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Down by the River: Photography at Golden Hour in Siem Reap

I spent about a week in Siem Reap for the 10th annual Angkor Photo Festival. It was a phenomanal experience including getting a portfolio review which encouraged me to spend more time shooting only when the light is good.

Here’s some of the output of that experiment. I woke up at 5am every morning to shoot sunrise and then went out again aroudn 5:30pm to shoot at sunset.

If you’re a photographer using Android I recommend Exate Golden Hour (free) for finding out when the light is good. Surely, you can tell just by looking, but it’s nice to know when I have exactly 20 minutes to make it to my favorite spots.

Here’s what the river looked like at sunset as I went out to shoot.

My best experience was finding these young boys playing with a toy gun. They loved being photographed, as do many adults in Cambodia. In the past week three people have asked me to take their picture in public.

Here are a few other shots in much worse light, mid-day, of boys swimming in the river. I deeply wish these had been better lit. You can tell compared to the other images just how tough it is to make something interesting out of harsh mid-day sun.

My First Trip to Khmer Boxing

Yesterday over lunch a friend recommended that we go check out Khmer boxing. Since it’s free and just down the street I thought “why not?”.

I’ll be writing up some longer thoughts soon. For now here are a few pictures. It was totally fascinating to see this part of Cambodian culture.

All of these were shot on the Leica ME with a 35mm f2 and manually metered. My 35mm f2 is a pre-Asph version from the 1970’s and was about 14 the price of the new one on Amazon.

A Birthday in The Village

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I was invited to a three year old’s birthday this past week in a village two hours outside of Phnom Penh. When they said it was a village they weren’t lying. It’s 45 kilometers from the city, five of which aren’t paved, across from a Buddhist Pagoda and down a narrow dirt path.

People in the provinces drive a bit crazier than people in the city but since there are fewer of them the driving it’s safer. Driving in Cambodia is a game of mass, momentum and bluffing. It’s also quite a bit like skiing in that you’re responsible for not hitting something in front of you but have no reason to care about what happens behind you.

In Cambodia a heavy truck can do whatever it wants, I’d be smashed like a bug if I hit it. But a collection of motorbikes together form a solid mass. Together with a group of bikes you’re just like any other car – heavy, fast, and damaging on collision. No one messes with you. So when traffic got bad I found a crowd and swarmed into it.

Motorcycle traffic in Phnom Penh.

On arrival family’s elderly patriarch was thrilled to see me and approached beaming, two thumbs up, excitedly yelling “barang!” (white person). We had never met before. We shook hands, he stared at me and grinned for a while, not saying much else. My khmer is about good enough to say “hello,” which I said, and “you’re a man,” which I avoided. I think he was just pumped that a white dude came to his grandson’s birthday party.

Seeing my camera he pulled out a piece of paper and insisted that I write down how much the camera cost. I was too embarassed to write the true cost, so I wrote $1,000.

The party didn’t really kick off, it just slowly built in momentum. Well dressed Cambodians and foreigners arrived and mingled as much as language would allow, uninvited local villagers poked around under the tables for aluminum cans go recycle, and slew of relatively unenthusiastic and unexplained other Cambodians sat under the house watching the whole thing.

The little one ran around in shiny oversized cobalt suit, dancing to the live music. The boy’s mother greeted people in a beautiful blue dress while his father ferried cases of beer on a motorbike from the local market.

Cattle saying hello. The most typical Cambodia picture I’ve taken. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

When you’re invited to a party you get a three piece invitation: a cover, an invitation with a map, and a small envelope for your gift. People here want cash and aren’t shy about it. It seems like the standard gift for a Cambodian to another Cambodian is $10 (one to three day’s wages), so my foreigner gift was $20.

When you give the gift old men from the local Buddhist pagoda accept the money, open the envelope, and write down exactly how much you gave in a public notebook that anyone can see. At first this struck me as rude and invasive. I want to give money but not make a big deal out of it – and I don’t like everyone at the party knowing how much I gave.

It got way dirtier than this. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

Men from the local pagoda writing down the amount of my gift. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

On talking with my friend Det she explained that the written list is so that the family will later return the same gift to me. If I give $20 for their son’s birthday party they’ll give me $20 back when my son has a birthday.

In this way the money isn’t actually a gift but instead a obfuscated loan. Stay in good social standing, throw a party every once in a while, and the money will flow back to you. In that mindset of course I want them to write down how much I gave. A heavy gift will come back to me in the future.

We’ve disguised this tradition in the United States but it came to mind that most celebrations are actually a way of raising cash. They become a way of passing liquidity around the community regularly and enable us to make large purchases that we need. Of course we don’t tend to write gifts in an envelope, but even at the age of five I knew my grandfather was good for about 25 bucks and my grandmother was more generous.

We’ve made parties unbelievably expensive in the United States. If I recall correctly, early celebrity weddings raised the bar from just exchanging rings in a church. Now we need flowers, a procession, and $5,000 of photography. A wedding in the United States it could easily cost $25,000. From talking with brides you’re lucky to break even based on gifts from each of the attendants.

In the past the wedding might have cost a fifth of that and quadrupled it’s investment. Raising $25,000 for a newly wedded couple gives them liquidity they need to start a life together. In cash form that’s a down-payment on a house. With more social status and older couple the house already exists, so it’s becomes a bunch of. credit card debt and an excessively appointed kitchen instead.

Similarly, coming of age cemeronies are bigger in more religious groups: communion and barmitzvah could have raised enough money for a young person to start their own business in the past. Today I have no idea, I’ve never even attended one.

Finally, as I posted on Facebook, the end of the party was most fascinating to me. Cutting the cake felt like a well rehearsed ritual. The boy and his father walked over to the cake, were surrounded by firends, and sparklers were lit. After the sparklers burned out (an educated nod to fire control) the family and cake were doused in silly string. It was the most energetic moment I’ve seen in any party – even this one well outside the developed world – and it was fascinating to me. The image below is from that.

Cutting the cake. The boy and his father are doused in silly string. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

A Practical Bike for Everyone

Riding a motorbike in the rain. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Post World War Two Japan needed a reasonable vehicle for the average Japanese citizen to drive. They needed something that was cheap, could handle messy undeveloped roads, and was stable enough to use as a delivery vehicle.

What they developed is a fascinating bike, the Honda Super Cub. The Super Cub was a fully rethought motorbike design from tires to handlebars. It was a new category of bike: bigger than the pedal bikes to which people had been mounting external engines (see Honda Cub F), but smaller and cheaper than the full on motorcycles of the day.

“His concept was a two wheeler for everyman, one that would appeal to both developed and developing countries, urban and rural. The new motorcycle needed to be technologically simple to survive in places without up to date know how and access to advanced tools or reliable spare parts supplies. The common consumer complaints of noise, poor reliability, especially in the electrics, and general difficulty of use would have to be addressed.” - Wikipedia

It took Honda two years time to develop the Super Cub, but it went on to be the single highest volume selling motor vehicle in history. This week I bought it’s natural evolution, a Daelim Citi 100cc, and I’m fascinated.

Genesis

Backing up a bit, what makes the Honda Cub so revolutionary?

First, at 17 inches, the tires were a new size large enough to go through potholes and bad streets but small enough to be easy to maneuver in cities. Wikipedia’s article on the Honda Cub details the trouble engineers went through acquiring a 17 inch tire, eventually cutting apart existing tires and re-forming them to 17 inches for testing. Until a tire manufactrer agreed to make 17 inch tires Honda almost abandoned the project.

Second, the bike needed a low center of gravity for stability. Existing bikes often mounted the engine in the rear, moving a bike’s center of mass far back. The Honda Cub mounted the engine right by the driver’s feet giving a good weight distribution. Combined with larger tires this made it feel more like a traditional bicycle – making the motorbike more accessible to the general public.

Third, a standard of quality for the handling of the bike was that someone could drive it one-handed while holding a tray of soba noodles in their other hand1. I love this kind of insanely specific product requirement – such a specific vision makes success and failure clear, which I think is essential to designing a good product.

Finally, to market this bike Honda developed an entirely new type ad campaign with the slogan “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” This was considered the invention of lifestyle marketing.

“The ad depicted housewives, a parent and child, young couples and other respectable members of society - referred to as “the nicest people” - riding Honda 50s for a variety of purposes. Moreover, the colorful illustration and highly professional design appealed strongly to the public. Those who would otherwise have rolled their eyes at the word “motorcycle,” and those who previously had no interest in them, soon saw in the motorcycle a new purpose: one of casual and convenient daily transportation.” - honda.com

In my mind all of these factors combined to give the Super Cub a clean, simple, and honest design before they were catch words used for apps and computers. If anything this feels like how Apple would have made a bike in 1958 if Apple were a motorbike company.

The design, marketing, and enormous success of the product is stunning. There have been than 60 million Honda Super Cubs sold which is fifty percent more than the top selling car of all time, the Toyota Corolla.

The Present Day Honda Cub

As far as I can tell Honda still makes the Super Cub (about $1,600 new in Mexico) but has updated its design and added cost. Daelim, a Korean company, collaborated with Honda to clone the Cub into the Daelim Citi bike and still sells them with essentially the original design new for only $700 in Cambodia (probably closer to $350 in a country with less aggressive taxes).

A man resting on a Honda bike, aesthetically identical to the Daelim Citi.

To put these prices in some context Cambodia’s per capita GDP was $1,008 in 2014 verses over $50,000 for the United States. That makes a Daelim Citi about as affordable as a $35,000 car would be to an average American, and a Honda Super Cub about as affordable as a $70,000 Tesla Model S. Cost matters here, a lot.

As a result of being cheap, reliable, and almost obvious to fix Honda Super Cubs and clones are all over Cambodia. I see single men and moto taxi drivers using them. I see them fashioned to pull trailers full of leaves, mattresses, and piles of garbage. My favorite sight is seeing a whole family riding one: often arranged front to back with a stark naked child standing in front of the the father, the mother behind the father, and another baby wedged between the two parents.

My best image of a full family on a motorbike. Not a Daelim and also in Vietnam instead of Cambodia. I’ll keep hunting for the elusive all-nude shot. Hanoi, Vietnam. June 2014.

The Daelim Citi/Honda Cub is also a hackable bike. It’s frequently used as an engine for tuktuks — three wheeled carriages driven for mass transit. I’ve seen a single 100cc Daelim Citi pulling a tuktuk with eight locals. This would likely cause the engine to overheat without extra cooling, so most tuktuks I’ve seen which use a small engine bike like a Daelim as the base also rig a system to drip water over the engine.

Daelim bikes fashioned with trailers. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Bikes are clearly the leading way to get around Cambodia. A 90% import tax on vehicles means that a basic Daelim 100 costs almost $700 brand new — mine was $440 used. In Vietnam the same bike would go for about half of that price sans-tax. Since the averaged Cambodian city dweller makes only about $100-$300 per month the bikes here tend to be small and inexpensive.

What else do you see on the streets of Cambodia? A surprising number of nice cars. I’ve spent the past few days familiarizing myself with Phnom Penh traffic and there are plenty of Toyota Land Cruisers, Lexuses, and a few high end Mercedes. My first impressions are that traffic Cambodia style — no traffic lights and a total free for all — only works well if 95% of traffic is on a small bike. The cars suck.

Who can afford these fancy cars? Everyone tells me that the richest people in Cambodia work for the government.

My Daelim Citi 100cc parked in Phnom Penh. A family of four riding the same bike headed in the opposite direction.


  1. “Another of Fujusawa’s requirements was that it could be ridden with one hand while carrying a tray of soba noodles, saying to Honda, “If you can design a small motorcycle, say 50 cc with a cover to hide the engine and hoses and wires inside, I can sell it. I don’t know how many soba noodle shops there are in Japan, but I bet you that every shop will want one for deliveries.”” wikipedia [return]

Why Cambodia

This was originally written as a Facebook status in a more loosely written form than I usually post on the blog. I’ve decided to maintain most of that language.

Last night I slept in my own bed. When I woke up this morning I made coffee on my own stove. I washed my clothes in my own washing machine and hung them to dry in on my own balcony under our sun.

I’ve slept in a lot of places in the past seven months. Nothing comes close to the sleep of sleeping in my own bed for the first time. Throwing two half inch thick industrial padlocks through the loops on my doors and knowing that anyone who comes in to wake me can be kicked out and told to fuck off. Turning the air conditioning (!) to the exact temperature I like. I feel refreshed.

Boy walks across the shore during the 2014 Cambodian Water Festival.

I’ve slept in a hammock in the Vietnamese jungle, in a train, in a bus, on a folded up piece of foam on the floor in an apartment in Cambodia. I’ve slept in nice hotels. The best was a Hilton in Phuket where the bed was so big I couldn’t touch both ends with my hands and my feet extended (we paid for it with points). The worst was a hotel in Arabica, Indonesia where the shower head flew off and hit me in the face, where the walls sagged, and where the included “breakfast” turned out to be a piece of bread with margarine and chocolate sprinkles.

If anything I regret moving around so much. It was a waste of time and money. Culture is a fractal. Each country has a culture, each city has a culture, and each block has a culture. They depend on each other and feed off of each other. I can get a general idea if I like somewhere after the first few days, but if I don’t like somewhere it doesn’t mean I need to try a different city. It might mean I just need to move a block and a half in another direction.

Watching the 2014 Cambodian Water Festival.

When I started this trip I thought I’d want to live on a beach town. It turns out that beach towns aren’t very stimulating. Swimming in the ocean gets boring after a few days. I also thought I might want to live in a big city like New York, Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Now I find those big cities immensely stressful. Even smaller cities like Kyoto that at first I found so peaceful I now find stifling.

I now have a few basic rules for places that I like. If people don’t laugh in the streets I don’t want to live there. If people are remarkably unhappy it rubs off on me quickly and I become unhappy. No matter how terrible things are, if the people are happy then I can be happy.

I think the secret to happiness is to take care of your basic needs and then have something fulfilling to be working on. Something to occupy the mind will take care of the minor concerns about not having enough of anything. Take this with a grain of salt, it’s coming from a semi-retired and comparatively wealthy white man living in a nice air conditioned apartment in a developing country while people sleep in the streets outside.

Why would I settle in Cambodia? By all objective measures Cambodia sucks. It’s poor, it’s dirty, and there are a bunch of national crises. As a friend of mine said “I just want to do two things in my free time. I want to swim and I want to walk in the woods. I can’t swim here because the water is polluted and it will make me sick and I can’t go off the trail because I’ll get blown up by a landmine.”

This photo was taken 30 feet from my apartment..

Why would I settle in Cambodia then? Because of all the countries I’ve visited it’s absolutely the strangest and most interesting. It feels the most like a different world. It’s Buddhist, so people are happy, but it’s got immense wealth disparity. You can see someone driving a $200,000 Land Rover down the street next to a shirtless one armed child begging. There are a bunch of NGOs working here to make conditions better but there are also a lot of Cambodians working themselves to make life better. I’m much more interested in tales of Cambodians doing what they want than I am in the NGOs which sometimes do good and sometimes are just a front to cleanse ourselves of white guilt.

Mostly I’m here because of all the places I’ve visited I think that Cambodia will change the most over the next 10 years. I think that the lifestyle of today in Phnom Penh and the villages outside the city will be gone within my lifetime. I want to see it while it’s still here.

For the first time in seven months I have a lease and a stable roof over my head. Having somewhere consistent to come home to every day adds a level of dependability to my life that has been missing. I like being 100% mobile. I like not owning stuff and have no intention to start filling out a wardobe. But it’s also nice to take a breather, settle in one country, and know that I can focus on some things that matter more to me than seeing new places for a while.