Southeast Asia is one of the most popular destinations for photographers to combine their hunger for adventure and great photographs. The locations are usually very budget-friendly, the people are very welcoming, and the locations, from the cities to nature, hold many unique surprises that you won’t experience anywhere else in the world. To not be overwhelmed by all the impressions and to save some frustration, here are a few tips, based on my experiences, about travel photography in Southeast Asia.
Visit local markets
I already like the markets in my hometown of Berlin. There are a lot of interesting activities, many different types of vendors, and it’s overall a great experience. In Southeast Asia, the local market experience is amplified. Markets are an integral part of the daily life for many and food is processed directly on the street. This is not only true for vegetables, but also for fish or freshly butchered meat.
Markets are usually busiest in the morning when locals buy their groceries for the day. Occasionally you might also find “night markets” with special opening hours. Although those are often focused on tourists with mostly souvenirs, they are still a great way to enjoy the evening. With the days in Southeast Asia possibly being very hot, the night markets are a great way to enjoy the city a little more comfortably.
For photography, there is a lot to discover for both kinds of markets. Most vendors are friendly and open to have a photograph taken, as long as you aren’t disturbing their work. Be aware though that there are also a lot of sellers trying to make a business off of tourists. When they try to offer some “free” samples, be friendly and decline or you might end up being sold something you won’t be needing.
Lakes are full of life
Another place where you can find a lot of people during the day are the lakes. People socialize, go fishing, or play board games and sports around the lake. Whether during the day or at night, water always attracts life.
In Hanoi, for example, the Hoan Kiem Lake is the attraction during the weekend. The streets are closed for car traffic and open to all kinds of vendors and activities. People play “Jianzi”, a variation of football where you use a badminton style “ball” all along the lake. There are night markets and a lot of musicians.
The best thing is the relaxed atmosphere around lakes. Especially when living in a hectic city, I find lakes to be a place of relaxation.
Photograph off the beaten path
I know that tourist attractions are often good photo opportunities, but I would always recommend going where no one else goes and search for unique photographs and places. You might think that if there are no other photographers there, then there is nothing of interest, but people tend to go where the group is interested in too busy to explore more remote places on their own.
Try out all the little alleys, where no tourist ever sets a foot in and go into areas that seem too “remote” for the typical tourist. It is so much fun to explore new places and go home with really unique photographs. And if you have second thoughts, go with a trusted local and ask him to show you around.
Connect with local photographers
To find local places easier and stay on the safer side for your trip, instead of going to explore on your own, you should ask local photographers to accompany you for an afternoon. Local street photographers know the best places for great photographs in Southeast Asia, and there is a very fast growing community of street shotographers. In nearly every bigger city there, you will find people that are willing to share their view on the city.
You can find these local photographers on Google simply searching for street photography and the city, Facebook, or Instagram looking for the city hashtags. With their help, you can experience the city like a local, enjoy street photography, and the local culture.
Choose a homestay instead of a hotel
By now, You might have realized that I value the authentic experience that travel photography can offer. I believe that travel photography should be about the true local culture and life and not about a guided city tour that only shows the country from one side.
To fully immerse in the local life and get to know people even better, and in return also get better photographs, choosing homestays rather than a hotel has a lot of benefits. First of all, homestays are rather inexpensive, as you can stay for less than $10 a night at places that are still very comfortable.
Like the local photographers I met, I found homestay hosts to be really friendly, and when it comes to insider tips for local photography, they are very helpful. They might also invite you to local events or festivals where you meet new and interesting people.
It might be scary to discover a foreign country completely on your own for the first time. Southeast Asia can be intimidating because English is not very well spoken in a lot of places, and the culture is completely different than you might be used to.
Despite all of these things, traveling alone can be very inspiring for your photography. You are able to fully control where you want to go and can follow your instincts to explore the most interesting places during your journey. You will notice that you will be more inspired when you are completely on your own and also have to face challenges and overcome problems without any help.
Enjoy The Trip
The most important tip for better travel photography in Southeast Asia is to simply enjoy your journey. You don’t need to focus on photography all the time. In my opinion, it is more beneficial to just enjoy the day and connect with the people there, and the interesting stories will happen naturally for you. The journey will be so interesting on its own that the best photos will be a wonderful documentation of your new experiences. Through your travel photography, you can share your new impressions with the world. Stories that are unique and untold, but will be visible through your photographs.
Sebastian Jacobitz is a street photographer based in Berlin. Visit his website, streetbounty.com, for more photography resources, tips, and travel guides.