In spite of a new aircraft, a gracious cabin crew and a tailwind, I arrived in Thailand in the early morning with almost no sleep. As I sat at the gate in domestic departures of Bangkok airport in a kind of jetlagged haze, I looked at the light of the morning sun as it shone through the wet steamy windows. I became momentarily transfixed by how it looked, and the way the light played on the wet glass, so I took a quick photo with my phone. It was a theme that would return later in my trip.
Having finally got over jetlag and got some sleep, my days in Chiang Mai slipped by amiably.
There are a few rather old fashioned Thai restaurants near the river in Chiang Mai that cater for Thai customers as much as tourists. They are like barns, and mostly without any view of the Riverside. I’ve always found them somewhat depressing as they seem to entirely miss the point of being near the river, but recently some new places have opened that have outdoor seating. One of them was particularly attractive, with tables under trees and a deck on the river bank. I went for lunch one day, and found it was the perfect spot to while away the hours, and for dinner it was particularly attractive under the trees decked with lights.
I also had cocktails at a beautiful hotel bar beside the river, their menu arriving in a brown envelope marked “top secret” to reflect that the building had previously been home to the British Consulate about one hundred years ago. It contained a James Bond themed martini list, which wasn’t at all in bad taste as the drinks were beautifully made.
On my last day I visited a “new” temple that a friend had told me about. I don’t think it was actually “new”, but it looked as if they had been renovating. It was very beautiful and calming, sitting in a pergoda next to a large pond between the temple buildings as the fish jumped and the birds settled on the giant lily pads.
On my final evening in the city I went across town to a favourite Japanese restaurant where a friend works. I probably met him 10 years ago whilst visiting the restaurant when we talked about his significant tattoos, and although he always seems embarrassed but pleased to see me, he is so shy with foreigners that we barely speak. I went by taxi, as Chaing Mai now has “Grab” taxis, an Asian alternative to Uber. It’s cheaper than a tuk-tuk or a chartered “songthaew” pick-up truck, who of course don’t like it as traditionally they have acted like a Mafia cartel, forcing the city to close some bus routes.
When I arrived in Koh Samui, there can be little nicer than arriving somewhere where you are met by someone with a card with you name on. I’d booked an airport transfer as it’s cheaper and less annoying that the taxi desk mafia at the airport.
Most Thai people from central and northern Thailand have jet black straight hair. In the south, the people are more similar to Malaysians in looks, and in the islanders are sometimes descended from “sea gypsies”, sea faring people who traditionally spent much of their lives on the water. You can spot them by their slightly curly hair, and the men sometimes with facial hair. Imagine a classic image of a South seas pirate – which is pretty much the modus operandi when it comes to transport for tourists in the islands. Even a Thai lady I had met in Chiang Mai had complained about the extraordinary cost. The local taxis have a “taxi meter” sign on the roof but often don’t have a meter, or never use it as it appears to be for purely decorative purposes.
I continue to confuse all the waiting staff in Samui by speaking to them in Thai. Many of them are Burmese and speak good English but often don’t speak any Thai at all. They are always polite and friendly, and even as they harangue you as you pass, if you don’t want to stop at their restaurant, they will say “bye see you tomorrow”. It’s a world away from the often aggressive harsh welcome in Pattaya, where I’ve been greeted with a “sit down!”, barked as an order. Now I’ve learnt to recognise these itinerant workers, mostly from their faces, it’s safer to just speak to them in English.
It’s too early in the season for good weather, as it’s still the end of the rainy season, so there aren’t the clear blue green waters and bright blue skies of the picture postcards. The weather changes every hour or two. One day, before lunch it was glorious, then by 2pm the wind started gusting and with a huge clap of thunder a storm rolled in. The following day, it was overcast and grey when I came out, so I went into the town for lunch, and by 2pm the sun was out and it was nearly perfect. The weather on my phone, provided from America by a company that probably don’t even know where Thailand is, predicts thunder storms every hour and so offers no clue what might be happening.
One morning I was woken by huge claps of rolling thunder that made the glass in the windows rattle. On another, I opened the curtains onto the verandah to see sunshine, but by the time I’d made it out for some lunch, storm clouds had rolled in.
Being in Koh Samui had been the usual double edged sword – at first slightly dull as I wasn’t sure what to do, but then eventually settling into the relaxed atmosphere.
With such ever changing weather, I’d started to appreciate what can be so special about the coast, as when the weather changes, so does the light. One hour clear blue skies, the next clouds punctured by bright sunlight, then that ominous grey looming on the horizon as the wind picks up just before a storm.
I became increasingly transfixed by the ever changing light, and how the same scene could look so different. One day, there’s a beautiful blue acquamarine wash of sky and sea, the colour and tone shifting as the waves undulate the surface of the water and the distant clouds drift imperceptibly. Another day, a grey ocean meets a grey sky with a shadow on the horizon where it’s raining out at sea. I felt I could take the same photograph every day for a year and they would all look different.
With so little to photograph except for a vast expanse of sea and sky, my camera didn’t always get used that much, and it was easier to just use my phone. Experimentation with post processing revealed how much could be had from its humble jpegs, and how quite extreme processing created results that I wouldn’t normally get with a “proper” camera. It became all about the light and the atmosphere.
Ironically, on the mounting of my departure it was glorious sunshine, and I joked with the receptionist that I had been here all week and it had rained, and now when I was leaving it was sunny.
I can’t say I was excited by the prospect of moving on to Bangkok, but that too has its own light, mostly created by the city as it’s lights glint off the buildings.
I visited 2 temples, one to Buddha and one to consumption, as ever changing Bangkok now has a very upmarket shopping mall beside the Chao Phraya river. It’s built to a scale and standard that may be hard to imagine, and contains several car dealers, some traditional Thai teakwood buildings with a market, and the development includes 2 of the tallest condominiums in the city.
All the photographs in this article were taken with and edited on my modest phone, an Honor 10 Lite made by Huawei. Using it side by side with my camera, it became obvious that it can sometimes capture pictures of similar quality to a “real” camera, but makes the process much easier and more straightforward. What was more interesting was that when it was used near or at its limits, the photographs often became more interesting when edited, taking on an almost painterly quality. The pictures that resulted are the antithesis of our enthusiast photographers obsession with pixel count, dynamic range and mandatory raw file editing with Lightroom, but for me were all the more interesting as a result. In fact, in some ways they are some of my favourite pictures from the trip.
It can be no surprise that the vast majority of people use their phone as their camera, and for their intended uses, it makes the process easy and the quality is more than good enough. With sales still in decline and camera makers continuing to retrench to the higher ground, with only the affluent enthusiast and some professionals as customers, it must only be a matter of time before the camera as we know it dies out?
Hold on tight as I fear the internet might be about to crash.
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