Ernie goes back to his Favourite Travel Shots: 2019

The Old Normal

I started doing these photo retrospectives in August, well into the global pandemic that has so profoundly changed the way we go about our daily lives this year. I don’t know if back then I expected things to be any better by now, but the successive waves of infections that have hit Europe, the U.S., and even here in Hong Kong over the last four months has cleared away any misconceptions I might have had about life getting back to normal any time soon. This latest, and final, look back at my favourite travel photos is especially jarring in light of our current circumstances.

2019 was never supposed to be a year of normal travel for our newly minted family of three, and it seemed like every trip we went on was preceded by weeks of going back and forth about whether or not we should go. The sheer amount of logistics and planning that go into traveling with a baby was nearly enough to keep us at home most days, though thankfully we did manage to go abroad a fair bit with relatively no hassle (Miles being an angel was another huge factor). When I look at these photos now, though, it’s amazing to me that we were able to travel so easily, and to gather with other people without a care in the world. A few of the places we went to last year would be unrecognisable this year, due to various lockdown measures, travel restrictions, and social distancing requirements. Farewell to the old normal.

The above photo was taken at Psah Thom Thmey, Phnom Penh’s iconic X-shaped central market, in February. There’s not much of a story to this image – I found myself with 45 minutes of free time in between Miles’ morning naps and quickly scampered out of the hotel to go see the market. This woman was selling guava and pineapple chunks from her stand in one of the more shadowy corners of the complex, and the bright yellows and greens of her produce were a great contrast to the rest of the scene.

This is another photo from Phnom Penh, taken while being led on a walking tour of the city by an ex-classmate of mine. I wish I could change some things about the composition of the photo, but I like the reflection of the woman in the mirror, and it reminds me of street scenes I’d come across during my time interning in Myanmar a few years back.

I took this photo at the Tekka Centre in Singapore in March, capturing the food hall’s denizens as they chowed down on some South Asian breakfast grub. I like the general vibe of the scene, with the colourful stalls on one side and the people just hanging out on the other. The man in the white shirt in the middle kind of anchors all the elements together, visually.

The reason for the Singapore trip was a wedding between two friends from Hong Kong, where the groom is Chinese-Canadian and the bride is a local Singaporean. I was part of the wedding party, along with a group of guys that have become like family to me through our shared experiences together in Hong Kong throughout our 20s and early 30s. Over the years a few of us have stayed in Hong Kong while others have moved on to the U.S., China, and Singapore, and though we still regularly stay in touch through WhatsApp and video chats, the above photo was the last time all of us were able to spend time together face-to-face.

In April we took a family trip down to sunny Koh Samui in Thailand, as I had the privilege of officiating a friend’s destination wedding. There’s a slight time difference between Koh Samui and Hong Kong so on our first morning there Miles woke up a little bit earlier than usual. Ashley picked him up and went out onto the balcony of our villa to watch the sunrise, and I love the golden warmth of this photo and the glow around Ashley’s face and Miles’ hair.

There’s something about a destination wedding that can be so intimate, where the attendee list is smaller and you know everyone, and nobody has to figure out how to get home afterwards. There are moments where you know you are living them out and you almost want to step outside of yourself so you can appreciate them more. This photo gives me that feeling – it reminds me of how beautiful that night was with the deep purples and blues of the tropical evening sky, the warm breeze blowing in from the ocean, the palm trees swaying in the wind, and that inviting alchemy of light and love and community in the near distance. It’s like I’m on the steps, taking in the moment, pausing in the beats between the moments, before stepping back into reality.

The next few photos are from our roadtrip along Australia’s Great Ocean Road in July. Our first stop was Bells Beach, and I love the wintry seaside atmosphere in this picture. Miles’ attitude and look is on point as well, and there’s a coziness about him that gives me a lot of fuzzy feelings. Every time I look at this photo I’m tempted to make a mug of tea or hot chocolate to somehow deepen my emotional connection to my memories of this moment.

There is so much that I love about this photo, taken from Teddy’s Lookout in the seaside town of Lorne – those vibrant blue hues in the ocean, the white foam of the receding waves on the rocky shore, the green hillside plunging into the water, and that winding road that hints at further discovery and adventure beyond.

Incredible views seemed to greet us around every bend on the Great Ocean Road. This one really blew me away with its combination of coastal hills in shadows and sunlight coming in from inland, illuminating the landward side of the ridges and the mist from the waves hitting the hidden shoreline.

The reward at the end of the Great Ocean Road is the Twelve Apostles, a rough grouping of seven limestone stacks standing in the ocean just off the coast, hinting at an earlier shoreline. This particular apostle is the closest to the observation deck, and I really love how solid and real and unshakeable it looks, with the swirling foamy waters of the Southern Ocean raging around its base and that lovely morning light hitting its landward face just right.

This is a building I saw in Taipei on a trip we took with my parents in August that year. There’s a certain lived-in and time-weary quality to the structure that immediately caught my eye. It makes me think of Taipei during its Asian Tiger days, when Taiwan, along with fellow Asian Tiger markets Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, experienced rapid economic growth between the 1960s and 1990s. I imagine this building being constructed during the heyday of that era, and then watching the Taiwanese economy pass it by in the intervening decades. It also gives me a little bit of that 1980s, pre-bubble Tokyo vibe, a relic of a good times long gone.

Beef noodles is a staple of Taiwanese cuisine, and it was the first meal we had when we arrived in Taipei. We went to this restaurant, a local institution, and I took this photo while were waiting for a table to open up. There’s probably a whole genre of photography that focuses on pictures of people waiting for things, and I enjoy looking at the expressions of the little crowd gathered in front here. There’s also a nice contrast between the warm, inviting interior with the cooler, darker tones of the street outside the restaurant.

One of the reasons why we went to Taipei was to have a family holiday with my parents. They spend most of their time back in Canada, and usually that distance is manageable, but once Miles came along I think there was more urgency to carve out time for them to spend with their first grandchild. My relationship with my parents is pretty good, but there was still a bit of an old school Asian approach to parenting in my childhood and so seeing my parents delight in playing with Miles, and Miles responding back, was something that brought a lot of happiness to me.

In October I flew down to Singapore for a work trip after recently getting assigned the Southeast Asia beat for my publication. On a purely work-related level the region is a fascinating one, with its fast-growing and young demographic, a burgeoning tech scene with a few unicorns already, and a very under-penetrated investing population. There are advantages on a personal level too, though, as the close link between Hong Kong and Singapore means there are always friends moving back and forth between the two cities. I took this photo at a dinner with friends one night – a Singaporean-Hong Kong couple that had moved back to Singapore a few years ago with their kids, a British-Chinese friend who had moved on after a decade in Hong Kong to build out his career in a new city, his newly-arrived younger sister who had lived and worked in Hong Kong for a few years before becoming a teacher back in London, and another friend that had just started working in the Singapore tech space after completing her MBA in Hong Kong. It was an evening spent in time travel, reminiscing about our younger days together in a city, or at least a version of a city, that no longer exists.

As I was leaving Singapore, I dropped by Jewel Changi Airport to check out its famous indoor waterfall environment. I took this photo on the terrace right at the entrance of the complex that overlooks the main walking path towards the central area with the waterfall. It’s pretty impressive in person, and I’m a big fan of the pseudo-optimistic, sci-fi look of the place.

In December, we flew out to Vienna to soak up the festive atmosphere among the city’s many Christmas markets. This photo was taken at the Maria-Theresien-Platz Christmas Market in the late afternoon, and I love the lighting here. I also like the combination of elements in the picture, with the grand Kunsthistorisches Museum and the massive statue of Empress Maria Theresa in the background, hinting at the city’s rich, state-level imperial past, and the humble market stalls and cheery crowd in the foreground, speaking to Vienna’s other, more street-level histories and narratives.

After Christmas we spent a few days in Prague, where I took this photo. This row of beautiful pastel buildings is across from the National Museum, and I love the muted pastel colours and how they contrast with the grey skies and the darker tones of the street and the surrounding buildings.

Going on holiday with a 15 month-old baby is never a straightforward proposition – take all the daily logistics of feeding and changing and napping and add in jetlag, unfamiliar environments, a stretched schedule, and inconsistent meals. One thing we really appreciated last year, however, was just how well Miles traveled, and our trip to Vienna and Prague was no exception. There were moments where we felt we were failing him as parents, but he was always ready with a smile. I have so many photos of him smiling from this trip, but this is one of my favourites, taken at the fantastic Old Town Square Christmas Market in Prague.

This photo was taken on the iconic Charles Bridge, where it connects with the Malá Strana neighbourhood on the other side of the Vltava River. It’s probably like a million other photos taken on or of the Charles Bridge, but this is the one I took, and it’s the one I look at when reminiscing about our time in Prague. What I like about this image is the density of towers and structures from the different periods in the city’s history, all mashed together under the watchful eye of one of the bridge’s many stone statues.

I took this photo on our last night in Prague, as we were passing by the Christmas market on Wenceslas Square. On a purely visual level I like the symmetry between the gentle blues and violets in the sky and the bright purple lights strung up in the trees lining the market, but there’s also something special about remembering the feeling of being in a crowd of people who are all there to enjoy the holiday atmosphere, especially in light of the pandemic year we’ve all just experienced (and still are). There was nothing cynical or overtly commercial about it, just friends and couples and families enjoying tasty treats and hot beverages together, admiring the Christmas trees and decorations, and listening to carols and festive music playing in the streets. It’s strange to look back at photos like this and know that Christmas markets all over Europe, including this one, are closed this year.

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