This article is the third and final in a series discussing different aspects of street photography in Asian cities. Previous articles covered the importance of manners and how you approach people in Kuala Lumpur, and my preference for short tele focal lengths in Phnom Penh. This article from Bangkok discusses the benefits of exploring places for yourself, and the places and people you might find when you do.
At a time when it feels as if everyone is letting Instagram “influencers” dictate their travel agendas, when the cult of the perfect selfie is the main reason for travelling, and the whole experience is filtered through an App on a smart phone, I feel the opportunity for discovery and the often unexpected joy that can come with it is more important than ever for any travelling photographer. This article is not a definitive guide to all that Bangkok has to offer, as there are established guide books that can give you all the usual advice about temples and tours, but I do hope I can imbue you with a sense of some of the things that I find so interesting and invigorating about the city.
I’ve been a regular visitor to Thailand for more than 10 years, and no visit to the country can be without a stop in Bangkok as it’s the main port of entry for international air travel, although many tourists prefer to avoid the city and quickly move on to the beaches. Not to stop in Bangkok at least a few days would be a great loss, as the city offers a beguiling mix of the traditional values of Thai spirituality and superstition, high end shopping, an increasing amount of modern architecture, and an exciting street culture and markets almost 24 hours a day.
A visit to Bangkok can be an assault on the senses. The crowded streets, traffic gridlock, noise, street food, smells, vast wealth, poverty, and the heat and humidity can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor. In moments of jetlag induced insomnia, even I find it bewildering. It reportedly holds the record as the worlds hottest city, not because it reaches the highest temperature, but because it is consistently hot, day and night. Daytime temperatures can easily reach more than 35 Celsius, with very high humidity, and the evenings remain hot and sticky. Sunscreen or a hat are essential, and at the peak of the day take a leaf from the book of the locals and find shelter from the sun.
Cities like Bangkok can be endlessly interesting as they combine much of the urban modernity we associate with cities of the west with a rich and vibrant street culture of al fresco dining, street food and almost 24 hour a day markets. The modern side of Thai life in Bangkok has a great deal to offer the visitor with a little money to spend, and does it with great style – there are beautiful shopping malls with artistic interiors, adventurous modern buildings, sumptuous restaurants, and stunning rooftop bars all around the city. High-end Thailand often has impeccable service in the form of ritualized Thai high culture that was once only found in Royal palaces.
At the other end of the economic spectrum the city’s streets have all that life can offer, often in a single city block. Many Thai families don’t have a kitchen at home, so inexpensive food to eat on the street or to take home is everywhere, from early morning to late at night. In the commercial district around Sathorn Square, the small streets between the skyscrapers are filled with food vendors at lunch time to cater for the armies of office workers seeking sustenance, but by mid afternoon they have all packed up and moved on to an evening pitch somewhere else. Thai people tend to “graze” throughout the day, and can be seen constantly snacking on small meals and treats that can be found on every street corner. Markets also abound on every street, changing throughout the day to cater for the ebb and flow of customers tastes, from lunchtime food for office workers to tasty treats late at night on the way home after some beer. In most developed downtown areas of the city, behind the hotels and offices that line the main roads, the small sois are filled with housing, local shops and street vendors in the shadow of the skyscrapers. It’s where real Thai life is, and where the hotel and office workers return when they go home.
When you are a first-time visitor to a place it’s easy to follow your guidebook and try to visit as many of the tourist hotspots as quickly as possible. Regular visitors who have already ticked these places off their “bucket lists” often fall into the safety of what they know. As a result, neither group may explore beyond the comfort of the guide book or what they are familiar with. As a photographer you may feel the pressure to capture the ubiquitous “been there” pictures, or even follow advice on exactly when to visit, where to stand, and spend your precious holiday time mostly replicating the work of others. Much as I would implore any visitor to Bangkok to visit some of the well known temples, to only visit them with their tourist crowds would be a great shame, as so many other “local” temples that are found in every neighbourhood offer a far more real view of Thai spirituality.
For me Bangkok has always been a city that comes alive at night, when the temperature drops a little and the city opens up her flower to reveal all her dirty secrets. Whilst the salacious side of Thai nightlife in Bangkok may be most famous, the whole city can have a strange futuristic beauty at night. Every local bar will festoon their potted plants with twinkling fairy lights that somehow manage to make their tables on a grubby side-street transcend the heat and occasional filth and take on a night time magic. The streets are crammed with food vendors selling their inexpensive delights that assault the nose and the taste buds, lit by glaring halogen lights. The sky-train stations loom oppressively over the streets, as huge video screens play advertising for western products with soundtracks in English. The high-end cocktail bars perched on top of sky-scrapers lay bare all of Bangkok in its twinkling night-time beauty. When it rains, and it can really rain, there is a joy in the shiny wet streets and the reflected neon and it can come together in a strange fusion of east meets west futurism and squalor for that perfect “Bladerunner” moment.
Street photography in Thailand is generally a pleasure as there is so much life on the streets, and the local people have a relaxed attitude to having their photograph taken, provided it is done politely. Every-day Thai people that you meet may not follow the ritualized Thai etiquette found in five-star hotels, but they are often socialable and often have a great sense of “sanuk” – Thai fun.
If you are interested in street photography, reportage, or street portraiture, my advice is to explore. By all means hire a taxi to take you on a sight seeing tour, but to really see the real city, just take a walk, and perhaps even get lost a little. If you can survive the heat then parts of Bangkok in the day are eminently walkable, by which I mean the distances are not prohibitive. The main roads are often clogged with traffic and it’s pollution, so walking can be a surprisingly effective way to get around, but the city isn’t very pedestrian friendly, so it can be better to take the sois (side roads) and thread your way through them in the general direction you want to go, because there is so much real life to see.
I had visited friends at a gym where they exercise, travelling by taxi as the location was a no-mans-land between public transport links and the busy main roads. Leaving late in the afternoon, I decided to walk and used my phone to plot a route to the nearest subway station, about 30-40 minutes away. The area had no tourists, being one of many backstreet residential areas that lie only a few minutes walk behind the roads lined with shopping malls and offices. As I walked through the sois as in the late afternoon sun, past all the scruffy apartment buildings, the locals were finishing work and sitting outside their shop-houses. As afternoon turned slowly to dusk, the small streets became more atmospheric and alive as I passed dimly lit garment sweat-shops, street vendors and backstreet tattoo parlours.
Another day I had been visiting Bangkok’s “Pratunam” market, and had walked to a nearby hotel where a friend drives a taxi. After a coffee with my friend I decided to walk through the backstreets. The area is home to much of Bangkok’s “rag trade” (clothes making), where tiny shops sell fabric and it’s possible to get almost anything made, if you want only 1 or 1000. Being late afternoon some of the workers had finished and were sitting outside shops snacking and drinking with friends and colleagues, probably indulging in one of Thailand’s other main concerns, gossip.
On another occasion I decided to explore some of the local streets as the traffic was so gridlocked there was no point trying to hail a taxi. The streets were almost deserted except for a few groups sitting outside closed shops drinking beer and whiskey, and families inside their shop houses lit from inside for all to see, as rats scurried and alley cats came begging. It was deeply emotive, and polite friendliness and a basic command of the language helped to oil the wheels of photography in a place where tourists don’t go.
At this point I should say that in Thailand you are most likely to be separated from your money by a scam or a con, handing over money for jewels that will never be sent home, rather than by force. In busy areas there is safety in numbers, although it always pays to keep a close eye on your valuables or your bag, but in quiet areas where tourists don’t go and English may not be spoken you should always be aware of your surroundings and your safety. This is not a comment about Thailand, but about photography in general – unless you are a war photographer or a reporter, no piece of reportage or street photography is worth personal danger. I would advise caution trying to photograph around the cities various red-light districts, as bar owners and their workers guard their privacy, and are likely to police any photography they see as inappropriate. If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, or feel unsafe, move on, keep moving, and head to where there are more people.
On many evenings in Bangkok I go for a walk with my camera. Busy night markets can offer good opportunities for reportage and social photography, as generally stall holders are too busy serving customers to take much notice of a tourist with a camera. However, the side streets off the side streets are often where interesting real life lies, even in busy tourist areas. As I suggested previously in Malaysia, being polite and engaging with the people you meet can be an important tool in your photographic armory, just as important as your camera or your lens. The further you wander, the more there is to see, and the more you want to see. The further you wander, the fewer people see tourists, and the more interested they are to see you. Once you get away from the other tourists you may find a different welcome and a curiosity about your presence. It’s a win-win that can be used to your advantage.
Tourism takes many forms, but so often now it seems that it becomes a “bucket list” exercise of Instagram box ticking, selfies with App airbrushed skin to show how beautiful you were there, and the whole experience viewed through the prophylactic window of the phone screen. I have a friend who proudly tells me how many European countries he has visited, but every trip last no more than a couple of days, and the whole exercise seems more about counting than it is about actually experiencing and understanding the places he has visited. Obviously as a photographer when I visit a new place I am drawn to the grand and famous sights, but for me the greatest pleasure of travel has become the serendipity of self discovery – discovering things yourself, and discovering the self. The powerful memories are often not of the grand things but the small personal events that have an emotional resonance, and my discovery through walking and all the people and experiences that has brought to me has been a journey in itself. If you visit Bangkok or other places similar to it, I would encourage to make a little time for your own chance to “get lost”, as your photography and your life may well be richer for it.
The photographs in this article were taken with a variety of Sony E mount cameras and lenses including the Sony Alpha A7/II, Sony Alpha A7s, Sony Alpha A7rII, Sony 35mm f1.4 ZA Zeiss Distagon, Sony 55mm f1.8 Zeiss Sonnar, Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar, Sony 24-70mm f4 OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar, and Sony 90mm OSS G Macro. Files were processed using a number of raw development tools including Sony Image Data Converter (now Sony Imaging Edge), Capture One Pro 8, and SilkyPix Developer Studio Pro v6-v8. For information about my approach to street photography please see my previous Dear Susan articles.