to have with you, and I brought along the Slik Sprint Mini with RRS BH-25 Ballhead.

Angkor Wat, in silhouette at Sunrise. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, manually exposed at 1/60 f/8, ISO 200, Slik Sprint Mini Tripod with RRS BH-25 Ballhead, graduated filter applied in post processing.

I've been getting comfortable using high ISOs with my D300. For night shots, I've been cranking up the ISOs. I will use ISO 3200 if the shot needs it, but it is pushing it. ISO 2000 yields very good results, and is my current high ISO 'limit'. Adobe Lightroom does a pretty good job dialing down the color and luminance noise.

MTV Exit Live in Concert at Angkor Wat. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, Aperture Priority at 1/25 f/4.2, ISO 2000.

And in case you were wondering what I was served that first night in Cambodia, it was beef.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Ideal Adventure Bike

Joe touring in Tibet. Joe was racing his mountain bike in Asia, otherwise he would have used his LHT. Image courtesy of Joe Cruz.

I put down a deposit on a Surly Long Haul Trucker last week using the settlement that the insurance company paid me following my bike accident earlier this year. Since I didn’t know anything about touring bikes, I did the logical thing and asked for help in choosing a bike. My thanks to all the guys who took the time to answer my questions. *

Joe Cruz racing cyclocross. Image courtesy of Joe Cruz.

I’ve been in touch with Joe Cruz, a faculty member at the prestigious William’s College in Massachusetts and a very experienced, hardcore adventure bike tourer, over the past few weeks. Joe had this to say about the Surly LHT:

“When I started to plan longer and more serious trips and decided to invest in a dedicated bike, I did what we all do in buying gear. I tried to balance cost and my best info about durability and appropriateness for my needs, and I didn't go in thinking that I could find the absolutely perfect bike.”

“An adventure bike needs to be the following things:

- Versatile. I want to be comfortable pedaling for ten hours on asphalt, gravel or dirt, day after day; I want to be able to mount slicks and go on a training ride with the local road club when I'm far from home; I want to be able to ride pretty demanding singletrack; I want to be able to ride with panniers; at home, I want to a bike that might be decent on grocery runs. In practice, a bike is probably going to be good at a small number these things, but I want to be able to do them all and have the bike be at least reasonably up to it.

- Easy to ride. The geometry needs to be such that it doesn't take much vigilance from me to pilot. There are going to be times when I am at 17,000 feet, bonked, cold, and in the dark. My bike can't be yet another challenge. The thing is, I also want to be able to go fast on flat paved roads, or twisty road descents. And I want the bike to have good enough manners off-road. And when I'm in really dense urban areas, I want to be able to see traffic and be maneuverable.

- Durable. Basically I don't want to even think about the fragility of the bike. I'm not totally convinced that an aluminum frame is wrong for adventure touring, but if there is even a slight chance that I'll need someone to weld the thing while on the road, I don't want the option excluded. More realistically, if the derailleur hanger or the fork or whatever get bent, I want to just bend them back (within reason).

- Not overly precious or prissy. The bike is going to get roped to the roof of buses and the back of pack mules, clipped to a steel basket for a gorge crossing, or tossed in the bucket of an empty dump truck. I want to be able to shrug off the inevitable dents or nicks. Some airlines still allow you to check the bike unboxed. When it's an option, I want to be able to do that without caring that it might get scratched.

- Not have cost me a lot. The bike could get lost or stolen, and I don't want to be devastated. This is going to be relative, of course, but, for me, certainly under US$2000, while under US$1500 would be even better.

- Repairable on the road, all over the world. Stuff is going to break, and I want to be able to substitute and improvise with what is available to me locally until I can have specialized gear shipped.

Joe's Surly LHT: ruggedly equipped with cross brakes, downtube shifters and knobby tires. Image courtesy of Joe Cruz.

Given this wish list, I have not found anything better than the LHT. I've ridden it with panniers in Asia, Europe, Mexico, and, of course, at home in the US. I've raced it in mountain bike races (not my first or even second choice, but it happened) and on frozen lakes with Hakkapelitas. It goes along pretty good with slicks when I'm in the drops, I can mount 2.35 Nevegals on it for offroad, and on most tours running Marathon cross 1.5's is good enough for anything resembling a road or dirt path. On singletrack the bb is a little low for log hops, but riding the tops makes a lot of stuff surprisingly doable (I have top bar levers that you sometimes see on 'cross bikes, though I don't run them on my actual 'cross bike). If someone said that I could keep only one of my bikes, this one would be it.

Are there other bikes that could do these things? Yeah, probably. But some popular choices fall short for me. Thorns are a fair bit more expensive, and I have no interest in Rohloff hubs (heavy, their durability seems overstated, and junky but serviceable derailleurs are readily available to run with shifters in friction mode). I don't have any reliable info on how big a tire can be mounted on the Dawes offerings. The Rivendell Atlantis is a gorgeous bike, but that's also a downside. Some continental bikes look pretty good, but the Koga-Miyata's, for instance, are aluminum. And then anything with an integrated rack won't do for me when I want to take all the heavy stuff off and just go riding wherever I am. There are definitely steel mountain bikes that can be converted to adventure use, but they would have to have long chain stays for pannier heel clearance, couldn't be too flexy, and need a long headtube for drop bars (I've done long tours on flat bars and I don't care that much about not having the much ballyhooed multiple hand positions. But I like drops for going fast.)

What about the Salsa Fargo? I totally want one for riding here in the US. But as far as winning the adventure bike prize, the Fargo's wheel size is basically a deal breaker for me. My main endurance race bike is a singlespeed 29er, and I'm not looking back to 26ers as far as mountain biking goes. For better or for worse, though, the wheel size that came to be the American standard for mountain bikes in the 80's is now the most widely available around the world. Sure, a well build wheel isn't likely to implode, but in the overall scheme of bicycle components, the wheels are a worrisome blend of fragile/difficult-to-improvise/showstopper-if-you-don't-have-it. Moreover, though tires can be booted and stitched together, there is some wear and damage that just can't be readily managed.

You sometimes hear people say that in this era of global access to consumer goods, you can just have a wheel or a tire shipped to you wherever you are. There's something to that, but I've seen tires in shops and stalls in towns that don't have phones, let alone Internet. For a lot of places that I want to ride, there's a much higher premium placed by locals on the availability of bike tires than on having a post office.

Joe is currently touring in SE Asia. Here's his packed LHT. Image courtesy of Joe Cruz.

Other thoughts:

- If I was too tall to ride a 54 or smaller LHT, then I guess I'd convert an old mountain bike for adventure use. (note from me: LHTs in sizes 56 and larger use 700c wheels)

- What's my real basis for comparison? I've toured on a converted 1989 Wicked Fat Chance with rear panniers (West Coast of USA), a Santa Cruz Superlight pulling an Extrawheel trailer (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Tibet), a Karate Monkey with rear panniers (East Coast of USA), an 80's Bianchi steel road racing bike with a large Carradice seat post bag (USA, UK, China), a recent vintage Felt aluminum/carbon fiber race bike with seatpost bag (East Coast of USA, France), and a Bike Friday folding bike pulling its suitcase (East Coast of USA, Ireland, France, Spain). None of those were catastrophes. Indeed, the Superlight -- in spite of being absolutely wrong by every bit of conventional wisdom -- was probably the best. Of course, I was fortunate that neither the rear shock nor the suspension fork had any problems. The LHT is better than all of these.” **

“The LHT has the edge in that it gives you the peace of mind of knowing that nothing fancy is going to break, and that you can get into the drops and go fast into a headwind if you need to get somewhere. It's my go-to bike for all adventures now.”

* My thanks to Joe Cruz, Al Downie, Alvin Lee, Jeff Palmer and Dave Snowberg for the taking time to answer all my questions.

** Reprinted with permission from Joe’s post to the MTBR.com forum


The Surly Long Haul Trucker is available for SGD$1800 in Singapore at T.R. Bikes.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cambodia’s Dark History

The notorious S21 Tuol Sleng prison camp where the Khmer Rouge sysematically tortured and excuted some 17,000 prisoners. It is a chilling place to visit. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/1000 f/16, ISO 200.

With throngs of visitors crowding the temples of Angkor today, it’s easy to forget Cambodia’s darker history, and we need to be reminded that it was only just 10 years ago that a few years ago that civil war and pockets of Khmer Rouge guerilla forces were still attacking villages.

Photo of a Photo: A young victim of the Khmer Rouge's S21 killing machine.

Khmer Rouge

During their 4 years in power (1975-1979), the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population ("New People") into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labor camps. During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups who had the potential to undermine the new state (including intellectuals or even those that had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses) and killing many others for even minor breaches of rules.1

A bed used for torture at the S21 Toul Sleng prison camp. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/125 f/5.6, ISO 800.

It is estimated that between 1.4 million and 2.2 million (about 1/5 of Cambodia’s population) died by the hand of the Khmer Rouge, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

A display at the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap.

Landmines
Although all sides during Cambodia’s bloody war torn history laid landmines, the Khmer Rouge were perhaps the worst offenders, deliberately targeting the civilian population with mines and booby traps. It is generally accepted that more than 40,000 Cambodians have suffered amputations as a result of mine injuries since 1979. That represents an average of nearly forty victims a week over a period of twenty years. 2 With a population of 11.5 Miilion, this means that Cambodia has one amputee for every 290 people - one of the highest ratios in the world.3

One of Cambodia's landmine victims. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/640 f/13, ISO 400.

The costs of laying mines are low, as little as $3 US per mine, but the costs of removal are very high, $1000 US per mine or more. 4 Cambodia still has an estimated 6 million mines in the ground. Cambodia’s legacy of landmines is estimated to take another 100 years to clear.4

Tok Vanna lost his arms in a landmine incident. Today he sells souvenirs in Siem Reap's tourist district. Nikon D300, 10.5mm, 1/250, f/10, ISO 200.

Sources:

1. Khmer Rouge - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
2. Landmines in Cambodia, 1999.
3. Cambodia's landmine victims, 2003, BBC News
4. Cambodian Recent History and Contemporary Society: An Introductory Course

The Temples of Angkor

Stone Face at The Bayon. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/640 f/13, ISO 800.

No trip to Cambodia is complete with visiting the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap. There, the ruins of a lost civilization continue to wow the modern visitor with its grandeur, architecture and intricate carvings. There’s a lot to see, but even if you are short on time, you should at least spend a day visiting the big three temples in Angkor.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/60 f/8, ISO 200.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the biggest religious structure in the world. The outer walls are over 2 miles long, the moat is as wide as 2 football fields, and the temple itself is as high as Notre Dame Cathedral. Angkor Wat is a representation of a symbolic Hindu universe. The temple itself symbolizes the five peaks of Mount Meru, the walls are distant mountains, and the vast moat are the oceans.

Wake up well before dawn to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat. You’ll need to prearrange a pickup with a Tuk Tuk driver. The complex opens at 5am, and you can buy a one-day pass (USD$20) on the way in.

Enter Angkor Wat from the west entrance and make your way in to capture sunrise. If you intend to photograph it, you’ll need a tripod. Once the sun comes up, the show is over, make your way out of Angkor Wat and head over to the South Gate of Angkor Thom and the Bayon.

Sanctuary at the Bayon. Nikon D300, 10.5mm, 1/250 f/5.6, ISO 800.

The Bayon
The Bayon is famous for its massive stone faces carved into the many towers of the temple. It is now thought that the faces are an amalgamate of King Jayavarman VII and Buddha. If you are here early enough, you should have the place pretty much to yourself but don’t stay too long, you’ll want to make your way over to the most photogenic temple before the crowds arrive.

A Monk at the temple of Ta Prohm. Nikon D300, 10.5mm, 1/250 f/5, ISO 800.

Ta Prohm

While some temples are so fully restored that they look as if its inhabitants had just moved out, Ta Prohm has been left in almost the same state as it was when it was first discovered. The reason for this is that the restoration workers wanted to find a balance between fully restoring a site and leaving it in its found state. At Ta Prohm, they have even left huge trees in place where the massive roots are slowly pushing the building blocks apart.

Exiting the Gates of Angkor Thom on a Motorbike. Nikon D300, 10.5mm, 1/250, f/22, ISO 200.

Ta Prohm is my favorite of the temples at Angkor. Hopefully, you’ll be able to get some good shots before the hordes of tourists arrive. Once they do, its time to head back to the Bayon where you can get some lunch, then spend the afternoon exploring the temple of Angkor Wat itself. If you still have the energy, head up to the hill temple of Phnom Bakheng to see the warm light of late afternoon on Angkor Wat. Stay for sunset, and then head back to town for dinner.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Angkor Wat Half-Marathon 2008

Running Through the Angkor Thom South Gate. Ricoh GX100, 1/620 f/2.7, ISO 100. (click on photo to view larger)

I’ve just come back from two weeks in Cambodia, and while I did the usual looking around, I also took the time to run the Angkor Wat International Half-Marathon 2008. Held annually, this event organized by the Japanese, brings artificial limb support to land mine victims.

Me, standing next to a runner with an artificial leg.

The run starts soon after sunrise at Angkor Wat, and takes runners on a 21km anti-clockwise loop of the Angkor Complex. The first 10 km pass by quickly as runners are distracted by the many famous temples during the run: Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm (made famous by the movie ‘Tomb Raider’) and the Bayon. Kids line the streets to high-five you as you run by. By the time you remember that it is a race, there are only a few kilometers left. When you cross the finish line, you get the feeling it was over much too quickly.

Running past the Bayon during the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon. Ricoh GX100, 1/540 f/2.7 ISO 100

It’s a good idea to bring a camera, although if you do, you can forget about getting a good time for the race because there is just so much to shoot! I used my trusty Sea & Sea 1G (rebadged Ricoh GX100) in a Lowepro neoprene case attached to my Fuelbelt. Water is provided every 2.5km and a never-ending string of locals come out to high five you during the race!

High Five Me! Ricoh GX100, 1/750 f/2.5 ISO 100.

A noble cause, welcoming locals and spectacular and historical scenery combine to make the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon one of the best runs in the world.

Inkimsan, who came in 5th in this year's Angkor Wat Half-Marathon, proudly displays his medals from previous races from all over the world that he recieves sponsorship to run. So precious are they that he keeps them with him wherever he goes on his motorbike.

For more photos of the race, please visit my Flickr site.