Thursday, September 7, 2017

Bun Khao Saht - Celebration of the Dead






Villagers Make Offerings to the Spirits of Family Members


Tuesday was a special day in Isaan.  September 5th, this year, is Bun Khao Saht also known as Boun Khao Salak or "Celebration of the Dead" in neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos).  It is the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival held on the day of the tenth Full Moon of the lunar calendar.  For Westerners the moon is called the "Harvest Moon".

On this special day, merit making is performed by offering food to the Phii (ghosts) of family members.  People also earn merit through offering a special treat called "Kao Tawtek" to their local Monks.  Kao Tawtek is a mixture of freshly popped rice, caramel, peanuts, shredded coconut and millet.  It is made in backyards, front yards, and side yards throughout Isaan just prior to Wan Kao Saht - typically in huge woks over wood fires. It is also traditional on this day for older people to give gifts of Kao Tawtek and money to children.

Like many things here in Thailand, Bun Khao Saht seems to be adapted and amalgamated from other cultures. The Chinese celebrate a Hungry Ghost Festival and "Ghost Day" around the same time.  In Vietnam, the second biggest holiday with an emphasis and focus on children is celebrated at this time of the year.

I drove out to Tahsang Village, my wife's home village, early in the morning to be able to participate in the daily merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks.  This has been one of the most wet monsoon seasons since I have been in Thailand, even more than last year.  Since we returned to Thailand from our trip to America on July 18th, we have had rain all but three days.  Mud is everywhere and some of the country roads have moving water flowing across them.  Of course the combination of rain and traffic is taking a heavy toll on all the roads.  Potholes and failing pavement are now the norm.

Just as I reached her village to make the turn to drive through the fields where the Wat is located a truck stopped in front of me.  The driver, who I recognized, motioned that he wanted to talk.  Through his limited use of English, my limited knowledge of Thai/Lao, and a great deal of pantomime, I understood that the normal route was closed and I should follow him.

After an even more circuitous route on an even more bumpy road covered with more mud as well as puddles through the towering sugar cane fields, we made it to Wat Pha That Nong Mat.

On Bun Khao Saht, in addition to earning personal merit, the participants earn merit for the spirits of their dead relatives.  It is especially important to make offerings to family members who died during the year since that last Bun Khao Saht.



In the Lao Loum culture, as well as other Southeast Asia cultures, the people have to take care of the spirits of their family as well as other ghosts.  Spirits need merit in death as well in life to assist them in their journey to enlightenment.  Merit is the basis for determining what form and status a person will be reincarnated as in a future life.


Villagers Make Offering of Food for the Monks


The villagers, in addition to the normal offerings of food for the Monks, had brought baskets of special foods wrapped in banana leaves.  The baskets were carefully placed on the floor of the newly completed Viharn (several years under construction but finished now) next to a concrete column.  A sai sin (sacred cotton string) was placed across the tops of the baskets.  The sai sin ran up the column, across the Viharn and ran down a second column near where the Monks sat slightly above the villagers.  The sai sin terminated in a ball placed on a plate at the side of the Wat's senior Monk.  The sai sin connects this world to other worlds, the laypeople to the Monks and conveys the merit making to the deceased people.

Many of the women were dressed in white uniforms like the attire that Duang wears just about every night when she conducts her ritual upstairs in our home where my roll top desk has been converted into a shrine.  The women, including Duang and her mother, were participating in a women's retreat at the Wat.  They spent the remainder of the day and most of the night reading and studying the scriptures and receiving lectures from the Monks.


Monks Select their Food from the Offerings Made to Them

The offering of food to the Monks was a typical daily ritual with one exception, while the Monks ate their one meal of the day, the women in the white costumes along with a couple of Brahmans chanted in Pali for most of the time.

Prior to Start of Daily Food Offering Ritual, Monks Bless Food Offerings to the Spirits


At the end of the daily food offering ritual, the villagers gathered up their baskets and went outside. The villagers scattered throughout the Wat grounds selecting specific trees to stop at before going to their family tat where the bones of their family are interned.  The offerings made at the trees were for family members who died prior to the family having enough money to buy a tat as a repository for their bones.

Duang's Mother Lights Two Candles for Offering to the Spirit of her Husband

The food was placed upon banana leaves and consisted of peeled fruits, sticky rice, chili sauces, dried fish, kao tawtek and other typical Isaan foods.  Off to the side was a banana leaf with betel-nut chewing items.  After the foods were laid out, water was poured over them as the family members communicated to the spirits.




Water Is Poured Over the Offering In the Act of Transference of Merit
The offerings to the spirits also included two lit yellow candles and two sprigs of "dogkhut" - I suspect Thai jasmine buds.  When offerings are made to the Buddha, three of each item are offered - one for Buddha, one for the teachings of Buddha (Dhamma), and one for the Buddhist religious community (Sanga).  For spirits the offerings are in pairs.




After the family spirits residing in the tats had been offered food and drink, the people hung filled thin banana leaf packets in the trees throughout the grounds.  The banana packets contained food offerings to the other family spirits whose bones were not interned in the tat.




Duang and some other women, made food offerings to the spirits of relatives whose bones are kept in highly decorated steeple or spire shaped structures called "Tats".  Tats are reliquaries for bone chips of departed ancestors.  More affluent villagers have a free standing tat and those less affluent will often have a niche inside of the block walls that surround Wats.

After a while, around ten minutes, one of the men rang the Wat's large bell three times signifying that the spirits had completed eating.  The small banana leaf packets were quickly removed from the trees and returned to the family baskets.  The packets will later be placed in the sugar cane fields, rice paddies, and other lands to feed the spirits (ghosts)  that inhabit them.  In return for feeding the hungry ghosts, the people ask that the spirits watch over the land and its crops bringing success as well as good luck to the owners.


The villagers returned to the Viharn to have a community meal with the food leftover from the offerings to the Monks.  There is always too much food offered to the Monks and since they are allowed to take only what they can eat that morning for their one meal of the day ensuring that there are always "leftovers".


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Photography In Bhutan - What To Bring




28mm ISO 800 f2.8 1/6400 sec


Often when browsing websites related to photography or travel, I will read questions along the line of "I am going to ... what lens should I bring?" or "I am going to ... should I bring my ...?"

My initial reaction typically is "It depends ...".

It depends upon the types of photographs that you typically take or want to take on this trip.

It depends upon the style of photographs that you typically take or the style of photographs that you want to try on your trip.

It depends upon, to a certain extent, the equipment that you already own.

It depends upon how much you can carry or how much you are willing to carry.

It depends upon your travel arrangements and restrictions.


ISO 800 28mm f4.5 1/1600 sec

In April of this year, my wife and I toured across Bhutan for 15 days.  It was a fabulous journey which I can best summarize as " I was so impressed with the explosion of color, energy, and spirituality everywhere in Bhutan. Definitely a destination for photographers or connoisseurs of the exotic."

The following is a list of the gear that I brought, some explanation of why I brought it, and a revised list of what I will be bringing for our return trip in Spring 2018.



ITEM
QUANTITY
PACKED

Tripod
1
Suitcase
X
Ball Head
1
Suitcase
X
Speedlight
2
Camera Bag 1
X
DSLR Camera - Full Frame
1
Camera Bag 2
X
28-70mm F/2.8 Lens & Hood
1
Camera Bag 2
X
80-200mm F/2.8 Lens & Hood
1
Camera Bag 1
X
85mm F/1.8 Lens & Hood
1
Camera Bag 1
X
50mm F/1.8 Lens & Hood
1
Camera Bag 1
X
Batteries for DSLR – 1 in camera, 3 loose
4
Camera Bag 2
X
AAA Alkaline Batteries for headlight
3
Suitcase
X
DSLR Remote Release Cable
1
Camera Bag 2
X
Flash Cord
1
Camera Bag 2
X
CF Cards – 640GB, 1 in camera, 4 loose
5
Camera Bag 2
X
SD Cards – 928 GB, 1 in camera, 7 loose
8
Camera Bag 2
X
Small Capacity CF Cards – 112 GB, 10 loose
10
Camera Bag 1
X
Radio Remote Triggers
3
Camera Bag 2
X
Flashbender  Lg Light Modifier
1
Camera Bag 2
X
DSLR Camera Battery Charger
1
Camera Bag 2
X
Headband Flashlight
1
Camera Bag 1
X
AA Rechargeable Battery Sets – 2 in flashes, 2 separate, 4 batteries to a set
4
Camera Bag 1
X
AAA/AA Battery Charger
1
Suitcase
X
Filter Pouch/Assort Filters - CPL, ND
1
Camera Bag 1
X
Lens Cleaning Kit
1
Suitcase
X
Shoot Thru Umbrella
1
Suitcase
X
Journal Book
1
Travel Vest
X
GPS Device
1
Travel Vest
X
Battery Tester
1
Camera Bag 1
X
Monopod w/cold shoe umbrella adapter
1
Suitcase
X
40” 5 in 1 Reflector
1
Suitcase
X
Power Strip – 220 volt, 4 outlets
1
Suitcase
X
Power Plug Adapters
1
Suitcase
X




Camera Bag 1 Weight – 4.8 Kg
Camera Bag 2 Weight – 4.9 Kg


You will note that there were two camera bags - carry on bags.  Carry on bags for our economy class air tickets were limited to 5 Kg. for our flights.  Due to the weight restrictions, I split up my gear into two bags - one for me, and one for my wife.  To be honest, our carry-on bags were not measured or weighed.  However, I prefer to follow the rules ahead of time rather than risk "complications" or "issues" while traveling.  I try to eliminate all the stress factors, that I have control over, for traveling.

I typically take "environmental portraits" - photographs of people looking the way they do, doing what they do where they live and work at a particular moment in time.

I purchased a new DSLR full frame camera because my original full frame DSLR camera is several years old and has over 120,000 shutter activations.  I was concerned that during a trip of this lifetime in Bhutan, my trusty old DSLR might fail.  As disruptive as such a failure would be in the USA or Europe, such a failure in Bhutan would have been disastrous.  I purchased the new camera a couple of months prior to departing for Bhutan.  Prior to going to Bhutan, I went on a "shakedown" trip to Chiang Mai in order to familiarize myself and become comfortable with the camera in a real traveling environment. It is paramount to be familiar and comfortable with the equipment that you bring on any trip let alone one that is expected to be a "trip of a lifetime"

I often use fill light from off the camera flash to enhance my photographs - I prefer dark backgrounds so the use of the flash is required to provide a dark background and provide details in the foreground.  With that in mind, I brought two speedlights, a shoot through umbrella, and three radio remote triggers.



ISO 1600 70mm f4 1/30 sec

As it turned out for this journey across Bhutan, the speedlights, and radio remote triggers were not needed or appropriate.  There were many locations where fill flash would have been nice.  However the locations or situations were not conducive to the use of artificial light.  Photographs of people in darkened rooms, people worshiping, people in private moments for this culture are best photographed with available light - using higher ISO settings and/or faster lens.  

 
ISO 1600 70mm f2.8 1/250 sec

 
ISO 800 85mm f1.8 1/500 sec


 There were many opportunities when I made use of or should have made use of my f1.8 lens.


ISO 800 85mm f1.8 1/125 sec
I had brought along a 40 inch 5in1 reflector.  It turned out that it was very useful.  Fortunately all the guides on our tour had training in photography.  Many were accomplished photographers. It was great to have an assistant at your side for the entire tour.  Besides carrying your camera bag, they set up tripods, held lenses, and even helped in changing lens.  At one location, a dark prayer room filled with elderly people worshiping amongst large prayer wheels, my guide for the day took the initiative and took out the reflector to cast fill light expertly into the shadows of the room.  He performed the service for the entire time that we were in the room shooting - roughly 30 minutes.


 
ISO800 85mm f1.8 1/100 white reflector


ISO 800 85mm f1.8 1/40 sec white reflector
Based upon the experience of this trip, I will not be bringing any speedlights, radio remote triggers, shoot through umbrella or Flashbender  Lg Light Modifier when I return to Bhutan next Spring.  I will bring the 40 inch reflector once again.

ISO 400 28mm f2.8 1/25 sec

Based upon the experience of this trip, I will be bringing an additional lens next Spring.  In addition to the dark interior locations, I found many situations where a 28mm lens was not wide enough for the shot that I wanted to take.  Several times my back was up against a wall or flat on a floor and I still could not frame the shot the way that I wanted to.  With this in mind I will take a 20mm f1.8 lens for the return trip.

ISO 64 145mm f7.1 1/30 sec tripod
A highlight of this tour was an early morning hike up to Taktshang Goemba (The Tiger's Nest).  It was in anticipation of this early morning hike that I had decided to bring my 80-200mm f2.8 lens as well as my tripod along with associated ball-head.  My intention to shoot low ISO in early morning with a higher aperture dictated the use of a tripod for the requisite long shutter speed for a proper exposure.  I had figured that with the high MP sensor of my DSLR, 200mm with cropping would provide the close-up detail that I wanted for the Tiger's Nest.  This meant that I would not have to bring a 300mm lens thus saving bulk and weight.

Typically my go-to lens in my work is the 28-70mm f2.8 lens.  Analysis of my Bhutan photographs confirmed the versatility of this lens.  The breakdown for lens usage on this trip was as follows:

                               28-70mm f2.8 ............... 79%
                               80-200mm f2.8............... 16%
                               85mm f1.8.......................   5%
                               50mm f1.8.......................   0%

I learned from my experience that the 50mm f1.8 lens was not a necessity for me.  Although the lens was faster than my go-to lens, the excellent performance of the new DSLR at higher ISO sensitivities negated the need for the 50mm lens for my photography needs.  The 50mm lens also not wide enough for many of the shots that I took.  I found that many of my low light photographs were in the range of 28-42mm focal length.

For this trip, I planned on using long exposures to eliminate people from the photograph.  Anything that spends less time in your composition than the length of the exposure will not appear in the resulting photograph.  I also planned on taking some long exposures of flowing water to produce smooth silky water flows of rivers and waterfalls.  With those goals and objectives in mind, I brought along some Neutral Density, ND, filters to screw on the lens to reduce the amount of light entering the camera.  This requires larger apertures and/or exposure times for a "proper exposure"

ISO 31 28mm f11 75 sec tripod ND1000 filter
Those were my plans.  In reality I did not try to eliminate crowds by using long exposures ... for two reasons.

The first reason is that in order to eliminate people from your photograph, their "exposure" (time that they are in the framing of your photograph has to be less than the time of your photograph's exposure i.e. someone running across the framing of your 15 sec exposure in 2 seconds will not appear.  What I found on this trip was very few people walked let alone ran through the framing of my photographs.  People, just as I was, were very interested in the scene and would spend several seconds enjoying the scene.  No one was "just passing through" this would require longer, much longer exposure times to make them disappear.  There were also many people so quite often after someone left the scene there would quickly be someone located in the same location enjoying the scene essentially to my camera ... as if the first person never left, or the second person , or the third!  All this meant that even longer exposures would be required!  At some point it is no longer practical to employ this technique to eliminate people from a scene.  After all how much time can you invest or want to  invest for a specific shot when you are on a tour?

The second reason that I did not attempt to use the "long" exposure technique to eliminate people from a scene was the required logistics.  A tripod and remote cable release for the camera are required.  This requires additional time and effort that I was unwilling or unable to make.

I was able to use the long exposure technique to create a photograph of silky water flowing under a foot bridge.  This however was a unique location as well as situation.  Our tour had stopped alongside the river and footbridge for a picnic lunch.  There were no crowds enjoying extended views of the scene and there was plenty of time to take the shots.

Although we encountered some waterfalls,  they were located along  narrow mountain roads that I deemed not safe enough to stop and set up the gear.

I ended up trying to time my shots to have no or few people in them.  Cropping is also a more efficient method to eliminate unwanted people than using the long exposure or multiple/blending exposure techniques.  As I was told more than once by a photographer that I admire ... "You have to make do with what you are presented with".

A great concern on going off on a "trip of a lifetime" is how much recording media to bring along especially to locations where photography supplies are very difficult if not impossible to find.  Again the answer is "It depends ..."

It depends on what size the files are that you shoot.  If you shoot uncompressed RAW files, you will be taking less, much less, the number of photographs on a media card than if you shoot jpeg files.

ISO 200 28mm f4.0 HDR

It also depends on your planned shooting techniques.  If you plan on shooting HDR or bracketed photographs each completed photograph will require 2, 3, 5 or perhaps even 7 separate exposures.  If you are attending an event such as a Tsechu with high energy dancing, you may choose to shoot in burst mode to freeze specific action moments.  These techniques more rapidly fill up media cards.

ISO 200 86mm f4.5 1/1000 sec
Based upon my recent experiences in photographing other unique locations such as Angkor Wat, Tonle Sap, and Sapa, I estimated that I would shoot around 1,000 exposures a day.  This was anticipating shooting a combination of HDR, burst mode shooting for dances at festivals, bracket shooting, and normal shooting.  I brought along sufficient media capacity for approximately 15,700 exposures - 15 days @ 1,000 per day.  As it turned out, I actually took 11,766 total exposures - a low of 183 on one day and a high of 4,100 on the day of one of the festivals.  The bottom line was that with knowledge of my shooting style and goals I was able to estimate my media needs.  There was no stress in having to be concerned during the tour of running out of media capacity or having to ration my shots towards the end to avoid a shortage.

Your needs will depend upon your style, and goals.  You need to go through a similar analysis especially if you are going to a location where additional media is not readily available or you do not intend to bring resources to download and store exposures as your media fills up.

Perhaps I should touch on the subject of backing up your photos as you travel.  There are many recommendations available on the Internet.  Again ... it depends.  I do not. I do not for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is I choose not to travel with a computer.  I prefer to use my luggage and carry on weight allocations for photography gear.  Secondly. after a full day of intense shooting, I usually am tired and do not want to spend the time and energy to download media cards.  Even using a USB 3.0 card reader, it takes around 30 minutes to download a full card.  Thirdly, I once downloaded some media cards to thumb drives as well as DVDs and it became too confusing.  I very nearly lost some photographs in the ensuing confusion.  I prefer to fill my cards and wait to download the photographs after I return home.

A rather unusual item that I brought along was a 220v power strip that had 4 outlets.  It was extremely useful.  It had been recommended by the tour operator.  The concern was that at some of the hotel rooms there might not be sufficient free electrical outlets to plug in camera battery chargers, cell phone chargers, computers, AAA/AA battery charger, ...  I found the additional benefit of the power strip, even where there were sufficient outlets, was that it centralized the location for items that needed to be packed each morning.  On tours it is best to simplify your logistics - having only one location to find and retrieve your rechargeable electronics is convenient as well as efficient.

My research indicated that there were three possible types of electrical plugs utilized in Bhutan.  I brought along all three types and ended up using two of them.  Another advantage of bringing along a power strip that you know handles all the plugs of your electrical equipment is that you only need one adapter plug to the hotel outlet rather than one for each of your devices or having to complete charging one device before you can charge the next because you have only one adapter plug.

Another item that I always take on travels is a journal.  My journal is a Moleskine 3.5"x5.5" hardcover lined paper book.  In my journal I have written specific as well as general information along with cut/paste inserts.

The journal includes specific information for the tour such as tour company contact information, list and email addresses of fellow travelers, tour itinerary, flight information, hotel information, pre-departure baggage and carry-on actual weights, list of medications that I am carrying, sunrise/sunset data for each day and location of the tour, moon rise/moon 45degree/moon set data for each day and location of the tour, list of photography goals for the tour, GPS locations for locations where I will spend the night, and a list of items in my first aid kit (if carrying one).

My journal which is used for more than one tour also contains general useful information such as list along with serial numbers of my photography gear as well as electronic gear, tips for shooting fireworks, a list of shot capacity for my media cards for each of my DSLRs along with total capacity and calculated daily average capacity. calculated exposure times when using ND or combination of ND filters, instructions for Waypoints, Routes, and Tracks for GPS Unit, instructions on how to use GPS Unit for daily tracks without it drawing a straight line, "Key Settings for Sunset", "Reflection Photography Tips", "Shooting the Moon Tips", "Hyperfocal Focusing", "Travel Photo Tips", "Camera Custom Settings, and "Clear Crowds with Long Exposure".

My purpose in having the journal is to have a convenient and centralized location for important information.  This reduces the time and stress of searching for specific information throughout the tour.  If it is not in my journal, I don't have it and most likely do not need it.

Previously I used to maintain a diary for each day of the journey in my journal.  I have now found that it is much too difficult to maintain a written diary.  On my next journey in October, I will maintain an oral journal for each day using a very small solid state voice recorder - much quicker than writing neatly in my journal.

My cameras do not geo-tag my photographs.  Prior to last year, I would go on Google Maps through Lightroom and manually tag each photo.  It was cumbersome and very time consuming.  Out of 80,000 photographs I was unable to locate 2,000.  Now with the GPS Unit geo-tagging is much more efficient, much quicker, and more accurate as well elevation is now available.  I find the GPS/map data extremely useful for identifying locations such as place names, identifying road names, and names of sites.  Using GPS in conjunction with Lightroom, means that I no longer have the burden as well as distraction of noting and recording, or trying to, in the journal locations where photographs are being taken. 

For our return to Bhutan in Spring 2018 I will be taking the following gear based upon my perceived needs and lessons learned from our Spring 2017 tour.  What should you bring?  It depends ...




ITEM
QUANTITY
Tripod
1
Ball Head
1
DSLR Camera
1
28-70mm F/2.8 Lens & Hood
1
80-200mm F/2.8 Lens & Hood
1
85mm F/1.8 Lens & Hood
1
20mm F/1.8 Lens & Hood
1
Batteries for DSLR  – 1 in camera, 3 loose
4
AAA Alkaline Batteries for headlight
3
Camera Remote Release
1
CF Cards – 640GB, 1 in camera, 4 loose
5
SD Cards – 928 GB, 1 in camera, 7 loose
8
DSLR Camera Battery Charger
1
Headband Flashlight
1
AA Rechargeable Battery Sets – 4 batteries
1
AAA/AA  Battery Charger
1
Filter Pouch/Assort Filters - CPL, ND
1
Lens Cleaning Kit
1
Journal Book
1
Solid state Voice Recorder
1
GPS Device
1
Battery Tester
1
40” 5 in 1 Reflector
1
Power Strip
1
Power Plug Adapters
1

Gadget

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