Saturday, March 28, 2015

Another Mall in Bangkok

Women take "selfies" of each other on the red carpet in front of EmQuartier, the newest shopping mall in Bangkok.

Central Bangkok, an area rich with upscale shopping malls, has another place where the 1% can spend their hard earned Baht. EmQuartier (note: it is not "EmQuarter") is a new shopping destination across Sukhumvit Road from Emporium, a well known high end mall in Bangkok. 
Inside EmQuartier. 

The new mall is a part of a major expansion of shopping at Sukhumvit Soi 24. It's adjacent to the Phrom Phong BTS station, in the middle of a part of Bangkok where many farangs (Thai for caucasian foreigners) live and very close to Thong Lor and Ekkamai, where lots of wealthy Thais live. Emporium, opened in the late 90s, was the first mall in the area, EmQuartier opened this week and there are plans in place for EmSphere, about 100 meters west of Emporium. The complex is being rebranded and will be called the EM District (you may notice a theme running through the names.) 
Shoppers walk past a women's fashion store in EmQuartier.

The EM District is owned by the same developers who own Paragon, another large, very high end, shopping complex on Rama I Road, about 4.5 kilometers (roughly 2.5 miles) from Emporium and the EM District. Paragon is on Rama I, but both are really the same road. Rama I changes names several times but it is a straight shot down Sukhumvit to Rama I and Paragon is a longish walk from EM District. 
A worker installs flooring in a courtyard at the new mall. 

There's a plethora of expensive malls between Paragon and EM District. Coming out Rama I/Phloen Chit/Sukhumvit (the three run together) there is: Paragon, a "luxury" mall; Siam Square, which features fashions geared to college students and young adults; CentralWorld, a sprawling mall with almost every high end western and Japanese chain store you can name; Gaysorn, one of the first high end malls in Bangkok; Central Chidlom (also spelled Chit Lom), more of a huge department store with aspirations of being a mall; Central Embassy, a brand new mall that opened in 2014 and still seems mostly empty and Terminal 21, a mall popular with Thai teenagers and fashionistas. Of all the malls, only Terminal 21 has a really unique identity and is geared to local people. 
On an escalator in EmQuartier, a shopper unknowingly matching the Hamburglar. (There's a McDonald's in the food court of the new mall.)

EmQuartier is opening in the midst of what seems to be an economic slow down in Thailand. There are near daily reports in the local media about economic challenges facing Thailand. Thailand's export driven economy is facing hurdles as the export driven economies of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam gather strength. Tourism in Thailand is experiencing a slowdown because Russians (who make up a big part of the tourism to Thailand) can't afford to travel as the ruble collapses. 
People file into EmQuartier a few hours after it opened.

As a lay person observer and resident of Bangkok, this development does not feel sustainable. One of the problems is that the malls (again, except for Terminal 21) all have the same stores and restaurants. Paragon is unique because you can buy a car in the mall (so long as you're buying a Rolls Royce or Masareti. Seriously, there are Rolls and Maserati showrooms in Paragon) but otherwise they feel very similar.
A worker dry mops a floor while shoppers go around him.

All of these malls contribute to the surreal nature of living in Bangkok. I can go from photographing in Khlong Toey market or slum to eating at an expensive bistro in EmQuartier in minutes. It's about 2.5 kilometers (roughly two miles) from one of Bangkok's most famous wet markets and infamous slums to some of the most expensive retail in Southeast Asia. This really is an amazing city. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Not Your Usual Beauty Pageant

Contestants on stage in the first round of the Miss Tiffany's 2015 pageant. 

Thailand is famous for its tolerance of transgendered people. "Ladyboys" or kathoey in Thai are a well documented part of Thai culture. Thailand is the center of gender reassignment surgery.

Thailand is also famous for its cabaret shows featuring transgendered performers. I've photographed a couple of them. Working within inches of the performers I could not tell they were transgendered.

One of the best known cabarets is Miss Tiffany's, in Pattaya. Every year Miss Tiffany's hosts an international pageant for women who were born male.
Contestants wait to go on stage during the pageant. 

A contestant gets help with her eyelashes. 

The first round of the pageant, for Thai contestants, was yesterday at CentralWorld, a large mall in central Bangkok. The women were primping and preening. The mall's central court was packed with spectators. 

The contestants wore white tee shirts with the Miss Tiffany's logo. There will be a swim suit pageant at the end of this month, the finals will be held in Pattaya on May 8. The international finals are usually held in December, also in Pattaya, and features contestants from around the world. 
A contestant prays before going on stage. 
She's video chatting with a friend on their smart phones. 
Contestants watch the pageant. 
Contestants on stage.

There are more photos from the pageant in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Riding The Rails

A snack vendor walks the aisle in a third class train running from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. The Ayutthaya line of State Railways of Thailand was built in the late 1800s and was the first train line in Thailand.

Thailand has a vast train system that crisscrosses the Kingdom. You can travel from the Malaysian border all the way to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand or Nong Khai, on the Lao border in Isaan. If you want to be a stickler, you can start in Singapore and ride the rails all the way to Vientiane, Laos, with transfers in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. It would take several days but it could be done. 
On the line to Aranyaprathet, a town on the Cambodian border, a woman looks out the window of a train leaving Bangkok.

Thailand's trains provide a reasonably reliable and very inexpensive way for people to travel across the Kingdom. Third class fares on most trains are just a couple of dollars. The two hour trip to Ayutthaya is only .60¢ (20 Thai Baht), the four hour run to Kabin Buri, near the Cambodian border, is just over $1.00 (33 Thai Baht). The third class train to Chiang Mai, a bone crunching 15 hours in an unairconditioned car, is only about $4.00 (121 Baht).

To give an idea of how inexpensive third class train travel is in Thailand consider this. My tickets to and from Kabin Buri were just over $2.00 (66 Thai Baht round trip), my lunch in Kabin Buri was 30 Baht (under $1.00) for curry and rice with a bottle of water, throw in a couple of bottles of water at 10 Baht each (.30¢) and the total was about 116 Baht. Taxi fare for the 30 minute ride from our apartment to Hua Lamphong train station, to catch the early morning train, was 120 Baht (about $4.00). Note that I am not complaining about the cab fare. Bangkok taxis are very inexpensive compared to taxis almost anywhere else for a city of similar size.   

I call the service "reasonably reliable" because trains are almost always late. Sometimes just a few minutes but hours late is common. My train to Ayutthaya this week, supposed to be about an 80 minute ride, was over two hours. My train to Kabin Buri yesterday, scheduled to be 3:45, chugged into Kabin Buri station about 20 minutes late. 
The train to Kabin Buri.

Maybe because there's so much opportunity, the world is looking at Thailand's trains with covetous eyes. Chinese, Japanese and Europeans are all vying to invest in Thailand's rail system. The Chinese, in particular, want to see high speed rail built from Nong Khai (on the Lao border) to Sattahip, Thailand's main deepwater port. Not coincidentally, the Chinese are also trying to build high speed rail through Laos, from China to Nong Khai, and Laos is a country with virtually no rail currently. That would give the Chinese access to deepwater ports for their factories in southern China.
Passengers get ready to hop off a train on the northern line.

I've ridden Thai trains from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram, Kanchanaburi, Nong Khai, Ayutthaya and Kabin Buri. It's a great way to see the countryside. The third class trains are not air conditioned and seats are frequently hard benches but they're pretty clean. Not clean room clean but certainly clean enough for people in jeans or travelers clothes. Vendors walk through the trains hawking food (stir fries, like chicken or pork with chilies and basil are popular) and the food, while it won't win any culinary awards, is not bad. Thais are hospitable, so it's easy to strike up a conversation if you want to. 
A monk on a train into Bangkok on the northern line. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Amazing Bangkok

A couple gets ready for a pre-wedding photography session at the old Customs House in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok. The building is popular with Bangkok wedding and portrait photographers - it offers lovely light and a richly atmospheric setting for photos.

I went down to the old Customs House Tuesday morning to see what was happening with the historic old building. The old Customs House was designed by an Italian architect and constructed on the Chao Phraya River in the 1880s. The Chao Phraya was Siam's gateway to the world then and the Customs House one of the most important buildings in Bangkok. 

The customs offices moved when the port moved from Bangkok to Khlong Toey (still in Bangkok but several kilometers downstream from the central Bangkok waterfront) in the mid 1950s. The old, beautiful Customs House was shuttered. Eventually the Marine Fire Department, responsible for fighting fires on the river moved into it. 
A firefighter climbs the stairs to his apartment after showering on the ground floor of the old Customs House. Despite being closed for almost 60 years, the building retains a good deal of its old grandeur

The Marine Fire Department / old Customs House sits on prime real estate along the Bangkok waterfront. The French Embassy is just meters away - the north wall of the embassy is the south wall of the Fire Department. Very high end hotels line the waterfront but none of them have the architectural panache of the Customs House. 
The facade of the old Customs House, now the Marine Fire Department headquarters and barracks

Rumors have been swirling for years that the Fire Department will be kicked out of the building and that it will be renovated into a high end hotel. It's not clear if the building, which is gorgeous but in pretty rough shape, will be saved or if it will be razed and an all new building put up in its place. I went down there to see if the firefighters were still there. 
Children of families living in the building hang their laundry on the second floor landing

The firefighters are still there, but there are only about half the families living in the building that lived there the last time I visited, about a year ago. I wandered around for about 90 minutes, mostly photographing architectural details. I was finishing up when I saw a young couple walk into the lobby with a load of luggage. They didn't look like firefighters so I followed them in. 

The woman was wearing a wedding dress. They had come to the Customs House for their pre-wedding photography session. The photographer they hired followed me in. I introduced myself and we made some small talk. I made a couple of photos while they got ready for the session and then I left because I didn't want to interfere with the photographer they had hired. 
A portrait of the couple. This is unposed. They were waiting for their photographer to get set up when I made the photo

Chance encounters like this are one of the things I love about photography in Bangkok. The fire department discourages photographers from wandering around the residential parts of the building (I don't really blame them. Would you want tourists wandering through your home?) but the public parts of the complex, like the ground floor foyer and the main staircase are open. 

I can't think of many places that would allow you to wander into the Fire Department's headquarters relatively freely.  Although photography is discouraged, the are no guards or locks, just a couple of discrete signs asking tourists not to enter residential parts of the complex. Sometimes firefighters will take you into the building if you ask them to, but this is more easily arranged if you speak Thai. Wedding, fashion and portrait photographers frequently use the building for sessions. As far as I know there is no permitting process so long as you work in the public areas and don't interfere with fire fighting operations. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sunday Morning at Wat Bo

A Cambodian man makes merit by giving monks money during a mass merit making at Wat Bo in Siem Reap. 

We went for a walk through Siem Reap Sunday morning during our weekend getaway to Angkor. 

Siem Reap and Thailand have a complicated history (for that matter, Thailand and Cambodia have a complicated history). Siem Reap is Khmer for "The place we defeated the Siamese (Thais)" or words to that effect because Khmer (Cambodian) forces dealt Siamese forces a crushing defeat there in the 1500s. On the other hand, the Siamese came back in the 1800s and governed western Cambodia until the French colonization in the late 1800s pushed the Siamese back to Thailand. 

Wat Bo, a large temple in Siem Reap, was built as the temple to meet the needs of Siamese soldiers garrisoned in Siem Reap.
A Cambodian woman prays during the mass merit making ceremony.

Each year, in the middle of March, Wat Bo hosts a large merit making ceremony for all of the Buddhist monks in Siem Reap province. This year the merit making ceremony happened to be on the Sunday we went walkabout. Through happenstance we ended up at Wat Bo, along with 1,300 Buddhist monks and even more Cambodian lay people. 

In the mass merit making ceremonies I've covered in Thailand, monks walk in long rows between lay people sitting on the ground. At Wat Bo, the monks are seated and the lay people walk among them. 1,300 monks is a lot of monks and Wat Bo is big but not that big. There were monks sitting almost everywhere throughout the temple grounds. 
A woman prays with a bundle of cash she was donating to monks at Wat Bo. 

There were a few other foreigners there but not very many. This was a Cambodian ceremony that apparently flies under the radar of most of the tourists. 
Monks leave the ceremony in tuk-tuks (three wheeled taxis). 

It was an interesting way to spend a Sunday morning. There are more photos of the merit making ceremony in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.