A Seven-Month Trip Across Asia

With a Small Backpack, My Pentax K1000, and Eight Rolls of Film

7 min read by nahogan.
The gorgeous rainbow mountains of Danxia landform in Zhanye, China.

Back from my seven-month Asia adventure. Haven’t got much to unpack: I travelled with one small backpack that can fit on a plane as a carryon.

I didn’t limit my packing space to follow a minimalist fad or to make a statement. I did it so that I would not have to pay the baggage fees and wait like a peasant around the airports’ luggage carousels. Every time I exited a plane and glided by the huddled masses, looking longingly at the empty carousel, waiting, I felt good about my choice.

Another choice I was pleased with was the decision to document my trip on 35mm film.

Though my election may get labelled as a “hipster” antic by some, I assure you it’s not a gimmick. There are no images of fixed-gear bicycles, pour-over coffee, or vintage T-shirts.

A portion of the limited free space I did have in my backpack was devoted to my little Pentax K1000 and eight rolls of film. Only after returning home did I realize how much do those negatives mean to me. Those little bastards gave me a lot of grief, having carried them through multiple countries, security checkpoints, border crossings, monsoon weather, on the hikes up and through mountains, overnights bus rides, and on motorcycle rides.

Walking through one of the many beautiful parks in China.

After months of travel and taking care of those babies, I finally found a little shop that could develop my negatives — on an island in Indonesia.

I anxiously rode my motorbike throughout the throngs of traffic to the shop, hoping to the Gods that these photos turned out well. Praying that all the prep work of having them being hand-searched through metal detectors in multiple countries, wrapping them in dry bags during many torrential downpours, and just general care was a time well spent. I anxiously waited for the next few days like a small kid waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney and deliver presents.

A scene from an eight-hour bus ride throughout China. At least I was able to snag a ticket for a seat, so I didn’t have to stand the whole way.

Those few days of waiting for film to come back flew by, and I finally got the scans of the negatives in my email. All the brewing excitement, obsession, and daydreaming made looking over the pictures even more intoxicating.

The results lived up to the hype that I stirred up in my own head. Every single picture turned out well! No water stains, no light tampering, no X-ray damage, no overexposing, and no excessive grain. I was over the moon. Every photo is a vivid memory, frozen in time, of the events I seem to have completely forgotten about.

I’ve made enough mistakes previously to fully appreciate how fragile and wonderful film can be. I’ve learned that film needs to be treated with a certain amount of respect and care that is just not necessary for digital photos. In the age of smartphones and social media, pictures have become so ubiquitous and easy to take. But what we gain in quantity, we lose in quality and sincerity. One of the reasons I love shooting film is that it teaches me patience and awareness.

Wandering around the streets of Hong Kong at night.

I found that the limitations of film made me more patient and gave me a better eye. Given that there are only 36 frames in a roll, each shot is a gamble, unlike an iPhone, with which I could take a hundred pictures a second. The constraints of time and money make me continuously ask myself if the photo is even worth taking. I can’t see if the images even turned out at all until they’re developed. The total cost for each roll is about twenty-five bucks. It usually takes me six weeks to finish the entire thing.

This lengthy process has chipped away at the part of my psyche that wants instant gratification. Now, my mind has bought-in, lock, stock, and barrel, to the idea that good things take time.

A scene from an eighteen-hour sleeper train ride in China.

When I shoot film, I feel myself living purely in the present moment.

There are ease and effortless quality to storytelling with film that I just can’t seem to find using digital. The shots are more personal, and the experience increasingly vivid. Shooting with film expands my awareness and helps me see new people and places with a fresh pair of eyes. It helps me see the little things that usually go unnoticed, like the soft light, reflecting off the curtains in my room, palm trees gently silhouetting the setting sky, and how windows frame scenes in a unique way.

All these memories come rushing into my head, looking back over the photos from my trip. This seven-month sojourn to Asia has been a dream of mine since I was sixteen. My fascination with travelling began then on an exchange trip for the summer in Xi’an, China. That trip was my first time on a plane, off the east coast of the US and out of the country. It was a whirlwind of an experience and sparked a lifelong fascination with faraway places. Over the years, I continued to develop this intoxicating desire to see exotic, foreign, faraway places. I would plan constantly and silently but very solemnly swear to myself that I would confidently step into my dreams.

These photos, which took so much effort to shoot, care for, and develop, serve as a visual record and confirmation of a kid who took a chance and lived out a dream ten years in the making.

Above: A scene from looking out of the airport transportation bus in Bali.

Left/Next: Running late for a train at the Xi’an train station in China.

Above: Getting lost in the winding backstreets of Bangkok.

Left/Next: A quiet moment away from the throngs of tourists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Above: Quiet soft morning light coming through the curtains in a beach side bungalow in Thailand.

Left/Next: Snaking our way through the massive towers in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Watching the sun come to life in Koh Phangan, Thailand.