A Photographic Essay of Bangkok Life: People at Work, Rest and Play
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 they were taken during the course of several short visits to the city over the past ten years.
With very few exceptions, the photos were 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 ernest socio-political point. Nothing so grand. They are simply my way of introducing anyone who reads my articles to the people of Bangkok.
Nonetheless, the selection of subjects has been based on the desire to emphasise two things:
There was a wish to catch the flavour of life in this southeast Asian metropolis and how the culture of Thailand is reflected in the lives of the people.
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 no difference in the hearts and minds of the people who live there and the people of other countries who may chance upon this article and read it.
A young couple. He feeds the birds while she photographs herself - typical!
Men cooling off with a swim in one of the khlongs (canals) in West Bangkok
43 photos 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 replace images as better ones become available.
Like everyone in the modern world, commuting Thais are addicted to texting, music playing and gaming on their teeny-weeny cellphone computers. And like everyone else, that often takes precedence over real-life social contact
Daily commuting - the Skytrain is one of the most popular transport systems in the city. These commuters and shoppers are descending from a station above the streets
A member of the garden staff at Chatuchak Park. Bangkok public parks are tended to with meticulous care to keep them pristine. This man devoted a lot of time to ensuring this hedge was neat and tidy
Young shoppers in one of the ultra modern fashionable malls of Bangkok
THE DAILY GRIND
We'll start with possibly the most boring photographs - boring because they are a couple of 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 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. It's not the best city in the world for the daily commute. But generally, citizens are used to this and treat the experience with a resigned placidity.
Whilst waiting to catch a train to work, why not have a haircut? Open air hairdressing at Hua Lamphong Train Station, photographed on the platform of Bangkok's main nationwide terminus
BANGKOK AT WORK
Next, a few photos of Thais at work in the public arena. Naturally most city-living Thais have jobs pretty much the same as those in any other country like the UK or the USA - office work, work in the retail and other service industries, or work 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 street traders and entertainers will be shown later on this page.
In two photos here 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.
Three real estate promotional girls take a little time out from their work
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 all those who seek to sell to us at the retail outlets. Shopping is a top passion for many visitors to Bangkok and perhaps two types of shopping experience will attract tourists more than any others. These are the shopping malls and the street markets.
But there really couldn't be a greater contrast between the experiences of both those who shop, and also those who sell, in these two very different types of outlet. The shopping malls of Bangkok 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 everything from big name jewellery stores to million dollar super car showrooms can be visited.
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.
For the first time ever I took advantage of my internet writing to get a photo. These models were doing a pro-photo shoot for Louis Vuitton, so I showed my credentials as an Internet writer with a 'business card' and got myself a photo opportunity
THE DOWN-MARKET SHOPPING EXPERIENCE IN BANGKOK
The down market shopping experience of Bangkok is literally that - the market places, and very different they are from the ultra modern shopping malls. People go to the malls for comfort and stylish shopping. People - tourists - go to the street markets for the cultural experience. Thais, on the other hand, go to the markets because they are cheap. Bangkok and indeed other cities in Thailand are world famous for their street markets and street stalls. Notably 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, much less relaxed and less comfortable for the average visitor but more authentically Thai and more interesting. And the quality and variety of the merchandise on offer both in organised markets and in the stalls which line many of the streets 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 here 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 generalised market such as Chatuchak weekend market, or specialist sites such as Pak Khlong Talat flower market or the Or Tor Kor food market, offer a fascinating glimpse into this important part of Thai trade and Thai life.
A market trader wheels away about as many shoes as some shoe shops stock!
Market delivery men take a breather from ferrying goods in their giant baskets
Flower sellers at Pak Klong Talad Market
FEEDING THE MASSES - MARKETS AND STREET FOOD
Markets and street stalls are ubiquitous across the city, and the variety of merchandise which is available here has already been mentioned, but there's no doubt as to the main draw for many to street stalls. It is the 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.
A flower seller pauses to enjoy lunch. The flowers are that most traditional of Thailand blooms - pink-purple orchids
Slaving over a hot wok
Food stalls are very common in the markets and along the streets and what's on offer is extremely varied. Here meats - beautifully cooked and tender - are on offer. One skewer of meat generally costs about 10 baht (20p / 30c)
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 one seen here with a child and a plastic cup 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 or adjacent to popular visitor attractions are favourite haunts.
Usually they do not present a problem, other than the depressing image they present. Usually I think the problem is simple poverty rather than drugs or drink, and they do not pester tourists. I feel inclined to give loose change, especially any spare change before I leave Thailand at the end of a holiday.
A young mother and child reduced to begging in the streets of Bangkok
Some will do what they can to earn a few coins on the street. This lady was selling key rings for 30 baht (about 60p - 85c) - rings she'd probably bought in a local market
Feeding pigeons in Chatuchak Park
A couple of girls share a picnic in the park
A cyclist takes time out to check out his wheels
PARKS AND RECREATION
We all know the stereotypical image of Bangkok as a heavily overpopulated, traffic-jammed and rather noisy city, renouned for its high octane nightlife - not perhaps the most appealing of images, but it is important to show the other side, because Bangkok also has some very attractive green parks, and they are well maintained too - a vital resource for the residents who cherish them as a 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.
In Lumpini Park, a 2.5 km pathway attracts joggers and cyclists - but in the 35C heat which is typical of Bangkok, resting up is also a good way to spend the day
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 break from the pressurised world of the city.
Too hot to do anything but laze around in Chatuchak Park
Lumpini Park. The number of Bangkokians who choose to exercise in 30+C temperatures is impressive!
For a long time I watched as this disabled, elderly gentleman was helped to exercise by members of his family in Chatuchak Park.
SHARING TIME TOGETHER
Bangkok is a crowded city, and time spent away from the crowds is precious. Whether it be in shops and in recreational facilities such as cinemas and restaurants, or relaxing in the public parks, sharing time with the people who really matter to you 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.
Boating in the park
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 indicates 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.
A couple relax in Chatuchak Park as the woman takes a phone selfie
A couple embrace by the lake in Chatuchak Park
ART AND CULTURE
Aside from the beaches of Southern Thailand, nothing attracts tourists to this country more than the artistry of Thai culture made manifest in the historic temples, but also in many traditional shows, and in Bangkok museums and exhibitions. Culture is a big part of Thai life - Thai music, Thai dance and Thai cuisine are world famous.
Cuisine is covered elsewhere, but any visitor to Thailand may well encounter music and dance. The first photo in this section features young girls who were rehearsing at one of the great temples of Bangkok. The bowed instruments they are using are called 'saw u'.
The second photo shows a dancer at the Erawan Shrine. This is not intentionally a tourist attraction, though it is a place well worth visiting. It is an authentic shrine where prayers and worship are often accompanied by traditional dancers such as this one, and by music.
Of course it's not all about tradition. Thailand is a modern country and so there is also modern culture, and in Bangkok the Arts and Culture Centre is the place to see that. Located in the heart of the shopping district, 'BACC' features the work of modern Thai artists and others. Entry is free.
Can't see too much of the person here, but as this was the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre - and full of abstract, impressionist and modern art - I thought I'd try my hand at an arty photo! The BACC seems encouragingly popular with young Thais
CULTURE FOR THE TOURISTS
There's plenty of art and culture laid on specifically for the tourists. One such venue is Siam Niramit where in addition to a culture shows, Thai dance is performed, and arts and crafts are exhibited and demonstrated, including the performance by a musician shown here on the phin - a lute like instrument from northeast Thailand.
The floating market was never just a part of culture; it was much more than that - 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, though the primary appeal today is for tourists, and trinkets and souvenirs are just as likely to be on sale as food as other essentials of day to day life.
School children rehearse traditional Thai instruments during a music lesson in the grounds of the Wat Arun temple
Traditional Thai dancer at the Erawan Shrine
© 2009 Alunrhys
A musician with a 'phin' - a three-stringed guitar-like instrument
The floating market - once a traditional market form in Thailand, but now very much operated for the benefit of the tourist trade. Nonetheless, they are worth seeing as an illustration of how Thais once lived in the vicinity of Bangkok
A street entertainer at Asiatique
The Dolphinarium at Safari World
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 culture, and everything to do with fun. The clown in the photo below 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. Safari 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.
A consultation by the faithful with a monk in one of the city temples
THAI PRACTICE OF BUDDHISM
95% of the Thai nation are Buddhists, and the temples of Buddhism are of course sacred religious institutions, but the brightly coloured, glittering temples are also an important attraction for visitors to the City of Bangkok.
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.
Buddhism is generally very tolerant of all other belief systems, and tolerant, within reason of tourists with their cameras. This makes it possible for us to see ordinary people practising Buddhism in a personal way.
An elderly woman makes offerings at the Erawan Shrine - site of a terrorist bombing just one month before this photo was taken, but soon restored to its status as a hugely popular site of devotion and prayer for shoppers and workers in the city.
Buddhist monks in their orange robes are a common sight in Bangkok
THE MONKS OF BUDDHISM
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 visitor who spends time in Bangkok.
The tolerance of other faiths and those of no faith, previously mentioned, extends not only to the sacred places, but also to the monks. In the streets and shops, they can be spoken to, but in the case of monks, there are etiquettes to be followed, and they should be accorded respect. It is considered wrong for women to touch monks (or vice versa) - sometimes one may see gifts or alms being given to monks, but this has to be done in an indirect way - by placing the gift on a sheet or plate which is then accepted by the monk. 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.
One of Bangkok's impressive temples, with monks at worship before Buddha
Pomegranetes and pomegranete juice on sale at a night market
If there is one after-nightfall event to be experienced it must be Chinatown during the Chinese New Year. Here a street trader on the most packed street I have ever walked along, wears 'lucky' red. Many many people on the street wear red on that night.
BANGKOK GO-GO AND BAR GIRLS
One cannot leave the subject of Bangkok night life without a brief mention of the notorious bar girls, exotic dancers, escorts and of course the transgender 'lady boys' - such nighttime activity is, after all, the reason many young single men from other countries spend time in the city! In truth, it isn't 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 :)
At the end of the Bangkok day - Thais and foreigners, or 'farangs', return from the night market and restaurant complex of Asiatique, on one of the Chao Phraya Express River Boats
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, as well as 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 there to be enjoyed. The produce on display may often be cheap and tacky stuff aimed at the the tourist market, but there are some 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.
The famous Patpong Night Market - stalls do sell good quality items as well as tourist tat, and the abundance and variety of popular items such as clothing is immense
Bar girls at Soi Cowboy. Here a string of neon-lit clubs - many of which present revealing shows - will have scantily dressed girls on the street to draw the customers in for shows or drinks - or to ply whatever other business they may have in mind
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 hard toil, but also 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 is life in outer space! But I do hope the photos are representative of the people that visitors and tourists are most likely to encounter when on holiday in this city.
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.
I'll finish with just a few extra photos of people at work, rest and play in Bangkok.
I’d Love to Hear Your Comments Thanks, Alun