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Posted By Lester V Ledesma

Gong Xi Fa Cai to the Chinese, Chuc Mung Nam Moi to the Vietnamese, and Happy Lunar New Year to everyone else!

 

CNY2014


Folks are in the temples tonight... it's a busy time in Geylang, Chinatown and Bugis. Hey, it's always good to start with a dose of good luck


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma

And so, yet another year has passed and we're well into the next one. 2013 for me was a year of return trips. Some destinations, like Danang and Bhutan, were totally unexpected. Others, like Myanmar and Iloilo, were long planned and much anticipated. And I definitely did not expect to start and end the year in Vietnam's central highlands. But of course, all these places came with their own share of fulfillment - return trip or not, every journey was different. And every journey was a great learning experience.

 

So here's my best of 2013 :)

 

10) Good Morning Vietnam

 January 1, 2013: This was the best way to start the year: on the back of a motorbike, taking in the sunshine and the cool winds of the Vietnamese central highlands. Having tied the knot just a few weeks ago, my wife and I were on our first holiday as a married couple. You can call this our honeymoon - one that eschewed boring resorts with their stiff confines and stuffy people. Instead, we barreled down the highway on a pair of wheels, visiting waterfalls and coffee farms and slurping pho at little roadside stalls. Then we rode some more, through pine forests and rustic villages before ending the day at a cathedral in Dalat. Here we reflected on the exciting year that was, and said a short prayer for the next twelve months ahead.

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But of course, many more things happened in Vietnam - read my article in Cebu Smile Magazine to find out the whole story!

 

9) Danang Revisited

 October 27, 2013: My first Vietnamese steps were in Danang, way back in 2005 when I was a struggling freelancer. On that trip, though, the city was just a quick beach stop on the way to other, more popular destinations.  This time it was different; on a 3-day layover between assignments, I was presented with a chance to roam this place I knew little about.

 

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I’ve gotten familiar with Vietnam in the eight years that have passed, but I was pleasantly surprised with this new neighborhood. Danang was laid-back and friendly (they all thought I was Viet kieu – an overseas Vietnamese), with none of the typical Hanoian snarl, and just a little bit of the hectic Saigonese pace. The food was excellent, and the location - right amidst a cluster of awesome cultural sites - was perfect. Hue lay up north, while Hoi An, My Son and the Marble Mountains were down south. And there’s the fine yellow sands of China Beach, just across the road. The eight-year, three-day wait was worth it – I found my favorite Vietnamese city.


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma

8) What’s in Basilan?

January 22, 2013: “Is there someone waiting for you at the pier?” a smiling passenger asked. The question, however innocent, sounded strangely foreboding. We were on a ferry en route to Basilan –the fabled hometown of the terrorist group, the Abu Sayyaf – where (the locals joked) an “extended holiday” could easily cost a million dollars. Thankfully our contact met us at the dock. With a hint of dread lingering in my mind, my companions and I set out to explore this notorious isle.

 

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The capital, Isabela, felt just like any other Mindanao town. At the market, porters looked at my cameras with suspicion at first, but then later lined up to have their Facebook pics taken. A laughing burkha-clad lady served us coffee at a carinderia. Further inland (past the army checkpoints), we photographed local kids at a waterfall, and rubber harvesters on the job. My last taste of Basilan was at a pristine beach called Malamawi, where we kicked back on bamboo benches with a squad of Marines. No gunfire, no kidnappers – this was just a day well-spent.

 

7) Malacca at Dawn

May 18, 2013: The problem with the heritage city of Melaka was that it became too busy at times. Sure, it’s got those lovingly preserved buildings along its narrow walkways, but all too often the nostalgia was lost in the massive crush of weekend visitors. I had an idea though: go out early to shoot these streets, after the night markets have packed up and all those funny tourists have gone to bed.

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The neighborhood was quiet at 4AM, with only haze keeping me company as I sauntered down the avenues. Jonker street was deserted, with nothing at all – neither cars nor people – on the pavement. The antique shophouses basked in the warm light of streetlamps. Chinese lanterns adorned their facades, the paper spheres adding hints of red to the timeless scene before me. An old man on a rusty bike pedaled by, and I was brought back in time. There it was; the Malacca of old, no longer obscured.

 Want to know more about Melaka? Check out my article, A Malacca Memoir


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma

6) Praying with Pain

 

March 29, 2013: I’ve photographed it many times, but this ritual has never failed to move me. There I was in the middle middle of a ricefield in the sweltering summer heat, watching as a fleet of faceless, shirtless men prepared to hurt themselves. This was Good Friday in Calumpit, Bulacan; a day when many residents of this town performed the age-old practice of self-flagellation.

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Close to noon, the field became a sea of writhing bodies. Drops of blood filled the air, accompanied by the sickening crunch of wooden burillo whips hitting flesh. Some of the men lay on the ground and outstetched their arms to form bizarre human crosses. They, too, were whipped by fellow devotees. This army of penitents then marched off the paddies and into the main street. They headed to church - where God, grace and forgiveness awaited.


This event is truly spectacular, and the National Geographic’s photo-editors seem to agree – one of my penitensya photos made it to NatGeo’s Best of the Week.

 

5) The Nine Emperor Gods Festival

September 26, 2013: Taken from my article on CNN Travel:

“Come the ninth lunar month, while the rest of this island gets on with modern life, a little-known ritual unfolds in a corner of Singapore. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival may not be the biggest occasion in these parts, but it sure is met with almost fanatical devotion by members of the Jiu Wang Yeh Taoist sect. As its very name suggests, this pious party revolves around some heavyweight VIP's. The Nine Emperor Gods are said to be heavenly beings who possess great influence over earthly matters. History states the festival was long practiced in Southern China, before early Hokkien immigrants brought it over to colonial-era Singapore. “

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“These days, little has changed in the way this event is observed. The center of the action is at the Kiu Ong Yiah Temple, along Upper Serangoon Road. Here amidst a carnival-like atmosphere of dragon dances and Chinese opera performances, devotees take turns carrying the “sedans” – shoulder-held shrines bearing an emperor god. The celebration reaches its peak on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. Accompanied by cheering and furious drumbeats, the sedans are paraded around and swung vigorously to honor their godly occupants. This is revelry fit for nine kings, they say – with psychic rewards that are well worth the happy efforts.”
 
The 9EG is only one of the many unusual celebrations in multi-cultural Singapore. Check out other, similarly intense events here.


 
Posted By Lester V Ledesma

4) The Heartbeat of Iloilo

January 27, 2013: Fourteen years after I last covered the Dinagyang Festival, I got the chance to see it one more time. Taken from my article on Smile Magazine:

 “The warriors groove in unison to the mighty drumbeats. They shake and they bake - one step to the left, one step to the right, they raise their shields and brandish their spears. But all this is just a warm-up, for as the tom-toms pound out a more frenzied rhythm the atis stretch their hands outward to do their own version of.... bump n’ grind! The crowd roars out its approval. I howl out mine. “
 

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“Thirteen tribes later my ears are numb from all the merry mayhem that had just occurred. As I think about this weekend I realize that Dinagyang is more than just a display of mindless revelry. To me it now represents the unique character of the Ilonggo people - artistic, fun loving, deeply religious and sometimes crazy. This was really a weekend to remember. When next year comes, you’ll see me back in Iloilo. “

“No, I won’t be watching the revelers. I’ll be one of them!”

 Read the rest of this story here.


3)The River Wild

August 5, 2013: On assignment for Smile Magazine:

“You've saved the best for your last day in Cagayan de Oro. Rise and shine early and get ready for an action-packed morning. You are again heading to the boonies to try out this region's signature attraction – white water rafting. “

 

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“The course takes you through a 12-kilometer stretch dotted with over a dozen class II and III rapids (class I is easy, class 6 is suicidal). Each gurgling, foaming obstacle has its own challenges; Makabundol Rapids has a rock wall on one side that needs to be paddled against, while The Rodeo is so chaotic you'll have to hold on to stay aboard. And don't even think about chatting up your guide when you tackle the “I'm Busy” Rapids. There's also The Twister, so named because you all have to paddle through it standing up – making everyone look like dancers on a boat!”

“By the end of it all (that's a good 4 hours later), you'll be tired and wet – and yes, once again exhilarated by this adrenaline-pumping excursion. Not many weekends can compare to the one you just had. A weekend in Cagayan de Oro, you realize, is never enough.”

To find out what else a weekend in Cagayan de Oro can bring, take a look at my article on the CDO Gold Rush.


 


 
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