Neon rush: get lost in Southeast Asia’s rural splendour and urban nights

10 August 2017

Grzegorz Hospod’s adventures around Southeast Asia have taken him from crowded tourist trails in Thailand to cruises through the spectacular rice fields of Vietnam. Here, the Warsaw-based photographer explains the importance of discovering places your own way.

There were two reasons for my first visit: food and cinematography. I’m a fan of such film directors as Wong Kar-Wai, Ming Liang-Tsai and Kim Ki-Duk. I thought that Southeast Asia is very picturesque, a dream place for a photographer. Places that are less “organised” seem more surprising and interesting to me; I like the mix of chaos and the sort of nonchalance that goes along with it.

“I like the moment when a hectic city changes at night into an empty and strange scenography”

First I was in Malaysia, then in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand. I would let myself enjoy getting lost in new places without a strict plan. Most photos in this series were taken in this way: somewhere outside the tourist attractions; backstage at a popular sanctuary or resort; at a petrol station; down a side road, after hours. Moreover, a white person from another continent has a big meaning there. In many places in Southeast Asia there is a kind of fascination and often grotesque imitation of Western culture, with it a special kind of treatment for Western people. This intensifies the sense that it’s more difficult to escape from the tourist code or overcome cultural barriers. I probably wasn’t always successful, but I tried to discover these places in my own way.

Regardless, travelling teaches humility and makes us realise that the way we live and the trends or cultural codes we employ are just a small piece of a bigger and more complex whole. In Vietnam, I drove a motorbike for the first time. Together with a friend, we traced a route from Hanoi to the Sa Pa mountains. Honestly, I don’t recommend this area to learn how to drive. During the first day our light broke at night, the engine broke down, and if that wasn’t enough the left mirror fell off. At times, there were some scary moments, but wherever we went we met helpful people, even if our communication was limited to casual sign language.

I always liked taking photos at night. The night is more mysterious and allows you to see regular things in a new light; it’s more unspoken and has a unique rhythm and character. I like the moment when a hectic city changes at night into an empty and strange scenography. Additionally, the cities in Asia are often coated with a beautiful neon-surreal colouring. The camera makes me more attentive; I more frequently have a look in different alleys, hoping that I will find something that will catch my attention.

I was always tempted by the romantic idea of travelling, discovering the unknown. “Nostalgia” can refer not only to our longing for something we experienced in the past, but also to our vision of a distant, mysterious place. In this series, even though the photos aren’t typical touristic snapshots, still they remain a subjective diary of a journey to distant lands.