Earlier this year, I traveled to the little-known province of Buriram, in northeastern Thailand. It’s a quiet, rural region residing on the Khorat Plateau–largely featureless and dusty, with cool morning air and a sun that sets golden and warm each evening. A thousand years ago, Buriram was the far reach of the Khmer empire, and several well-kept ruins–including Phanom Rung, on the edge of an extinct volcano–serve as reminders of its rich past.
We were there on a magazine assignment that fell dead in the water once the pandemic hit, though we had no way of knowing it at the time. We spent a week hovering around the main town and the Cambodian border, where most of the ruins are located. It was tough to photograph, and I imagine even tougher to write about, because it’s a place where nothing really happens. A few golden buddhas. An occasional monk in the forest. Lots of gold-flecked statues. A night market that felt sleepy by 8pm.
That isn’t to say it was unlovely. It may be the only place in the world where you can stroll through the preserved, sprawling ruins of an ancient empire utterly alone. We explored forest temples and countless crisscrossing streets in the town proper. We never found much, but in hindsight, maybe that was never the point. It was a strange and prescient place to be just before the world inverted itself.
I like to think it’s alone in being largely unchanged in the world, but I’m sure that’s not entirely true. The pandemic has touched everyone and everywhere, even the remote corners of the world where places like Buriram thrive. Things I found boring at the time are turning more beautiful, and Buriram stands as testament to a way of thinking I should return to. It was an intimate and privileged glimpse into a place not many people will get to see for a long while longer. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was generous in its way. It just took me a while to see it.
I remembered the view from Mount Phou Si–the Nam Khan river and the surrounding mountains flanking the town, the quiet boulevards and temple roofs. From that vantage, Luang Prabang hadn’t changed much in the past decade. Monks still collected their alms at dawn and the night market still covered most of the main drag from dusk onwards. The waterfalls still fell. And sitting along the Mekong with a book and a fresh coconut remained the perfect way to pass an afternoon. You could still buy buffalo bile and skewered rodents and a variety of fermented fish pastes at the morning market. You could still hear the natural world and feel at peace.
I was able to return to Luang Prabang a few months back to work on a travel story about the evolution of Lao cuisine and to take a few photographs for a local textile company. I spent my time with writers, weavers, chefs, gardeners, market sellers, and cheesemakers. It reminded me of why I fell in love with the town so many years ago, this verdant Eden in the mountains of Southeast Asia. Life just feels closer to the earth. Whether it’s the musical chants of monks carrying through the night air or a local fisherman digging up river crickets for breakfast, there’s something real and authentic and a little weird about it all. And then, in the early evenings along the water, it can feel like everyone is pausing to take in the sun setting gold and reflective off the Mekong. The air is clean and strong and there’s a collective sigh and smile and it’s just a perfect way to end the day, decade after decade.
Just a few quick Polaroids from a motorbike trip into the mountains of northern Vietnam near Pu Luong national park, a few hours southwest of Hanoi. A simple, soul-affirming kind of drive along small dirt roads and over rickety bridges and chaotic highways. It was a wonderful way to end over a month of assignments that took me across Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. More to come once my film gets developed. So for now.
From the temples of Ulawatu to the shores of Seminyak and into the mountains and rice fields of Ubud and beyond, Bali is a land of many splendors and wonder. It’s a bit of a cliche to say at this point, but it does feel like a magical place, despite the mass amounts of tourism that simultaneously give reason for and benefit from this magic. I went in not expecting to be moved by it, but I was wrong.
More than anything, Bali manages to retain a bit of mystery while being a completely open book to the casual traveler. There’s an element of history and spirituality to just about everything–archways carved from volcanic stone adorn traffic stops and temples and altars jut out from every corner on every street. The ground is littered with offerings and there’s a constant smell of incense mixed with rotting fruit. Large waves crash against wide stretches of sand in the south while to the east in Tulamben Bay you can walk directly into the water and dive to a nearby shipwreck.
Kuta and Seminyak are where the kids go to party. Jimbaran is known for its seafood and five-star beach resorts. Ubud is a land of hidden waterfalls and monkey forests and villas cloaked in overgrowth and orchids. And everywhere else feels just as unique and different as all the rest. No amount of photos would ever really do it justice, so here are just a few. Outtakes and selects from a few assignments I had while there. It took nearly a decade of living in Asia to finally arrive, but it was well worth the wait.
A lot of expats and travelers in Southeast Asia like to rag on Singapore. They say it’s too clean, too orderly. It’s boring and polite and polished. Nothing but soft edges. But I’ve always thought criticisms like that said more about the person than the place. Singapore–like everywhere else in the world–is largely what you make of it. It’s a complex and complicated place, capable of being just about anything.
Little India on a Sunday is chaotic and wonderful, with energy pulsating through the crowded streets. Chinatown fills up with old men playing chess and gossiping as they sit idly about. Hawker centers dish out world class cuisine day and night. Locals and tourists alike browse through the Gardens by the Bay and the old colonial promenades downtown, and at night restaurants, cocktail bars, speakeasies, and clubs all come alive until the early hours.
I’ve been back and forth to Singapore several times this year, and I haven’t once had to repeat a single night out. There’s always somewhere new to go, some place new to try. Something newly opened, etc. So don’t be so quick to judge–it’s one hell of a place. Here are some outtakes from a recent travel assignment. People, places, and things. And some of the best food I’ve had in recent memory.