Traveling and photography go hand-in-hand for Tom Shu, who never seriously considered taking up the art form until a trip to the Galapagos Islands left him longing for a more tangible way to interact with the natural richness of his world.

“I brought a cheap six megapixel Olympus camera with me to document the trip, but when I got home, I realized many of the photos were blurry and unpleasant. I’m still bummed to this day that I wasn’t able to capture the Galapagos as I saw them. After the trip, I realized the power of photography to preserve memories and moments in a way that’s not possible with other formats.” To make sure something like that never happened again, Tom went out and bought what he calls a “real” camera, and things took off for him from there.

A yellow tuk tuk driving along a street in Cambodia
A monkey peeling his food in Cambodia

In April 2018, Tom left his corporate job to take a different path, and he hasn’t looked back. Photography allowed him to finally realize his colorful view of the world. “Growing up Asian American, I think that color has always played a role in my life. The reason I say that is because from a very young age, I have consistently traveled back to Taipei, Taiwan, to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family. Being in Asia during that time of year is an incredible and colorful experience that stimulates all of your senses.” It’s no wonder that he now devotes his days to chasing the striking hues that come with new travel experiences, and his ability to work with these colors even won him a trip to Cambodia as a result of our #PPExpediaYellow contest sponsored by Expedia.

Tom’s Instagram is awash with brilliant shades of yellow depicted in sunrises and sunsets all over the world: from Hawaii to Dubai to Japan. When he and his partner Melissa chose Cambodia as their next destination, they did so because of a shared desire to step out of their comfort zones. They had heard stories of tourists being scammed at the busier attractions, and were unsure of how Cambodia’s dark history under the Khmer Rouge might still affect the mood in the country.

A woman in a yellow dress standing before a regal gate of blue and gold in Cambodia
A man sitting on a balcony at a golden temple in Cambodia

But once they arrived, any lingering doubts were dispelled by the buoyancy and warmth of the community, which almost seemed to radiate from their colorful surroundings. “When I think of my time in Cambodia, I can only think of the color yellow. It was such an obvious part of the environment, from the dirt roads and temples to the haze in the air. However, it was in the warmth of the people we met and the country’s cultural vibrancy.” This is just one instance in which travel and photography have transformed Tom’s thinking about the relationship between color, joy, and energy in life.

“When I first started, I thought I liked moody and desaturated photos, but as I continued to develop my own style, I realized I was most drawn to the color around me. I think the reason why color is so important in my photography is that is how I see the world.”

A temple in Cambodia surrounded by palm trees

The color yellow, in particular, used to have a completely different connotation for Tom before he began his new creative path. “My first associations with yellow were on the baseball diamond. The sport was my life growing up, and I played up until my first year of college. My favorite memories of those years were night games during the summer months, when the sun would begin to set and you could see the warm yellow glow disappear over the horizon. That’s when you knew the game had really gotten started.”

Even though his days on the baseball diamond are behind him, Tom says that his emotional connection with the color yellow has only strengthened since then. “I associate the color with the familiar, with happiness. I love to travel as much as I can, but at times, I still miss home — especially when I’m in a completely unfamiliar place. When I get the chance to shoot the yellow glow of a sunset, I feel right at home again. It’s like my way of meditating.” For Tom, color is a photographer’s primary tool. When traveling to new places, it’s by capturing the unique tones of local lives and landscapes that he is able to draw his viewers’ attention and etch a place in people’s memories, including his own.

The sunset over a Cambodian temple reflecting in nearby water
The sunset over a Cambodian city reflecting in the water

The welcome that Tom and Melissa received in Cambodia inspired him to convey the positive and adventurous energy of the country in his photos. “I would say that I definitely felt more confident in the generosity, warmth, and kindness of the people with every interaction we had.” Although Tom didn’t know it at first, it may be no coincidence that these feelings were affected by the colors around him.

“Seeing the temple grounds in such distinct yellow light gave the scenery a very Indiana Jones feeling… One of the simplest, yet most memorable moments came when Melissa found a ray of light beaming through the crack of a temple wall.” The couple’s trip was one full of unique, atmospheric experiences like this, which enabled them to see the way that golden light played on the landscape and (literally) shone upon the rich history of their surroundings. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, in particular, left a lasting impression on Tom, as he found himself practically swimming in waves of the vibrant hue. “Not only were yellow and gold the most prominent colors in the palace, but the walls and roads surrounding the area were also painted the most vivid yellow… The color is symbolic of humility and a rejection of materialistic living in Buddhism, which might explain its omnipresence around the country.”

A view overlooking colorful rooftops in Cambodia
A woman walking through the ruins of a Cambodian temple, seen through yellow leaves in the foreground.

Regardless of the reasons why yellow seemed to follow the couple around, there is no question that it informed their interactions with the local people and landscape. Tom looks back on his and Melissa’s decision to step out of their comfort zones and into the cultural embrace of Cambodia as enriching and inspiring, for both of them as travelers and for his photography. The trip not only supplied him with a wonderful palette of color with which to tell his story, but it introduced him to Lucky the elephant at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, locals who welcomed him with a riverboat tour of the floating village Kompong Khleang, and educators at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh who have helped their country recover from unimaginable events by informing present and future generations about the past.

“Looking back on our time in Cambodia, I think the color yellow and the feeling of warmth, happiness, and adventure it provoked played a wonderful part in our experience. We got very lucky with the weather, and each sunrise and sunset bathed everything it touched in the most magical golden light. This pushed us to make the most out of our time every day — we always made it outside for sunrise and sunset, even when we were tired from our daily activities. If it weren’t for this opportunity as winners of the #PPExpediaYellow contest sponsored by Expedia, we might not have visited Cambodia any time soon. It was one of our favorite trips, full of moments we will remember for a lifetime.”