2016 – A Year of Travel In 65 Black and White Photographs

In 2016 I catapulted across the 50 country mark with visits to several destinations that have captivated my imagination since I was a kid, but long sat neglected on my bucket list. The trips also included several very welcome surprises which reminded me that the more I travel the larger the world becomes and the more there is to explore and discover.

It has also been a year marked by exciting new achievements and significant growth in my photography, videography and photo editing understanding. Perhaps the most interesting pivot has been experimenting with back button focus, which is fundamentally changed the way I shoot.

I’ve also started to experiment more with filters (if on a limited level) and actively pivoted from shooting predominantly using aperture priority, to a shutter speed priority first approach which also uses 2-3x the speed the camera suggested via Av. For my Tanzania Safari, I also began to experiment more with a full-manual approach where and when I needed the speed, but also wanted to ensure a higher aperture.

This post is part of an annual tradition where I post my 65 favorite black and white photos from 2016 and my 65 favorite color shots.  For previous years, check out 2012, 20132014 and 2015 and of course, don’t miss the color post from 2016. As with last year, the photos from my end of the year trip fall on the following year. This means the 4,000 Tanzania shots from December 2016 will appear in my 2017 post and that in this post, you’ll find all of the shots from my 2015 December trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Questions about how I composed or took a specific photo? Feel free to ask in a comment. You’re also encouraged to check out my complete flickr albums here.

Ta Prohm - Angkor - Cambodia

Ta Prohm, Cambodia

Kirkjufellsfoss - Snæfellsnes - Iceland

Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland

The Bangkok Skyline

Bangkok, Thailand

The Nearly Perfect 10 Day Trip to Myanmar – Leg 2: Bagan

**Sadly, due to recent events, I’m adding this note and suspending the series before completing Part III. In October and November 2016, an increase in violence in the northern regions has led to a number of village burnings and significant loss of life. As a result, I encourage anyone considering a visit to research events and the current status before making any decisions. For the time being, it looks like many of the recent gains made are being eroded.** 
Welcome to Part II of my three part series exploring Myanmar. When we decided to visit Myanmar, we wanted to explore a country we knew very little about. You can read up on all of the misconceptions we had before going in this post. Just joining? Jump back to Part I here.

Life in Old Bagan - Myanmar

Myanmar (formerly Burma), is a wonderful country that recently started to open up again to travel. To recap my previous post, it’s; 1) safe 2) easy to get around 3 ) easy to access 4) still very affordable and, 5) already has a comfortable tourist infrastructure. For some familiar with the earthquake in August 2016, the majority of the damage was to repairs that had been made during a controversial series of repairs 10-20 years ago. In essence, it wiped the slate clean. Everything I’ve seen and read says that most of the temples and pagodas impacted are being repaired rapidly and will re-open soon, if they have not already done so.

Bagan - Myanmar

It’s also worth noting that the famous balloons over Bagan only fly seasonally. So, if you go in July like we did, you will not see them. They’re also extremely expensive. Lastly, we didn’t fly, but apparently most of the material about the internal airlines being extremely unsafe is 2+ years out of date with the Government overhauling things and replacing aged aircraft with new ones.

Navigating Bagan - Myanmar

The Mysteries of Angkor and Angkor Wat

When I first learned of Angkor, it was through photos and stories of Angkor Wat. At the time I had no idea that Angkor Wat was only one small piece of a sprawling civilization and series of cities, temples, and developments that spanned the entire region.  Angkor, the capital of the empire, includes a long list of sites including Angkor Banteay, Baray, Esvara, Gopura, Jaya, Phnom, Prasat, Preah, Srei, Ta, Thom, Varman, and Wat.  In recent weeks announcements have come out that a number of other major temples, some of which are quite large, have been discovered in the surrounding region.  As more exploration is done, it seems complex after complex from the mysterious Khmer Empire re-emerge from the the anonymity of the sands (and jungles) of time.

Angkor Wat - Wonder of the World

Though we don’t talk about it much in western histories, the Khmer Empire ruled the region for hundreds of years. Some historians suggest that the Angkor area was one of, if not the, largest pre-industrial urban area during that period. Interesting, timing and placing when an empire existed within our mental narrative is also something that is always incredibly difficult. I often think of the Mayan and Inca temples having been built around the same time as the pyramids (they were built 2,000 years apart).  For me, Angkor was always the same. I picture it as early – perhaps even parallel to the Greeks or Romans.  Yet, as it turns out, it’s actually closer to the Franks and Vikings and falls squarely within the Medieval Period.

Takeo Angkor Temple

Another of the big surprises for me was just how accessible Angkor is. The modern city of Siam Reap is situated on the border of the National Park and in some places the two nearly overlap. Which makes the commute from hotel to Angkor convenient and incredibly easy.

Southeast Asia – What I Expected vs. What I Experienced

I felt the grinding sound of the landing gear lowering below my feet. That hydraulic rumble that reminds me you’re most of the way through your descent and about to return to terra firma. The palms of my hands were starting to sweat and I felt a rock in my stomach.  Despite previous trips, my last foray into a wildly different culture had been a couple years previous and done with family. This time, I was alone and couldn’t help by second guess my decision.

Exploring Koh Lanta

As the ground raced up to greet me, I looked out over Ho Chi Minh’s skyline.  It was strange…dry….brown…it almost looked familiar.  In fact, it reminded me of landing in Mexico. The buildings, their angularity, their coloration and the semi-organized chaos.

The Four Island Tour

Then with a bump, we made contact. The fear and second guessing subsided, replaced by excitement and acceptance. No matter if I’d made a good choice or not, what would follow would be roughly 19 days of exploration, wandering, and discover.

Lost in Bangkok - Thailand

Though elements of Ho Chi Minh continued to remind me of parts of Mexico – in no small part due to the mixture of humidity, heat, and oft-present sun – Vietnam quickly differentiated itself.  In this post I’ll share a few random observations that stuck out for me as I made my way through the trip, tasting Vietnam, skipping through Cambodia, and swimming just off the beaches of Southern Thailand.

Holy Shit, I Just Ate A Massive Cockroach

One of the semi-cliche things to do when you visit Southeast Asia is to eat bugs.  In some ways it’s a bit of a coming of age sort of thing. Heading to Florence, Italy? You’ve gotta eat Gelato on the Ponte Vecchio. England? Fish and Chips. Thailand? A portion of creepy-crawlies. But, more than that, it’s also a great opportunity to push our boundaries and try a future-food. What do I mean by future-food? Moving forward bugs will be an increasingly important part of our diets as they’re a valuable, easy, and slightly more ethical alternative to other types of meats. We’ve already started to see bugs pop up in high-end supermarkets such as Denmark’s Irma chain, and dried caterpillars and termites are cornerstones of Sub-Saharan African diets. So, I decided to push my limits and give the bugs a go. Every crunchy, goose-bump inspiring, bite is covered in this video, so…enjoy!

P.S. – I hope you’re hungry!

For this video I found a small food cart at Bangkok’s Sunday Market. The cart was situated in the very back of the market where few tourists go on the other side of the pet/fish section. It was an old woman selling the bugs which I purchased from the vendor immediately after a local woman had picked up a hearty bag of crispy eats. Are bugs a regular part of your average Thai’s diet? Probably not. At least not in Bangkok. But, at least it brought with it some semblance of local flavor.

Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of fried food around the world, I suspect the bugs could have actually been quite decent if not cooked in a rather old-tasting shrimp sauce and oil. Either way, some were surprisingly good and believe it or not, the cockroach was one of the best! Next time, I’ll be aiming to get them fresh and to try cooking them my way. After all, there’s nothing a bit of salt, olive oil, butter and garlic can’t fix! Still hungry? Don’t miss these videos about bizarre foods here, here and here.

Cambodia in 20 Instagram Photos

I’m currently hard at work sorting through the 4,000+ images I snapped during my visit to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, while the final “National Geographic Standard” shots are starting to go up on flickr (view them here) I’ve been posting Instagram edits taken during the trip. For those that follow my photography, for Instagram I post unique images, a blend of dSLR and iPhone 6 captured shots and/or HDR edits of the photos you’d see on flickr in a more true-to-life format. So, without further delay, here are 15 of my favorite Instagram shots from Cambodia.

 

An old Cambodian gentleman resting in front of Aangkor Wat.

A photo posted by Alex Berger (@virtualwayfarer) on

The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.

Amazing Local Thai Food Just Off Khao San Road in Bangkok

One of my absolute must-dos for Bangkok was to sync up with fellow Arizonan expat, and travel foodie master blogger and YouTube sensation Mark Wiens of Migrationology. His food updates from Asia over the last few years have inspired me, and left my mouth hankering for a visit to Southeast Asia. Of the various folks who inspired me to make the trip to Asia and got me VERY excited about eating my way across the region, the two at the forefront were Mark (Migrationology) and Jodi (Legal Nomads).

So, when it turned out Mark was going to be in town and free to grab a quick meal, I was thrilled. After a meetup down in the Khao San Road area, we set out to find and introduce me to some fantastic local Thai eats.

The place Mark and his lovely wife/co-camera woman took me to was situated about 5 minutes walk from the tourist district, fully authentic and situated at roughly at 243 Phra Sumen Rd.

We settled in and I left the ordering to them. What followed was a mouth-watering, aromatic, eye watering, flame breathing culinary adventure and intro to a number of new dishes I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet.

It was good, it was fresh, at times it was spicy and just like a good dish always inspires, I was left struggling not to pick up and lick every plate along the way.

I also learned some great advice and wisdom: Know all those veggies in many Thai soups? They’re there mostly for flavoring, not consumption. Turns out, all these years, I’ve essentially been eating the equivalent of the garnish and wondering why it was so intense and pallet annihilating.

So, without further adieu, here’s Mark introducing the dishes we tried. For more bite-by-bite introductions to amazing foods from the region hit up Mark’s blog. Even if you’re not a food person, you’re going to find yourself watching more than a few videos.

 

Follow Mark at Migrationology or jump straight to his YouTube Channel.

You can also see Mark and Andrew Zimmern take on Bangkok’s food scene here in his video here.