THINGS I WOULD NOT BUY IN TOKYO

A bear I would never buy. The warning is very clear about language.

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I believe this golf visor was in the men’s section.

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The below translates into roughly $60USD per melon.

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And Tokyo is the 6th most expensive city currently!

FLOWERS DOWN A BACK STREET

Last Saturday the sakura were still out – although fading fast. It is such a short season and after two full bloom, “peak” days, it rained for 3 days straight with wind. Down came the sakura.

The sun was out Saturday afternoon so I decided to take a quick walk – a last walk to enjoy the season. From our balcony I could see a few big trees in bloom. As we made our way down the alleys, we came across these huge bushes, in full bloom with perfect, pink flowers.

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It never ceases to amaze me to be in these temperate climates where flowers abound. In Canada, flowers are a concerted effort.

Around the corner, in a small park (5 trees wide), the last of the bloom.

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The local baseball field is surrounded with blooming trees.

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An entire city turns pink.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF TIME IN INDIA?

It is a question I asked many people before we traveled there for 10 days with a wide range of answers; what is the right amount of time?

Reflecting on our time in the country, I would pass on the following opinions (feel free to disagree):

The tourist sites become repetitive:  The pink city, the blue city, Delhi. The architecture of India is surprisingly consistent. Once you see a couple temples, forts and Tajs, they begin to look the same. Therefore if you are planning, remember that. We went to Agra, Jaipur and Delhi. I do not feel that we missed much by not hitting the other northern cities and am very glad that we didn’t make the very long trips.

That isn’t to say that the south isn’t different. It is and we will make another trip to hit the south of India.

It isn’t about the tourist sites:  Had we followed the itineraries that were presented to us by travel companies we would have missed out. I spent a lot of time searching different locations on Tripadvisor and opportunities to take us off the beaten path. Into villages, on to locations that others don’t usually go to. The Taj Mahal was interesting, but I wouldn’t call it the highlight of the trip. The highlights for us were often down side streets.

I began to form this opinion at Sikandra tomb, the tomb of Akbar the great. Magnificent building? Yes. Did it have anything different than the other tombs we had seen? Not really. It was at this point in the tour that we started to actively push away from the top, commonly visited sites in the cities.

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It is tiring.  India is a full on assault on the senses. A 100km drive can take 5 hours. Everything is caked in dust. You will see flaunted wealth and the saddest of poverty. We booked in breaks at our hotel to just relax or it would have been to much.

As I said in a previous post, our private guide gave us this flexibility and truly explained India to us. The culture, the rich history and he was very flexible as we evolved our itinerary as we went.

And to answer the question again on safety – just be smart. We had a few run ins, but we were never in danger. We stood out in the crowd (My wife and boys are blonde), so expect lots of stairs, people asking for money and a few other things. As a group, it was safe. It is just about being smart.

India is an incredible place, but it is not for the first time traveler. 

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TREE TRIMMING AND CONES, TOKYO

As I wandered around Chofu I started to get lost. Fortunately I had my iPhone and used it to locate where I was and where I had left the car. Somehow I had gotten quite far off track so I cut through a park to get closer.

I came across these gents heading out for work. They were trimming trees in their tiny little truck. There seems to be a lot of little specialty vehicles in Japan.

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You are not allowed to do a lot of things in the park. The “no golfing” was the one that caught my eye.

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I do not know why, but apparently this guy is a lucky man. Why does his poster have English on it? You have got me.

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I wandered past a train station. It seemed like everyone on the platform was looking at their phone.

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It never stops amazing me how many bikes there are in Tokyo. Probably one of the reasons why there are very few obese people in Japan, they all ride bikes (and don’t eat western fast food). The bikes are everywhere on the streets and at certain train stations, they even have their own parking lot.

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A friend of mine is constantly writing about the cone culture in Japan. They are literally everywhere and often, head scratchers. Cone madness.

The “this is a sidewalk” coning.

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The “garden in waiting” coning.

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The “please don’t walk into my air conditioner that is closely tucked away and you would never hit it anyway” coning.

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My final shots of Chofu. As you walk through Tokyo, a land of 40 million, you will also come across random plots of land that have remained farm land. This “farm land” is often crammed in between apartment buildings and 2 story houses that are 500 square feet per level (including land).

And like so many farmers that I know, they have a tough time throwing things out. You never know when you will need it …

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A greenhouse waiting for spring.

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Love the look of this building. I cannot begin to guess the age.

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A good wander.

OBVIOUS

Wandering around Chofu (a district of Tokyo) I came across this place. I am not sure what is going on, is it a shop?

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There was a very helpful sign in English. If anyone could help me out with the translation, that would be great.

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Foreigner in a foreign land.

TOMB OF I’TAMAD UD DAULAH, INDIA

We visited this tomb on the same day we visited the Taj Mahal. I have to say, I found this landmark more interesting. Beautiful grounds, a spectacular and visually stunning building, smaller crowds and a beautiful view of the river.

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Via:

Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (Urdu: اعتماد الدولہ کا مقبرہ‎, I’timād-ud-Daulah kā Maqbara) is a Mughal mausoleum in the city of Agra in the Indianstate of Uttar Pradesh. Often described as a “jewel box”, sometimes called the “Baby Tāj”, the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah is often regarded as a draft of the Tāj Mahal.

The mausoleum was commissioned by Nūr Jahān, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirzā Ghiyās Beg, originally a Persian Amir in exile.[1] who had been given the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state). Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtāz Mahāl (originally named Arjūmand Bāno, daughter of Asaf Khān), the wife of the emperor Shāh Jahān, responsible for the construction of the Tāj Mahal.

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The walls outside are incredibly colorful and ornate.

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And even more colorful inside.

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As always, look up.

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At the back of the grounds it opens up to a magnificent view of the river. People washing their clothes, water buffalo drinking and a few magnificent viewing spots.

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A brief note on the entrance … it is adorned with carvings of wine. Supposedly the Mughal loved his wine.

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I am not sure this is a big stop on the Agra tour. We did not see any tour buses. If in Agra, make the stop.

GUESS THE WEATHERCOCK

The use of English in Japan can be interesting. Take a guess at what this company’s business is?

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The definition of weathercock:

A wind vane (or weathercock) is an instrument for showing the direction of the wind. They are typically used as an architectural ornament to the highest point of a building.

I only figured it out by looking in the window (smile) and noticing the colors that are inside of the lamp by the door.

DOWN THE STREET, TOKYO, HIROO

Through the gate .. down the street .. as shot from a shrine’s parking lot.

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Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/3.5 USM.

SING ALONG …

“It’s fun to stay at the ….”

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As seen in New Delhi, India.

THE BLUE DOOR, OLD DELHI, INDIA

One of my favorite shots in India. We were wandering down the back alleys and I happened to look left. What is behind the door?

Config: Canon 5D Mark III (I love my Canon), Canon 28-300mm f/3.5 USM.

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I also posted this shot to 500px. I don’t know why but whenever I post to that site (I do it sporadically) it always feels like I am entering a competition …. the shot did hit ‘popular’.

DESCRIBING OLD DELHI, INDIA

If there is one photo that I took while in India which “describes” Delhi, this would be my choice.

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Modern capabilities (electricity, communications, internet and everything else in between) strewn across the street in chaos. The word I would use is “chaotic”.

How these two guys make heads or tails of the wiring is beyond me?

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TOKYO MOON, JAPAN

Especially bright a few weeks ago. My first shots with the new Canon 28-300mm f/3.5 USM of the Tokyo sky. I have been reading about night shots. These were shot at f/22 with a long exposure to get the Tokyo Tower as clear as possible.

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On this night the moon rose from the buildings to a crisp, clear sky.

TOKYO SNOW

I do not miss snow. Not a very Canadian thing to say but it is true. Snow is highly over rated. Great for winter sports, a nuisance for everyday life.

The winter has been mild in Tokyo – quite warm, in the 10C range until a few weeks ago when the city was hammered with two storms and a chill. The chill meant that the snow stayed around.

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I arrived home from a long business trip to the snow and a traveler’s flu – unfortunately an all too common incident this year despite a regime of face masks, Cold FX, Zinc, hand sanitizer and vitamin water.

I looked out the window, the snow was falling and the trees looked beautiful but I was not up for venturing out (unfortunately). I did pull out the Canon 28-300mm and snap a few shots. It would have been magical clomping around in the night with a 50mm – an opportunity missed.

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Snow can be beautiful.

THE SAKURA ARE COMING, TOKYO

Last year due to a late cold snap the traditional plum and sakura seasons were shorter and a little different on their timing. We happened to miss the best flowering as we were away on holiday. Hopefully the same will not happen this year.

The weather in Tokyo remains cold, but the trees have begun to flower – in this case the plum blossoms. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/3.5 USM.

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On Saturday I walked through Arisugawa park, a hidden treasure of Tokyo. The green was starting to peak through. The families were out, enjoying the sun.

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I will not miss the blooms this year!

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A FEW MORE SHOTS AROUND SAN FRANCISCO

Last shots of San Francisco. I don’t know why I looked up, but glad I did. My wife always reminds us – when traveling always look up. A crisp. clear blue sky.

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While I wandered through Chinatown, I wondered – what would Buddha think?

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Reminiscent of those old motels you would pass (or stay in) as a kid.

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I stopped by a church for an hour. A haven on a walk. A spot to think, reflect, say thanks.

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I would say, San Francisco feels welcoming.

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I think this van welcomes a lot of people to write on it.

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Living and traveling around Asia, this store front no longer feels odd or foreign to me.

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The famous hills of San Francisco.

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I didn’t take this tram home. The wait was too long.

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Alcatraz.

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Last shot. Flowers in bloom.

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Great city. Thanks for dropping by ….

STROLLING SAN FRANCISCO

As mentioned previously, I arrived early in San Francisco and went for a walk. It was a cold Sunday afternoon (November) but sunny. The concierge laid out a route and I began walking toward Chinatown.

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Chinatown and a cup of tea. There were a lot of tea shops offering a cup of tea.

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I didn’t really understand the free tasting thing. I was trying to order a green tea and they kept giving me these tiny little cups until they understood I wasn’t there to buy a big box of tea.

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I passed this shop and stopped. A Sakura tree … we bought the same one in Japan (but in white)

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Pretty cold. Not a big time for outdoor patios.

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Down an alley and I was stopping in at the place where they invented the fortune cooking. 50 cents to take a photo …

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Love the architecture of the city. Toronto should have protected more of their buildings.

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Love the colors.

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This tower will always have special meaning for me. My very first – large sales deal was at Transamerica in Canada. I will always remember the Transamerica tower on their business cards (A guy honked at me when I stopped to take this).

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It was the first time I had ever wandered around San Francisco as I always go airport>hotel>meetings>airport. Nice city.

FEATS IN HOW MUCH YOU CAN CARRY, INDIA

We spent Christmas Eve afternoon in Old Delhi around the markets. I could have taken 1,000 more photos like these as everywhere you turned a man or woman was performing a feat of strength to get their goods moved from A to B. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/3.5 USM.

A few of my favorites. The first is the only in color – flowers presented for sale, draped across a parked motorbike.

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In the Old Delhi markets there were lots of people carry their wares. Those markets are truly “human powered”. As we walked and observed, one of the most common modes of good transportation was via the head – with some carry more than others.

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There were more than a few executing a tricky head balance.

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Many worked as teams – balancing the load.

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Look closely at the load in the back (how did they decide who gets to sit and who has to work?)

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Some had long loads.

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Some had big loads. What is all of that paper for? To feed the infamous India bureaucracy?

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A lucky few had something other than their own hands and legs to power their cart.

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These shots are from a couple hours in the markets, are a small subset of the shots available and represent the essence of what a trip to India entails. Everywhere you look you see a unique scene.

A PLACE TO SIT, QUTUB MINAR, INDIA

A few more shots from Qutub Minar. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300 f/3.5 USM.

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I wonder how long this engine has been abandoned, or what it is from?

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Sorry pal, no peanuts with me.

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Last shot of the Minar.

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Amazing place to visit, learn and shoot.

ADVANCED INDIA, QUTUB MINAR

The good thing about having a guide who has 3 or 4 degrees and is acquiring more is that if you are academically inquisitive, you will get answers.

Still on our first day in India (a busy first day) we stopped at Qutub Minar, a location where we would learn about ancient India’s architectural, engineering and industrial prowess. The minar is the center piece of this site:

Qutb Minar (Urdu: قطب مینار‎), also spelled Qutub or Qutab, is the tallest minar (73 metres) in India originally an ancient Islamic Monument, inscribed with Arabic inscriptions, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[1] Located inDelhi, the Qutb Minar is made of red sandstone and marble. The stairs of the tower has 379 steps,[2] is 72.5 metres (237.8 ft) high, and has a base diameter of 14.3 metres, which narrows to 2.7 metres at the top. Construction was started in 1192 by Qutb-ud-din Aibak and was carried on by his successor, Iltutmish. In 1368, Firoz Shah Tughlak constructed the fifth and the last storey. [3][4] It is surrounded by several other ancient and medieval structures and ruins, collectively known as the Qutb complex.[5][6]

Config: Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 28-300mm f/3.5 USM. It was a little big foggy, but reasonably clear.

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Intricate and architecturally impressive, it has lasted through many seasons, earthquakes and events.

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Access to the interior of minar has been closed due to an accident (if I remember correctly, a school child falling).

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I always marvel at the dates of these places.

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After the Islamic conquering of Delhi, the first mosque in the region was built here (1192). The conquering ruler was not so fussed about the contents of architecture, going for speed over details – pillaging Hindu temples in the area to build his mosque. Anu walked us around pointing out countless Hindu symbols on the columns and architecture.

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The bell is prominent in the Hindu religion.

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In this case the Hindu god was defaced before being used on this site.

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Regardless of where they got the component parts (he did not know the number of temples that were pillaged to build this site), the walk way around the Minar was quite intricate.

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As were all the arches and sub-buildings.

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Near the minar is a large iron post – which stands as a testament to India’s early advancement and engineering/industrial prowess. Standing for almost 2,000 years it is an industrial marvel:

The iron pillar is one of the world’s foremost metallurgical curiosities. The pillar, 7.21-metre high and weighing more than six tonnes, was originally erected by Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (375–414 AD) in front of a Vishnu Temple complex at Udayagiri around 402 AD, and later shifted by Aangpal in 10th century AD from Udaygiri to its present location. Anangpal built a Vishnu Temple here and wanted this pillar to be a part of that temple.

The estimated weight of the decorative bell of the pillar is 646 kg while the main body weighs 5865 kg thereby making the entire pillar weigh at 6,511 kg. The pillar bears an inscription in Sanskrit in Brahmi script dating 4th century AD, which indicates that the pillar was set up as a Vishnudhvaja, standard of god, on the hill known as Vishnupada in memory of a mighty king named Chandra, believed to Chandragupta II. A deep socket on the top of this ornate capital suggests that probably an image of Garuda was fixed into it, as common in such flagpoles.[26]

What makes it so unique is that the iron is so pure, it has never rusted. Almost 2,000 year old iron with not a single smudge of rust. Amazing.

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The parrots were everywhere. As were the pigeons.

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It is fascinating to walk through the history of a country at a site – so advanced thousands of years ago and fluctuating as time progresses.

THE COFFINS WITHIN HUMAYUN’S TOMB, INDIA

The inside of Humanyun’s tomb had a few notable elements that Anu educated us on. The first being the meticulous way in which the tombs were placed – the Moghul’s and his spouse(s) – just a little ahead of the others.

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The other was the intricate lattice work on the windows. This was prevalent through many of the forts and tombs we would visit. The lattice was carved so it was wider on the outside and would narrow toward the inside. This allowed women to see out the window clearly but did not allow someone from the outside to see in.

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Each piece, carved with a small angle.

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And of course, always look up.

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A beautiful tomb.

HUMAYUN’S TOMB, INDIA

Our first tomb in India, the model for many of the tombs we would see later.

Humayun’s tomb (Urdu: ہمایوں کا مقبرہ‎ Humayun ka Maqbara) is the tomb of the Mughal EmperorHumayun in Delhi, India. The tomb was commissioned by Humayun’s first wife Bega Begum (Haji Begum)[1][2][3][4][5][6] in 1569-70, and designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, a Persian architect chosen by Bega Begum.[7][8] It was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent,[9] and is located in Nizamuddin East,Delhi, India, close to the Dina-panah citadel also known as Purana Qila (Old Fort), that Humayun founded in 1533. It was also the first structure to use red sandstone at such a scale

The scale of these places is amazing but in a country like India one has to wonder, what could have happened for the people had they not built this monument to one man so many years ago? How many hospitals or schools could have been built?

Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm.

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The main buildings are pristine, only the doors show the age of the place.

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The lotus is very prominent in all of the tombs.

In Hinduism, the lotus (Sanskrit: padma) primarily represents beauty and non-attachment. The lotus is rooted in the mud but floats on the water without becoming wet or muddy. This symbolizes how how one should live in the world in order to gain release from rebirth: without attachment to one’s surroundings.

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I am not sure how this contraption works but it appears to be some form of irrigation system. Whether it attaches to a gas pump or is powered by a human, I have no idea.

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It was the dry season, so the water ways ran dry.

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Throughout the grounds the workers were repairing, maintaining, cutting the grass.

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Thanks for dropping by.

$1 AND THE KNIFE SHARPENER, OLD DELHI

That is what this shot cost me. Outside Bangla Sahib temple. These guys have a good gig going :) Love the colors (and so did the other tourists)

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Behind them this man was sharpening knives by pedaling a converted bicycle. Interesting to watch, on the back streets of Old Delhi.

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I could have spent weeks shooting the streets of Delhi and never lost interest.

PARLIAMENT, NEW DELHI, INDIA

A trip to India in December is tricky. The weather is perfect (14-20C) for touring but it can be very, very foggy. Anu (our guide) mentioned a number of times how lucky we were as he has taken groups to sites like the Taj Mahal and been disappointed as the fog can be unpredictable.

We did not stop for parliament, except to take a few shots .. a light fog and all.

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I am not sure about this shot. Love the sun over parliament, but perhaps the buildings are too dark. It was quite foggy.

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If I had more time, I would spend more time on this shot in Lightroom.

AFTER DINNER SEEDS, INDIA

I had never experienced this before; the tradition of an after meal palate cleanse.

At our first (and probably best) lunch during our stay in India they brought out this serving set filled with rock candy, anise seeds and fennel. Mix them in your hand and pop in your mouth.

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Surprisingly refreshing and a wonderful tradition.

It must be said, the food in India was spectacular. I miss it very much. The problem is that as tourists we had to be incredibly careful. Their food has microbes and spices that we simply are not use to resulting in the infamous Delhi Belly, which we did not avoid even though our guide did everything he could to ensure we ate at respectable restaurants.

We so desperately wanted to try to the street drinks and foods, but refrained.

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A PRIVATE GUIDE IN INDIA

We reaffirmed the value of a private guide while in India. For us, with our sons, a private guide provides two important benefits – the ability to dialogue with the family, explaining what we are seeing and flexibility.

Flexibility would be key as we constantly changed our itinerary as we travelled. It also meant that we could ask to get off the beaten path. We did not want a tour filled with all of the monster sites, we wanted to get into the side streets – to see the real India.

A great example of this was our first ‘side trip’ to Agrasen Ki Baoli (Or Ugrasen Ki Bali according to the plaque at the entrance), a step well in the city. Hidden down a side street and easily accessible as it was the dry season. It is a marvel to see.

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From Wikipedia:

Agrasen ki Baoli (also known as Agar Sain ki Baoli or Ugrasen ki Baoli), designated a protected monument by theArcheological Survey of India (ASI) under the Ancient Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958, is a 60-meter long and 15-meter wide historical step well on Hailey Road near Connaught Place, a short walk from Jantar Mantar inNew Delhi, India.[1] Although there are no known historical records to prove who built Agrasen ki Baoli, it is believed that it was originally built by the legendary king Agrasen[2] during the Mahabharat epic era[3][4][5] and rebuilt in the 14th century by the Agrawal community which traces its origin to Maharaja Agrasen.

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Our guide was unbelievable and if you are in India – I cannot recommend him highly enough. A lifelong learner with great pride in his craft, Anu had 3 degrees and is studying to become a judge, with this work funding his studies. His insight into each place, attentiveness to our family, never ending knowledge and willingness to engage on every aspect of Indian history, politics and culture made it an extra special experience. To say that his the best tour guide we have ever had would be an understatement. I offer up his email to fellow travellers – anuragmisra@rediffmail.com – if you are lucky enough to get him.

Inside the well.

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We would see one more step well on our tour. One much larger.

INDIA

Right up until the day we left for India, there was a lot of debate around going. With all of the negative press (and shocking tourist attack right after we left), we had our reservations. We spoke about cancelling many times. Was it dangerous? Was our time there too long? Would the driving from city to city be too much? I would say that of all of the places that we have travelled, this trip was the one that was most debated. We almost cancelled several times and last minute I completely changed the itinerary – shortening it by a few days.

As our guide said “India is not for the first time traveller. Most of the people who come here have been to many places before they venture to our country”.

Well said and good advice because it is not for the unadventurous or first time traveler. While I am sure there are bus tours which put you in a cocoon, India is what I would describe as “full on”. We spent 9 days there and after the trip we left enlightened, amazed and exhausted.

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To be clear, we were also cautious and had a few uncomfortable moments. I happened across this post and could not help but shudder at how this woman is tempting fate (I hope her parents read it and talk some sense into her). Would you walk down a dark alley in Toronto in the middle of the night alone as a woman? Of course not. Same goes for India. We recognized that we stood out in the crowd and with the help of our amazing guide, were smart about it.

It also turned out to be the perfect opportunity to shoot my new lens. The 28-300mm proved it’s value by being able to shoot while in the van or while walking, with huge range.

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And lets just say, we spent a lot of time in the van as we moved from city to city. India’s lack of infrastructure coupled with a huge population does not make for speedy movement.

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Our trip took us from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and then back to Delhi over 9 days – the Golden Triangle. Over those days we would see many things; beautiful monuments, spectacular architecture, wealth, shocking poverty, back streets, main streets, road side markets and everything in between.

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Trip of a lifetime.

HO CHI MINH SEAFOOD: SAIGON STREET EATS

If you are in Ho Chi Minh, highly suggest calling up Saigon Street Eats and taking a tour. We took a night tour down the crowded side streets (sorry, didn’t do the scooter tour). Amazing to sit and eat fresh seafood in the midst of the chaos. (Config: Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 28-70mm – should have brought my 50mm!)

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The seafood was amazing. Crab, mussels, shrimp. Awesome.

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Also enjoyed that it was a rather chaotic eating experience. Plates, piled on plates.

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Wasn’t a big fan of the frog.

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The conch on the other hand … amazing.

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A five star outing and a must do if in the city – in fact, I would say the highlight of the city.

THE MEKONG DELTA MARKETS

A few more shots from around the Mekong Delta, Vietnam (Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm).

We spent time wandering around an island market … where the fresh fruit is abundant.

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Even the durian (smile). Seriously, every traveler must try it at least once.

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A flower along the river.

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This woman was making taffy. Coconut taffy. It was amazing when eaten fresh.

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To get back to our boat, we took a taxi through a back canal.

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Vietnam is a beautiful country.

A MEKONG DELTA FISH FARM

I knew very little about the Mekong Delta prior to traveling there. My knowledge was limited to things I had seen on Vietnam war movies and a belief that the delta was full of life.

The last hypothesis was correct. The river brings life to those around it.

The Mekong Delta (Vietnamese: Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long "Nine Dragon river delta") is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. The Mekong delta region encompasses a large portion of southwestern Vietnam of 39,000 square kilometres (15,000 sq mi).[1] The size of the area covered by water depends on the season.

The Mekong Delta has recently been dubbed as a "biological treasure trove". Over 10,000 new species have been discovered in previously unexplored areas of Mekong Delta, including a species of rat thought to be extinct.[2]

Our journey would be a boat ride along the river with a range of stops. The boats had a similar look at feel to those in Cambodia.

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I am sure the population in this area dwarfs that of Tonle Sap Lake. As one would expect, the river was full of people coming and going, making a living.

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There were a lot of boats.

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One of our more interesting stops was a fish farm. Just like in Cambodia, I cannot fathom living my entire life on the water. A few shot from around the farm.

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Another water dog. I wonder if he looks at the shore wishing he could go for a run?

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The farm itself.

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There were thousands and thousands of fish.

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A very different life.

THE COST OF TOKYO

According to the latest indexes, the drop in the Yen means that Tokyo has gone from most expensive place in the world (when we first moved here) to number 13 .. not even in the top 10!

It sure does not feel that way (100 yen is roughly $1).

An expensive pancake (Y280)

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2 pieces of fruit (individually wrapped for your pleasure).image

12 slices of bread.

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I think these prices are the reason why Japanese stay so thin.

CAO DAI TEMPLE, VIETNAM

On our second day in Ho Chi Minh city we took a tour to the Mekong Delta. One of our first stops was a Cao Dai temple. To date, it is the most colorful temple or church that I have ever been in.

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I knew nothing about this religion, so I took the time to read the writings on their walls. From Wikipedia:

According to the Cao Đài’s teaching of creation, before God existed, there was the Tao, the nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. Then a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born (emanationism). The universe could not yet be formed and to do so, God created yin and yang. He took control of yang and shed a part of himself, creating the Mother Buddha to preside over yin. In the presence of yin and yang, the universe was materialized. The Mother Buddha is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the Universe. Caodaiists worship not only God the father, but also the Mother Buddha. Note that God’s importance and role is higher than that of the Mother Buddha. Also, the Mother Buddha, like all buddhas, is a part of Yang, and therefore is male. Yin is the female side, and the Mother Buddha oversees Yin, but is not a part of Yin. God is symbolized by the Divine Eye, specifically the left eye because Yang is the left side and God is the master of Yang. There are 36 levels of Heaven and 72 planets harboring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to Hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.[1]

Around the central alter are all of the figures of the major religions – a few that I spot; Jesus, Buddha and Confucius.

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As I looked at the eye, the only thing I could think was “Masons”.

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The grounds around the temple are also interesting and filled with the staff. They were drying tea.

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An old funeral hearse.

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I am not sure why these coffins were here, but they were sitting a few meters from the hearse.

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Very interesting stop as you head to the Mekong Delta.

BEHIND THE MARKET

On a dusty road, on a small mountain in Cambodia, a family tends their market. The children looking on.

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When we drove back a few hours later they were gone. Their village was a few hundred meters into the jungle. Perhaps off to enjoy the afternoon like these children.

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A simpler life.

PHNOM KULEN, A LONG DRIVE

While in Siem Reap we decided to head to the mountain region of Phnom Kulen – a drive that we thought would take 90 minutes turned into 3 hours each way.

Pot holed roads, a lack of infrastructure coupled with a heavy rain the night before meant 20km/hr top speed. A long drive. As we clawed our way up the mountain we came across this small stand filled with bananas. I have never seen a red banana before? (Config: Canon 5D Mark III with 28-70mm f/2.8)

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A small bicycle shop.

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As you wind your way up the mountain (asking yourself, will it ever end?), you occasionally peak out on the countryside.

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The reason why you travel to the top of this mountain is for the waterfall and these runes. Thousands, carved into the river bank as a tribute to their gods and royalty.

The site is known for its carvings representing fertility and its waters which hold special significance to Hindus. Just 5 cm under the water’s surface over 1000 small carvings are etched into the sandstone riverbed. The waters are regarded as holy, given that Jayavarman II chose to bathe in the river, and had the river diverted so that the stone bed could be carved. Carvings include a stone representation of the Hindu god Vishnu lying on his serpent Ananta, with his wife Lakshmi at his feet.[6] A lotus flower protrudes from his navel bearing the god Brahma.

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Harder to see due to the higher water level.

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Just past the runes is a temple with a large reclining Buddha. As you would expect there is a market selling worshipers (and tourists) flowers and other items. It also appears to be the central market for the village.

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There was nothing to explain why the Buddha at Preah Ang Thom is reclining. Carved out of rock and painted gold, it is massive.

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At the temples I understand the incense, but I need to research the symbolism of the lotus flower petals in the water.

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Last shot from the mountain .. the waterfall.

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Which is a rather treacherous climb to get to.

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Another interesting stop.

MONK, PHNOM KULEN, CAMBODIA

The fellow seems quite content.

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Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm

OLD ENGLAND, PARIS IN TOKYO, JAPAN

Near my office in Tokyo. Confusing.

Old England Paris

FLIPFLOPS IN VIETNAM

I will take the Acmerican ones please.

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AFTERNOON JAZZ IN SAN FRANCISCO

I arrived early on a Sunday a few months back and went for a walk. Ended up in a little café where I had a sandwich and listened to some Jazz. I think I would enjoy living in San Francisco.

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Out the window, a game of Jenga was being played.

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Jenga and a few beers.

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A few HDRs of the café .. could not resist (Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm)

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It wasn’t the best sandwich, but the ambiance made up for it.

THE MARKETS OF HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM

Now that I have gotten my political commentary out of the system, on to the city itself. As I mentioned in the previous post – Ho Chi Minh city is mad with scooters. Millions of people scooting around, honking, ducking, weaving and generally jamming up as a group.

Our first stop in Ho Chi Minh was the markets, our opportunity to see the hustle and bustle of the city.

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In this long hall were long butcher tables. We had missed the morning rush where the butchers line up to carve and hand out cuts to the morning shoppers.

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I turned and was face to face with a lot of dried fish.

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One day I would love to live in one of these countries. To walk a market and be able to get the freshest of fresh, to experience the different vegetables and eat local would be amazing. We walked the market tasting with our guide explaining what we were eating.

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The colors are so vibrant and the textures so different. The benefit of straight from the field (or jungle)

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This fruit (cannot remember the name) wins my exotic fruit of the day award. Looks like a grape, sweet with a furry outside. 

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All through the markets were vendors sitting on the walk, selling their wares. We were careful to not linger in front of customers who were actually buying.

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The spices of the market. You can buy a lot of spices for very little money.

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The markets were very busy.

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The markets were also filled with fish. Lots of fish.

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And lots of squid.

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And always remember, when walking take the time to look up.

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If in the city, it is great to wander the markets.

VIETNAM: A REFLECTION

After our tour of Siem Reap, Cambodia we headed to Ho Chi Minh city. I have always wanted to visit Vietnam and this was our first time.

I think this shot best describes the city. A large city with roughly 9M people and according to different sources, 5-6M scooters. I was warned, keep your camera on your neck because thieves on scooters love to whip by tourists and take their cameras.

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Crazy. Scooters were everywhere. According to one of our guides, they put heavy taxes on cars (doubling the cost) where the price of a scooter is much more affordable for the people.

The country suffers the same ills as Cambodia – lots of corruption, no real social net to catch people and a low average income. According to this article, the average wage has “risen” to $185 per month. Ironically, it seems like Canada and many European countries are closer to the ideals of Marxism than most communist countries with regard to social balance and fairness. In these counties, it seems like it is survival of the fittest -  far from the ideals of communism.

All of this starts with leadership and unfortunately, many of these country’s leaders only know the survival to grab power mentality. One guide told me that his family was forced to relocate from their multi-generational home to make way for a canal. His family was given $1200 for their home – their neighbor, the police chief, was given $10,000. Interesting observation from the BBC:

But the disparity in wealth between urban and rural Vietnam is wide and some Communist Party leaders worry that too much economic liberalization will weaken their power base.

Despite pursuing economic reform, the ruling Communist Party shows little willingness to give up its monopoly on political power.

In the end, these countries are only held back by one thing: their leaders.

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To make the point, look at the Vietnam war museum in Ho Chi Minh. It is a tribute to the terrible and well known war torn history of the country. The contents of the museum were very familiar to me as I have read a lot about the Vietnamese wars. What struck me most about the museum is that it stands in stark contrast to the current political system in Vietnam – the museum is a voice of freedom in a not-so-free country.

How so? Inside the museum is a section dedicated to American photographers who stood against the war and is sponsored by a US organization from Kentucky, USA. It was also published by Random House, USA.

It is the ultimate testimony to the strength of a democracy to see such a public display of criticism not only tolerated but existing as a key part of the political system.

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Now compare and contrast the political situation in Vietnam (again from the BBC):

The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International says in a 2011 report that ”more than a dozen activists were convicted in faulty trials simply because they had peacefully voiced criticism of government policies”. A new wave of subversion trials began in 2013.

Do any sites exist to criticize the Vietnam government? Apparently not. Criticize too loudly and you go to jail. I am sure that in this type of political system Jon Stewart would be behind bars.

The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city stands as an ironic testimony to the greatness of democracy. In the US (or other solid democracy) a leader’s quest for monopolistic power is thwarted by process and the strength of a political system that empowers the people to constantly rebalance the system.

Ironic.

Make no mistake that the photos are a stark reminder of the terrible impact of war on a country that should never have happened. But in the end I left thinking that it also stands as a testimony to true democracy, strength of political process and openness; flaws and all. I say “flaws and all” because no one in the US is tearing this museum down and the political system saw those who supported the war removed, and the US pulled out – but after it happened, not before it happened.

Interesting experience.

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A few final shots of the War Remnants museum.

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Love when a place leaves me pondering.

BAYON TEMPLE, CAMBODIA

One last temple in Cambodia to finish out the “big 3” of Siem Reap – Bayon, or the temple with 4 faces.

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The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.[2] The temple is known also for two impressive sets ofbas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes. The current main conservatory body, the Japanese Government Team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (the JSA) has described the temple as "the most striking expression of the baroque style" of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style ofAngkor Wat.[3]

A few shots from around the temple. The faces of Buddha faced each direction on every tower.

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An offering at the end of the hall.

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So ends out time in Siem Reap. In retrospect I think the guide had it right, if you hit the 3 temples (Angkor, Bayon and Tah Prohm) you get a diverse view of the Cambodian culture.

Great experience.

GOODBYE CAMERA? Not me

The New Yorker article Goodbye, Camera is a thought provoking article suggesting that the era of the networked device will displace the need for a camera:

One of the great joys of that walk was the ability to immediately share with family and friends the images as they were captured in the mountains: the golden, early-morning light as it filtered through the cedar forest; a sudden valley vista after a long, upward climb. Each time, I pulled out my iPhone, not the GX1, then shot, edited, and broadcasted the photo within minutes. As I’ve become a more network-focused photographer, I’ve come to love using the smartphone as an editing surface; touch is perfect for photo manipulation. There’s a tactility that is lost when you edit with a mouse on a desktop computer. Perhaps touch feels natural because it’s a return to the chemical-filled days of manually poking and massaging liquid and paper to form an image I had seen in my head. Yet if the advent of digital photography compressed the core processes of the medium, smartphones further squish the full spectrum of photographic storytelling: capture, edit, collate, share, and respond. I saw more and shot more, and returned from the forest with a record of both the small details—light and texture and snippets of life—and the conversations that floated around them on my social networks.

Reading through this quote I was left with a question – is the networked device destroying the camera .. or is it destroying the moment? He spent his time slogging through the mountains, shooting his photos, editing, instagramming and texting instead of .. enjoying the mountain path and the moment. I can just see him doing what I see so often in beautiful travel destinations .. this fellow tripping along, distracted, glancing up from his phone while he types and Facebooks … Seen it 100 times.

Does it enhance the moment? Personally, I don’t think so.

When I am shooting with a camera I am in the moment, observing, enjoying – not thinking about who I am going to share the picture with. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a time for the camera phone, but for me there will always be a time for a camera.

It would be interesting to hear what others think.

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(San Francisco, China Town)

AMATUER’S REVIEW: CANON 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM

I spent months trying to decide if I was going to buy this lens.

When I first learned about the lens it struck me as perfect for travel; 28mm for that wide shot to 300mm for the close-up. Not having to switch between my 28-70mm and my 70-200mm was very appealing.

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The problem is that the reviews of the Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM left me confused. I read every other review I could get my eyes on; you can read a few of my favorite reviews  here, here, here and here by professionals who are much more qualified than myself.

In the end, it seemed to come down to 2 things:

Pro:  Versatile lengths

Con:  Super heavy.

I emailed one expert and he said “versatile lens but you don’t need it, too heavy, try the Tamron”. The problem with the Tamron? I have been disappointed with non-Canon lens before (50mm).

After months of thinking about it .. I decided to make the purchase. I picked it up prior to our trip to India and after a few weeks of heavy use, I present this amateur’s review (Spoiler alert: best lens I have ever bought):

Cons:

  • Weight: The reviews are right – this is a heavy lens. I cannot fathom carrying it around with the traditional neck strap that comes with my camera (it is .6lbs heavier than the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8). I have been thinking that I need to get a new strap anyway so I overcame this issue with the BlackRapid Sport.  I spent 10 days traveling around with the lens and did not feel the weight. Plus, I wish I would have bought this strap a LONG time ago.
  • Dust:  The push pull lens will result in dust inside the lens over time. My view? Spend a couple hundred getting it professionally cleaned 2 or 3 years from now. Not an issue for me.
  • Chromatic Aberration:  There is definitely aberration around the edges so I have added that lens correction to the workflow in Lightroom (along with sharpen 100). Works great as the lens profile is available in Lightroom.
  • People noticing the lens:  Yes, it is the white lens and I found myself draping my hand over it as I walked to make it less noticeable. At least the change in strap has eliminated broadcasting the camera body type.
  • Expensive: Yes. My Leica friend just laughed at me when I mentioned that.
    Now the only real big con in my opinion – the button placement. It is on the left side of the lens and with a push pull zoom, your hand is moving a lot and my thumb/palm was constantly hitting the buttons. More than a few times I accidentally flipped off the image stabilization or slipped into manual focus. I bought the lensband to see if that can fix the problem.

Pros:

I love this lens.

I will never travel without this lens in the future and probably leave all of the other lenses behind; selling off my Canon 28-70mm f/2.8 USM. The quality is superb.

All of the aforementioned cons are massively outweighed by the convenience. I will keep the 28-70mm for around the house, but other than that – it will be this lens.

A convenience example: Below is a wide 28mm shot …. (note the black specks above the arch at the Taj Mahal entrance – those are parrots)

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My next shot was a zoom in to snap the parrots in flight. Amazing.

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In the end, best lens purchase I have ever made and worth every penny.

Just make sure you change your strap (The under-the-arm 2nd strap for the BlackRapid Sport makes all the difference). I also stopped carrying my camera backpack. Instead I ended up putting a filter, extra battery, a few cards and a lens wipe in a small Tumi bag with my wallet.

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Without my backpack, this is actually lighter.

FLOATING VILLAGES OF TONLE SAP LAKE, CAMBODIA

As mentioned in the previous post, the boat picked up speed and we headed to the next village. One of the first boats we saw as we entered the main village was this floating restaurant, looking for customers.

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The lake will rise and fall 9-10M in a year and the people will float from location to location, following the water. It is a bit unfathomable to live your entire life .. floating.

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Moored into the trees or to each other, the homes at mid/high-tide. At low tide, those trees will be 20m high.

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The village delivery system … gas, fruit, you name it.

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Everyone drives a boat. No matter how old.

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Some boats with motors.

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Many boats with only a paddle.

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Of course, there is a phone store.

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A completely different way of life. Thanks for dropping by.

THE TRIP TO A FLOATING VILLAGE, CAMBODIA

Our second day in Siem Reap involved a tour with Osmose eco-tours to a floating village. I love doing eco-tours, and this one is about seeing how the lake feeds an ecosystem of plants, animals and people.

The trip began on a boat like this.

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Our captain.

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The village where we launched was filled with motorbikes, loaded with fish from the mornings catch.

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Bagged for transportation. The fish were so small – not sure how they skin them or are they eaten whole?

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The boat had a very loud engine .. that made big waves.

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As we took the 90 minute ride to the village, we saw many other boaters traveling the lake-ways.

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Off in the distance, a fisherman setting his nets (the pictures are darker as I had the wrong filter with me – it was that bright out)

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And a few eco-companions on the way.

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We stopped near a large tree where the guide explained that the tree was 15-17m high with almost 10m of the tree currently under water. The water levels on the lake go up and down by 10m during the seasons. In the tree, we noticed a brightly colored snake having a sleep .. red means poisonous.

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He never did peak his head out.

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Traveling along the water the boat slowed as we entered the first of many floating villages.

Amazing to think that these homes move around with the water level .. and that they all have cell phone reception.

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The village’s floating school.

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Beside a few floating homes.

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With the fishermen/women working on the day’s catch.

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The boat picked up speed as we headed to the next village.

THE WAR MUSEUM, SIEM REAP

(Updated as I accidentally merged two posts)

I am so glad we visited this site. It would have been a huge miss had we not.

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I am a big fan of TripAdvisor as it helps you understand what is really available in a city or country – especially if you want to get a little bit off the beaten path. Reading the reviews there were more than a few people who said this is a must see, filled with old Russian and a few American remnants from a terrible period in Cambodia’s history.

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Everything is open to explore. Feel free to climb on, in and around them to see these decades old remnants.

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Our guide was a war veteran and his tale is heartbreaking – and worth telling here for others to read.

If you have read about Pol Pot and the Khmer reign of terror you will know that millions died. Pol Pot killed anyone with an education and engaged in a mad scheme to return Cambodia to an agrarian lifestyle with the goal of eliminating Cambodia’s dependence on foreign powers who had occupied, pillaged and generally mistreated the country. Entire cities like Siem Reap were emptied and the men were rounded up to serve in the army.

He was such a target. At 14 he was supposed to be taken away to join. His family hid him to keep him from the Khmer army. At a check point he was asked if he was a boy or a girl and he accidentally answered boy. His father, knowing he was caught, began yelling at him for blurting out the wrong thing as the Khmer commander was notified.

His father begged to let his son stay as he was too young which infuriated the ruthless commander. In moments, they shot his father and then shot his mother and two sisters as they tried to collect the fathers body. A few others from their village were also killed when they engaged in the dispute.

At 14 he was taken by the Khmer, just not fathomable. He spent years on the front, escaped into Vietnam and then returned to Cambodia only to step on a land mine and lose his leg.

Abandoned to fend for himself, he was an outcast until an Australian came along and rescued him. They flew him out of the country, got him prosthetics and helped him mentally recover. But as he said, how do you ever recover? Listening to his story, it was just so unfathomable and during the Pol Pot, Khmer reign of terror a sadly common story. No one was left unaffected.

Hearing it first hand is shocking.

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Just hearing that story made the trip to this museum a must see.

Along the wall there are several buildings that house hundreds of weapons, that you can handle. Fascinating to pick up an RPG.

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I cannot recommend it enough – a must see.

TEMPLE CONSTRUCTION

Every temple we travelled to in Siem Reap had some form of foreign sponsored restoration going on. Scaffolds, trucks and signs. Not insignificant undertakings.

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To understand just how dramatic the change is, I took this shot from the Indian restoration of Tah Prohm, Amazing to see the work that they can do.

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Great to see the international community helping maintain this important part of our collective history.

CLIMBING THE STEPS OF ANGKOR WAT

The center of Angkor Wat houses the holiest of places, up a steep set of stairs.

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We were fortunate, the line was not that bad (quite short actually). From the top you have a spectacular view of the countryside.

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Throughout the day our guide pointed out the restoration work that was being done. What is remarkable is that very little of this work is being paid for locally, international donors (India, Japan, France to name a few) are very active in helping the Cambodian people restore and maintain their history.

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The detail on the buildings is remarkable. One can only guess at the quantity of workers and time it took.

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A spectacular site that lived up to the reputation.

THE OVERGROWN TEMPLE, TA PROHM

Many of Cambodia’s temples are overgrown, they say there are an unknown number hidden away – engulfed by nature. Ta Prohm is marked as one of the 3 temples you need to see because of the way that nature sprouts from the temple – that tree must have been 30 meters high (or higher) – a new roof for an ancient temple.

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2013 11 24 Ta Prohm_

The trees have taken root everywhere over hundreds of years.

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Made famous by the movie Tomb Raider (have not seen it), Ta Prohm is in the middle of restoration, in this case thanks to India.

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This picture shows an example of the before (the jumble of rocks) and the after (on the right above the scaffold). Like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

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A few more shots of a very beautiful and exotic temple.2013 11 24 Ta Prohm_-45

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A beautiful place. Of the 3 must see temples in Siem Reap, this was our favorite (yes, more than Angkor Wat). There is something mystical about the jungle intertwined through the temple.

A WALK THROUGH ANGKOR WAT

On our first full day of touring in Siem Reap our guide said Angkor Wat in the morning – I said really? He said all of the tour companies do it the same way, off to the other temples and balloon views first (Bayon, Ta Prohm) and Angkor in the afternoon.

We took his advice and did Angkor Wat first and he was right. Sure it was busy (as it was getting into the dry season and high tourism time) but far from “busy”.

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The library.

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The back of the entrance.

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Taking the long walk with the other tourists.

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The interior is adorned with murals, often depicting fierce battles between the gods, humans and other creatures.

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You can still see the remnants of paint. Areas shine on the murals where people rubbed them.

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The steps to the top of the temple are quite steep. There was a woman at the entrance to the top looking at people’s clothing. If your shorts were too short, they would not let you pass.

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I would agree with the first westerner who saw Angkor Wat when he said “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of” (1586 – Portuguese monk)

SALARYMAN

It seems the Japanese can sleep anywhere, anytime. I cannot fathom how you do not miss your stop.

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