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Thailand’s Sweet Tooth: Decadent Desserts

Thais have a sweet tooth and a heavy hand with sugar in much of their cuisine but especially, as in any culture, in desserts and candies.

Following on from my post Thai Street Food: Tasting a Kingdom Stall By Stall here are a few popular Thai desserts.

Sadly, I don’t yet have a photo of my personal favorite, mango with sticky rice slathered in coconut milk and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It’s always gone before my camera comes out!

Banana roti with condensed milk and sugar, iced coffee and Chinese tea at a roadside eatery, desserts, Thailand

Banana roti with condensed milk and sugar, iced coffee and Chinese tea at a roadside eatery

Making roti on a street cart, desserts, Thailand

Making roti on a street cart

Folding a roti, desserts, Thailand

Folding a roti

Ready to eat! Banana roti drizzled with chocolate sauce, sliced and served on paper with wooden sticks to eat, desserts, Thailand

Ready to eat! Banana roti drizzled with chocolate sauce, sliced and served on paper with wooden sticks to eat

Selling kanom beu ung at a street stall, desserts, Thailand

Selling kanom beu ung at a street stall

Pieces of bamboo filled with khao lam (a mixture of sticky rice, coconut milk, black beans and taro root) cooking over charcoal at a street stall, desserts, Thailand

Pieces of bamboo filled with khao lam (a mixture of sticky rice, coconut milk, black beans and taro root) cooking over charcoal at a street stall

Kanom beu ung waiting for buyers at a street stall, desserts, Thailand

Kanom beu ung waiting for buyers at a street stall

Kanom pan ping (toasted bread drenched with condensed milk and sprinkled with sugar), iced coffee, and Chinese tea at a night stall, desserts, Thailand

Kanom pan ping (toasted bread drenched with condensed milk and sprinkled with sugar), iced coffee, and Chinese tea at a night stall


Thai Street Food: Tasting a Kingdom Stall By Stall

In Thailand, locals eat cheap, taste bud tickling street food every day, sweet, spicy, salty and sour; stir-fried, deep-fried and grilled. Flavors for every mood and palate, aroma drenched smoke drifting off sizzling woks and glowing grills.

Hawkers sell from makeshift stalls, carts and baskets, in streets, markets and temple fairs. Some already prepared dishes, others cooked to order, all seasoned with a variety of herbs and spices.

Here’s some of my favorite Thai street food photos to make your mouth water!

Selling meat and fish balls on sticks, street food, Thailand

Selling meat and fish balls on sticks.

Chicken, pork and fish balls, sausages and prawns on sticks, street food, Thailand

Chicken, pork and fish balls, sausages and prawns on sticks.

Assortment of grilled meats and fish on sticks, street food, Thailand

Assortment of grilled meats and fish on sticks.

Chestnut seller, Street food, Thailand

Chestnut seller.

Night market stall, street food, Thailand

Night market stall. Rice and noodle dishes made to order.

Fried rice, fried noodles, spring rolls and corn, street food, Thailand

Fried rice, fried noodles, spring rolls and corn.

Cart with medley of sausages and fries, street food, Thailand

Cart with medley of sausages and fries.

Deep fried chicken, giant grilled ribs and iced drinks, street food, Thailand

Deep fried chicken, giant grilled ribs and iced drinks.

Fried array of bugs, street food, Thailand

Fried array of bugs.

Fried bugs sold in tubs drizzled in soy sauce, street food, Thailand

Fried bugs sold in tubs drizzled in soy sauce.

More crispy fried bugs, street food, Thailand

More crispy fried bugs.

Vendors selling eggs cooked on portable charcoal grill, dried squid on sticks, peanuts and fruit, street food, Thailand

Vendors selling eggs cooked on portable charcoal grill, dried squid on sticks, peanuts and fruit.

Selling plastic cups filled with strawberries drenched in sugar, street food, Thailand

Selling plastic cups filled with strawberries drenched in sugar.

Yellow khao mok gai (a muslim dish with chicken) and meat balls, street food, Thailand

Yellow khao mok gai (a muslim dish with chicken) and meat balls.

Tort man pla (fish cakes) and kai nok ka ta (quail eggs), street food, Thailand

Tort man pla (fish cakes) and kai nok ka ta (quail eggs).

Dried squid, street food, Thailand

Dried squid.

Deep fried chicken and sticky rice (khao neeow), street food, Thailand

Deep fried chicken and sticky rice (khao neeow).

Grilled meat, street food, Thailand

Grilled meat.

Grilled fish, street food, Thailand

Grilled fish.

Deep fried potato twists on sticks, street food, Thailand

Deep fried potato twists on sticks.

Deep-fried and grilled chicken, street food, Thailand

Deep-fried and grilled chicken.

Squid on sticks served with chili sauce, street food, Thailand

Squid on sticks served with chili sauce.

Grilled prawns and squid on sticks, street food, Thailand

Grilled prawns and squid on sticks.

More squid and meat on sticks, street food, Thailand

More squid and meat on sticks.

Fried meats, sticky rice and pork cake, street food, Thailand

Fried meats, sticky rice and pork cake.

Meats and fish on sticks, street food, Thailand

Meats and fish on sticks.


Songkran: Thai New Year Water Festival

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!

Songkran (Thai New Year) water fight, Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Roadside mayhem!

Songkran (Thai New Year) water fight, Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Motorcycle target!

Songkran (Thai New Year) water fight, Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Kids enjoying the fun!

Songkran (Thai New Year) water fight, Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Cooling off!

Ice truck, Songkran (Thai New Year), Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Buying ice from an ice truck to chill water for throwing.

Soaked with faces smeared in white powder. Songkran (Thai New Year), Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Soaked with faces smeared in white powder.

Ice buyers become victims of icy water, Songkran (Thai New Year), Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Ice buyers become victims of icy water!

Pickup truck armed with barrel of water gets a drenching, Songkran (Thai New Year), Karon, Phuket, Thailand

Pickup truck armed with barrel of water gets a drenching.


Holy Week in Antigua – A Close up of Alfombra Making

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.

Spraying a completed sawdust alfombra with water to stop it drying and blowing away in the wind, Antigua, Guatemala

Spraying a completed sawdust alfombra with water to stop it drying and blowing away in the wind

Making alfombras all Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) night for the early morning Good Friday (Viernes Santo) procession, Antigua, Guatemala

Making alfombras all Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) night for the early morning Good Friday (Viernes Santo) procession

Making alfombras all Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) night for the early morning Good Friday (Viernes Santo) procession, Antigua, Guatemala

Making alfombras all Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) night for the early morning Good Friday (Viernes Santo) procession

Making alfombras all Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) night for the early morning Good Friday (Viernes Santo) procession, Antigua, Guatemala

Making alfombras all Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) night for the early morning Good Friday (Viernes Santo) procession

Dyed sawdust (aserrín) for making alfombras, Antigua, Guatemala

Dyed sawdust (aserrín) for making alfombras

Stencils for making alfombras, Antigua, Guatemala

Stencils for making alfombras

Lying on raised wooden planks to decorate and avoid damaging alfombras, Antigua, Guatemala

Lying on raised wooden planks to decorate and avoid damaging alfombras

Close up of dyed sawdust (aserrín) and stencil, Antigua, Guatemala

Close up of dyed sawdust (aserrín) and stencil

Adding detail using dyed sawdust (aserrín) and stencil, Antigua, Guatemala

Adding detail using dyed sawdust (aserrín) and stencil

Sifting a base of dyed sawdust (aserrín), Antigua, Guatemala

Sifting a base of dyed sawdust (aserrín)

Sifting blue sawdust (aserrín) flowers on to the orange base using a cardboard stencil, Antigua, Guatemala

Sifting blue sawdust (aserrín) flowers on to the orange base using a cardboard stencil

Arranging fresh flowers around the alfombra, Antigua, Guatemala

Arranging fresh flowers around the alfombra

A simple alfombra of leaves and flowers, Antigua, Guatemala

A simple alfombra of leaves and flowers

Scattering natural colored sawdust on a pine needle alfombra, Antigua, Guatemala

Scattering natural colored sawdust on a pine needle alfombra

Flower and pine needle alfombra, Antigua, Guatemala

Flower and pine needle alfombra

Using wooden stencils for intricate dyed sawdust alfombra, Antigua, Guatemala

Using wooden stencils for intricate dyed sawdust alfombra

Different hues of dyed sawdust, Antigua, Guatemala

Different hues of dyed sawdust

Showing scale and intricacy of dyed sawdust alfombra, Antigua, Guatemala

Showing scale and intricacy of dyed sawdust alfombra

Stunning detail of rear view of a Guatemalan indigenous woman, Antigua, Guatemala

Stunning detail of rear view of a Guatemalan indigenous woman

Crowds admiring the completed alfombra moments before the procession walks over it, Antigua, Guatemala

Crowds admiring the completed alfombra moments before the procession walks over it


Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan Part 5: Day Parade

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.

For my earlier posts, check out: Lanterns, Dragons and DancersChinese Opera; and Chinese Lion Dance.

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Thai Flowers: Lotus Buds & Orchid Blooms

Friend and fellow blogger Nicole of Thirdeyemom who I had the pleasure of taking on a whirlwind photographic tour of Antigua in Guatemala, my home town for five years, inspired me to publish a post on flowers of Thailand.

To brighten those last cold, bleak wintry days this is for you Nicole and for anyone else not lucky enough to rove where I do!

A random collection of luscious orchid, lotus, hibiscus and marigold blooms I’ve photographed from Phuket to Chiang Mai. Thai flowers that color everyday life here.

Earth laughs in flowers.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Hamatreya”

Temple lotus blooms, Chiang Mai, Thailand Orchids, Chiang Mai, Thailand Hibiscus flower, Phuket old town, Thailand Temple offerings: marigolds, incense & lotus flower, Chiang Mai, Thailand Orchids, Chiang Mai, Thailand Flowering jackfruit tree, Chiang Mai, Thailand Orchids, Phuket old town, Thailand Temple offerings: lotus flowers, Chiang Mai, Thailand Red flower, Phuket old town, Thailand Orchids, market, Krabi, Thailand Orchids, Chiang Mai, Thailand Temple offerings: lotus flowers & marigolds, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan Part 4: Night Parade

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.

For my earlier Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan posts check out: Lanterns, Dragons and DancersChinese Opera; and Chinese Lion Dance.

A belated Happy Chinese New Year!

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Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan Part 3: Chinese Lion Dance

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.

Check out my posts on Chinese opera and other Chinese New Year events.

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Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan Part 2: Chinese Opera

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.


Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan Part 1: Lanterns, Dragons and Dancers

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.


Soi Romanee: Old Phuket Town’s Ex-Red Light District

Pastel stained Sino-Portuguese shop-houses, elaborate Chinese shrines, golden Thai temples and Sino-Colonial decaying mansions color the streets of Old Phuket Town.

This history rich pocket of the city traces back to Phuket’s tin mining boom. Nowadays, it’s a busy commercial center of cafés, restaurants, stores and tiny printing shops lit at night by Chinese lanterns glowing crimson between arches and shuttered doorways.

Soi Romanee, a lane of vibrant renovated buildings in the heart of Old Town, was the red light district for Chinese laborers working in the tin mines. Now, it’s mostly home to mixed Thai-Chinese families with a splattering of guesthouses and cafés.

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Antigua’s Volcanoes: Fuego and Acatenango

Following on from my post of Volcán de Fuego erupting here are some tranquil views of the volcano nudging its twin-peaked companion Volcán Acatenango, two of the three volcanoes surrounding Antigua.


Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego: An Erupting Volcano

A river of scorching lava blazed and flowed from the crater’s rim as fire shot out of its belly.  Last night Volcán de Fuego or volcano of fire, one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala and one of the three volcanoes overlooking Antigua, erupted furiously.

Privileged to witness the spectacle from my rooftop terrace I watched and photographed it until after midnight. Here are just a couple of the shots I took.


Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 2

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.


Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 1

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.


Todos Santos: A Drunken Guatemalan Horse Race

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!


Antigua: A Highland Colonial City In the Land of Eternal Spring

Volcanoes soar into cobalt blue skies creating a surreal backdrop to the highland colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala, nicknamed the land of eternal spring.

Blossoms cascade and fountains gush in leafy plazas while a patchwork of low candy-colored buildings cheerfully clash against the muted tones of earthquake torn ruins and tidy grid of gray cobblestone streets.

Although I never tire of wandering the crisscross of quaint avenues and alleys and am never short of photo fodder, a recent visit from a fellow blogger re-opened my eyes to its unique beauty as I led her on a whirlwind tour of my adopted hometown. Thank you Nicole of thirdeyemom!


Lago de Atitlán: One lake and Volcanoes, Volcanoes, Volcanoes

Dramatic, ethereal volcanoes, summits softly draped in swathes of cloud, crouch serenely across an expanse of shimmering, rippling water. A melody of gently lapping waves and the breathless sighs of breeze-tickled leaves create a soothing soundtrack while the scent of exotic blooms wafts delicately through the air.

Formed in an enormous ancient caldera at 1,560 meters (5,120 feet) above sea level in the western highlands of Guatemala, and 18 kilometers long (11 miles), Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlan) is recognized as the deepest lake in Central America, reaching depths of around 340 meters (1,115 feet).

Three volcanoes dominate its southern fringe, Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro, the latter two emerging from the lakeside.

Mayan culture prevails among the largely indigenous population of the various villages freckling the shoreline, many reached by dirt roads, some only by boat. Predominantly Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil, speaking different languages, inhabitants still practice ancient traditions and wear the typical hand-woven garb of their ancestors.

Tourism is a top income earner for the area. As one of Guatemala’s natural treasures and a highlight on any globetrotter’s itinerary, many jaded travelers believe it’s the world’s most beautiful lake.

Panajachel, the main town on the lake’s shores and the jumping off point to smaller lakeside villages, is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the popular colonial city of Antigua. Agriculture, primarily coffee and corn also boost the economy.

I spent a chilled out Christmas in Santa Cruz la Laguna, a sleepy pueblo accessed only by boat or foot.  At the tranquil lakeside Hotel Arca de Noé, lush gardens tumble down to the water’s edge and volcano vistas dominate the horizon, soothing the soul.

The lake changes guise as wistful breeze or surly gale whip up the sleek, glassy surface, the ever-shifting light reflecting off its belly creating varying hues of metallic gray, emerald green and turquoise.


Climb for Life: Guatemala’s Protest against Violence

Sweating and choking on dust as it coated our skin and clothes in thick layers we slowly climbed the narrow path up the side of the extinct Volcán de Agua (Water Volcano), that looms 3,765 m (12,352 feet) above the colonial city of Antigua, about 45 km from the capital Guatemala City.

But this was no ordinary volcano hike. We were far from alone.

On January 21 around 12,000 people took part in the campaign “Subida por la Vida” or “Climb for Life” to protest Guatemala’s domestic violence. Hoping to change cultural attitudes with a call for peace and love while raising funds for its victims, activists joined hands up the volcano’s slopes to her summit, aiming to form a record-breaking human chain.

A Guatemalan flag was then passed over heads along the chain to the top amidst patriotic cheers while about 1,500 people stood holding hands in the crater forming the shape of a giant, possibly record-breaking heart.

British ambassador Julie Chappell hiked with the hordes, her embassy having helped fund and organize the campaign while national and international media helicopters buzzed overhead filming the event creating whirlwinds of dust as they landed.

Security was high with a heavy presence of armed national police and soldiers as Guatemala’s new President, Otto Perez Molina was among those taking part.

Here are the photos I took that day although as I only climbed about half way up I didn’t get shots of the crater and views from the summit. For those, check out these photos.


The Darling Buds of Guatemala: Lakeside Blooms

Vibrant exotic blooms wrestle for the limelight against spectacular lakeside scenery dominated by conical-shaped volcanoes. Guatemala exudes color both natural and manmade and the shores of Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlan), a glistening treasure in the Western highlands about 150 kilometers from colonial Antigua, are no exception.

These beauties begged my attention as I wandered along the shoreline gardens of Hotel Arca de Noé in Santa Cruz La Laguna where I spent a peaceful Christmas cocooned in the arms of Mother Nature. Eye catching form and color at almost every step, it’s an outdoor lover’s Eden.

The early morning glow caressing blooms picked by the hotel owner from her verdant lakeshore gardens also pleaded a click of the shutter.

The lake with its stunning volcano views deserves a separate post.


Aryapala: A Modern Mongolian Meditation Center

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.

Along the top is Tibetan and finally, an English translation lies at the foot of the sign.

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.

Swastikas (a holy symbol of good fortune in Buddhism) and Yin Yang (a symbol representing perfect balance) also adorn the outside.


Guatemala: 190 Years of Independence

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 Nacionaltheir 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.


Salto de Chilascó: Central America’s Highest Waterfall

In ankle-length skirt and dance pumps, our 12-year old guide Verónica led us daintily along the windy, muddy path between steep fields of broccoli and maize upwards into the pristine mist-shrouded cloud forest, known as el bosque nuboso.

We were headed towards the remote Salto de Chilascó, claimed by locals to be Central America´s highest waterfall at 130 meters. It lies deep in the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve in north-central Guatemala in the largest cloud forest in Central America.

The path at times left us floundering and slithering in a quagmire of mud, a drawback of hiking in the rainy season (although the cloud forest is humid year round) but the upside was the impressive volume of water cascading down from the mountaintop through lush vegetation.

The only sign of humanity we came across were a returning group of three hikers with their guide near the trailhead and a handful of campesinos on foot and horseback resting or headed to their tracts of crops.

As we climbed from hand-tilled patches of land to cloud forest, we were engulfed in the luxuriant growth of trees swimming with vivid orchids and lush giant bromeliads and ferns thriving in the heavy moisture. A tiny cobra surprised us as it slithered delicately off the narrow path, then a giant shiny beetle with snapping pincers stopped us in our tracks.

We heard the roar of water long before reaching the mirador, where we first glimpsed the lofty falls almost hidden behind a mesh of swirling cloud, about an hour from the start of the trail. Another 20 minutes downhill and we reached a closer viewpoint of the thundering, towering torrent of water. We would’ve descended to the cataract’s belly but due to heavy rainfall in the morning forcing us to start late, we had little daylight to play with so turned back.

It’s a trip for the active and adventurous and by far the easiest way to get there is to hire a car, or alternatively Aventuras Turisticas can run tours during the dry season around March to May.

From Guatemala City take the highway to Cobán in Alta Verapaz, turning off at Km. 145 signposted to Chilascó and continue along the dirt road for 12 kilometers. The village of San Rafael Chilascó is 157 kilometers from the capital.

Stop at the Centro Turístico to pay an admission fee of $4.50 and hire a guide for the same amount. There is also the option of going on horseback for about $13/hour. Verónica’s father, the Tourism administrator, welcomed us warmly and was very keen to get more visitors to the falls. Wet weather gear and good walking boots are advisable during the rainy season and can be rented very cheaply at the tourist center.

Drive about two kilometers to the parking lot by the trailhead and trek another three kilometers to the falls. Take a separate path to the smaller Saltito where you can swim before taking another trail down to the imposing Salto de Chilascó. Verónica told us that the waterfall was only discovered in 1995. Since then, scant visitors (due to its remoteness) have left no obvious impact on the area and the trail remains unspoiled.

A tranquil place to stay just a few kilometers away is the eco-lodge Ram Tzul set in a private nature reserve. It has an imposing restaurant/reception building that they claim to be the largest bamboo construction in Central America! Private cabins cost $35/double and have lavish wooden interiors and ample windows overlooking vistas of forest and hills. Outdoor activities in this sanctuary include walking trails, horseback riding, mountain biking, bird watching and camping.