2016 Review

It’s still January right? I can still reflect on last year and highlight my Best of 2016?

Actually, this started out as a  post about my Best of 2016 until I realized I was choosing photos for which I hadn’t yet published a story.

Why not? Sometimes it was because the story wasn’t big enough and the photo was all there was of the telling.  Other times, it was because the story was too big and I wasn’t up for the telling.

In any event, here are some of my favorite photos of 2016 and the stories that were never published.

 Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo


Omoide Yokocho or “Piss Alley” is a small, iconic bar district in Tokyo.

It’s not the most friendly place. In fact, one of the bars on the outskirts has an explicit “No Tourists” sign (written in English for those pesky foreigners).

However, further inside the boundaries where the yakatori stalls are cheek to jowl with the izakaya bars, the hosts are friendlier and the atmosphere more welcoming.

I was waiting on my kushiyaki plate and fiddling with my camera, when I noticed this gentleman across the alley. A quick nod was all I needed to take this shot.

Tokyo, Japan.  January 2016

MAG marker in Laos

MAG maker in rice field

In Laos I learned some new words.

MAG. UXOs and Bombies.

Mines Advisory Group.  Un-eXploded Ordnance. Little bombs.

During the Vietnam war  there more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. That’s equivalent to one bombing every  eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of these bombs did not explode. They remained dormant but live and were (are) hidden dangers to civilians years after the war had ended.

Walking through Laos we learned very quickly to stay on MAG cleared paths. Random rambling could be deadly.  UXOs are still being found today.

These little blocks indicate MAG cleared  safe zones.  They seem so innocuous.  Faded rocks on well trodden foot paths. Stepping stones on quiet streams. Gentle  reminders that bucolic rice fields were once war zones.

Plain of Jars, Laos.  February 2016

Border Guards at the DMZ South Korea

North & South at the DMZ
North & South at the DMZ/JSA

Our coldest and wettest day in South Korea was spent at the DMZ/JSA.   It was appropriate weather for visiting a site that was bleak, dark and overwhelmingly desolate.

The tale of border patrol between North and South Korea is sad.

On the North side of the Joint Security Area (JSA), there’s a heavily armed soldier aggressively watching the border for South Korean attacks and North Korean defections.

Behind him, a heavily armed soldier aims a gun at his head, aggressively watching him for his possible defection.

On the South side of the JSA, the ROK guards maintain a constant intimidation stance. They watch the North and South side of the border.

Across an expanse of about 500 meters, the South Korean guard stares down the North Korean guard.

It’s a stare down that’s been on going since 1953.

 Panmunjon, South Korea. May 2016

Hometown Burger & Fries

Queen St Diner

After a photo crawl through Toronto’s Graffiti Alley we took a break in a nearby Queen St diner.

It had been a perfect summer day.

Warm but not hot.

Fresh Canadian air and brilliant sunshine.

Vivid street murals which had popped with vibrancy and life.

It was a visual respite to hide out in a cool and dark diner.

And the burger & fries were excellent!

Toronto, Canada.  July 2016

Hong Kong Red

Hong Kong Red

The first time I visited Hong Kong was after a  year of living in Beijing.

After the rough and tumble turmoil of China, I remember wanting to drop to my knees and Thank God  for my return to urban sanity, order and control.

Since then much has changed.   I’ve lived in and visited better and worse cities. But I will always have soft spot for Hong Kong.

For me, this photo captures the city’s essence.  The mural’s wild graphics and kooky clown portray Hong Kong’s frenetic energy and character. The blur of the pedestrian adds the feeling of motion, a constant in this city that never sleeps.

Hong Kong.  November 2016


People shots in Laos

Whenever I travel I take photographs.  Whatever I photograph I invariably prefer the shots of people. In a recent trip to Laos, these are the photos that I favoured the most.

Smoking a hand-roll made from local tobacco and dried corn husks

Although northern Laos is mostly mountain side and green, the villages and inhabited areas are stripped bare to the ground.   Footpaths and passage-ways are made of packed earth and mineral rich dust paints everything a dull red brown.  Flashes of colour from costume and clothing are a welcome relief.

Most of the houses in the  hill villages are made of weathered wooden planks or woven bamboo walls.  On the way to Phonsavon we visited a Khmu village which had a house  freshly painted in vivid purple and brilliant blue.  This young fellow was minding his siblings but he obligingly posed for me.

Khmu boy

Our guide Vong, said that school is mandatory and as we drove through the regions of Vientiane and Luang Prabang,  we certainly saw a lot of schools and teacher colleges.  In the remote hill areas though, I suspect the schools are not as accessible.  We saw young kids taking care of even younger kids while their parents worked in the rice fields.   At barely seven years old, this little girl was carrying her baby brother while all the other kids were at play.

Girl carrying her brother

Kids grow up earlier here. According to Vong, the Hmong kids even earlier. We stopped at a Hmong village selling hand-embroidered textiles.  Girls dressed in traditional costume posed for pictures and encouraged us to buy. This young girl, who looks about thirteen, would be married in the next year.  Thereafter Vong said, she’d have babies of her own to look after.

Despite my photo collection, Laos is not entirely inhabited by children. Although, with a median age of 19 years, Laos does have the youngest population in all of  South East Asia. Less than 4% of the population is over 65. This has more to do with Laos history than its average life expectancy,  which is 62 years. To prove my point, here is my final and favorite shot.

An elf of an old man was sitting in a huge chair staring at the farang (foreigners) passing by. When I clackered the wooden cow bells at his stall, he hurried over to show his collection of traditional Lao medicine – snakes and scorpions preserved in rice whiskey.  I didn’t buy his medicine but I did treasure his picture.

Old Man in a chair

Laos. March 2016

Shooting Rabbits in Laos

IMG_20160312_153625831My Lonely Planet guide warned me about the lack of public toilets in Laos. When traveling (it said) Lao tour guides use the phrase ‘shooting rabbits’ for men and ‘picking flowers’ for women, to indicate relief stops by the side of the road.

I’m glad to say that this is no longer true. During our ten day road trip through Laos I had ample opportunity to experience toilet facilities and it was always in private. Mind you, it was always on the opposite end of  our Tokyo experience but it was never so crude as to be unusable.

Access to public toilets is due to the preponderance of road building. Across northern Laos we were constant victims of roads under construction or repair. Roads beget automobiles, auto’s beget gas stations and gas stations beget public toilets. In Canada and the US there is nothing filthier or more vile than a gas station washroom. So when my guide originally suggested stopping at one, I seriously thought about ‘holding on’ for another four hours or ten. However, I was unexpectedly surprised.

Laotian toilets have:

Photo by Chris Feser via Flickr
Photo by Chris Feser via Flickr

1. A no contact squat design. The ceramic squat pans are either inserted into raised platforms or raised up high on low platforms.  They are normally housed in cubicles behind gas stations and roadside noodle houses. The rooms are never lit,  so the first order of business, before doing your business, is latching the door and adjusting to night vision. The second order of business is putting your camera, cell phone and loose change into a bag and hanging it on the nail hammered into the wall or door frame. This to avoid any unpleasant foraging for dislocated articles during your third, most important  order of business.

2. A bucket and pail flush mechanism. It wouldn’t be fair to say there is no plumbing.  It’s just that plumbing is for the faucet dispensing water into a large bucket beside the toilet. In the bucket there is a pail. Use the pail to bail water, clean yourself and ‘flush’. Don’t think too hard about where the effluence is being flushed, particularly if you’re on a mountainside beside a tributary to the Mekong  river.  Or worse, in a long boat on the Mekong river.

3. No toilet paper. It is necessary to bring your own toilet paper. For the toilets where there is a 2,000 kip charge you can usually expect a strip of toilet paper. In any case, be prepared to bring it with you and even more prepared to take it out with you. Do not deposit paper into the toilet. It won’t flush (Refer to #2) and even if it did, it will certainly bugger up the works for the next poor soul.

4. No Smell. This was the biggest surprise. Despite the crude and rustic appearance, despite the sometimes rough and tumble terrain to access,  the rural toilets were always clean and odor free.  I found this out on my first try, after gamely holding my breath through  #1, 2 & 3.

Western tourists have an on-going fear and fascination with Eastern toilets. Maybe because of the diversity of options and the intricacies of use. On the Internet there is certainly a lot of information to explain away the mystery. For example see  http://www.thailandclimbing.com/how-to-use-a-squat-toilet

On the flip side, consider  the Eastern practitioner’s first encounter with ‘conventional’, western style toilets. “Where the water bucket?” they may ask  or “Why the squat so high to climb?” and “Aiyo, couldn’t the steps be a bit more wide!”

Laos.  March 2016