This year we continued with our goal to visit more parts of Spain. This year we visited, Vallodid, Salamanca and Toledo. In Valladolid we did a hot air balloon ride with VallaGlobo over this lovely city. Roberto the owner and our pilot is a great character and host. Here is a short video taken with a Insta360 One x and DJI Osmo Pocket cameras. I hope you enjoy.
We stayed in the La Siesta Spa Hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter. I love the Old Quarter, the French Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake. I think I could spends days or weeks just wandering around the streets taking it all in and taking photos.
It has a great buzz, it’s chaotic, it’s friendly, it’s mad and it’s fun. You need your wits about you to walk the streets, with bikes, cars and scooters coming at you from every angle.
I first came to Vietnam about 7 years ago while volunteering with the Irish Haemophilia Society and I can see some changes, more cars and better infrastructure and some more prosperity. But the people I met on that first trip are still as friendly and helpful as ever. They are very kind and giving of their time and friendship to invite us out to lunch and dinner and even into their homes. It is quite touching to meet people who are so friendly and caring, they certainly made our trip to Hanoi so enjoyable.
Highlights from Hanoi:
- Meeting with old friends
- Visiting the Long Bien railway bridge and the railway tracks
- Minh Binh Jazz Club
- Sharon loved her massage.
- Our lovely hotel La Siesta Ma Mai street
- Wandering the streets of the Old & French Quarters and taking it all in.
Well bye for now Hanoi and bye Vietnam, perhaps some day we will make it back again.
And now some photos.
The next part of our journey takes us to Hoi An for 4 days and then Hue for 2.
The last time we were in Hoi An, November 2017, we got the tail end of the Damrey Typhoon which did a fair bit of damage in its track. We saw the floods in the Ancient Town and surrounding areas and you can read more here
From Saigon we fly to Da Nang a city with over 1 million inhabitants. It is a coastal city with beautiful natural sandy beaches. You can see huge investment from China and South Korea to build 5 star resorts along the beaches and in a few years you can perhaps imagine it being like Miami. A drive through the city and you can see Skyscrapers, fancy bridges and wide streets being built, further signs of how well Vietnam is coming along. Hoi An is about a 45 minute drive from Da Nang.
Old Town Hoi An is an ancient trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The historic district is maintained a few streets back from the riverside and undoubtedly the nighttime illumination of the streets by its colourful lanterns gives it its great charm. At night boats lit up with lanterns sail up and down with tourists and paper lanterns are lowered into the river to give a beautiful perspective.
It is of course heavily commercialised with tailor shops (a particular attraction, there must be about a hundred around the town), coffee shops, restaurants and souvenir shops a plenty, and of course street vendors trying to sell you fruit, or hand made cards, or just posing for photographs for a small fee!
Nonetheless it is a very pleasant experience to wander up and down the streets, visiting some of the historical landmarks like the Japanese Bridge or a Pagoda or an historic house, or just perusing the shops, eating or getting a coffee.
My favourite experiences this trip were:
- Just strolling around the Ancient Town, day & night, taking photos and absorbing it all in.
- Dining in the Secret Garden Restaurant, a fantastic restaurant hidden in the side streets. Lovely setting and exquisite food!
- Eating in Miss Lien Thao’s tiny street restaurant where we met Annabelle and Mike from London. Completely at the other spectrum of dining, where she had 3 long tables and cooked for 30 people on a tiny cooking stove with two rings! But great food.
- Visiting the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum.
This museum was a great find, it featured the photography of Rehahn a French portrait photographer who visited Vietnam and who over a number of years from 2011 began taking portraits of Vietnamese old and young. It developed into a project where he drove on his motorcycle around the extremities of Vietnam to photograph all or most of the 50+ different ethnic races that make up Vietnam. He also collected samples of their native clothing, which are now very rare. Many of these costumes now appear in his Museum with portraits of the owners and a short description of the person, their regions and details on how the clothes are made and dyed. It is a fascinating gallery/museum and his photography is stunning and you can see how he makes a connection with person. Well worth a view:
He also has a very good mobile app you can use to get the experience and story without having to come to Hoi An.
We visited Hue for two days and stayed in a lovely resort called the Pilgrimage Village. Initially we intended to just chill out here for Sharon’s birthday but then headed into the Imperial City where we spent a very hot morning, but it was well worth the visit.
Hue of course played a very important part of the American/Vietnam war, where many parts of the Imperial City were destroyed, but now many have been restored.
Photos Hoi An
Photos from Hue Imperial Citadel
Vietnam is an up and coming economy from, at one point, one of the poorest regions of Southeast Asia, to number 47 in the world pushing it up into the middle income range of nations.
No where is this more evident than the powerhouse that is Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Signs of growing prosperity abound, new skyscrapers, we visited the impressive Skydeck at the Bitexco Building, high end boutiques, Versace, Christian Dior, Burberry, Channel, Cartier, Samsung has a big presence, the new Metro being built in a joint venture with Japan. Large hotels with rooftop bars and swimming pools, especially where we stayed in District 1, where a beer can cost 98,000 VD (about €3.74) but locals can get the same beers for 13,000VD in residential areas. Simple things like being able to pay for food & drink with debit and credit cards. There are many more cars here than say Hanoi, and the infrastructure is advancing quicker.
However, from a tourist perspective Saigon doesn’t hold the same charm as, say, Hoi An or the Old Quarter in Hanoi. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our visit. The War Remnants Museum is a powerful if somewhat harrowing experience showing the inhumanity of man to his fellow man. There is some beautiful colonial architecture like the beautiful Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and The Central Post Office. There are some great markets to browse around. Plenty of good restaurants and bars to frequent! Further out you can visit the Mekong Delta for a different experience and the Cu Chi tunnels are famous, there are a few islands off the mainland popular as seaside resorts as well.
Happily we met with a young Irish ex-pat who has lived for the last two years in Saigon and it was great to get a his perspective on Saigon. He agreed that from a touristic point of view Saigon doesn’t hold the same charms as other places further north but as a place to live it can’t be beaten. The people are very friendly, it has a constant warm year round temperature whereas further north there are clearer seasons where it can get quite cold and houses, in his view, aren’t built to deal with the cold. He can live with the rainy season as long as he doesn’t have to put up with the cold. He loves the food, it’s much easier to live a healthier life style. The cost of living is very low. There is a buzz about the place and economically the place is doing well, he believes there are more venture capitalists and people investing in Vietnam than any other places in Southeast Asia. What does he miss? Well apart from family, is live music in pubs and bars like back home in Dublin. He certainly intends to spend another couple of years here before deciding where to next.
We thoroughly enjoyed our short trip to Ho Chi Minh City, apparently we picked the ideal time of year, although the temperature was in the low to mid thirties it was not humid and it was very bearable. This is the cool season !!😉 One highlight was a qualifying match for the U23 soccer team against Brunei. They had installed about 10 huge TV screens along Hue Walking Street and it was great to see the crowds out to watch the match. We also had a few lovely meals, Vietnamese food is special and I think it’s great!
Now off to Hoi An, the last time we were there, November 2017 we were met with the afters of a huge Cyclone/Storm that flooded many businesses/bars/ships/restaurants along the rivers edge and a few streets back. Flooding like this apparently is quite frequent and it is amazing to see how quickly they recover. Hopefully better weather this time!
To finish a few photos from Saigon.
Sharon and I head back to, maybe, my favourite country, Vietnam. So excited to be heading back to Vietnam for the culture, food, experiences, the people, and to meet some friends.
This time we head to Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi and we finish with a few days with our friends in the fantastic Sarnelli House orphanage in Nong Khai, Thailand.
I have to thank Imelda McCarthy from TravelCounsellors for making or travel arrangements, highly recommended.
My last trip to Ho Chi Minh City was a little rushed and I didn’t get as good a feel for it as Hanoi. So really looking forward to getting more time there and getting to know it better.
The food in Vietnam is some of the best there is, so anticipating some new dishes and experiences in this busy city.
La Rioja, a region of Spain a few hours north of Madrid. We visited it for 5 days in June 2018 and we were stunned at how beautiful this area is. The food, wine, people, scenery, villages and country side are just amazing and well worth a visit.Read More
Here are a selection of the photographs Sharon took in Vietnam while we were there in November 2017.
In November I head for Vietnam for my 3rd trip, this time Sharon came with me so I was worried if she would like it as much as I do. Also since I wanted to take photos I gave her a camera as well. This sort of backfired as she got better photos :-) We visited Hanoi, a 2 night cruise in Halong Bay and finally 6 nights in Hoi An.
I love Hanoi, it's vibrant, brash, busy, noisy full of motor cycles, but the people are friendly and happy and Vietnamese food is amazing. We stayed in a really nice hotel in the Old Quarter. In reality I think I would happily stay for weeks in Hanoi, wandering the streets taking it all in and getting photographs. The last time we were in Vietnam we went to SaPa in the north of the country on the Chinese border but I remembered that when we took the train you could virtually put you arms out the windows and touch the houses. I wanted to visit the tracks and see how people lived along the tracks. It was great fun and we met some nice people in particular a young lady selling her own clothing designs in a shop on the tracks. I will head back here again.
We also met some good friends we made at a previous trip to visit the Haemophili Centre in a hospital. Dr Mai and her family were really nice to invite us to her house for a meal and we had a great night. On the Friday Minh and Hang took us out for a lunch and showed us around Hanoi, another lovely afternoon.
Halong Bay was a great peaceful break after hectic Hanoi. We spent two nights on a lovely junk, it was spacious, lovely bedroom, great food and excursions to some of the islands, caves and villages on the bay.
Hoi An is an amazing place, my daughter recently did a tour of Southeast Asia and it was her favourite. We were a bit apprehensive heading out as it was just at the end of a fierce storm the Damrey Typhoon which sadly killed 89 people, injured a further 174 and caused huge damage. However we had fantastic travel agents Exotic Voyages (link) who looked after us very well and they had arranged a five star replacement hotel for our first two nights. This is the second time I have used Exotic Voyages (Myanmar 2014) and they are fantastic.
What amazed us was the strength of character and resilience of the locals. They have regular floods, in one restaurant two streets from the river we could see the water line above our heads where the river water had reached. Yet within days and as the water receded the shops and streets were cleaned and up and open again. Of course it might have been due to the APEC conference in Danang and visiting dignitaries to Hoi An! We had a few trips arranged with Exotic Voyages that were great fun, a cooking lesson, trip to My Son Sanctuary, and tour around Hoi An. Sharon had a dress made and me a bamboo shirt. Overall a great experience and a place I would head back to along with Hanoi.
This week I was putting together a photo book of photographs we took in Sarnelli House orphanage last October. Sarnelli House is an orphanage in northeast Thailand, where our friends Kate and Brian have worked for a number of years. I have written about Sarnelli House before see here and here, and you can see their own web site at this link. I won’t repeat what I said previously except to say it is really great to see the work being done and to meet the children in particular the two girls we sponsor. I recently became aware of comments by J.K. Rowling, the famous author and founder of the Lumos Charitable Foundation, who speaks against Orphanages, seer their website here. The basic premise is that children belong in families and not orphanages. They believe that children belong in loving families being brought up by their parents or other family members where the parents are not around anymore. In truth I can’t disagree with this. They believe that children can’t get the love and comfort they need and that the orphanage environment harms their development, can involve abuse of different varieties and can ultimately lead them to lives of crime, prostitution and worse. This is probably true for some or maybe even many orphanages.
However, I am pleased to have found that this is not the case at Sarnelli House. They look after around 150 children spread over 6 houses in a few villages. Of course these children have many challenges in their lives, and of course they would be better at home with two loving parents, but simply this is not the case.
In the late 1990’s Fr Shea worked with victims of the AIDS epidemic in Thailand. Typical of the reaction to the AIDS epidemic around the world, many victims were banished from their villages, friends and even their families, forced to leave their homes and live in hovels. Fr. Shea and the Redemptorists brought them food, medicine and compassion. Eventually the parents died and left children, most of whom also had AIDS, and as no one wanted them they were left to fend for themselves. In response to this catastrophe Fr Shea founded Sarnelli House. Much more detail can be found on the Sarnelli House website.
The children receive an education and in fact some of the older children are encouraged to do 3rd level education and are supported through this by the orphanage. Where children have families, they are healthy and have access to required medication and the environment is safe to do so they are supported to return home, if not full time then for parts of the year, so that they can be re-introduced to families. However, in some cases a number of families are so poor but have a child willing to learn and work they will ask the orphanage to take the children to feed, clothe and educate them in order to give the child a better life then they can give them. A purely loving and selfless act to give their child a better life. In other cases the children are abused at home even by their own families and they need to be taken away for their safety.
Sarnelli House also has an extensive nurse led outreach programme to support children and families in the local villages that need support (food, clothes and medicine) to survive or have an improved life. This provides help and support to families without having to take children into the orphanage and helps the family as a whole and not just the child.
They also have self-sufficiency programmes to be able to supply their own food. The use their land for paddy fields to crow and process their own rice, raise pigs, chickens, ducks, and have their own fish ponds, and gardens for vegetables and fruit. Where they have surpluses they can sell to support the Sarnelli House. In addition this gives some of the children skills and experience that they can use in later life, and indeed gives some of them employment.
On the day we arrived the orphanage was having a sports day, where the staff and volunteers were entertaining the children and it was fantastic to see the children have so much fun. It was inspiring to see the children so healthy, happy and enjoying themselves. I’m not so naïve as to think that their lives are perfect. I’m sure they have their own demons and have challenging lives, but compared to how their lives could have been Sarnelli House is truly a sanctuary where they receive love and support to reach their potential and be nurtured as they grow into adults.
In October I took my DJI Spark to Cloghleagh bridge to do some video. I finally got around to editing and publishing it. I hope you enjoy.
Last year, in October 2016, was the first time Sharon and I visited our friends Kate and Brian in Sarnelli House orphanage. The orphanage does fantastic work looking after over 150 children of all ages and many with HIV. You can read more here about the great work that they do and my previous post. Sarnelli House is located in northern Thailand in Nong Khai not far from the Mekong river that divides it from nearby Laos. This year we decided to visit Sarnelli House and then continue on for a holiday in Vietnam.
We were really looking forward to seeing Brian and Kate, meeting Fr Shea, the staff and the children/teenagers. However, this year we had the added anticipation of meeting the two children we sponsor.
It is the end of the school holidays and when we arrive they are having a sports day in the community hall. We sneak in the front door and watch the antics and activities. Looking around to see if I can see the child I sponsor. I catch a glimpse of her down the hall sitting on the floor and chatting with her friends. She looks up and sees me. She jumps up, races down the hall, and gives me a huge hug. One of the greatest feelings you can ever get!
We have to thank Brian & Kate who looked after us so well, and Fr Shea who made us feel so welcome.
This summer on my summer holidays I brought my all time favourite camera, the Fujifilm X-T2 and one lens, the XF18-55 standard kit lens, which is by no means standard as it's a great lens. However, I never took it out once in the two weeks I was there. I took all my photos with my DxO ONE camera.
DxO was created in 2003 and is best known for DxOMark, a trusted industry standard for camera and lens image quality measurements and ratings. It also produces DxO Analyser and other software. So they have a history in knowing what makes good cameras and lenses to make good images.
The DxO One is their first camera. It's compact and lightweight, with it's own battery and microSD port, a small OLED touchscreen but it also has a lightning connector that allows it to be connected directly to an iPhone which transforms into the DxO One's viewfinder and which gives the photographer complete control over the camera, just like a DSLR.
What I like is the portability of the system, the quality of the images, the fact it can be used with or without the iPhone, accessories are available for underwater or around water and sand, there are some cons but I'll cover them later. What I also like is that similar to Fujifilm they have a culture of continuous improvement. They improve the camera with upgrades through firmware updates with really gives you a new camera with extra functionality. They also improve the software for processing the files meaning the quality of the images improve.
You can get details of the camera
But some of the key specifications are:
1" sensor, the same sensor used in the popular and highly rate Sony RX100 III
20.2 megapixels, Resolution: 5472 x 3648
f/1.8 max aperture
32mm focal length fixed (equivalent)
Max shutter speed 1/8000 sec
ISO AUTO, 100-12800
Photos taken in RAW, Super Raw & JPEG
Video MPEG4, 1080(30p), 720(120p)
Weight 108 grams
Dimensions (cm): H 6.75, W 2.5, D 4.8
Internal Micro SD with micro USB port for charging and file transfer to PC/MAC
Built in wireless
Specialist software to process the images to fullest potential
Raw images can be processed with Lightroom and Photoshop, with Lightroom having a plugin to the DxO software
The camera can be used in 3 modes, the most common will be attached to an iPhone (or iPad) with a lightening connector and the DxO ONE app.
In this mode the iPhone acts as the monitor for the camera and using touch the focus point can be set. There are full camera controls with: PSAM modes, Fully automatic, scene modes, exposure compensation, 3 focus modes, ISO and white balance. Photos can be taken in JPEG, RAW (DNG) or a special DxO Super RAW image quality. Super RAW has been specially designed for low-light or very high ISO situations. This method combines 4 success shots into a single RAW file. The images are taken automatically and within milliseconds of each other. The DxO software processes the images to reduce both spatial and temporal noise. The results are generally very good particularly when there is no movement of the camera or the subject. The images are recorded to the microSD card in the camera but the images including RAW flies can be transferred to the phone to be processed using applications like Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile.
The second mode is using the camera on its own without an attached iPhone. Initially it was a matter of estimating where the subject is and trying to keep the camera level. In this mode it is not possible to set the controls of the camera. There are three options which can be selected by sliding your finger across the small OLED screen on the back of the camera. You can select a fully automatic mode, the last used selection when the camera was attached to the iPhone and video mode. I have used it in this manner quite successfully. However, there was an upgrade in one of the firmware updates that allowed the small monitor on the back of the camera to provide what they call framing assistance.
In the photo above you can see an outline of the my hand and the candles on the table on the back of the camera. It is a huge advantage allowing you to select the focus point (by half pressing the photo button) and then re-framing the image as required. I regularly use this feature as I normally use Program mode in my photography anyway, though occasionally, when required, I'll set the camera to speed priority.
The final mode is via Wi-Fi. The iPhone is used as the camera controller and monitor but is connected to the DxO ONE by Wi-Fi. This can be either an existing Wi-Fi network or a Direct Connection which is useful when out and about.
The camera comes with the DxO ONE connect software used to upload the images from the camera to the PC/MAC. It also optimises the images and it is required for the Super RAW images. They also sell a software suite that includes: DxO OpticsPro, DxO FilmPack and DxO ViewPoint, used to correct images and apply creative changes to your images. These can all be called from Lightroom as well similar to NIK integration.
I have some issues with the camera, the main one being the battery life. It is quite poor and you really need a power bank with you, but if you have a smart phone you probably need one of these anyway. DxO have released some updates and guidelines on how to get the best out of the battery. Other minor quibbles would be: slow start up time, a built in tripod mount (although they sell a separate stand for this), concern that the lightening connect might change in future iPhones, cost of the PhotoSuite.
Having said all the I find it a great camera and as I said at the start it was the only camera I used on my recent holiday and I find the quality to be excellent. I love the detail and the colour rendering of the images, even in low light and it's compactness is great I have a special camera zipped pouch that I can can keep all the time on my belt. I have printed images and found them to be excellent indeed one image from Cuba was exhibited at the Cervantes Institute in Dublin.
Here's a few more images taken on the DxO One in a number of different circumstances, and light conditions. I haven't done any processing on them. They have only gone through the standard optimisation process of the DxO Connect software, so not quite straight out of the camera. (10 images in total)
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I think this is an amazing little camera, which I have come to appreciate more over time. Ideal for travel or just having on you all the time.
Just got a DJI Spark and having some great fun with it. Surprisingly good smooth video (HD 1080p). 4K doesn't really interest me at the moment and takes some serious computing power to edit and render. Here is some of the video from a trip to Killinthomas Woods, Kildare and Portmarnock Beach. Mind you there were some anxious moments when it does some of its built in routines. It went so far I thought I would lose it at sea! Anyway here's a bit of video from my first attempts at flying and videoing! https://vimeo.com/229624180
We had a short family holiday to Toronto for a week in June to visit our daughter and her boyfriend who are staying and working there for a period of two years. They are soon coming to the end of their first year.This is my first visit to Toronto and it is a lovely city, very safe, clean and relatively easy to get around. On our first full day we rented a car and headed to Niagara. We first went to Niagara on the Lake which is a stunning little town surrounded by tons of little wineries two of which we visited. I would love to have spent more time here. We then headed on to the Falls which was great to see. Here are some of the photos from our visit to Niagara.
The rest of the time we spent in Toronto visiting the sights and having a great time. We visited the aquarium, the Royal Ontario Museum, graffiti alley, and of course it was the 150 anniversary for Canada. Some photos from here.
My most interesting, enlightening, uplifting and enjoyable trip in a few years was a trip to Thailand in September 2016. Sharon and I started with a couple of days in Bangkok. We stayed in a nice hotel overlooking the river. We didn’t really get to spend too much time in Bangkok and it didn’t really make much of an impression, I think you would need more time there and perhaps with someone who could show you around and learn about the highlights. Here are a few shots taken in Bangkok by Sharon and I.
But then Bangkok was really only a stop-over on our way to Northern Thailand. Our destination was the Sarnellii House Orphanage in Nong Khai which is very close to the border with Laos and the Mekong River. What brought us to Sarnelli House is our great friend Brian and his wife Kate who is the nurse at the orphanage.
They have a very good web-site that can give you more details than I can, see Sarnelli House. However, if you take a few minutes to view the following video it will give you an idea of why this trip had such an impact on us.
In brief it is a home for children affected by HIV/AIDS and poor and abandoned children. It currently has about 150 children but began in 1998 with just seven and one house. The founder is Father Michael Shea an Irish American priest with the Redempterist Order. He has lived and served in this region for 50 years. The naissance of the orphanage was the dying wish of an AIDS mother who pleaded that Father Shea would look after her surviving children who had also contracted HIV, and he agreed.
HIV/AIDS began in the early eighties, had a terrible reputation with suffers treated badly and spurned by communities. Since the introduction of effective treatment, about fifteen years, this has greatly improved. However, not so much in the poor and outlying villages of Thailand where it is still a stigma that forces families out of work, school and even their homes and communities. It is probably similar in other poor regions of the world.
As I said there are about 150 children in the orphanage and 27 who are in college. Over the years they have looked after over a thousand children. They provide them with shelter, food, ensure they get educated and any medical treatment they need. Fortunately Thailand has eradicated HIV being transmitted from mothers to their babies so the young infants no longer suffer from HIV/AIDS. There are older children that have unfortunately acquired HIV and they need to be closely monitored and properly medicated. The children taken in have been either abused, abandoned or the families are so poor and destitute that they have taken the difficult decision to send their children here to receive a proper education and a better chance in life.
The orphanage employs about 60 staff over 90 percent who come from the local villages and act as house mothers, cooks, cleaners, drivers, office administrators, farm hands & farmers. This is money that goes back into the local community. They run their own farm with: pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, fruit and vegetables and rice. This is a big project which is very expensive to establish with farm equipment, land, stock and fertilisers to mention just a few. But it provides the older boys in particular with great experience and training and a small income. The project gets much needed financial support but it also makes the orphanage self-sufficient in many of its food needs.
Our friend Brian was introduced to Sarnelli House a few years ago through a friend of his and started by sponsoring a child, started volunteering on and off for short periods of time and then about two years ago decided he would work there full time. Last year he married Kate.
Our visit had a huge impact on us and made us understand why Brian and Kate have decided to dedicate their time to working for this very worthy cause. Although the stories behind each child, is always very sad and sometimes disturbing it is great to see them mostly flourish and enjoy a much better life than they otherwise would have had. We spent time with the children and they just lapped up the affection and love you gave them. The smaller babies and kids would jump all over you and loved being played with. The older children also enjoy company and interact with staff, helpers and volunteers. Even the language barrier doesn’t prevent one from enjoying your time with them. Initially I felt a little uncomfortable taking photographs but they enjoyed it as I had a small portable printer which meant I could give them their own photographs.
You can’t help yourself feeling for the children and making a connection with one or two of them. I was so touched when one I had connected with wanted to see us off at the airport. It made it even more difficult to leave, but a cherished moment. It is so nice to hear from her now and again, now that I’ve returned home.
It was truly an amazing trip which Sharon and I hope we can repeat again in the near future.
In May we headed back to Cuba just over 5 years from my last visit. Given the importance of change in relations with the US and CUBA it was a really interesting time to visit. What concerns most visitors is how much will Cuba change due to the new agreement and the influx of US visitors. Well on our visit as you would expect so soon after the agreement there were no significant changes, but you could see that it won't take long for these changes to materialise. There were works on at least 6 hotels when we were there, some new, some were refurbishments. Many new rooms are needed, as we could see how expensive hotel rooms have become, and indeed we found it really difficult to hire a car for a few days. Our visit also coincided with a number of big events. The first was Chanel, led by Karl Lagerfeld holding a huge fashion show on the main street, Prado. It was the launch of their Caribbean-Infused Cruise Collection. There were a huge number of models, make-up artists, photographers, TV crews and visitors for this event. The second event was the landing of the first cruise ship directly from the US, which we saw in both Havana and in Cienfuegos. Finally there was an event involving a lot of the famous Cuban cars for a Fast & Furious promotion. No wonder rooms were expensive!
None the less we had a great break of 8 days spread between Havana and Cienfuegos. Here are some of the photos I took.
Ballet is really popular in Cuba and Ramses arranged for us to shoot a member of the National Ballet in an old Mansion. Very pleased with this shot which won our last monthly competition.
The Capitolio in Havana:
What everyone loves to see, the Cuban Cars:
In Cienfuegos the first cruise ship from the US was leaving and a group of Cubans headed down to see the cruiser leave, they were happy to see the Americans arrive:
Something we tend to forget is that Cuba is in the Caribbean and has beautiful beaches.
Finally a selection of some images for you to view.
It’s just over five years since we were last in Cuba and this weekend four of us return and I am looking forward to it hugely. I know Cuba is not to everyone’s liking, my daughter enjoyed it but wouldn’t go back and another friend didn’t like it at all, so this made me think why I do look forward to it and why I enjoy it. The last time in 2011, I knew before I left that it was a poor country, with poor infrastructure, poor transport, and not the best when it came to food. And I was not wrong, in fact the food was a bit better than I was expecting but it’s certainly not a place for the foodie, which I admit I can be! It has lovely beaches like lots of islands in the Caribbean, but if I wanted a beach holiday it’s not the place I would recommend, it doesn’t have the quality of hotels, restaurants and resorts that you can get in the rest of the Caribbean or indeed the Mediterranean. However, I expect all that will now change with the US blockade finished and investment money that will now come in. Hopefully, it won’t ruin the country.
So what did I like and enjoy about Cuba? The last time we visited Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad de Cuba. What I enjoyed is that culturally it is so much different to what we experience here and in western society. There are no McDonalds, Coke, KFC, Hiltons, Zaras or large global corporations, the largest corporation we probably saw the drinks company Havana Club and perhaps the cigar manufacturers, although their premises were primitive. In a sense Cuba is primitive, laid back and still looks like it is stuck in the 1950s-60s in line with some of the fantastic cars of that time. The buildings must have been majestic in their day, but now because of neglect and lack of investment they’re crumbling, falling apart, but still some are painted in lovely bright colours. So the buildings are not bright, shiny, modern, clean and anonymous like many cities. There are some lovely buildings like the Cathedral, Capitolio National, The Nacional Hotel and a few others. All of this gives Havana a unique look and feel that I enjoyed. The people are friendly and appear happy, music fills the air and it is welcoming and safe. I recall at as bright, colourful, happy and friendly country.
What made it better for us was a good friend we made there, Ramses, a fellow photographer and he showed us around and advised us. This was a great help and he too was fun, happy and helpful.
Probably, the thing that makes the biggest difference is having really good friends with you. Eight of us traveled together and we had great fun. To me there is nothing better that travelling with friends that have a common interest in photography. So different to holidays with family and friends with no interest in photography who get easily bored once you take out the camera. But having friends that are happy to wait while you get that shot, are happy to help and who all look out after each other. We were lucky with such a relatively large group that we all get on so well with each other. We have done a number of trips together and this time we will miss those that couldn’t make it.
So for this trip it will be very interesting to see how things have changed. Over the last decade there have been many changes in Cuba with relaxation of the rules about land and property ownership and the ability to work for oneself. For some time there have been some non-state own enterprises, like bed & breakfast accommodation and private restaurants in people’s homes. This weekend on the 1st May, the first cruise ship from the US, in more than fifty years, will port in Havana, and the agreement with the US is that about 110 flights a day will be allowed fly to Cuba from the US. How will this change the landscape and culture of Cuba? We probably won’t know for some time but I’m looking forward to this short trip to see it now just before the major change.
While in Bagan we went hot-air ballooning with Oriental Ballooning. I had never done ballooning before and it was an amazing experience, I can't wait to try it again. Bagan was the perfect venue as we ballooned over the plains where there are 2,200 temples, pagodas, monasteries etc. We started early as the sun rose with a light breakfast as they prepared the balloons. As you can see early on it is quite dark.
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I hope you enjoy.
The last leg of our trip is Bagan. This is an ancient city in the Mandalay region of upper Myanmar. From the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan one of the original regions that constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom's height in the 11th to 13th centuries over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built on the local plains. Today 2,200 of these temples and pagodas still exist and are the main attraction for the area. Our young guide Jo and his driver picked us up in a minibus from our hotel in Mandalay, for the 250km drive.
We stopped at a few points of interest, like the temple at Paleik where the Buddha statue is surrounded by snakes including pythons. But by far the most impressive stop was at Mount Popa, which is a volcanic plug that rises over 737 meters and onto which has been built a Buddhist temple has been built with 777 steps up to its summit. To get a view of the temple we were first taken to Mount Popa resort which looks across to the temple and is itself a beautiful resort. What we agreed to do in the end was that Mike and Keith would walk the 777 steps to the temple to see the great sights at and from the temple and the 3 of us less adventuring would sit and enjoy the facilities of the resort.
Bagan is completely different to Mandalay and Yangon which are cities with high-rise buildings, but Bagan has a much more spread out green plains feel with large villages and the Irrawaddy River flows through the region. We spent our few days in a lovely low-rise hotel with its own swimming pool and it was a very nice base. We visited a lacquer workshop which was interesting, the famous temple of Schwezigon and its local market, we spent an afternoon on the a boat on the river Irrawaddy, but the main attraction was the plains and the thousands of temples that still exist today. There was no better way to get to see the plains and the temples than from the air in a hot air balloon with Oriental Ballooning.
The ballooning was another highlight of the trip, something I had never done before but was very keen to experience and it was exhilarating. We were up early waiting for the bus to arrive and found another party waiting their for another ballooning company. They got a call to say that their trip had been cancelled due to the winds, so we sat their waiting anxiously wondering what was the story with our company. The van arrived about 15 minutes late so we were delighted but somewhat worried, wondering why another company felt it was unsafe to fly. What we discovered was that the prevailing wind was in the opposite direction to usual and because our companies balloon were smaller they were able to move their balloons to a different location so we could take off. We had a quick breakfast and watched them prepare the balloons.
We gingerly climbed aboard our baskets which help 8 people and the pilot. In each corner of the basket 2 people had a sectioned off area with the pilot, Chris in our case in the centre with his gas cylinders and equipment. We gently took off and rose into the Bagan skies and what followed was an amazing trip over the green Bagan plains, the Irrawaddy river and the bright orange temples beautifully lit by the rising sun. After a while I stopped taking photographs and just enjoyed the views. Our landing was a little bumpy as we clipped a small tree, but it is an experience I loved and would love to do again someday, perhaps in Southern Spain around Granada, where I remember opening our hotel bedroom curtains one morning to see a hot-air balloon gliding through the blue skies over the Alhambra.
The only tacky part of the tour was a visit to a village which was obviously set up just for tourists. There was some workshops and shops set up in barns to sell jewellery locally made, but the locals carrying babies came out, others smoked their local pipes but they were all looking for money for photographs. But I suppose you have to blame tourism for this and the locals are only looking to make a living and capitalise on the tourists that arrive there.
Our final night in Bagan was a lovely touch by the tour operator Exotic Voyages. It started as a pony and trap tour through the Bagan countryside and interweaves through the rough pathways and by the smaller temples, where we stopped at one. We disembarked and looked around. Jo invited us inside and up the steps inside and we arrived on one of the outside tiers of the temple. Laid out in front of us was a high tea of food and drink prepared for us by 3 servers. It was a lovely location and we enjoyed watching the sunset while we ate and drank some lovely food in the company of our guide Jo who had looked after us so well on this part of the trip.
The final part of the journey was an internal flight to Yangon where we stayed one more day before flying home to Ireland.
It was another fascinating trip with great friends that will give us memories for years to come to be filed away with our previous trips to South Africa and Cuba. As a photographer there is nothing better than taking photographs at great destinations with other photographers. Travelling with friends and family is great but it can be very frustrating for the photographer and the family and friends when the photographer wants to take photographs. There is a tension there that just doesn't exist when travelling with fellow photographers. Fellow photographers are working alone and together to get images they want and they completely understand the process and what takes the time to get the image they want. So now I look forward to our next opportunity to fly somewhere different for great images.
From Heho airport we headed to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar and another old bygone Burmese capital. It is the economic hub of upper Myanmar with a population of over 1 million and on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River. It is a relatively young city being founded in 1857 by King Mindon, from 1885-1948 it was under British Colonial control and it was devastated during World War II and invaded by the Japenese. Subsequently it deteriorated and indeed destroyed by extensive fires in the 1980s which significantly changed the physical and ethnic make up of the city with a large Chinese influx. So it has a quite modern if run down feel to its architecture. There was still some great sights for us to visit. We visited a nunnery where we were served lunch by the nuns, some amazing pagodas, monasteries, markets, lacquer and other workshops and small local villages. One interesting trip involved a very short boat trip across a river where we were met by a few horse and small carriages to take us through the country side. While we sat waiting on the carriage to take off a little girl came up to us and tried to sell us some local trinkets. She was a lovely little girl, quite insistent and with her few words of English would say "you remember me, I remember you!" which sounded very funny and nearly like a threat.
But we thought "aw well we will be on our way soon, and she will be gone, and can't pester us again!". Eventually the drivers mount up and we head off and we wave bye-bye to our little selling girl. Only for about 2 minutes later we hear a bicycle bell and the now familiar chant "Hi, you remember me, I remember you!", and she followed us all the way to the wooden Bagaya Monastery. Fortunately, she wasn't allowed in the grounds of the monastery, but after our visit and we mounted up, and each carriage was again chaperoned by our own personal persistent trinket sellers!
While we were in Mandalay there was one of the regular religious lunar festivals. The Buddhist religious communities rely on alms and during these festivals thousands of monks come to some of the more religious pagodas and the local communities give alms and gifts which can vary from small amounts of food, to money to electrical appliances and in one case we saw a decorated car being driven for donation at one of the festivals. Mike and Keith got up very early and our guide brought them along and it apparently it was an amazing sight to see.
One of the greatest sights of Mandalay is the legendary U Bein bridge, built in 1782, and it spans for 1.2 km across he shallow Taungthaman Lake and it is said to be the longest teak bridge in the world. We were taken out by boat on the water at sunset and it is an amazing sight to see as the son sets down behind it.
Our final destination was Bagan, but this time it was a minibus drive of 250km to our next destination.