Please click any image to open slideshow.

Advertisements

Gerard Gaskin explains how ethics, rejection and transsexuals,

influenced his 20-year photo essay about intuitive performance artists

Three months before Gerard Gaskin’s first photography book rolls off the press, we linked up via Skype to touch base amidst the flurry of activity around his monumental moment.  He was in Syracuse, New York, his new home.  I was at a juice bar in North Miami.  In the twenty years we’ve known each other, we’re more familiar with chatting long distance than in person.  Before the book launches I wanted to tour his mental journal for insights to his process while developing his documentary project into the book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press; U$45).

A book symbolizes the pinnacle of a photographer’s career.  Gaskin, originally from Trinidad and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, has been devoted to honing his craft and shaping his legacy.  He won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  He began documenting the House Ballroom scene in 1993, it’s now a book because he won the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize.

We’re both at that station in life where paying forward our knowledge is a priority.  In that spirit, Gaskin, 45, shares insights from his experience creating this work to serve aspiring documentary photographers in and beyond the Caribbean.

First, here’s an indoctrination to the culture Gaskin embraced to record ‘Legendary’:  The House Ballroom scene dates to the 1970s and was born in Harlem, New York.  The vogue dance style branded by this subculture, started as the Pop Dip anmy book 5119710a28a copyd Spin performed by gay inmates at Rikers Island.  Today, House Balls are where gay black and Latino city kids, who are often high school educated intuitive artists, stage theatrical battles in the wee hours of the morning to earn street creds for having an incomparable avante garde aesthetic.

House Balls borrow the choreographed storytelling of Broadway to present the gratuitous exhibitionism of Miami Beach and the narcissism of Paris Couture Week, in order to elicit the spirited frenzy of Rio Carnival.  House Balls start at midnight and require seven hours to allow contenders from various Houses in four categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butches and Women, to work the judges for the coveted ‘10’ scorecards.  There aren’t any deep-pocket sponsors of the arts invested in validating the dramatic portrayals and dance battles that unfold on makeshift runways as performance art.  Yet, House Balls have spread across the U.S. like kudzu and have over 30,000 followers.  Gaskin has photographed Balls in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.  Here are his shoot notes, each packed with a useful take-away:

Image

Follow as Inspiration Shifts: “I would hang out on 42nd Street (in NYC), near a peep show on 8th Avenue; it’s a place where the ‘girls’ of the Ball scene worked.  The Ballroom project started with me wanting to do portraits of femme queens (transsexuals).  At that point the hottest photographer in the US was Annie Leibowitz, she was doing amazing Amex ads and work for Vanity Fair.  I wanted to do Vanity Fair portraits of femme queens—very stylized.  It wasn’t supposed to be very documentary driven.”

Establish Mental Focus: “I always think that access was the thing every photographer tries to get.”  (It took Gaskin six years to attain full access in this community.)  “Going to the Balls, I try not to think about too much.  When I started photographing the Balls all I did was shoot as much as I can.  When I started laying out pictures, I started to figure out what I don’t have. That became a routine.  What iconic image do I want to create.  Then I would get one, but if I didn’t like it.  I would go back and ask where do I need to be to make the image better.  Those were things I thought about before I got to a Ball.  I like to get to the Ball early, when the doors open I want to be there.  Sometimes I just photograph trophies on the stage or [folks] getting ready.  Being there for the duration was what I was there to do.”

Image

Define Your Motivation: “The thing that drove me to the Ballroom scene is my exploration around sexuality.  I have a cousin who was born on the same day, he lives in Toronto and he came out.  He was shunned by my family.  It’s interesting how my family dealt with sexuality.  My family is a really religious catholic family.  Homosexuality is a really strange thing.  In turn, I wanted to deal with that idea.  That was the beginning of me seeking out the project.”

Rejection Isn’t Defeat: “There are 30,000 ‘kids’ in this scene, one ‘kid’ saying no doesn’t cancel a project.  I just turn my camera away, and walk away.  I have photographs of people who allowed me to take their picture, but when the book was coming around and I was [seeking] permission to use their picture in the book—they flatly told me no!  Balls are still a scene where people are afraid to be seen.  Though many are much more comfortable with having their picture taken [than ten years ago].”

Identify Ethical Boundaries: “The idea of the photo essay has changed Imagebecause of how scripted reality TV is, it’s more structured to tell a point.  [Editors] are not interested in allowing people to do what they want to do.  When clients call me, a magazine is not going to send you to shoot somebody for two weeks.  They have structured ideas that they ultimately want from that person.  [They might] say, we want them getting ready in the morning, so we literally stage that idea.  Or they want them interacting with children, we stage that idea, too.  If someone is putting on makeup and they’re done and ready to go, but I wanted that image, I ask them to re-do it.  They don’t need to take off their makeup and put it back on.  But I want them to act like they’re putting on makeup again.  In the ’90s I wouldn’t do that.”

Learn Guerrilla Marketing: “When I started shopping this book I had a box of photographs, an artist statement, a book proposal answering certain questions: who’s going to buy the book, who’s my target audience.  People would say, we’re interested but what does it look like.  Around 2006, I made the dummy, [it] was 6” x 8” with 50 pages.  Almost everything in the dummy is in the final book.  You need to create a dummy digitally.  Publishers want you to have an audience, they want pre-sale.  You have to have a timeline and raise money yourself.  It’s easier to do guerrilla marketing yourself than to have some marketing firm think they know your audience.  I was about to launch a video [to post on] Kickstarter.  They told me not to launch between Christmas and February because no one gives money then.  I was waiting to launch my Kickstarter project, and Duke called and said I won.”

Image

Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.

Powder and Personal Space

Why do people paint their neck with powder, and what is the origin of that ritual, are questions that provoked the curiosity of artist Marlon Griffith for many years.  His curiosity was deepened by derogatory comments like, ‘Yuh look like fish about to fry,’ that are commonly slung at people sporting a powdered neck.  “How does this simple thing get people riled up?” wonders Griffith.  “When I asked people why do they wear powder, most say they grew up doing it to keep cool.  And how do they feel when people make comments, a lot don’t care, some feel really hurt.”

Artist Marlon Griffith in Belmont with his Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla installation.

In 2009, Griffith, an illustrator from Belmont who lives in Nagoya, Japan, constructed a photographic project around powdered necks, titled The Powder Box Schoolgirl Series.  He cast girls in school uniforms and incorporated iconic logos into his narrative on branding Black bodies. “Coming from a Carnival background I thought it would be interesting to use it as a kind of intervention to comment on things that are happening around us, and to empower the person that is wearing the powder.”

“It was key to pick specific schools where the powder neck girls are.  I attended Tranquility [Government Secondary],” says Griffith, 35, “which is one of those schools.  Around the corner was St. Joseph’s Convent, you wouldn’t find a girl in St. Joseph’s with powder around their neck.  It comes from your background, class, the kind of people you interact

From the Powder Box Schoolgirl Series. Courtesy Marlon Griffith.

with.  Most people, when they see it, get disgusted by it.  For me, doing that part with the schoolgirls brought up a bigger dialogue with the branding.  Branding plays a very big part of urban culture here.  Everybody wants to look like the rapper on TV.  Having the student wear [a logo] image says a lot about where a young [person’s] head is at, and the kind of interactions they have with people.  It says a lot about the education system and how students and educators perceive each other, and the kind of relationships they have.”

Griffith’s Powder Box project first received attention for an exhibit at Real Art Ways.  “Right after that [curators] started picking up this image, it was everywhere, except in Trinidad,” notes Griffith.  “It was being published and written about, I won a Guggenheim, still, nothing here.”

The Powder Box series expanded and mounted with The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla. Photos: Sean Drakes

Last July, Griffith’s images finally surfaced in Trinidad, on a radio station’s Facebook page.  They were posted without credit and out of context with the caption: “Nex level Powderneck … would you wear it?”  The most vile comment Griffith noticed on that thread read: ‘These young women look like prostitutes, only prostitutes wear powder around their neck like that.’  Griffith is intrigued by “how we look at one another in this space; there is a lot of work to be done.”  He hopes his series helps the process of elevating awareness of how we interact.

In the three years since Griffith migrated, he was awarded a two-year John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a Commonwealth Connections arts residency.  He has taken a wife, Akiko, has a son, Sora (10-monhts old), learned to write and speak Japanese, mounted installations in Japan, and adjusted to a diet of fish, brown rice, vegetables and tofu.  “Regular exercise, no KFC, no heavy starches.  There is KFC there, but it’s not that

The Granderson Lab in Belmont on opening night of Griffith’s three-day exhibit.

popular.  KFC is big at Christmastime in Japan.”  “I am very happy.  I’m not a starving artist in Japan.”

In the travel narrative The Middle Passage by V.S. Naipaul, the author is on board the Spanish immigrant ship Francisco Bobadilla bound for Trinidad.  Griffith returns to Belmont to expand his Powder Series with the installation project The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla, which references Naipaul’s narrative on relationships in uncomfortable space.  The installation is mounted from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, 2012 at the Granderson Lab in Belmont.

“I am using galvanize to keep a connection to all that galvanize you see when you look out the windows.  In the installation you have different point of views,” explains Griffith, “in the middle of the installation there’s a projection.  I wanted to simulate the idea of walking down a street or a lane.  Belmont has many tight lanes.  There’s a voyeuristic quality moving around these spaces.  Depending on where you live, if you open your window you might be looking into someone’s bedroom.  Many streets run into somebody’s house or a dead end.  Very much like the installation, you walk into a dead end.”

The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla by Marlon Griffith.

A projection of a girl applying powder takes viewers into personal space and provides a link to Griffith’s Powder Box Series.  “I see it as a performance,” he adds.  “With this [Bobadilla project] I decided to focus on the relationships of people within a particular community … navigating trying to be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment.”

Early stage of The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla installation by Marlon Griffith.

“Since I’ve been back I’ve found the environment to be much more uncomfortable.  There are more police patrols in Belmont.  Yesterday a woman’s throat was slit around the corner.  A lot of personal spaces that I am familiar with no longer exist.  The dynamics of Port-of-Spain have changed, so have the people in response to those changes.”

The Bobadilla project is a collaboration with Alice Yard.  Griffith didn’t appoint a wordy artist statement to the work because, “Not everybody is going to be convinced by what you say.  People have to experience before they can make their own assessment.  I may have my ideas about it, what’s interesting about artwork in general is, art is something that evolves over time.  As the artist you have an idea of what this thing is and what it should do, but then people make it more than what you thought it was or could be.”

© SEAN DRAKES

Recently published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

Ocean Attractions

Enjoying star treatment on Celebrity Cruises’ Summit

I was seated at the wall of windows that wrap the Waterfall Grill, enjoying cinnamon waffles and omelets, when a pod of playful dolphins sprung from the twirling sea, one after another, to kiss the warm morning sky.  Over the next five days of our sojourn aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Summit from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, I anticipated more magical experiences in a departure from the ordinary.

The Summit boasts 11 passenger decks and 1,059 suites that accommodate 1,950 guests, whose epicurean tastes are satiated with 45,000 pounds of beef, lamb, lobster, and fish.  The crew, made up of more than 60 nationalities, provides Vegas- and Broadway-style entertainment; prepares and serves 9,000 meals daily in three dining rooms; and facilitates socials, seminars, and shore excursions.  ConciergeClass is one of three unique brands of services—offering guests preferential pampering.  At this level of service, staterooms are appointed with 24-hour butler service, guests receive dining seating preference, VIP invites to onboard events, and a variety of in-suite comforts.

Each day at sea allowed for indulging in a tireless roster of fun opportunities.  To view the poolside cooking competition and live band, I joined Kathy and Gregg McCree from Brooklyn, New York, who had dropped anchor in a sun-kissed whirlpool spa.  “We usually cruise for birthdays and anniversaries,” offered Kathy as we ordered smoothies, “we were told Summit had a mature crowd; so far we’re in the whirlpools most of the day.”  That evening we dined in the plush, art deco Normandie, which is distinguished for its decoupage, flambé tableside service and dine-in wine cellar featuring 175 fine vintages.

The abundance of tequila factories in Puerto Vallarta, our first port of call, supports the popularity of this excursion. Mario, our guide, steered us to a crowded demonstration and sampling of two-dozen flavors of the legendary libation.  Later that evening, after dinner — and more tequila — we donned white attire and attended the masquerade ball in the whimsical Cirque du Soleil-designed lounge.  Roughly a dozen excursion options are crafted for each port.

A colorful folkloric showcase followed by sightseeing along the waterfront, then silver shopping in the Golden Zone, easily filled our itinerary in Mazatlan.  Founded in 1531, it’s Mexico’s oldest town.  Cabo San Lucas is the hot spot for aquatic adventures. Qevin and I chose the two-bay snorkeling experience for the chance to swim amid flamboyant fish and got a great adrenaline rush wave-running back to the ship.

Michelle and Stephen White of Quartz Hill, California, on their fifth and first cruise, respectively, were among the guests snapping farewell photos as the anchor lifted.  “I’m a casino girl myself,” whispered Michelle as we recapped the trip.  “I wasn’t looking for a 24-hour party boat [which Summit isn’t]; the costume ball, bingo, and Broadway show are a good blend of entertainment.”

The last dinner at sea is a regal affair with tailored tuxedos and elegant gowns.  A string quartet serenaded patrons as captain Michail Karatzas greeted his guests.  At our table, Sandra and Dexter Bryant of Orange County, California — usually fervid conversationalists — were still in sensory heaven from the romantic Cleopatra Slipper treatment they enjoyed in the AquaSpa.  To chart a course for your own divine cruise experience, visit Celebrity Cruises.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

Short Stay: Jo’burg Rising

South African capital grows

as business tourism attraction

My first mission upon landing in Johannesburg was to find a perch from which to soak in a South African sunrise.  Equally warm greetings showed up all along my itinerary which was packed with mild adventures of dining on stewed ostrich, trailing springbok in the wild, and visiting historical sites.  There is a glow around Jo’burg, as it’s fondly called.  The city feels like a phoenix rising from an ominous spell.  Dozens of cranes are weaving towers into the skyline, an underground subway is on a fast track to realization, and the country’s GDP growth rate hit 4.7% in the third-quarter of 2006.  Confidence is strong and infectious.

Slice of Jo’burg.

South Africa’s profile as a destination for meetings, conventions and incentive travel is poised to soar.  “The reasons for optimism,” offers Cameron Brandt, International Markets Editor for Emerging Portfolio Fund Research, “include the government’s conservative and consistent economic policy, the rapid expansion of the Black middle-class, forecasts for 10% GDP growth in China [which has] positive implications for commodity demand, and planned public infrastructure spending tied to the [2010 FIFA] World Cup.”  On the flip side, caution is encouraged because of “the expansion of household debt and lack of experience many of the new middle-class have when dealing with credit, still very high levels of unemployment, and the country’s large current account deficit.”  Visit www.southafrica.info for more insight on doing business in South Africa. Travel is about the journey not just the destination.  On our 15-hour intercontinental flight from Atlanta in Delta’s BusinessElite Class ($6,600-$7,900) the pampering began at the gate with VIP compliments in Delta’s Crown Room Club.

Blue Dot performs at Moyo.

On-board service deflects jet-lag and pleasures your senses with personalized five course gourmet dining and flavorful wines, all-leather luxury sleeper seating equipped with a state-of-the-art entertainment system, private video monitors, and a slew of comforts that make for a faultless five-star experience. Sandton, Jo’burg’s gleaming uptown district, bustles with Mercedes-Benz taxis shuttling folk to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Sandton International Convention Centre, restaurants in Nelson Mandela Square; among them is Lekgotla with its tribal chic ambiance, and a massive mall with designer boutiques like Shakur Olla and Sun Goddess, all set near our hotel, the Michelangelo Towers.  Italian heels and Swiss timepieces adorn guests who zip from tables at the lobby restaurant “8” to suites like my tech-savvy duplex ($715 per night).  The ultra-swank Cupola suite has a 360-degree view of Jo’burg, private rooftop pool, butler and security staff and commands $5,700 per night for unrivalled luxury. Considered the ‘urban heart’ of South Africa, Johannesburg is set like an axle in the center of eight provinces:  Cape Town, on the picturesque southwest coast, is famed for its lush winelands and whale watching, Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans lock arms, and the historical site Robben Island.  The North West province is home to the super-sized extravagance of Sun City which contains four hotels, that offer family attractions, casino gaming, two 18-hole par 72 golf courses and conference facilities.  The ultimate safari adventure is in Mpumalanga in the northwest, where 10,000 elephants and prides of lions roam Kruger National Park.  My guide, Joe Motsogi, owner of JMT Tours, charted a fulfilling excursion that included shopping at Chameleon Village and an exhilarating sunset safari drive. Seasons in South Africa are distinguished by precipitation rather than severe temperature changes.  Rain or shine there are eventful attractions year-round: Durban July is an illustrious horse racing event steeped in aristocratic tradition; young and celebrated musicians rule the spotlight at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival; golf enthusiasts flock to majestic greens for the Million Dollar Golf Challenge and the Nelson Mandela Invitational Golf Challenge; and wine connoisseurs attend Winex to sample and shop for vintages from over 200 South African wineries.

Apartheid Museum.

Near downtown Johannesburg is the Apartheid Museum, a sleek, modern structure that houses a comprehensive and riveting chronicle of South Africa’s journey to democracy.  It also invokes optimism for South Africa, a country as a democracy that is only 13-years-old.  It’s a new day.  Contact South Africa Tourism to facilitate your convention, vacation and incentive travel needs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

In the Mas Camp with K2K

Trinidad Carnival attracts thousands of spectators and has offered inspiration to creative teams at Disney and Cirque du Soleil.  This year, a couture-centric masquerade band presentation by a pair of newcomers sparked hopeful dialogue around the return of innovation to the festival.  Before unleashing their inaugural band onto the streets of Port of Spain, bandleader Karen Norman, one-half of the K2K Alliance creative force, shares a few insights.

Karen Norman at K2K mas camp.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR AT THE START OF THE BAND DESIGN PROCESS, WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR NOW, THREE WEEKS BEFORE SHOWTIME?

One of the most compelling parts of the design process is stretching our imagination to create a palatable and exciting concept.  Putting pen to paper was the easiest part of the journey.  Exposing the mas and the story to the public was the hard part and one of our greatest fears.  Such thoughts like: ‘Would the concept of fusing mas with fashion be accepted?  Would the onlooker appreciate the story?’ were some of the concerns we shared.  One of the greatest challenges we face today is getting the mas community to sign up for change.  Even though change is one of the things that is constant, it is not always the easiest thing to accept nor, is it the easiest thing to sign up for.  Thus, even three weeks before showtime we are asking those masqueraders who have put away their “mas-shoes” since the dilution of [Wayne] Berkeley and [Peter] Minshall to pick-up their dancing shoes and to revel with K2K.

Masquerader in The Waters on Carnival Tuesday in Port of Spain.WHAT WOULD YOU NOT DO AGAIN?

I was once told that all experiences whether good or bad, leads us to this point in time; to this moment; to the present. Thus, while we would not like to relive any of the challenges that have presented itself over the past 5 years, we would not change anything.

WHAT DOES THIS BAND HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH, OR WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE MOST TO RECEIVE FROM YOUR ENDEAVOR? 

The band hopes to return mas to traditional splendor.  We would like to take our brand to the international runway – open both national and international fashion shows.  We would like to showcase our designs in musicals on Broadway and even in concerts. Maybe one day, when you see Machel [Montano] in concert you will see his team dressed by K2K.  On the international arena, maybe one day we will be the opener for Lady Gaga.  The possibilities are endless.  Minshall showed the world who was Minshall through exposing his talents on several Olympic platforms, we hope to be those Trinidadian twins / women who expose Trinidad mas design to a new arena.

Runway-ready costume prototype at K2K mas camp reception weeks before Carnival.

HOW WAS THE BAND’S NARRATIVE BORN?

In 2012 “water” is used as a metaphor to describe the psychological journey of man.  Life is not just dependent on water, but life is water.  The same way the oceans and seas yield and change, man, too, must adapt as the social and political environment changes.  The same way that water has different temperaments similarly, man is not always even-keeled (e.g., sometimes water is rough and choppy).  Similarly, sometimes we are driven to anger.  Interestingly, while the storyline for “The Waters – Seas of Consciousness”, starts with River Jordan (Birth)–which means when man comes into the world, he is naive.  He is unaware of the social environment and even the political landscape.  On a more personal level, the storyline, our story for 2012 started at the Dead Sea (Ruin).  Ruin is a state-of-mind and can be defined as “the deepest darkest place that man knows”.  And for Kathy and I, ruin was real; it was lonely and dark.  The last two years in New York City has been extremely challenging professionally and emotionally.  In 2010 we each felt like we hit rock bottom.  Creating the band was therapeutic.  It was our redemption.  It helped us to re-assess who we each were.  It also made us realize that while we are shattered, we are not unrepairable.  The band is our re-discovery; our re-invention of self, which is coined as The Saraswati River.

Masqueraders present the band at Queen’s Park Savannah on Carnival Tuesday.

WHAT TRADITIONS(S) IN CARNIVAL DOES YOUR BAND REFERENCE OR USE AS A GUIDELINE/FOUNDATION?

We look toward the great masters such as Minshall and Berkeley for a constant reminder, that you are never too old to dream, and mas design is built by exploring your imagination and not being afraid to dream.

WILL POLITICS OR CURRENT AFFAIRS EVER FUEL YOUR BAND’S NARRATIVE?  

Over the next three years the storyline does not reflect the political environment.  In terms of storytelling we hope to constantly bring a relatable, yet interesting storyline to the table.

Model displays costume and makeup for section of The Waters Carnival band.

WHICH ELEMENTS OF YOUR BAND ARE MANUFACTURED IN T&T, AND HOW MANY ELEMENTS WERE MANUFACTURED IN CHINA?

Much of the costumes are being produced locally.  The goal is to encourage greater use of our locals and employ the talents on the island.

UPON FIRST SIGHT OF YOUR MAS, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE THE HIGH-FASHION POINT OF VIEW IN YOUR DESIGNS.  WILL THIS APPROACH BE A STAPLE OR WILL THAT SENSIBILITY SHIFT?

Mas, like art, is contemporary.  It should reflect the time.  With that said, the goal of our brand is to keep the designs forward-thinking, fashion-forward and chic.  The fashion arena is not static.  It is constantly evolving and similarly, our brand will morph / evolve as we grow in the arts.

Details of the The Waters mas band by K2K Alliance & Partners.

Band presentation: The Waters – Seas of Consciousness

Bandleaders: Kathy & Karen Norman (K2K Alliance & Partners)

Band size: Medium with 8 sections  |  Membership: U$416 – U$900

Mas camp: 51 Cornelio St., Woodbrook, PoS  |  868-767-9655

© SEAN DRAKES

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

Short Stay: Beyond Bangkok

Road trip across Northeast Thailand

offers wild and mild encounters,

Sean Drakes savors the variety

In the land of fragrant orchids and happy Buddhas, Bangkok is a city of stark contrasts:  Humble shacks with sheet metal roofs bookmark concrete-and-glass towers.  It is the industrial hub and capital of Thailand, which explains the population of 8 million that’s comprised largely of migratory workers who support the manufacturing of furniture, textiles, electronics and processed foods.

My visit to Bangkok is brief because my goal is to journey off the popular path.  The Siam@Siam Design Hotel delivers design swag with straw sculptures, mahogany furniture and varnished concrete, and it’s the launchpad for my road trip across northeast Thailand.  It is convenient to public transport, after dark attractions and the Grand Palace–a must-do tour.  To align mind, muscles and joints for the adventures ahead I book a 60-minute treatment at S Medical Spa.

Nakhon Ratchasima (or Khorat), the mountainous gateway to the northeast region, is 163 miles from Bangkok and my first destination.  Half the fun of a road trip occurs on detours and pit stops.  On this first leg, curiosity steers me to taste test strange fruit at Klang Dong, a roadside market with a bounty of durian, betel nut and dragon fruit.  Nearby is another intriguing site: Wat Thep Phithak Punnaram.  As we approach a snow-white spot on the plush mountainside grows, it’s Luang Pho Yai Buddha, it spans 150-feet by 90-feet and is the largest Buddha in this region.

By lunchtime I’m near Khao Yai National Park and sitting before a plate of stir-fried fillet of ostrich at PB Valley Vineyard.  This vineyard embodies Thailand’s vision to produce world-class wine–Japan consumes 25% of its export.  At the first rest camp my senses uncoil then whisper ‘Ooh-la-la’.  Kirimaya is a high-end nature resort that specializes in guiltless pampering with affordable luxury.  The open-air layout is outfitted with the sort of contemporary Thai design imported by chic lounges in New York and Paris.  Attentive staff and majestic surroundings, including a Jack Nicklaus golf course and National Park, assure a heavenly stay.

Seeking a thrill, I drive to The Jungle House and shell-out U$6 to be strapped atop an elephant for a fear-inducing trek through a muddy forest trail and murky river.  Half of Thailand’s 7,000 elephants work, the others are wild, according to my guide Yui.  Government frowns on locals who bring elephants to urban streets to entertain tourists.  To complete an exhilarating day I scour a lively night market for vendors selling flash fried crickets, grasshoppers and beetles. The crunchy critters are not bad if you avoid smearing their gooey guts across your tongue.

Back on the road, I roll toward Surin, a province famed for its annual elephant roundup and nearby Ban Tha Sawang silk-weaving village, where I tour the weaving process and buy original souvenirs.  A driver and car for a road trip costs 2,500 baht per day (U$50)—not including gas.

My final detour lets me explore the Phimai sanctuary—a Hindu temple conceived in the 16h Buddhist century.  Visitors tour its dark chambers and probe sculptures and carvings, and marvel at what this monumental remnant from an early civilization has endured.  Ubon Ratchathani, the easternmost Isan province borders Cambodia and is where my extraordinary road trip ends.  The Tohsang Khongjiam Resort is set along the serene Mekong River, which churns a gentle serenade at breakfast.

All week I yearned to get face-to-face with those gentle men in saffron-colored robes.  My only sightings were when they scrolled pass my window.  On my visit to the Koo-Har-Sa-Wan temple, curiosity drew me to a cliff with a tiled staircase.  A gong sounded and lured me down the steps into a spacious room overlooking a valley.  On the linoleum-lined floor were eight monks-in-training kneeling before huge, golden statues, as a small group of villagers shared breakfast.  They invited me in to join their meal.  The road less traveled offers wild and mild encounters, don’t delay to chart your Thai adventure.

© SEAN DRAKES

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

%d bloggers like this: