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Posted By Lester V Ledesma
Revisiting places seemed to be the theme for the past year, as I got to return to spots I visited early last decade. Many of these came with personal milestones - Brunei, where I first exhibited outside Manila, or Hoi An where I first tasted Vietnam, and Hongkong where I first got the travel bug.

The year wasn't all about nostalgia, though, thanks to the Main Man up there who blessed me with more items for my memory chest. My ten best experiences of 2011 range from simple joys to considerably grander memories. Here's my yearly countdown starting with...

#10: THE PACQUIAO-MARQUEZ FIGHT

Getting my driver to work on this day was hard enough, but concentrating on the task at hand was even harder. It was the morning of November 13 the day of the year's biggest boxing match. On the road from Cebu City to the town of Barili for a shoot, this was all my driver and I could talk about. I bet he was hoping I'd finish my job before the undercard fights were done. Luckily I did, and we sped down the highway past empty roads, markets and churches. Everyone was watching the Pacquiao-Marquez fight, of course. This we could tell by the crowds that formed outside certain homes – homes that had humble wooden walls and unfinished concrete floors, and pay- per-view!

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We stopped at a number of these gatherings, and while my driver joined the crowd, I squeezed inside the homes to photograph Pacquiao Magic – and Pinoy Pride – at work.

Here's the rest of what happened


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma
#9: CLOSING THE GATES OF HELL

At midnight, right behind my apartment block, the Hell God and his followers were getting busy. It was the last night of the 7th lunar month, when spirits from hell were said to go back to their fiery home after roaming the earth for weeks. There were candles, incense, and huge piles of “hell money”. More importantly there was a tang ki – a spirit communicator whose job that night was to be possessed by the man himself. He (or the Hell God) smoke Marlboros and drank Cognac offered by devotees, and then he got to work, closing those less-than-pearly portals for yet another year.

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Nice photos, interesting event – here's a more detailed account.

That night I dreamed that the tang ki greeted me outside a taoist temple. As he led me inside, I noticed a Chinese-style gravestone on the wall. My name was written on it.

#8: INSIDE THE MADRASAH

Two similar schools, two vastly different teaching philosophies. While one stands firmly rooted in the present, the other lives in a world of its own. Save for its traditional uniforms, Singapore's Madrasah Wak Tanjong is no different from any other school. On weekdays here, students as young as ten fill their minds with Math, Science and Computing, along with Islamic subjects that are characteristic of the Madrasah curriculum. At Malaysia's Madrasah PKTM, on the other hand, pupils live in dormitories devoid of radios, TV's or mobile phones. The only instruction they get is from one teacher, their only reference is the koran.

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How will these kids face the outside world, you ask? It depends on the world they enter after they leave their school.

#7: ANGKOR ON TWO WHEELS

I've done Angkor many times before, but rarely during my five previous visits has that feeling of “been there, done that” ever accompanied me. On my sixth visit last November, the ancient city of the Khmers gave me yet another reason to return here – on a mountain bike. From the bustling town of Siem Reap, I cycled 17 kilometers through the Cambodian countryside.

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Without a roaring motorbike engine underneath, one feels connected to the land. My guide and I passed herds of schoolkids and water buffalos sauntering down dirt roads lined with villages, temples, paddies - even an archaeological dig – as we made our way to the little-known ruins of Prasat Prei Monti, to the east of Siem Reap. This was Angkor at its best; just the land and its people – and not a tourist in sight.


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma
#6: THE FIREWALKERS OF THEEMITHI

Taken from my article on CNNGo.com:

“Followers of the Hindu deity Draupadi aren't kidding when they tell you they will walk through fire to show devotion to their god. Theemithi, or firewalking, is the climax in a series of rituals that usher in Deepavali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. This is where they prove their purity to the goddess. Watched by a huge crowd and egged on by the shrill notes of the nadaswaram -- a native trumpet -- the barefoot devotees traverse a long bed of searing hot coals. This prayer of pain starts around midnight and ends in the early hours of the morning, with more than 2,000 participants putting their feet to the flames. Blisters aside, this is a soulful night for the devotee, and a truly eye-popping experience for the culturally curious.”

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Read more about Strange Singapore here

#5: FULL MOON AT HOI AN

These were the same ancient houses and the same storied streets, except they were much busier than I remember them from 6 years ago. And there were lovely red lanterns hanging everywhere. Hoi An, Central Vietnam's ancient heritage town, celebrates every full moon night with fanfare, and this one was no exception. At sunset's edge, candles were lit; motorbikes were parked and all electricity was turned off – and the 21st century faded away.

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I roamed these streets with my camera in hand, taking in the atmosphere of a quieter, more innocent Vietnam. A pair of elderly gentlemen played checkers on the sidewalk, right across from where clan house members were reading poetry by firelight. Not far from here, children lit colorful lanterns by the river. The whole area was aglow with tradition, culture and history. This was the Vietnam of old.

#4: BEHIND THE PAHIYAS

“You won’t find an empty hotel room in this town tonight”, the Lucbanon remarked, “but you can crash in my living room if you need a place to stay” It was the eve of the Pahiyas fiesta in Lucban, and I needed to have an early start for my coverage of tomorrow’s festivities. While invading the homes of strangers isn’t my style, the offer was too good to pass up. Thankfully I stuck around, for that evening I got to experience the local side of this famous event. It seemed the whole of Lucban was out on the streets, laughing, chatting and eating away. I hung out with my host’s relatives as they put the final touches on their kiping decorations. It felt good to actually be part of the community, even for just a few hours.

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I slept soundly at midnight, just as fireworks announced the arrival of the big day. The busloads of tourists would arrive in the morning, but few of those folks would ever experience the kinship and the community spirit that gave meaning to the Pahiyas.


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma
#3: THE CAI RANG FLOATING MARKET

Taken from my article on Cebu Smile Magazine:
“As the sky gradually lightens, I look around to a river that is just waking up. Bleary-eyed kids peek out from the doorways of stilted homes, while their mothers prepare breakfast on outdoor kitchens. Fisherman cast nets from tiny canoes. The Cai Rang market feels just like Saigon, except that everything – the hawking, the buying, the sense of organized chaos – happens afloat. From one side of the river to the other (a distance of about five city blocks) are nothing but boats. I see barges loaded with charcoal, coconuts or fruits, and just about any kind of produce. I see smaller, roofed boats stuffed with more provisions than a 7-11. There's also canoes carrying dry goods, and canoes that serve as food stalls – and canoes bearing buyers and tourists like me.”

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Read the full story here

#2: PARIS WITH HENRI

You can shoot Paris with a digicam like everyone else, or you can document this amazingly picturesque city like the old photography masters did: using black-and-white film on a rangefinder camera.

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That’s exactly what I did last March with my Voigtlander Bessa R and a half-dozen rolls of Agfa APX 100. Following the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson (you all know who he is) I spent days roaming the streets of the French capital, doing as he did. With bursts of silver halide and light, I captured the classic Paris: Montmartre, La Sorbonne, Notre Dame and that tourist HQ, the Tour Eiffel. My photos looked great – you can see more of them here – but to this day I suspect this wasn’t because of my photographic skill; I guess the character of Paris simply showed through.

#1: MALAYSIA, ALL OF IT

Good money. A long shoot list. Lots of travel involved, and complete creative freedom. Jobs like these are the reason I became a photographer.

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So when I was approached to document Malaysia for a major client, everything else took a back seat. What followed was a month of hopping around the country doing nothing but photography. Better still, I was able to revisit places I haven’t seen in a while. Like Penang with its awesome food, Melaka with its antique charm, and Kuala Lumpur with its cutting edge skyline. By the end of it all I was tired but smiling, and itching to shoot some more. (I was actually back in Melaka a few weeks later, but that was another story)

This truly was a great year… can’t wait to see what 2012 will bring in!

 

 

 
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