HEAVILY UPDATED FOR 2017: NEW UPDATES AND INFORMATION ARE ADDED TO THE VERY BOTTOM OF THIS ARTICLE
Following a surprisingly large influx of requests from readers of this blog for specific tips and advice about coming to Bangkok and greater Thailand for taking pictures, I looked around for such an article. I couldn’t find a great deal of information on the net that was comprehensive, up to date, relevant to film and digital photographers and written accurately by people with enough appropriate experience to satisfy my requirements. This (lack of) discovery was equally surprising and leads to my decision to tackle the issue here myself, hopefully I have not bitten off more sticky rice and mango than I can chew. I shall avoid the off-topic aspects (well covered all over the web) such as accommodation, eating spicy food and where to exchange your traveller’s cheques. That said, there might be some key points where photographic and general interests overlap and these may warrant some brief mention, I’ll try and keep it on track.
The light in Thailand is, in a word, strong. It sounds obvious but it really needs to be accounted for, you can easily get sunburnt on an overcast day walking around in Thailand, distracted by its offerings. For film users, this means that lower speed films of 100 or 200 ISO are more than adequate, 400 would be the limit that I would shoot with in the daytime and that would mandate stopping down significantly and ND filters come in handy for those preferring to be wider open for subject isolation purposes. All digital brethren need not worry about such issues of course. The quality of the light itself is absolutely amazing, especially during those golden hour times just after sunrise and immediately running up to sunset. At such times on a good day, the tropical South East Asian light has an ethereal quality and colour palette which is something often previously unknown to those coming from cooler climes, especially Europeans and the average septentrional North American. During the months in which monsoons and heavy rains pervade, namely June through to December in a typical year, it has been my observation that these golden hours have the potential to be at their most impressive. This is when the lighting in which one can find oneself is akin to dreamlike flashback scenes in films or long lost memories of experiencing mind-altering substances in your youth, to those of such proclivity. In general, the intensity of the light in the daytime is such that when shooting out in the open, I highly advocate the use of lens hoods and a filter of your choice. That said, even in such strong, unflattering overhead light at midday, the labyrinthine layout of this sprawling asphalt jungle still offers up significant shaded area and much opportunity for shadow play. Surprisingly, Bangkok can be as much a black and white shooter’s paradise as a prized locale for the colour adherent. A film shooter coming here for a holiday would do well to have at least some of both.
Places to shoot and related issues:
If you’re here on holiday from another part of the world, I honestly think that almost anywhere in Thailand is nice to shoot. However in the interests of being as helpful and specific as possible, I will try and narrow it down to a selection of suggested ideas. Bangkok is an odd city in that it has no centre per se. If you like urban photography or candid street style shooting, in Bangkok you could try the following: Siam Square (where the kids go to look cool and be seen on the weekends), Chinatown and the sometimes seedy lower Sukhumvit areas. The former is great for a certain kind of classical Asian street work, immigrant ethnic Chinese motifs, old shop fronts and buildings that haven’t changed much in decades. Smoke and steam pour out from small food vendor’s stalls in tight alleyways with great colours abound. The latter offers snapshot opportunities of a broad mix of tourists and seedy types as well as some big city themed shooting. After dark in this area gives you a host of Thai, Arabic and Western fusion with random smiley young prostitutes and ladyboy street hustlers abound. Fast film night work on street level here can be fantastic. Busier office worker parts of town also make for fertile hunting ground on weekdays around peak times and lunch hours when the other areas might be quieter, try Sathorn, Silom or Ploenchit for smartly dressed folk hustling and bustling. These are places where wide-angle lenses of a 24-35mm work well in my opinion. You might well find yourself in tightly squeezed and cramp spaces yet with lots of subjects and quirky elements that you feel you don’t wish to omit from the picture. Leaving a day or a half day for the main Chao Praya river express boat can be a great idea for a shoot and better than getting ripped off for a private wooden longtailed boat ride. Although to be fair, they are also great fun as you can ask the boat owner to go and stop wherever you like within reason, making for some wonderful ‘small river and its local community’ social documentary photo opportunities rather than the standard Lonely Planet cliché shots. Get the regular, larger and reasonably priced tourist boats every 30 minutes for just 150 baht atSathorn Pier, it even connects directly with the skytrain at Saphan Taksin station.
In addition to planning to shoot at various places around the city, don’t underestimate the Helmut Newton approach to choosing location on foreign shoots. His style was borne out of sheer laziness and he shot much of his best work within the hotel grounds or within one kilometer from it. I am not suggesting this be your approach but in Thai streets, you are likely to find your best shot anywhere, even very close to where you are so be ready with the camera set up for action as soon as you head out. You could easily see a small elephant, a street beggar shouting at two-post coital stray dogs with their genitals locked together and a family of four all on one motorbike transporting a desk fan and ironing board the wrong way down a one way street without a helmet between them anywhere at any time. And yes, they will be the ones giving YOU an odd look. For this reason, if your camera allows manual focusing I highly recommend zone focusing your lenses in advance and stopping down at a reasonable ISO so that you can quickly estimate your subject distance on the fly, compose and take shots very quickly. This goes for digital and film shooters. Practice a bit before your trip to get the hang of the depth of field. If you are an auto focus kind of person, you can take your chances. Don’t buy a new camera for your Bangkok adventure, it’s a bad idea photographically speaking anyway, come equipped with some kind of old faithful that you are already at ease with and know well, be it digital or film.
Don’t forget the wildcard option of getting a taxi and roaming around with a wider focus before simply asking to stop and getting out anywhere that looks interesting to you, even if it is considered plain by the locals. This is honestly not a bad idea. Bangkok is largely a pretty safe city and in broad daylight, assuming you are not behaving obnoxiously, offensively and you use your common sense, it’s perfectly ok to wander. Look around back streets and small alleyways and walkthroughs to see where normal, perhaps less well off people live. It’s really fine and the worst you have to do is find your way back to any main road before just flagging the next taxi to get back to your hotel. It might be easier and slightly safer for men than women, but on the whole this is totally doable and just needs a little confidence. The best areas for this will be away from mainstream tourist spots as the city starts to spread out a little. Go far to the East or West of the city limits or beyond if you feel up for it. Again, the great shots are everywhere in Bangkok.
For street shots with more space and air in the frame around the people, try the parks such as Lumphini, Benjakit or the two larger ones which kind of cojoin as the Suan Rotfai (railway park). Think Central Park New York or Hyde Park London but not quite as busy, on a weekday at least. That is also very close to the famous, sprawling Chatuchak market (weekends only) most easily accessed from the Morchit skytrain station. In the case of the aforementioned market, it’s quite the spectacle but a very tight squeeze indeed and market vendors might not be happy if you appear to be putting them and their wares in the frame, it’s worth being aware of this. It’s also a good place to find pickpockets plying their trade and so a foreigner with a fancy camera distracted by taking photos might be a target, doable but be warned.
As I have stumbled onto warnings, let’s get them all out of the way now lest they negate the cohesion of what follows. Don’t engage with any Thai people approaching you out of the blue, speaking English in public places. Thais are pretty shy and reserved and whilst a very friendly people, they typically don’t do this as a rule; those that do are often looking to scam you. Photographers need to know this as you will stick out as a foreigner with a camera and will certainly encounter this somewhere on your trip. Taxis are fine and a great way to get to places to shoot, even shooting from them en route can have its place but don’t get in any taxi which is already parked nearby to a tourist spot and waiting with the driver beckoning you. Walk up the road fifty or a hundred metres either way and flag a moving taxi down. Make sure he puts the meter on as soon as you get in, if not, get out immediately. Wear loose, light clothes that cover you up in the sun, sun cream for that which isn’t covered and a hat is also great to have. Need I say comfy shoes? A quick word as I struggle to stay on topic: in Thailand they do judge a book by its cover and whilst Westerners are generally viewed with respect, it’s because they are expecting you to be ‘respectable’, at least according to their perceptions and this also applies a little to how you look. You don’t have to walk around in a three-piece suit taking pictures in a tropical country but it works out better for you in general if you are not too scruffy and beach bum in your general appearance. You don’t have to wear a vest, singlet or ‘wife-beater’ kind of deal, although it’s fine at the beach. You could wear a polo shirt with a collar. You might want to wear flip flops around the city but you could wear some plain, clean Converse and compromise a little whilst still being casual and in holiday mode. Yeah, sure… Thais wear flip-flops around the place but I’m just trying to give you the inside angle a little. Not wanting to preach, I’ll move on. I only mention this at all as you will sometimes only be treated as well as you appear, really scruffy hippie Westerners are often (unbeknownst to them) looked down on by Thais who have a special name or two to stereotype such people. Not even going to go there with the cultural do’s and don’ts beyond this as it’s too far off topic for photography specifically and you need to (easily) do that homework elsewhere. Please drink more water than you feel you need to when taking pictures outside for prolonged periods of time. Patronising? Perhaps. Essential? Definitely. Use the skytrain and subway a lot and have your camera ready when you do, as the process of using this mode of transport is just as likely to yield great people shots and candids in its own right as the destinations to which it is taking you.
The very things that photographers based in Bangkok never, ever want to shoot again are probably the very things that you will love to make frames of on a Thai holiday. The ‘usual suspects’ top three would have to be tuk-tuks, temples and saffron-robed monks in any setting. Honourable mention goes to beggars and street vagrants of questionable mental health, of which there are very many in Thailand. It’s always interesting to me that whilst many photographers abhor the idea of taking seemingly exploitative pictures of the down and outs in their own, often developed countries, something about shooting tramps and beggars in far away exotic places somehow makes it all alright. They feel the need to embrace their inner ‘Steve McCurry’ about it all. Photos of real life are okay in any country to my mind, as long as you are not looking to humiliate or portray people in a way that exploits and you handle yourself respectfully… I see no issue. Then there’s the more advanced variation on the standard motifs, a monk in a mall debating the purchase of a sophisticated new smartphone model can seem surprising and an uber-original shot to photographers on holiday here at first, but trust me when I tell you it’s been done to death. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it again though, right? Flickr results for such searches will surely confirm this contention. All this is fine, one photographer’s trite stereotype is another’s brave new world and Huxley himself wrote “I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly”. Shoot what you feel.
Places to perhaps not shoot:
Be aware that if going around the ubiquitous nightlife and shady bar scene, cameras have the potential to get you into trouble quite quickly, often with nefarious individuals. Pulling out a camera in a go-go bar or nightclub is usually a bad idea. In temples it is often ok but it doesn’t hurt to ask first or at least start of in a shy way and see if there are any disapproving glares to inform you of a possible faux pas in action. Certain large attractions such as the Grand Palace can be very off and on about what cameras they will and won’t allow and this can be frustrating, tripods definitely not cool here but small twisty Gorillapod affairs discreetly deployed in and out ofpetite bags can be okay. Inside the shopping mall centered society that Thailand has become in modern times, smartphones are ok but anything that looks like a dedicated camera is not a good move (but fine if on a strap and not being used). All malls and department stores typically have ‘no photo’ signs on the main entrance doors for all to see so you can’t and shouldn’t argue the point if you are asked to stop shooting. That said, even this is a lot more laid back then it should be nowadays and a quick frame snatched here or there is unlikely to elicit a defcon five response per se. Nobody asks teenagers to stop taking pictures with their smartphones of course; ironic really as these are sometimes as good as many dedicated cameras in their own right these days. Technology has blurred the lines here and old policies have not really caught up to how the world is today.
More Film shooter specific:
The X-rays in baggage scanning equipment at either of the Bangkok international airports will have no adverse effect on your film whatsoever, fogging will not occur. This is assuming the following caveats: The film speed is ISO 400 or lower. Faster film might well be ok too but I’ve never personally tested it so if in doubt, push 400 a stop or two. I prefer Tri x 400 at a two-stop push to a lot of the faster films anyway. You simply MUST take the film onto the plane with you in the cabin as carry on only, do not put film in baggage that is to go in the hold of the aircraft. If you do, all bets are off and the film will probably be ruined. Bangkok airports are perfectly film friendly otherwise as of 2016 and I have tested this personally myself countless times and continue to do so. A personal request for a close hand inspection of the film to avoid scanning, which is possible in some other countries, seems to be a bit unheard of here in my opinion. Just put it through the general scanner as you go through security as many times as they require and it’ll be fine.
Generally as with the rest of the world, film is a bit of a niche thing in Thailand these days and whilst it’s still popular with enthusiasts, Fuji Instax/Polaroiding teenagers and the younger retro hipster set, it’s not something which is that easy to find or ask about with the average person. It’s not exactly difficult though either with a little insight. For regular colour print C-41, the standard fare, cheaper Kodak Colorplus and Fuji Superia ilk can sometimes be found in small quantities in any generic Sino-Thai family owned three storey townhouse lab. That’s something that you will recognize as soon as you see one. They are prevalent all over Thailand on any large road or street. Often times, the entire three generations of family all live in it but only the ground floor houses the lab operation. The whole of the building front will likely serve as a huge sign, twenty metres high, typically a Fujifilm or Kodak colour scheme in the usual corporate branding. The operation’s longevity in the area will be determined by the extent of the sunfading of said shop front and the magnitude of the seemingly mandatory ad hoc display of photos in the ground floor window. For maximum bonus points, said display should comprise of a ‘before and after’ example of a previously considered unsalvageable torn photo from the forties (typically it’s an over zealous Photoshop job of somebody’s long deceased family member), several pictures of local civil servants wearing elaborate uniforms which bear more pips, badges and gold rope under the armpit than the most decorated war hero from The Somme and several pictures of no longer cool Thai pop-culture stars from at least seven years ago which thirty-two photo labs in the same postal code all claim to have taken. These are all your hallmarks of quality. Of course, you are still trying your luck but prints from such places are often really decent, cheap and very quick. The key word to get around the language barrier for print size is ‘jumbo’ which means slightly larger than postcard size and typically might be as little as 2 baht a print, all being well. Examples of other sizes and paper types are usually on the wall in displays that you could just point to anyway. If you’re really lucky, in addition to the popular 90’s era Fuji processing machines that are often found in such joints, you sometimes stumble over a Fuji Frontier film scanner on its last legs for facilitating ultra cheap film scans of a high quality with low labour costs. Make it clear that you want ‘no Photoshop’ if using such a service or you might well come back to find the young Thai student-intern working the scanner for a ‘child in a fake Nike factory’ wage gives you back scans or prints in which everybody has been worked over to look like an extra from The Wizard of Oz. I mention these places as they are all over every city in Thailand and there might be a perfectly good one that has all you need just doors away from where you are staying, worth having a quick look around when you first arrive. You’ll be lucky to score black and white at such an outlet but with the trendy hipster kids trying their hand with a bit of film here and there, you sometimes see a few rolls of Kentmere or something in the background.
Other cities around Thailand also have these same photo labs everywhere on the main roads and they are just as easy to find. However be advised that by now, the ones that offer film processing will be a lot less prevalent as their sole business model will typically just be making prints from digital images. It’s not cost effective for them to keep running the film machinery. There’s often just one photo lab in a small to medium sized rural Thai city that might still develop film for you and if the one you go into doesn’t have the service, they will almost certainly know which of the other labs do. They’ll tell you the name or help you find it, it’s no lost business to them after all. I know the following cities still have at least one photo lab that devs film: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phuket, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Kanchanaburi, Pattaya, Hua Hin, Ayutthaya, Ubon, Saraburi and Rayong (black and white, colour e41, scans and same day, often very fast development at the green Fuji shop opposite the Post Office!)I am sure that there will be equivalents of cities of at least these sizes. You’ll struggle to find anything other than colour print film once you get out of Bangkok but you can still get it in larger cities. I bought black and white film in Chiang Mai in December of 2015 and they even had devving services on offer up there as well (Photobug) which was nice to see. It was very easy to find Kodak Colorplus in different places in Chiang Mai also. Hopefully this all gives you some idea of what to expect.
For the less risk adverse, here are some Bangkok safe bets for finding film and services of a greater variety and quantity. I have no affiliation and stand to make nothing from these recommendations but these places as of 2016, will surely see you right. ‘Photogallery’ is not the easiest find up on the higher floors of Thaniya Plaza, Soi Thaniya (Skytrain station Sala Daeng) but this is probably my current number one pic. The owner is fair and honest and maintains two large commercial fridges, which are nearly always packed full of the good stuff. Kodak, Ilford, Fuji are often in stock as well as some large format and wildcard bets like those Impossible films from the Netherlands. Probably the best place to buy black and white film right now with ease in the city, if you are on holiday and don’t know the place. If you can’t get something here, you’ll still usually be able to get its equivalent in another brand and you’ll get help and advice in that regard if you need it. The shop also has lots of decent film cameras and lenses in featuring basic Japanese brands all the way up to the posh German stuff. English communication is fine. Photogallery are open Monday through Saturday from around very late morning to early evening
One of the best large labs in Thailand for doing just about anything above and beyond the basic c41 run is probably ‘Procolorlab’. Alas they are somewhat off the beaten track, hard to find and not very ‘tourist English language drop in visit’ compatible. The good news is that Photogallery regularly deal with them and so for a slight surcharge you can go through them. I mention this as it’s darned handy for something like E6 slides or having real optical enlargements done. It’s all sent by motorcycle messenger so you don’t have to do any running around. There is another lab of repute called “IQ lab” on Silom road (another branch near Ekamai) and although they have great equipment and a long standing reputation, it’s a pricier place overall and their services are a tad diminished in recent times, they stopped doing E6 altogether last year for example. Honestly though, if you’re still shooting slide film in 2016, them’s the breaks. IQ lab do scan 4 x 5 film though but it’s a place where you can get different answers to the same question on different times and some odd scenarios depending on what materials they have in stock at any given time.
'Av Camera’ is very close to BTS Saphan Taksin and an easy google find. It’s another long-running and reputable place to visit, it’s very small and well packed as the main business here is all things modern digital photography. You can easily find them and the map on their website. The owner is a nice gentleman who is typically sat at the table in the back of the shop on any given day. They also have a film selection in stock pretty much all the time, just less quantity and variety than Photogallery. Again, you can have devving of pretty much any film type outsourced through them reliably and messengered back over to the shop for pick up at a later date. This is relevant as you could go on an island hop and pick the film up on your way back through Bangkok without carrying your film everywhere you go. You can find a nice selection of secondhand film equipment and lenses for sale here on any given day also. Either shop is a good go to place for repairs in an emergency, they are certainly to be trusted in this regard but only you can decide if you have the time in Thailand to make that feasible. It’s nice to know the option is there.
A more wildcard choice is perhaps Siam Digital in Siam Square. Very easy and quick from the BTS again here with a good range of developing services and turnaround. Certainly C41, black and white and I even saw some young guy dropping off a roll of E6 there circa New Year 2016 so I know they offer it but at a slightly delayed outsourced turnaround. The rest of it is all developed by themselves in house and typically with same day service, which is nice for those on holiday and hence the reason for including them here. I have seen some mixed reviews about the quality of their processing though and have never tried them personally so I can’t promise anything here. They are a good place to find film in that area, usually a few colour choices and a fair selection on black and white from the likes of Ilford. Room temperature storage only here but that’s chilled air con temperatures anyway, or at least during office hours. If all this black and white specific processing limitation stuff puts you off, you can find Ilford XP2 chromogenic C41 process ‘pseudo’ black and white at most of the above places and then you can get that developed anywhere that does regular basic colour film processing. That opens your options up a lot for developing. To be fair, I’ve shot XP2 in bright Thai sun before and found its dynamic range to be about the most flexible that I’ve ever used and so it’s certainly a reasonable compromise option. I think you can even alter the ISO of different frames a little on the same roll and still get acceptable results back but I urge you to do your own research on that.
In the Ploenchit area (skytrain stop of the same name) you can find ‘Siam TLR’ shop on the ground floor of the Mahatun building. No experience personally but I have heard the owner is happy and friendly and there’s lots of second hand cameras to see, I suspect a few other film related services are on offer here too.
For those phototourists willing to be a little more adventurous, hop in a taxi and head to ‘Central Lad Phrao’. It’s near the very northernmost end of Chatuchak park. This is a large mall but that is not the reason to go there. The key is to just walk a short way over the main road (away from the mall) and you will see a whole collection of photo labs buildings and related businesses there directly opposite this lined along the road. Many of these places sell good selections of films and offer processing. It seems that not too many have the films in fridges but the stock is usually fresh enough. I suspect some smaller shops might buy in bulk and resell from some of these larger operations. You can get harder to find films here usually. I have bought from a great selection at ‘Photo City’ before and was happy enough. There’s also a place here in this bunch called ‘A+B Digital Lab’ which has the unusual distinction of doing fast colour processing, sometimes done in a couple of hours. You could even have lunch back over inside the mall while you wait.
Film prices vary in Thailand according to brand, but it’s not too bad overall, depending of course on where you are coming from. In general it seems to be a little cheaper than Europe for some films and a tad pricier for others. We don’t have bargains like one British pound for 24 exposure basic C41 colour rolls as per in the UK currently, for example. Some super basic films like Kodak Colorplus 36 can be snagged for around a hundred baht if you are lucky, this is very cheap for Thailand. It’s double that for the name brand quality black and white though. Some of the slightly cheaper sources are one or two well known online shops for film that are operating within Thailand from social media sites. I haven’t included those here as you generally need to be set up in Thailand with bank accounts and a home address to order so it doesn’t seem applicable to someone passing through to shoot. If you would like this info, email me through my site and I will give you up to date info.
For a nice concentration of lots of small vintage camera shops in one place, as well as some highly skilled repair people, check out Mega Plaza on Mahachai road, you’ll need a taxi to get there. There’s one shop there in particular which has quite the reputation, it’s called ‘The Eye Camera Café’ and the nice gentleman there is considered by some to be one of the best film camera repairman in the country.
There’s a guy from Hong Kong named Eddie who runs a place called ‘Camera Collection’ in Charn Issara Tower (ground floor) around the Silom Road area. It used to sell a lot of cameras and the like but he seems busier with doing paid photography in recent times I hear. He can source all the usual cameras, lenses, films and processing services that most of the already mentioned places can. I have dealt with him a few times and found the place pretty decent and straight up overall.
Traditional darkroom space hire is a real tough one and you often need to know people or friends with their own set-ups in many cases. That said, there is one which comes highly recommended called Patani Studio. The services there vary but at the time of writing (2016) it is possible to hire the studio for a day long, eight hour block of time and the only consumable you would need to bring is your own photo paper. I think the price would be around two thousand baht. You can source this through some of the aforementioned places like Photogallery perhaps or bring your own. You can find this place at 59, Soi Nana off the Charoenkrung Road. I have to be specific here. You would do very well to ask the taxi for Charoenkrung road FIRST and then find Soi Nana off this road. The reason for this is that Soi Nana is also the name of an infamous place on the lower Sukhumvit road area which has the largest concentration of hookers and go-go bars in Bangkok. Ninety-nine percent of taxi drivers are going to assume that you want to go to the latter of course. I dread to imagine the scene when you get out of the taxi there and starting asking random streetwalkers and go-go girls if they can take you to the darkroom with a red light.
What to bring general tips:
For modern digital photography, you can buy literally anything here that you would find in any other large capital city of the world in terms of consumer electronics. Reasonable prices too. Two large places are ‘Pantip Plaza’ which was at one time the country’s number one spot for electronics but has now faded somewhat from its former glory. I like ‘Fortune Town’ better myself but be forewarned that any geek could easily waste a day walking around this huge mall and not spend the time outside taking pictures. Bangkok might even be better than some large capitals in more developed countries in this regard in fact, don’t forget how much of this stuff is made in Asia. Storage media/cards of all brands and types are readily available everywhere and often people find that they can end up slightly cheaper here than back in their own countries at times. Replacement batteries for various cameras are also easily sourced both for original and off brand/grey stuff in the two large malls already mentioned. Also, Nikon stuff is made here in huge quantities to a high standard. You really don’t need have to go to these big places though as most modern photographic needs are met by at least one store in just about every large group of shops and retail space that you are likely to come across as you move around Bangkok. So, no need to bring too much in the way of ‘just in case’ items, especially if you like to pack light. For powering your camera: AC mains is generally two pin or two flat prong (both work) similar to US types ‘A’ and ‘C’ and they run 220 volts. Stuff from the UK works at the correct voltage without frying anything as long as you have the correct plug adapter. I hear US appliances might be a bit trickier but have never had to test this myself. You can often just USB charge camera batteries without too much hassle and the right cable nowadays of course if in doubt. Not to get too general I hope but I would recommend a decent umbrella June through December though, for the ladies this doubles up to keep the sun of you in true Asian (and Victorian England) style but looks extremely odd for a man to do. Don’t fear the monsoon season, bad weather makes for great photos and seeing as you are on a holiday or extended photography trip, you probably don’t have to be anywhere on time anyway. If you get caught out in the heavy rain, it might be a lot heavier than any rain you have ever seen before in your life but any Thais stuck out without the right kit will be equally stuck and you can follow their lead as people generally take shelter together wherever they can. The general rule is that the more extreme and violent the rain in Thailand, the quicker it stops and just twenty minutes can make all the difference sometimes, you are then on your way. It’s obviously harder to hail taxis in the rain. Staying close to subway and skytrain stations here can be handy during these months not only for the immediate shelter benefits but also because tropical South East Asian rainfall is often incredibly specific and narrow in terms of where it hits. It’s entirely possible that it hasn’t yet rained at all just one stop down the train line from the monsoon and it’s business as usual. Strange but true. A camera bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag and is quite small, maybe just big enough for a body and two lenses is ideal for Bangkok. Any bigger and you are inviting searches when going in and out of places plus it’s just too hot to be bogging yourself down with kit. I also personally hate having backpacks and the like with me when shooting street as I feel paranoid about undesirables looking to rifle the pockets when in squashed up close quarters around the city. Another great tip that is invaluable is to get the camera out of the bag as soon as you get back to where you are staying, don’t leave them stuffed in bags in this humidity. The flip side of this is even more important, when taking a camera and lens out of an air con room and out into the tropical heat of Thailand (especially in the Bangkok heat) you should let it slowly warm up before you use it. Lenses fog and condensation clings to film inside even pro level cameras . I sometimes forget this. Last year my incredibly reliable Rolleiflex ‘E’ had a winding error. It was actually user error as I cranked it over a tad over-zealously within two minutes of leaving a freezer box hotel room. The condensation caused just a slight slippage in the film transport and the frame spacing was off, overlapping several frames before it sorted itself out. When you’ve only got twelve shots on a roll, that’s less than ideal. It had never done this before or since; I didn’t let it settle into the humidity first. User error. Heed this advice for any kind of camera
When to shoot:
It’s pretty hot and humid in most of Thailand nearly all year round, some years the cool season never actually happens. It can be colder in the North depending on altitude and time of year but for the rest of us, it’s just plain hot and sticky. You can shoot anytime but getting up early and shooting before 10-11am is a great idea. Start with the first half of the golden hour and go from there. This is sometime between 6-6:30am most of the year. Thailand is great in that it is pretty consistent in terms of daylight hours. Although it gets dark quicker at the end of the year and following few months, it still only changes by maybe half an hour or more, moving slowly between these changes so you don’t notice it that much when you live here year round. There is also no daylight saving time to account for, which I personally love. In simple terms then, you’re talking about pretty much twelve hours on and twelve hours off, all year long. It’s good to have this constant as a photographer. By the same token, shooting from 5 to 6-6:30pm onwards for the last hour and a half of light is not only more comfortable for you but it yields the best evening light to work in also. Beyond that, shooting at night is possible for film shooters as Bangkok has a lot of bright lights and neon but obviously it’s better in more mainstream areas. Going with ISO 1600 or 3200 film is perfectly manageable with faster lenses in such places. Digital shooters can shoot round the clock with good modern kit regardless of course in many cases; this is one area where it is an eminently practical medium. A totally random suggestion that works well for this is the Khao San Road area. It is a good example of a place in Bangkok where you can shoot at night around lots of people with bars here and there and probably not cause too much trouble with a camera, yet you should trust your senses and gut feeling on a case by case basis. It’s also cool hippie ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ central with the current wave of gap year students rolling through every year trying to look like the counter-culture yet somehow all managing to look exactly like one another in their own mandatory style. This can be good and bad depending on your age, political leanings and levels of patience for strangers and the diatribes they can unleash upon you when well lubed with alcohol. Good for night shooting though.
Taking photos in public of Thai people:
The good news here is that Thai people are incredibly laid back and very unlikely to ever be confrontational in any given situation in general, most especially in public. You can take pictures of them but don’t get too in their faces and respect personal space, which seems a bit odd at times in such a tightly crowded city. If you want good street shots, go wider in your focal length and work with a little bit of tact and finesse whenever possible. A smaller camera is better, pointing a larger DSLR with a long zoom lens right at someone might not always meet with happy responses, but then this is true anywhere in the world and so common sense applies.
Though there are exceptions, generally it’s no problem to walk around shooting street in Bangkok, you will be perceived as a tourist anyway so might as well live up to it. Basically, with a little practice of good street shooting techniques you can have an easy time of it. I highly recommend zone focusing, knowing your camera and lens very well, framing the shot in your mind before you lift the camera to eye level for fast shooting and not being too threatening or getting right in people’s face. Be a little bit stealthy and discreet but you don’t need to be overly sneaky or anything. I’ve rarely had a problem ever and truth be told, even Bruce Gilden could probably get away with it here, for a short while at least. A golden rule in Thailand in general that many people learn on day one (and then forget almost immediately) also applies brilliantly to public photography here: If you smile, Thais will not be able to get angry with you. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Remember this, if you are caught taking a candid that you feel didn’t go down well and it has elicited frowns or other such faces of displeasure…humble, friendly smiles and walk away. That’s all you need to know.
In Bangkok, a very basic kind of simple survival English is known to some, even though the overall standard for the country is poor. You can get shop assistants to deal with you and make a sale (or at least find someone in their team who can try) but when shooting on the street, it’s actually often useful to simply remain silent and hide behind the language barrier. This is coming from a photographer who has studied and practiced their language diligently for twenty years and has the option to use fluent Thai if needed. I’m not a fan of people who don’t make the effort to learn the language in a foreign land in general but in this scenario, I just happen to think that the ‘silent smile, slightly bowed head and keep it moving’ technique is the best communication for the situation and I’ve tested this extensively for a long time with positive results. Trust me. Please be aware that upcountry and away from tourist hotspots, the locals will be less likely to see lots and lots of foreigners and so they might react a little differently to you but that doesn’t automatically mean in a bad way. It just might be that you are an odd or unexpected sight in their day. They might also be a little more shy but it’s also highly likely that they’ll be very friendly. Your chances at blending in and being stealthy will diminish somewhat in these locales. Honestly, Thailand is just such a great place to shoot.
That is my advice and a general guide for photographers of both film and digital media for shooting in Bangkok but most of this applies pretty much as well for the rest of Thailand also. It’s a work in progress and I’ll keep adding things to it. Thanks for reading.
The year of 2016 in Thailand was hectic, stressful and contained much distress for the Thai population at large. Regardless of these circumstances, it seems that the film shooters here were just as busy as ever, if not much more so. The sales of film in Thailand this year have been reported as very brisk indeed according to several well known suppliers and retailers of film that I have spoken to. I personally had the experience this year of either buying up the last of a pack of favourite film type at a certain shop or just being pipped to the post by someone else buying the last packs in stock the day before. I usually have a good stock in the freezer at home but there were one or two times this year where I actually had to wait a week or so before I could get the exact films I wanted.
Another interesting development (pun probably not intended) is that Thais have been increasingly getting into medium and large format photography and buying more of this size of film. 120 rolls and sheet films have been selling very well and there has been quite the upturn of MF and LF cameras changing hands. You won't see a big Linhof sitting around unsold for months like you often used to just a few years back. This is easy to follow as a trend, not only from direct communication with those vendors in the industry in bricks and mortar establishments, but also from following the sales of cameras on Thai language sites and internet forums. From various sources such as websites and podcasts, it appears that in the U.S. in recently, good quality MF film gear such as Hassies and Rollies have been going up in price and selling out very quickly. I am not sure if this is a knock on effect back here in Thailand or just a general echoing of such changes but I’ve seen a similar scenario overall in Bangkok this year.
In fact, one can even take this to a generally broader argument and suggest that many (but not all) good film cameras seem to be going north in price, at least more so than normal. A lot of young people are driving the demand, that much is clear and seems to apply here as much as anywhere. Trading of Leica glass has been really quite busy this year. One dealer I know sometimes looks like the floor of a stock exchange (on a good weekend) with punters cramming in elbow to elbow and snapping up freshly imported Leica glass from Japan. The good German stuff is (I mean in good condition, do they make any bad stuff?) changing hands very quickly and often facilitating the need to act fast if you want apotentially popular item. It goes in spits and starts at times though with seemingly nobody wanting that 35' lux for a few weeks and then five people fighting over it all at once. A key difference of late is that a lot of the younger Thai crowd that have been buying the Leitz lenses in recent years to use with mirrorless gear seem to have graduated up to just buying Leica bodies (both digital AND film) to mount them on instead. It seems that even though the likes of the Sony bodies are better digital cameras than a lot of the Leica stuff, people just soon want to plug and play these lenses with the native cameras instead. I have seen really big increases in demand for the Pentax Super Takumar vintage lenses peaking to be much higher than just a few years ago when I last owned any of them. There are dealers with whole drawers and dry cabinets filled with nothing but SMC Super Takumar and the like around in Bangkok currently. This is a trend that I can easily agree with. These lenses are sometimes referred to by one respected dealer I know in Bangkok as 'Leica Japan' and the quality of the glass and the images they produce are truly amazing. I have some classic shots of loved ones that I took with these lenses in years gone by that I really cherish. I would say that in Bangkok now these are definitely a current trend and very popular for use with the adapters on all of the mirrorless bodies, I have seen these kind of rigs all over the city on numerous recent outings.
For film labs I still highly recommend Procolorlab, Patani Studio (ring first as this guy is often out shooting and he has become busier in 2016, he also still does E6 slides on site with good work and turnaround!) and relative newcomers Airlab doing great work and winning over a whole lot of people (although, be aware that it’s jam packed at certain times and especially weekends as a wall to wall hipster central, consider yourself warned). They are all on Google and Facebook under the above names and all of them update their pages pretty regularly. Do try all the generic photolab 'Mom and Pop' townhouse stores in Bangkok (read the original full article above for more details on these) near where you are staying though as it's often surprising how many seemingly defunct looking places will still process C41 though. For B and W you will need to stick with the specialist labs or do your own (highly recommended anyway). As always, a good soft option still might be to try a chromogenic like Ilford XP2 (very often in stock at Photogalleryshop) if you wanna shoot B and W here and get it developed easily and locally whilst you are still in Thailand. I always think of this as a tourist’s dream option for B and W on holiday with no hassles if you can’t wait to get back to your own country and develop.
Here follows some more extensive detail on other good shops at the current time and also repairs, spares and specialist work which have not yet been covered in depth on this article before:
Get a taxi to take you to ‘Mega Plaza’ in an area often simply known as ‘Wang Burapha’ (also known as the ‘Saphan Lek’ area). You’ll easily find it on Google maps but it is a real pig to get to and so I just recommend a taxi ride. You can't mistake it once it's in your line of sight, surrounded by (real) gun shops, it has a huge sign in English and the whole place is garish orange from the outside. It's a six storey, medium sized mall which is most famous for being the centre of all things geeky and toys. This is the place people come to for knock off Chinese Lego, BB guns, real Gundam kits, hobby supplies, RC cars/planes, Playstations and games etc. It's probably one of the best places in Thailand for all of the above. That's not why you should go there however. If you go up to the fifth floor on the escalators in the very middle of the building (don't get that wrong as there are two sets) you can then turn to your right as you get off at that floor and you will find yourself in vintage camera sales and repair heaven. There are more than twenty or thirty tiny little shops (rented booths in all honesty but some are more grand and ‘shop-like’ than others) here offering all things good in camera land, with a heavy bias towards film bodies. In fact, this is the only place in Thailand where you could approach a dealer, ask about repairs for your camera and the first thing that they will say is …' We ONLY repair film cameras!" How's that for a rare response in this day and age?
This little zone is only about half of the size of the entire mall on this floor but what you can't find here, probably doesn't exist anywhere in Thailand. They have it all, including some really left field and esoteric stuff like a Leica MDa or perhaps a Speedgraphic for the weekend sir? Several of the little shops here are purely repairs only with some very well respected and capable repair techs plying their trade in full swing. This is the place you come to make the impossible possible. I have seen guys here repairing things like Nikon F5's and they just happen to have that 'whole board' or just the one LCD section that you need and they can somehow get it all together and working again. You know that is not an easy service to find but this is the place. They can work wonders on mechanical stuff, I have recently discovered that some of the already recommended retail shops in this guide send their camera repairs to guys in this place and then add on their small commission on top so if you are not in a rush and feeling brave, you could theoretically cut out the middle man and take a chance on dealing directly with skilled techs yourself. The obvious problem here might be the language barrier though, especially if the fault were intermittent or hard to describe. For more obvious camera problems or if you had a Thai friend to help explain, it would be fairly straightforward. This is no Tokyo camera shop but by local standards, there are some great shops here with decent inventories of great film cameras and also worth a look for classic (and sometimes modern) glass even for digital shooters of course. One problem here though is some of the vendors are unrealistic about pricing at times and approaching them as a foreigner with no Thai language skill is certainly unlikely to help them ‘re-evaluate’ their pricing. You can also find lots of film types for sale, there is a good general variety although often not in massive quantities. Lots of places here will also have a wide range of photographic accessories of a very specific nature that might be hard to source elsewhere so if you have a tricky and weird item to source, this place is your best bet (filter of an odd size, mechanical cable release anyone?)
So, whilst at Mega Plaza then, and to try and be as helpful as possible, I would like to add a newcomer or two to the recommend dealers list (no affiliation and like all recommendations on my website these are actual people that I have personally bought from and had good experiences and been treated well). 'TheEye2' camera shop (unit B507 with a yellow sign, it's small and not easy to find, if you do a 180 degree u turn when getting off the escalator on the 5th floor and walk back on yourself to the back of the building, you'll find it straight ahead). The lady owner is friendly and fair and will haggle with you a bit. You can also trade in and trade up etc. She has a large selection of classic Leica glass at all times but also lots of other great stuff. She is also directly connected to somebody reputable in another unit on the 5th floor who only does repairs but it's better to go through her first as the repair guy is not much of a one for friendly chit-chat and the price isn't any higher if you go through her as they are connected. Again, this store is on Facebook under thatname and they are very active with almost daily updates of what's in stock at any given time.
Just for a quick recap then my personal names and places of people who are good to deal with for glass and bodies (and usually film) and who won't rip you off, as of Jan 2017:
Kuhn Boonlue (a great guy) at Photogallery Shop (on facebook) inside Thaniya Plaza Sala Daeng, Silom, Bangkok (connected directly to the BTS Skytrain! Nice old glass, Leica bodies and lenses, good MF and LF equipment. Still probably my fave place for buying large amounts of film which is kept in a proper fridge!
Khun Mana (a very well known and reputable fair chap) at 'AV Camera' (close to Saphan Taksin BTS station and also on Facebook) Large selection of used Leica glass here! Their used section on their website is updated daily with prices and clear descriptions.
Khun Meow (fair and friendly woman trader) at TheEye2, 5th floor Mega Plaza, Wang Burapha, Sapah Lek, Bangkok.
I also find ‘The Shutter’ (another medium sized store just a few doors away from ‘TheEye2’ in the corner of the same floor) to be very good and fairly priced for all brands and lenses in great condition but their prices are good to start with and they really don’t want to haggle at all. The lady there is friendly and a patient, smiley type.
The first two are closed on Sundays, Khun Meow might be open then. I wouldn't go to any of them until at least lunchtime, but no later than 6pm.
Although this is veering into true caveat emptor territory, and might not be the most practical for shooters passing through Bangkok for short trips, I still would like to add something into this guide about direct, private sales of second hand cameras and lenses in Bangkok. A brave wildcard option might also be to try your hand at deals with the public and buying from somebody in Bangkok directly. Obviously the usual warnings apply and you need to decide what levels of risk you are comfortable with. It also helps if you are buying things that you know a bit about. The best webpage for my money in this area of the local Bangkok market (but also applies to other cities in Thailand) would be to google (ThaiDphoto) and click on the uppermost google search linked page. You actually don’t need to read Thai to see the equipment name for sale (nearly always in English) or the price and phone number in Arabic numerals. This is the buying and selling room of what was once a very small and quite irrelevant little site which by chance happened to become one of the busiest camera equipment trading rooms online for the whole of Thailand. The page is constantly being added to with new threads for stuff for sale all the time. A busy day might be forty new threads. This is strictly the domain for those who can get someone to speak Thai and help them with any transaction. Most people want to meet up at a Skytrain or MRT subway station and do a deal there in a large public place so it's not too dangerous on the whole as long as you use common sense. I mention this as somebody on holiday in Thailand could easily get a hotel receptionist to make the call, offer a price and get the seller to come and wait for you at an agreed time in the hotel lobby where you are staying on the skytrain or somewhere. This would be easy and quite safe and all on CCTV with security guards around the place so there's really no reason why not. You will find most sellers are happy to meet up with you and so this option is just something I thought I would throw out there as there is a brisk trade on such sites and you might well see somebody selling a lens or body that you really want right now and you just need a local to make one phone call to make it all happen. I have bought a few items from people on this website and had great experiences myself. There are certainly dealers on here also, either masquerading as private sellers or just happy to fess up to using this as an additional channel to their existing business, perhaps under a different name or whatever. No Ebay fees or Paypal nonsense though, you see, you touch, you like and you buy, or not as the case may be. You will have to decide what is best for you and what you are happy with. It's easier to check something like a lens there and then maybe, a mechanical film body might have a hidden fault that doesn't show up for a couple of minutes when you first look at it with a view to buy, like a lazy shutter in a Rollieflex that the guy makes sure he gets loosened up just before he meets you. All things that need to be considered I guess.
APRIL 2017 UPDATE: Please be advised that as of recent months, IQ Labs no longer do any colour 35mm (c41) processing whatsoever, this applies to both Ekamai and Silom branches. No big deal really as there are lots of other options out there and IQ tended to be on the pricey side with varying consistency in their service and how they dealt with people at times. It's also yet another great reason to shoot B+W and develop yourself at home anyway!
This is the current state of play and, as always, this article will be added to with as much up to date information as possible.