A Photographic Essay of Bangkok Life: People at Work, Rest and Play
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This is a portfolio of photos showing the people of Bangkok, capital of Thailand, engaged in their day to day activities at work, rest and play. The photos are all the work of the author of this article, and have been taken during six short visits to the city over the past six years.
With a few exceptions, the photos are not staged - they are simply snapshots of the people. And they are not the work of a professional photographer. Nor are they the result of a campaign to drive home some socio-political point. They are just my introduction to the people of Bangkok.
Nonetheless, selection of subjects was based on the desire to emphasise two things. Firstly there was a wish to catch the flavour of life in this southeast Asian metropolis and how the culture is reflected in the lives of the people. But secondly, hopefully, the photos will demonstrate how lives, aspirations and simple pleasures are the same the world over. Bangkok doesn't have the best of reputations in the world - noisy, overpopulated, polluted, and with a dubious night life. But there is really very little difference in the hearts and minds of the people who live there and the people of other countries who read this article.
43 photographs have been chosen, taken in the years 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2016. Comments on the photos are included as photo captions, or in the body of the text, and a few other aspects of Bangkok life are noted as the opportunity arises. From time to time I may elect to replace photos as more suitable or better images become available.
The Daily Grind
We'll start with the most boring set of photographs - boring because they are photos which could have been taken in any city, anywhere, anytime in the 21st century. People have to go to work and they have to go shopping whether they live in London or New York, or in an exotic subtropical city like Bangkok.
Bangkok is a crowded city, and there are times on the roads when the traffic comes to an abrupt and prolonged halt, and on the public transport systems when people are packed like sardines into trains or buses. But generally, citizens are used to this and treat the experience with a resigned placidity.
Bangkok at Work
These are just a few photos of Thais at work in the public arena. Of course most Thais have jobs pretty much the same as those in any other country like the UK or the USA - office work, the retail and other service industries, or in manufacturing. But it's interesting to see those whose work exposes them to the public gaze in a characteristically Thai vocation. Several of these, such as the street traders and entertainers will be shown later on this page.
In the two photos in this section we see gardening in a Bangkok park and we see a hairdressing salon on a platform at a network train station - presumably the station location offered an ideal opportunity for those about to travel across country, to smarten up before their long journey.
The Up-Market Shopping Experience in Bangkok
Visiting tourists of course will most likely come into contact with those Bangkokians who work in the tourist trade such as hotel employees, and also taxi drivers and those who seek to sell to us - retail outlets, and specfically the shopping malls and market traders.
There couldn't be a greater contrast between those who work and shop in the big malls of Bangkok and those who frequent the street markets. The shopping malls are truly impressive and some are particularly notable for high end fashion and luxury goods - the haute couture end of the business. None more so than Siam Paragon, a super classy shopping mall in the heart of the city where showrooms displaying million dollar supercars can be visited together with shops representing every famous luxury brand one can think of.
It's a great place just to relax in a cafe or a restaurant and 'people-watch' in a comfortable air-conditioned setting. Many of the shops are clearly aimed at well-to-do or aspirational younger Thais with modern lifestyles, and this section shows a few of these shoppers and a couple of promotional displays which were taking place while I was in Siam Paragon.
The Down-Market Shopping Experience in Bangkok
The down market shopping experience of Bangkok is literally that - the market places. Bangkok and indeed other cities in Thailand are famous for street markets. Notably the night markets add colour and vibrancy to the after dark hours, but there are many established day markets too, and these are the subject of this section.
They are of course, far removed from the shopping malls in almost every respect - much less relaxed and less comfortable for the average visitor but more authentically Thai and much more culturally interesting. And the quality and variety of the merchandise on offer should not be dismissed. Aside from the tourist souvenirs, there are genuine bargains and good quality produce to be bought in the markets. Such things as belts and bags, watches, shoes and clothing, can be found in greater diversity than you'd see in any conventional shop, laid out in stalls or on sheets on the ground.
And even if you don't plan on buying, a general market such as Chatuchak weekend market, or specialist markets such as Pak Khlong Talat flower market or the Or Tor Kor food market, offer a fascinating glimpse of this important part of Thai trade and Thai life.
Feeding the Masses - The Markets and Street Food
Restaurants are for tourists, but for street traders and their customers, eating food on the go is the norm, and tourists would be well advised to try this street food too. For a very small fee the widest imaginable variety of meats, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, sweets, treats and drinks can be had - a great way to sample Thai cuisine.
I must admit it took me a long time to pluck up the courage to sample food from the street, but actually everything I've tried has been well prepared, and much better than you'd find on similar food stalls in the West. Do be careful about uncooked foods and ice (as the source may be tap water) but other than that, I think you should give it a go. You won't regret it.
Surviving on the Streets
Before we leave the streets we cannot ignore the underside of Bangkok life. There are beggars and some are quite sad to see - the elderly, the disabled, or young mothers like this one with a child. The plastic cup is for donations.
Others will perform for money, playing musical instruments. And still others like the woman below will try to earn a meagre living selling souvenirs to the tourists. Sites close to the train stations and to popular visitor attractions are favourite haunts.
Parks and Recreation
We all know the stereotypical image of Bangkok as a heavily overpopulated, traffic-jammed and rather polluted city, renouned for its high octane nightlife - not perhaps the most appealing of images, but it is important to show the other side. Bangkok has some very attractive parks, a vital resource for the residents who cherish them as a green and tranquil respite from the city
They are also a great place for visitors to see how Thais unwind from city work, resting, recuperating, exercising, or just spending some quality time with friends and family. I've spent a lot of time people-watching in these parks, so the next few sections contain some of my photos from the Bangkok parks.
Sharing Time Together
Bangkok is a crowded city, and time spent away from the crowds with just friends or family is precious. Whether it be in shops and in recreational facilities such as cinemas and restaurants, or relaxing in the puiblic parks, sharing time with friends and family is just as important here as anywhere else.
And in the parks it is perhaps easier to see the warmth and friendliness of the locals than it is in the hustle and bustle of commuter life and work. The photos surrounding this section show Thais at play and caring for each other.
The scenario depicted in the photo of the elderly man was particularly poignant. My impression was that he may have been the victim of a stroke, but whatever the case, three family members spent a long time helping and supporting him to stand and to walk a few steps. As one might expect, the standard of welfare for the disabled is generally not quite what one would expect in the West, and the plight of beggars who are disabled, has already been mentioned, but most modern developments have disabled facilities and care and affection for those less fortunate is often touching on a one to one basis. On the same day as this photo was taken I saw train station security guards helping a blind man on to his train. And at his destination a guard was waiting to escort him off.
Rest and Recuperation in the Public Parks of Bangkok
Many of course will visit the public parks like Lumpini and Chatuchak on their own, not to share quality time with friends or family, but just for a bit of peace and quiet and solitude, perhaps to sunbathe or rest - a brief respite from the pressurised world of the city.
A Little Loving
The parks are also a great place for couples to share some affectionate time together. Thai culture is generally rather more conservative than Western culture when it comes to open displays of affection, though that is changing, and particularly so in cities such as Bangkok. The guide books will often say that Thais do not kiss or hug in public - not true of many Bangkokians.
The photograph of the couple seated by the side of an ornamental lake was taken in Chatuchak Park. And the headscarf is indicative of the fact that they are a Muslim couple. Muslims make up just about 4% of the Thai population, and in most parts of the country including the capital, they seem to be very well integrated into society.
Art and Culture
Culture is a big part of Thai life - Thai music, Thai dance and Thai food are world famous. And next to the beaches of Southern Thailand, nothing attracts the tourists to Bangkok more than the artistry of Thai culture made manifest in the historic temples, but also in many traditional shows, and in Bangkokian museums and exhibitions.
Cuisine is covered elsewhere, but any visitor to Thailand may well encounter music and dance. The first photo in this section features an entertainer in the grounds of a spectacular theatre show of Thai culture called Siam Niramit. He wasn't part of the show itself, but was part of an exhibition of cultural traditions including music, art and silk weaving.
The young girls in the next photo were rehearshing at one of the great temples of Bangkok. The bowed instruments they are using are called 'saw u'.
Thai dance will be shown in the next section, but as in any country there is also modern culture, and the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre is the place to see that in the heart of the shopping district. It features the work of modern Thai artists and others. Entry is free.
Culture for the Tourists
Thai dance is an art form which must be seen. Usually it will be encountered in tourist shows such as Siam Niramit, but also it may be performed by street entertainers and even at religious sites such as the Erawan Shrine which is featured in another section.
The floating market was never just a part of culture - it was once a way of life. Bangkok is a city of rivers and canals, and before the development of roads and modern communications, the waterways were an important way of getting around. The floating market could thus be seen as the forerunner to modern street markets. Today, floating markets still exist as a cultural icon to show Bangkok life as it once was.
Culture - and Fun - for All
There are shows strictly for the tourists and there are shows for everyone. I get the impression that Thais are more proud of their traditions and history than many in Western nations seem to be about theirs. And entertainments and shows, authentically or loosely based on Thai culture, are attended by locals as well as tourists.
But just as in any modern city, there are also entertainments which have very little to do with tradition, and everything to do with fun. The clown was a street entertainer and balloon animal maker photographed at Asiatique - a very popular night market, restaurant and entertainment complex on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
Theme parks are also to be found around Bangkok. Ocean World is one such park, popular with locals, and especially with children - on my visit, coachloads of Thai school children were enjoying the animals and the shows.
The Monks of Buddhism
95% of the Thai nation are Buddhists, and the temples of Buddhism are of course sacred religious institutions, but they are also an important attraction for visitors to the City of Bangkok. Thais practise the School of Buddhism which is known as Theravada, and the monks of Theravada, characteristically clad in orange or brown robes, will become a familiar sight for any visitors who spend time in Bangkok. In the streets and shops, they can be spoken to, but there are etiquettes to be followed, and they should be accorded respect. And in the temples they may be seen at prayer or at study, and providing one does not behave in an obtrusive and insensitive manner, tourists are free to wander around and photography is permitted of most subject matter, in most areas.
Thai Practice of Buddhism
I've already hinted at the tolerance of Buddhism, and from my point of view tolerance is really the most appealing and refreshing aspect of this religion and philosophy. Many Thais are devout, but respect other beliefs, and within reason they tolerate the indescretions and intrusions of tourists. This makes it possible for us to see ordinary people practising Buddhism in a personal way.
In addition to temples there are also smaller shrines, and a particular note should be made of the Erawan Shrine, a little place of reverence in the heart of the city, where locals go to pray or wish for good luck - a lovely place for visitors to observe truly authentic and touching Buddhist culture in practice. Earnest prayers and accompanying music and Thai dancing makes this an endearing experience one could watch for hours
Bangkok by Night
We've looked at Bangkok citizens as they commute in the morning and then the day to day activities of working and shopping, leisure time and play, and religious practice. But for many it is after darkness falls that Bangkok really comes to life and reveals its uniquely vibrant character.
Night markets are a major draw, and are to be enjoyed. The produce on display may often be cheap and tacky stuff aimed at the the tourist market, but there are genuine bargains to be had, particularly if one is prepared to haggle. Whilst keeping a careful watch for pickpockets, the experience is not too pressurised - just walk away from any street trader who is too persistent. And in addition to merchandise, there may be street entertainers and food stalls of course - very inviting to snack at whilst soaking up the atmosphere.
Bangkok Go-Go and Bar Girls
Unfortunately one cannot leave the subject of Bangkok life without a brief mention of the notorious night life of the bar girls, exotic dancers, escorts and of course the infamous transgender 'lady boys' - such nighttime activity is, after all, the reason many young single men spend time in the city! In truth, it isn't quite as bad as people may imagine.
Restricted to a few small show areas like Soi Cowboy and the night market area of Patpong, and regulated by the tourist police to protect visitors from whatever is considered to be criminal exploitation, there is an acceptance and almost an innocence about it which somehow makes it less sleazy than it would be in the West. Couples on holiday even go together to experience the atmosphere and the shows, just to see what it's like. Of course, an open, not-easily offended mind is required :)
So that's it. Just a tiny sample of the millions of people who live in the City of Bangkok, and how some of them live from sunrise to sunset and into the night beyond, commuting and working, shopping, eating, playing, resting and loving, living lives of pleasure and lives of prayer. It cannot be a representative selection of all the people of Bangkok, much less all Thais - for many rural Thais the life of the city is as alien as life in outer space! But I do hope the photos are representative of the people that visitors and tourists are most likely to come into contact with.
I like Thailand and I like Bangkok, and I like the people of Bangkok. I hope in presenting these photos I can show some of the aspects of Bangkok life that I like. There's good and bad in all nations and all cities, and Bangkok has more notoriety than most - I hope I have shown in these photos that Bangkok is far more good than bad, and its people are well worth getting to know.
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