Recently, I re-discovered my 2010 Mongolia trip photos while searching my archives for images to submit to stock agencies. I’m now motivated to publish a few more blog posts about this intriguing country.
The traditional portable home for nomadic herders roaming the vast grassy steppes of Mongolia is the yurt, or ger as it’s called in Mongolian which literally means home.
Ger pepper the landscape throughout Mongolia and today between 30-40% of the country’s population (Source: Wikipedia) live in a ger, not only on the steppe but many in city suburbs.
Due to the nomadic nature of its occupants, a ger is designed to be dismantled easily and moved, so construction only takes about 2 hours.
A collapsible wooden lattice wall with a door frame supports long, roof poles and a circular crown leaving an opening for the central chimney. The entire framework is covered with layers of wool felt for warmth then ropes secure waterproof canvas over the top.
These photos show the stages of ger construction: the bare skeleton of wall lattice and roof poles, the entire framework covered in layers of felt, and the completed ger with the outer cover of waterproof canvas.
This is the last post in my Todos Santos series. The graves in this remote highland village in Guatemala were vibrantly painted and adorned with flowers and gaudy wreaths for All Saints’ Day or El Día de Todos Los Santos on November 1.
“The merry dance, beer in hand, in the grave choked hillside cemetery alongside marimba playing musicians.”
While visiting Todos Santos in the remote highlands of Guatemala during the festivities of El Día de Todos Los Santos or All Saints’ Day on November 1, I found these locals celebrating in the village cemetery.
Men clad in the unique village uniform danced unsteadily, beer in hand, among the tightly packed, painted graves to the typical Guatemalan soundtrack of marimba.
‘The festival continues as families pay their respects to departed loved ones, praying and decorating tombs with gaudy garlands.”
As in other areas of Guatemala, the remote village of Todos Santos just over 8000 feet above sea level in the northern Guatemalan highlands celebrates El Día de Todos Los Santos or All Saints’ Day on November 1.
Countrywide cemeteries are the heart of festivities. However, in Todos Santos locals also hold a unique horse race with Mayan roots; “…inebriated, traditionally clad locals race horses…. All-male jockeys, hardy residents of Todos Santos, spend a sleepless night beforehand ritualistically drinking themselves into an alcohol-induced stupor….”.
Below are a few shots of cemetery scenes taken on my arrival in Todos Santos on October 31 a couple of years ago.
While this post focuses on the cemetery, you can also check out Todos Santos: A Drunken Guatemalan Horse Race from where I took the extracts above.
Thai silk worms, caterpillars rather than worms, munch on mounds of mulberry leaves before using their spittle to form cocoons. Weavers soak these cocoons in boiling water to extract the silk thread from the cocooned caterpillar then hand reel the raw silk on wooden spindles.
After dyeing, they weave blends of colorful threads on traditional hand-looms making exquisite Thai silk cloth.
This post is the last in my series about artisans of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. I took these images in a Thai silk making and weaving workshop documenting some of the stages from silk worm cocoons to finished product.
For background on the origins and process of Thai silk making check out Wikipedia’s Thai Silk article. Also, the rest of my Chiang Mai artisan series: The Art of Making Traditional Thai Parasols, The Art of Wood Carving and The Art of Thai Lacquerware.
Continuing on from my series of artisan posts from the highland city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, this series of photos shows skilled artisans and their craft during various stages of the Thai lacquerware process.
Elephants, pots, boxes, trays, vases and plates, all different shapes and sizes, are just some of the lacquered handicrafts created. Engraved patterns gilded with gold leaf, broken eggshell inlays or delicate hand painted designs adorn them.
Check out the article Northern Thai Lacquerware for more information on the materials, methods and history of this exquisite art form. Also, my other Chiang Mai artisan posts The Art of Making Traditional Thai Parasols and The Art of Wood Carving.
In the highland city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I recently photographed various artisans at work.
Here’s a series of my images taken in a furniture workshop. Skillful wood carvers chisel intricate relief scenes from blocks of teak to create screens, sculptures and elaborate chairs while other artisans inlay delicate mother-of pearl designs decorating rosewood tabletops and cabinets.
Check out my previous post Chiang Mai Artisans: The Art of Making Traditional Thai Parasols.
During my recent trip to Chiang Mai in the northern highlands of Thailand, I visited handicraft workshops to watch artisans making traditional Thai parasols, silk, wood carvings and lacquered pots, boxes and ornaments.
This series of photos shows the parasol workshop and its artisans.
Changing the topic from my Phuket beach series, here are some photos of traditional Thai umbrellas or parasols. I stumbled on an outdoor exhibition of these colorful handicrafts during a golden hour walkabout around the streets of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Aquatic mayhem infects the kingdom during the Thai New Year Water Festival or Songkran when Thailand plunges into a frenetic nationwide water fight on the grandest scale. Not just child’s play, crowds hit the streets armed with hosepipes, water guns and cannons, pails and tubs to spray, splash and douse.
Pickup trucks stocked with barrels of icy water cruise along overflowing with drenched merrymakers showering anyone they pass, in turn receiving a deluge. Barefoot water warriors stand at the roadside targeting all who pass by, hurling bucketfuls of chilly water over motorcyclists, pedestrians and truck troopers.
Older Songkran traditions still thrive, a time to visit family, pay respect to elders, pray at Buddhist temples and leave offerings for monks. People cleanse Buddha images in homes and temples using fragrant water containing flower petals. The “blessed” water is then collected and gently poured over the hands and shoulders of elders to pay respect and bring good fortune. Throwing water in the streets originated from this custom as relief from the heat.
Shared with neighboring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, Songkran runs from 13 to 15 April each year in the hottest month at the end of the dry season. It has been a national holiday since 1940 when Thailand’s official start to the calendar year changed from the Thai New Year to 1 January to coincide with the Western business world. The Buddhist calendar however, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar, is still in use. The year 2013 is 2556 in Thailand!
Different parts of Thailand play with water for a varying number of days at Songkran. When I lived in Nakhon Sawan in central Thailand, it dragged on for about ten days but here in Phuket the law now allows it only on the 13th as they try to cut down on accidents. This was the first Thai New Year I dared get my camera out (from the relative safety of a doorway) and take some photos. Afterwards, I joined in the mayhem, splashing and soaking to my heart’s delight!
World famous for its Lent (Cuaresma) and Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations, Antigua and surrounding pueblos in the central highlands of Guatemala buzz with people, emotion and activities at this time of year more than any other. Families, friends, neighbors and communities spend hours together creating elaborate ceremonial carpets called alfombras along the route of religious processions.
Some make simple alfombras of pine needles strewn with flowers. Others create intricate, time-consuming works of art using stencils and sawdust (called aserrín) stained the varying hues of an artist’s palette. For these, they level a surface of sand or plain sawdust over the uneven cobblestones before sifting a fine layer of dyed sawdust to paint a colored background.
Placing their choice of cardboard or wooden stencils cut into various images and patterns on the blank canvas they carefully sift contrasting hues of sawdust to create the effect they want. Laying on platforms of sturdy planks of wood placed on blocks spanning the width of the alfombra, they avoid damaging their art.
After months of planning and hours of work and painstaking concentration, masterpieces carpet the cobbles in the path of processions only to be trampled moments later into an impressionistic mishmash between gray stones.
Here’s a photo tour of the elaborate process of alfombra-making! Click here to see all my Holy Week posts from previous years. For this year’s Semana Santa photos and all things Antigueño, check out Antigua Daily Photo.
Finally, the last of my Chinese New Year in Nakon Sawan, Thailand series!
Following on from the night parade of February 12 was the day parade the entire next day in sweltering heat and humidity.
Every Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan city a giant, glowing dragon tears gracefully through the streets parting the crowds, twisting and writhing its way up a towering, swaying bamboo pole before finally sinking into the murky waters of the Chao Phraya River.
Extravagant parades of florid floats and martial art displays, angels and goddesses, dancers and musicians fill the streets while Chinese lions perform ritual dances on the ground or leap dramatically from one vertical rod to another.
Here are some of my photos from the evening parade of February 12 that ran from 6 p.m. to midnight.
A belated Happy Chinese New Year!
Youths clad in garish Chinese lion masks and costumes prance nimbly, leaping in the air, twisting and rolling over on the ground in the ritualistic Chinese lion dance of Chinese New Year.
Bowing, they enter stores and homes bestowing good luck and receiving red envelopes of cash in their mouths from proprietors. The clash and beat of symbols and drums, the eardrum shattering crackle and acrid smoke of firecrackers deafen and choke in the stifling heat.
I followed different groups of Chinese lion dancers around the streets of Nakhon Sawan in central Thailand, photographing their colorful and energetic displays.
Daily evening performances of Chinese opera are a popular part of the Chinese New Year entertainment in Nakhon Sawan. Heavily made-up, elaborately clad performers strut and rant in lilting tones on gaudy, makeshift stages erected along the riverside.
Following are some Chinese opera photos taken during my visit to Nakhon Sawan this year during Chinese New Year.
Check out part 1 of Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan for a taster of the atmosphere and other events.
Back in Thailand after ten years away, I decided to revisit Nakhon Sawan (my home for three years before moving to Phuket) during Chinese New Year.
Famous for its large Thai-Chinese population and flamboyant Chinese New Year celebrations Nakhon Sawan attracts tens of thousands of national and international visitors every year during the festival.
The largest city in the central plains, governing the identically named province, Nakhon Sawan (meaning Heavenly City) is known locally as Pak Nam Pho. Here the Ping and Nan rivers merge forming the Chao Phraya that runs through the country’s capital Bangkok.
Spanning over 12 days, this year from 3-14 February, Chinese New Year banners, crimson decorations and glowing Chinese lanterns adorn streets, shopping malls, businesses and homes. Chinese opera, food stalls, temple fairs and open-air concerts and shows saturate the senses.
Here’s a taster of the atmosphere and some of the events running up to the parades on the 12-13 February.
My post Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 1 was just a taster of the thousands of alfombras created during Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua, Guatemala. As so many intricate details grabbed my attention, I had to break them down into separate posts.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) has come and gone again in Antigua, Guatemala along with thousands of ceremonial carpets known as alfombras, laid and destroyed in the path of processions.
This post is dedicated to details of these pieces of art made of dyed sawdust, pine needles, flowers, fruit and vegetables where biblical and Mayan themes, crosses and hearts predominate.
For more of my alfombra posts check out Holy Week in Antigua: Alfombras and Just Kids: The Art of Alfombras. For all my Semana Santa posts including processions and velaciones (Holy Vigils) click here. Also, Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 2 is now posted.
International Living recently published my article about a unique Guatemalan horse race with drunken Mayan jockeys. Below is my original submission with many more than the one photo published with the article.
My childhood dream was to explore the world, treading in the footsteps of past explorers while discovering the wonders of its landscapes and people for myself.
After many long stints of traveling and returning to save for my next trip I qualified as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher and spent over five incredible years teaching in Thailand before hitting Latin American soil.
AWAI travel writing and photography workshops opened doors to an entirely new world and I’m now based in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala living my dream as a travel writer and photographer.
Last year I headed with a friend to the remote village of Todos Santos just over 8000 feet above sea level in the northern Guatemalan highlands.
We went to witness the famous annual festival with inebriated, traditionally clad locals racing horses on All Saints’ Day on November 1. All-male jockeys, hardy residents of Todos Santos, spend a sleepless night beforehand ritualistically drinking themselves into an alcohol-induced stupor.
The following morning, families dress riders in the unique traditional uniform worn every day by male villagers, tough red and white striped pants with thick blue and white striped shirts trimmed with embroidered collar and cuffs.
For the race, they wear a ceremonial red sash and their everyday straw hat brims with streaming feathers and multi-colored ribbons symbolizing the sacred quetzal bird.
Helped onto the back of a horse, rented especially for the day, these inebriated jockeys set off unsteadily in a muddle of flying legs and flailing arms, whooping and singing loudly, pounding point to point along a short dirt track in the cold mist and drizzle.
With no official start or finish, riders stop briefly at each end of the track to snatch another mouthful of booze before wildly dashing back in a tattered group, hooves throwing clods of dirt in the faces of onlookers.
Some tumble in the mud but are quickly dragged out of the path of oncoming steaming, rain-soaked steeds by helpers along the track. The chaos continues for seven hours, stopping only for lunch, participants joining and leaving (usually when they’re too drunk to stay on the horse) the event as they wish.
Spectators are mainly colorfully clad locals from Todos Santos and surrounding settlements with a handful of outsiders. Crowding against the wooden railings or scrambling up a steep grassy incline for a birds-eye view, neither cheering nor clapping, each village’s distinctive costume clashes against its neighbor.
Like no other horse race I’ve seen, Skach Koyl as it’s called in mam the local Mayan language, is more a rite of passage than a competition as there’s no winner. Its roots are vague but most agree it began around the time of the Spanish conquest when the Spaniards introduced horses to the region.
Mayan tradition expects village men to participate four times in a lifetime. The final year on the last mad dash along the track the jockey brandishes a live chicken triumphantly as he rides. Later that night he eats the entire bird alone to signify the end of his obligation.
The festival continues as families pay their respects to departed loved ones, praying and decorating tombs with gaudy garlands. The merry dance, beer in hand, in the grave choked hillside cemetery alongside marimba playing musicians.
The intrigue of new people and places, customs, foods and festivals not only quenches my lust for travel and adventure but provides an income too. Trips like these can pay for themselves with a little effort in the field to take photos and gather fodder for articles. But when you’re living your dream, doing what you love, you can hardly call it work!
A path snakes its way through scrub and sparse trees over a rickety wooden footbridge and upwards to a trunk of steep steps. The tranquil, gaudily painted Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Center perches on a hillside backed by a rock face, overlooking a valley and gently undulating hills draped with conifers and rocky outcrops. Turtle Rock or Melkhi Khad as the locals call it, crouches in the distance.
We headed there while staying in a ger camp in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, about 55 km from Mongolia‘s capital Ulaanbaatar known affectionately as UB, for a couple of days relaxation after my younger brother’s wedding in the city.
After visiting Turtle Rock, we bumped along a dirt road (the norm in Mongolia) to the entrance gates of the meditation center and strolled along a path to its hilltop lookout. The hills of central Mongolia swept out to the horizon, greenness sloshing against the shore of blue sky.
From the arrival of Soviet communist rule in the 1920s until the 1990 democratic revolution, when freedom of religion was restored, the official “religion” in Mongolia was atheism.
During this time, particularly during the purges of the 1930s, communists destroyed most of the nation’s temples banning and almost wiping out Buddhism in Mongolia. Nowadays between 50-80% (depending on sources) of Mongolian people are Mahayana Buddhist.
Established in 1998 the Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Center is now visited by Buddhists worldwide.
Prayer wheels line the sides and rear of the center. According to Buddhist custom, to gain merit believers spin prayer wheels clockwise to follow the sun while rotating the syllables of the mantra in the direction they should be read.
The Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum written in Tibetan script (considered the classical language of Buddhism) adorns the outside of prayer wheels and prayers penned on pieces of paper fill the hollow interior.
Four different alphabets cover this sign. Along the left and right reading from top to bottom swirls the Classical Mongol Script. Abolished by the Mongolian government in 1941 due to Soviet pressure, since 1994 it’s been making a comeback although mostly for artistic decoration. The average modern-day Mongol has little knowledge of this beautiful script.
In the center is the now commonly used Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Adopted in 1937, there is a high literacy rate throughout the country.
Throughout Mongolia, Buddhist traditional ceremonial scarves known as khadag hang inside temples or flap in the wind on ovoos (stone shrines). Each color holds a different meaning but the use of blue khadag is very particular to Mongolian Buddhism. The color of respect, it symbolizes the sky, its roots dating back to the Mongol ancient shamanic worship of the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger). Present day Mongolian life combines both shamanistic and Buddhist beliefs.
Inside the meditation centre, paintings and wall hangings portraying Buddhist teachings, painted sacred symbols and shelves containing money offerings and prayers wrapped in orange cloth smother the walls in splashes of color.
Intricate paintings decorate the exterior roof eaves on three levels. Scenes from everyday Mongolian nomadic life lie below heavenly flowers while on the belly side rage gory depictions from hell.
Packs of runners of all ages, seasoned athletes or not, blast on whistles as they pound Guatemala’s streets, independence torches ablaze. Runners, spectators and parades crowd main squares and central parks, a festive buzz charging the air.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica proclaimed independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. This year they celebrated 190 years of autonomy.
Each year, for weeks beforehand, neighborhoods vibrate daily as student bands practice, the patriotic decorate windows and doorways with independence bunting and street vendors sell Guatemalan flags.
Runners charge excitedly through the streets all over the country on September 14, heading to city central plazas to fetch the independence flame from burning beacons for their community’s independence torch.
On September 15, colorful celebratory parades of brass bands and dancers boom and boogie their way for hours through streets teeming with expectant onlookers.
At 6 p.m., towns and cities nationwide hold civic ceremonies in their central squares. Speeches commemorate the signing of the Independence Act and pledge allegiance to the flag. The Guatemalan flag is then lowered while crowds solemnly sing the Himno Nacional, their national anthem.
These are some of my favorite images of the runners shot on September 14, 2009 and 2011 in Antigua, a favorite place for fetching the independence flame. Last year, due to severe weather causing treacherous landslides countrywide, authorities suspended the tradition for safety reasons.
As we headed out into the Mongolian countryside from the capital Ulaanbaatar we passed by modern colorful houses clashing against simple traditional gers in a landscape of sun splashed undulating hills and open steppe.
Not far from the city we stopped on the roadside for a close up look at a majestic golden eagle with its Kazakh eagle hunter.
Kazakh Eagle Hunters
Many Kazakhs fled over the border to western Mongolia several hundred years ago during the advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan bringing with them the ancient tradition of eagle hunting.
These eagle hunters usually train the larger, more aggressive female golden eagles, hunting with them from horseback during the extreme winter months, when the pelts of rabbit, marmot, fox and wolf are most luxuriant, before turning their prey into the famous Kazakh fur hats.
During summer, some offer passing tourists the chance to hold these giant weighty yet noble birds for a fee.
Throughout our travels in the countryside we passed ovoos. At crossroads, mountaintops and other high places, these piles of rocks and stones crowned with prayer flags fluttering in the wind color the landscape.
Mongolians customarily stop at ovoos during their travels, circling clockwise three times on foot and adding a rock to the pile believing this ritual would grant them a safe onward journey. Hasty travelers on four wheels suffice with a passing honk on the horn.
Ovoos are spiritual sites for worshiping the mountains, the sky and the revered sky deity Khokh Tenger (translating to “Blue Sky”). They’re also used for Buddhist ceremonies and act as landmarks in a terrain with almost no signposts. Worshipers insert sticks tied with traditional ceremonial blue (symbolizing the revered sky) silk scarves called khadag into the ovoo, chant prayers and leave food offerings.
Guatemalan kids love to express their creative side helping their parents in the art of making elaborate, vivid alfombras (carpets) of gaudily dyed aserrín (sawdust), pine needles, flowers and fruit during Semana Santa (Holy Week).
Engrossed in their handiwork, mostly oblivious to onlookers, they play with color and form. Laying flowers and petals on carpets of soft, scented pine needles or sifting, spooning and massaging with fingertips psychedelic sawdust into carved out shapes in wooden stencils: this is the ultimate art class for kids!
Here are just a few images captured in Antigua at this time.
Mothers dress up their young daughters in formal black and white, often covering their heads in lace shawls, and either carry or lead them while they take part in processions.
Like the boys, the girls too have their own procesiones infantiles, mini child processions where they carry their own andas (floats) helped by adults and chaperoned by their parents.
Here are a few photos of some girls in Antigua.