Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bangkok: Capturing Chaos and Looking for Peace

Bangkok greets one with strong smells, traffic jams, extravagant bling of royal palaces and temples juxtaposed against the dark suffocating allies lined with dilapidated shanty houses, burning hot woks of street vendors, mice scurrying around its sidewalk-less streets, militarized police with threatening whistles and frowns, and buddhist monks in bright orange ropes. I really tried to cozy it up to but we never did end up making friends.

Soi Tha klang Street

Drawing this shrine in Saranrom park was probably the closest as I came to finding peace in this chaotic city. Elderly Chinese woman sat almost motionless next to me for a long time meditating over some writings. The lush vegetation was buffering the sounds of the busy city around us just enough to provide temporary reprieve.

Saranrom Park Shrine

Next morning I headed to Bangkok's #1 attraction–the Royal palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. I found the Royal palace to be impenetrable. After being yelled at for sitting in the wrong place, not being dressed decently enough to be on the royal premises, and having dodged at least a dozen selfie sticks I decided to stay on the sidelines and sketch outside of its thick walls.

Royal Palace

Traveling Thailand during monsoon creates the element of suspense of when you will be next drenched in the thick wall of a tropical rain storm. Both times I came to visit What Pho, which is truly spectacular,  I was caught in the rain. The angry indigo clouds created an amazing backdrop against the bright red roofs of the temple. The sketch of the gate below was done while waiting out another powerful storm under the roof of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Wat Pho

Bangkok panorama from the top of Wat Saket (Golden mount)
I drew this to the soundscape of Buddhist chanting, bells, endless, camera shutters, and a Spanish tour guide giving incorrect information about the Democracy monument below. The monument to Thai democracy is a bit ironic since Thailand is currently a military dictatorship, and giant portraits of the queen flanked by various generals are literally wall papered all around Bangkok. Apparently, families, living on the site of the current monument were evicted with a 60 day notice to make room for the construction.

Bangkok aerial from Wat Saket

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Koh Yao Noi

Getting there and First Impressions

In my search for a perfect Thai island, or, at least, the less over-run and developed place in this mecca of international tourism I came across the sleepy island of Koh Yao Noi (Small Long Island) in Phang Nga Bay. There are no industries, structures or resorts on the island. Population's main occupation is fishing with limited farming of rice and coconut.

The route to Koh Yao was pretty enjoyable–short flight from Singapore to Phuket, a fun taxi ride to the Phuket boat pier with the gentle Ninie (see below), a scenic crossing of the bay in a motor boat from Phuket to Koh Yao pier. I sketched these two Thai men next to me on the boat. They seemed to enjoy being drawn.

Boat Ride

Ninie is a sweet muslim woman who picked me up in Phuket's airport and brought me to the pier. Her voice is so gentle–when she talked I felt she was singing a baby to sleep. She told me about her dream–to go to Bangkok with her brother and sister. She is afraid her brother would just want to eat in food courts and her sister would only want to go shopping. Ninie wants to have adventurous friends who would go hiking with her.

Ninie's Taxi

The villagers of the island are very warm and hospitable. As I was making my first attempts to explore the island by bike I would inevitably turn and try to ride on the wrong (right) side of the street. They would just give me the warmest smile and wave every time they saw me.
My clunky mountain bike loaner

You can circle around the island in about 3-4 hours on a bicycle. The scenery is mostly lush tropical forest, small houses, and cement piers going far into the sea–the tides are pretty fierce here.

As far as wild life, the island is home to many water buffalos, peacefully grazing on its lush pastures. The most exotic creature I saw was the motor lizard, a large black prehistoric looking creature. At low tide the beach is alive with millions of creatures–crabs, birds, and insects.

Wild Life

From the first day I became addicted to getting up with the first rays of light, running to the beach to greet the sunset. Sweet lapping of warm water, bright orange sand, and the gentle blue contours of the little islands in various whimsical shapes rising above the calm mirror of the water on the horizon were all worth a few hours of lost sleep. This place was pure magic.

Sunrise over the Phang Nga Bay
Exposed to a large variety of Thai restaurants in Portland I was very anxious to try some authentic Thai food. My first Thai meal was immediately my favorite–banana flower salad–the perfection of flavor and presentation lovingly prepared by a Thai woman named Kai.

Banana Flower Salad

Snorkeling and Sketching 

As I was enjoying my newly discovered paradise my only worry was that I was in this magical place all by myself–no company for sketching or swimming or sharing a meal. To my huge surprise the owner of the place where I was staying introduced me to another sketcher, a french woman named Delphine who, like me, was enjoying some quiet after the Symposium in Singapore. We discovered a lot of things we shares besides both ending up in this remote paradise–sketching, playing piano, love of snorkeling and the ocean.

Delphine Priollaud-Stoclet
Delphine on a boat

Next day we headed out to a snorkeling and sketching excursion into the gorgeous conglomeration of islands called Pa Koh Archipelago. We would take turns snorkeling and sketching all day.

Snorkeling and sketching–I am in heaven!
Traditional boats in Pa Koh Archipelago

The famous Karst geology of the Andaman sea
Out sweet and shy guide Nan would guide his longtail boat to the most scenic reefs. He would kill the motor and hang a little metal ladder over the side of the boat–our sign for getting our snorkels on and jumping in the water.


Nan invited me to climb the steep and slippery cliff that required a lot of pulling one's weight by hanging onto ropes and trees. The view from the top was well worth the risk. Delphine stayed on the beach to sketch the boats. You can see her as the red dot on the sand below.

Spectacular view from the top of the cliff 

Village life

There are two mosques on the island–the majority of population is Muslim in this part of Thailand. A call to prayer could be heard very distinctly, as the island is pretty quiet, and the most sounds you hear are birds and insects.

Koyao Mosque

This is the smaller of the two island's mosques on the island. As I was making this quick sketch two little boys came up to me. One became quite insistent asking for something specific in Thai. At first I thought he wanted to see my drawing or my sketching supplies but he kept saying a word that sounded like "money" again and again, soon trying to reach and search inside of my backpack.

Fishing village on stilts at low tide

Women in head scarfs zip about their business on motor bikes, often carrying their kids in front and in the back. Motor bikes are the main mode of transportation, as most places are reached by dirt roads. There is a village market that mostly consists of a few fruit and clothing stalls.I picked up some exotic fruit at the village market. I brought some samples to my room to sketch and taste–prickly salacca, subdued mangosteen, the splendid dragon fruit.

Thai Fruit

At first I thought I was looking at canisters of bright juice being frequently sold along the busier roads. Then I realized that those were village gas stations selling benzine. Fuel would typically sit in metal barrels, then hand cranked to the top transparent container with liter marks, from which customers would be able to flow it into their motor bikes and canisters.

Gas Station
Gas Station Koyao style
Fortunately, I didn't need any benzine juice as I was getting around on a clunky loaner mountain bike from my hotel. Biking around the island I came across a place where a bunch of American youth were painting sarongs while listening to Western rock hits. They told me that they were traveling the Thai islands and painting sarongs for charity.

Western youth painting sarongs

Fabiana, the beautiful Thai woman from my hotel recommended that I stop by this place on the beach where they build traditional longtail boats. These boats are quite beautiful–smooth dark wood and bright scarfs tied to the bow for good luck. I did in fact find one man who was busy spray painting the name of his boat. We chatted as much as his three words of English and my 0 words of Thai allowed us to do.

Boat Building

Traditional longtail boat

For our last evening on the island Delphine and I decided to have an impromptu picnic consisting of red wine, rambutan and dragon fruit. We stayed chatting in English and French and sketching each other defending ourselves form mosquitos and other bugs well into the sunset.

Picnic of tropical fruit

It was time to say good-bye to the island and fly off to Bangkok but I asked Ninie to make one last stop at the Gibbon Rehabilitation project on the way to the airport. Hearing their songs and watching the acrobatics of these agile primates was amazing. Each one comes here with a tragic story of past abuse, but under the care of the staff at the center most of them would make it back into the wild as soon as they are ready to fend for themselves.

Gibbon Rehabilitation Center

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sixth Urban Sketchers Symposium in Singapore

This past July a few hundred of sketching enthusiasts headed to Singapore for the Sixth Annual Urban Sketchers Symposium. Singapore–a tiny city state in SE Asia is famous for its hot weather and exotic policies, such as a ban on chewing gum. Even though SE Asia cast its magic spell on me several years ago, initially I was not particularly enthused by the location of this year's symposium. The few things I heard about Singapore were mostly that it was modern, clean, safe, and affluent. Little did I expect to fall in love with its amazing ethnic and religious diversity, helpful and friendly people, harmonious combination of old colonial neighborhoods and modern architecture, and convenient location to pretty much anywhere else in South East Asia.

Traditional and Modern in Singapore's Chinatown
The people I met in Singapore seemed really aware of the world around them. Usually, traveling outside of the US I do not expect people to know where Portland, Oregon is located. When explaining where I am from I often get a puzzled look when I say "Portland." Moved to establish some sort of common ground, I start connecting it to more famous surroundings: "It is north of California." More puzzled looks. "California is home to Hollywood." That's how some people I meet during my travels might end up thinking I live in Beverly Hills.

By contrast, most people I talked to Singapore have heard of Portland and were even familiar with its tagline "weird."

Trendy bar with $14 beers

Singaporeans I met tended to be very self aware as well. When asking visitors what those thought of their country they often rushed to reply themselves: "It is hot, right?" "It is expensive, correct?" "We have two seasons–hot and hotter here" or "We have two national sports–eating and shopping here". I would also add the selfie stick photography to the list of national sports. There is even a coffee shop that offers its customers beverages with their selfies plastered to the top.

Selfie Sticks

Singapore's Neighborhoods

Lots of historic neighborhood streets in Singapore look like this. Two story buildings with clean colorful facades with red tile roofs and window shutters always flanked by the blue glassy backdrop of modern skyscrapers.

Arab Neighborhood
Arab neighborhood
Since I am not from Beverly Hills I actually didn't stay in the Raffles hotel that hosted many celebrities since it opened in 1800s.

Historic Raffles Hotel
Historic Raffles Hotel

My hotel was centrally located on Purvis street surrounded by various landmarks like the historic Raffles Hotel (above) and colorful neighborhoods such as Little India, Chinatown, Arab neighborhood.

180 degree Sketching at Purvis Street
Drawing 180 degree angle panoramas with Lapin in front of my hotel

Colorful Chinatown


Hindu Temples in Singapore

The highlight of my time in Singapore was visiting and sketching Sri Krishnan Hindu temple. I ended up going back there for three days in a row, sketching the elaborate entry and its hilarious attendant, its facade and finally detailing the elaborate ceremony dedicated to the Hindu god–Garuda. The ceremony was one of the most moving religious experiences for me up to date–the feast for senses with its bright colors, incense burning, live music, hours of chanting. Buckets and buckets of milk, honey and spices were poured on a statue of Garuda as part of the celebration. Some sketchers and I were even invited to share the meal with the devotees at the end. 

Garuda Ceremony, Sri Krishnan Temple
Garuda Ceremony: chanting, praying and preparing buckets of milk and spices

Garuda Ceremony, Sri Krishnan Temple
Garuda Ceremony: The Bathing with Milk Begins

Garuda Ceremony at Sri Krishnan Temple
Garuda Ceremony Meal

As I was sketching the entry into Sri Krishnan locals would stop by to watch, offer me food or drink. One young woman even gave me a clip to hold the pages of my sketchbook down. 

Sri Krishnan Temple
The entry into the Sri Krishnan Temple is flanked by two giant statues–Hanuman and Garuda as well as its vigilant attendant

Sri Mariamman Temple
Sri Mariamman Temple located in China Town

Exotic Foods

Traveling in South East Asia one is constantly exposed to a variety of unusual foods and food smell amplified by heat and humidity. Yet, at no time is your stomach more alarmed by something unusual as during breakfast. Watching people slurp their noodles at 6am in the airport was turning my stomach but only a few minutes later I found myself ordering and eating the spicy brothy laksa–traditional breakfast soup in this part of Asia.

Not used to eating this for breakfast

Noodle Lunch

Urban Sketchers

Purvis Street Sketchcrawl
First Sketchcrawl on Purvis Street

This time almost 400 sketchers from 36 countries gathered in Singapore. Three days was not enough time to meet everyone, look at their sketchbooks, and really revel in the fact that there are so many amazing talented people in the world who share my passion . I met or reconnected with some amazing artists from Honk Kong, Tanzania, Israel, Korea, Indonesia, Malasia, and Australia. I also got to hang out with some of my favorites from the Spanish speaking world–Miguel Herranz from Barcelona, Norberto Dorantes from Buenos Aires, Inma Serrano from Sevilla.

Miguel Herranz and Norberto Dorantes
Miguel Herranz and Norberto Dorantes

Portrait Duel with Inma
Inma Serrano

Simonetta Capecchi and Mark Toro Holmes
Simonetta Capecchi and Mark Toro Holmes

Miguel Herranz at Park View Plaza Hotel
Miguel Herranz at te Park View Plaza Hotel

Inma Serrano
One more of Inma Serrano

As always, sketchers' support teams–husbands and wifes who travel with their significant others and entertain themselves by sight seeing for a few days are a lot of fun to meet as well. Here are two sketchers' husbands I met in Singapore.

Sketchers' husbands