Places to Shoot in Bangkok Part 1: Baiyoke Schmaiyoke

I thought it might be good to go into some detail of specific shooting locations in and around Bangkok, starting here with August’s entry to the blog.  Just in case it causes confusion for any regular readers, these will be posted here as separate monthly blog entries AND also added to the bottom of the seemingly ever popular ‘Ultimate Guide’ (click the tab header at the top of this page).

I thought that a good way to start this little series might be by addressing the elephant in the room, the Baiyoke Tower. It’s actually the Baiyoke Tower II as the original is a slightly smaller building nearby but for all intents and purposes, when you say ‘Baiyoke Tower’ or ‘Duk Baiyok’(in appalling phonetically spelled out English/Thai), people in Bangkok think of this:

It was up until very recently, clearly the tallest building in Bangkok, and by quite some margin. It still towers way above all of the other buildings anywhere in the immediate area. It was also for a long time the holder of one of those Guinness Book of World Records titles, but only on a sort of technicality. It was sort of true to say that it used to be the world’s tallest hotel but this statement needs a disclaimer; the tallest hotel building that is only 100% a dedicated hotel. There are certainly always hotel rooms around the world located within other, taller buildings but these buildings may not be dedicated hotels in their own right. On those grounds, the Baiyoke II was able to hold this claim to fame for quite a while. In fact, if you believe the blurb on site, it apparently still holds the records but this is patently false. There are now several dedicated 100% hotel buildings that are taller and newer in the Middle-East but of course this would be a huge hit to the selling point of the Baiyoke tower.  Even now you will see the old (now false) claims emblazoned all over the place when you visit, not unsurprisingly nobody seems in any great rush to update the posters and ‘fess up to the truth that they are currently hovering around 7th place at best!

The Baiyoke Tower is accessed via Pratunam, a generally busy (and sometimes a tad shady) market area mostly famous for wholesale cheap clothing including all the usual knock-off suspects. It’s not directly on the skytrain but any motorcycle, tuk-tuk or taxi driver will take you straight there in a flash. You’ll see lots of central Asians and Africans milling around the area as well as all kinds of Thais looking to sell you visits to erotic massage parlours and illegal drugs.

The main reason I am starting this series with mention of this place is actually because it is potentially something of an anti-climax from a photographic point of view and I have had so many people writing in to ask me about it that I decided to just do a post about it for general future reference instead.

I first shot from there back in the mid 90’s with a cheap (but very faithful) old entry level Nikon film SLR, a tripod that would snap if you sneezed anywhere near it and a budget Tamron zoom lens (I know my blog has more than its fair share of elitist and expensive camera kit snobbery but in the past I have also spent many a year using cheaper, humble kit quite happily!). The conclusions that I drew way back then are still basically my view of this location now, it’s nice to go once (and there are some chances to strike gold) but for shooting it’s not always that great. Here’s why:

Firstly, at the very top, it’s too far above the horizon line of the city for the nice shots that you imagined you might get. It’s not impossible, there’s some nice stuff out there on the net that you can find from people, but it’s not nearly as good as you think it’s gonna be. Secondly, the open viewing platform at the very top has a lot of wire fencing in the way obscuring a lot of your view. This is made worse by the fact that this deck is also basically quite a crude metal platform which rotates you around as you stand still (sometimes this breaks down, depends on the day). The rotation is certainly not that finely engineered, not at all smooth and this is a real pain when you consider that you might well need to be using a tripod on top of it. There will also be lots of people up there moving around that you will have to work around in terms of framing your shots and if it’s really busy this can be a nightmare. Added to this bundle of photographic ‘no-go’ joy is the fact that the winds at such an altitude are also really liable to be strong and mess up camera stability. As if that wasn’t enough, you really need an unusually clear Bangkok weather day for it to work at all, and that isn’t always guaranteed, not to mention the bright smog pollution effect sometimes  raining on your parade. One thing that can work up there (if you have all your ducks in a row) is if you can get a camera locked pointing down at a nice angle and then then shoot off a long series of frames for digital editing into a 180 (or even full 360) panorama with some kind of stitching tool. I have done this myself with reasonable success a long time ago. Long exposure, blur effects and other high altitude arty shots are also a possibility.

Okay, so is there anything else we can salvage from this train wreck?  Any other possibilities?

Well, maybe. Before you ascend to the outside, uppermost rotating platform, you will have had to climb up a couple of sets of stairs from the highest of the indoor observation floors.  This allows you all the Bangkok vista that you could ever wish for but from a solid, fixed footing with no problems of wind, weather or movement.  However, as with everything else in life there is a trade-off: It comes in the form of the very thick safety glass windows that you will see the world through up there. There are possibilities to shoot through the glass without too much of a glare debacle but it’s not always easy to do if you want decent image IQ. Sure, there will be masses of people quite happy with how these shots look on their smartphones up there but for dedicated photographers looking for high quality images, this just won’t be good enough. There are coin operated telescopes all around up here at the best spots so anybody using one of those nearby in light-coloured clothing will probably end up reflected into your shot. You might do well with some kind of lens hood that you can actually press up to the window, literally touching it on the glass as you set a camera up for a shot on a tripod and countdown the shutter using a timer-enhanced, minimal movement exposure.

Other options might be to come to the Baiyoke Tower (on the indoor floors again maybe?) before sunset and shoot from there without all the horrible direct overhead light, it’s much more likely to offer some beautiful shots (IF you get the weather right, some of the best sunsets can be towards the end of the year as the rains give way to the cooler season with ethereal colours abound). This can be a real ‘two for one’ kind of deal as if you don’t get lucky with the second half of the photographic golden hour as the sun goes down, you are then in for a treat with what is perhaps the only side of the Baiyoke Tower experience that I think is actually worth going there for as a photographer….NIGHT EXPOSURES!

Looking down at a smorgasbord of Bangkok lights and cityscape with all its traffic at night is actually pretty awesome by anybody’s standards. This is a time when you can get some real joy. There is still the problem of (night) reflections from the glass there though but by using a hood and tripod and shooting when there is nobody near you, a patient shooter can get some really good results. In the digital age, when everybody and his dog can shoot long exposures and simply chimp off a screen to see if they like what they got or not (not hating, but it’s a lot easier nowadays!), there are a lot more people up there shooting than there used to be. Back in the film days, long night time exposures required at least a modicum of decent photographic technique and knowledge combined with a bit of maths and some luck. There hardly used to be anybody up there at night with a camera. After a lot of searching I found this very modest effort of mine that I shot with the aforementioned (very) low budget Nikon film SLR and cheapo zoom and tripod 22 years ago. I don’t seem to have the original negs anymore so this already mediocre shot is not helped in its presentation here on this site by beinga scan of the actual printed photograph (circa mid 90’s). Although it's not anything to be that proud of, it was hard to earn and a lesser seen kind of shot back in its day! It gives you an idea and at least shows that people have been doing this for a while. Would still be fun to get up there at night nowadays with a film camera and some high ISO film to see what could be done, I'm sure.

Of course, as with everything else in the perpetual building site that is modern Bangkok, even this part of the city has now changed beyond recognition, this is actually looking down onto the old ‘World Trade Centre’ (now known as ‘Central World’).

I don’t know the exact costs off hand nowadays to go up the Baiyoke Tower as the price might vary from year to year and various seasons. It’s not too much, a few hundred baht at the most. There’s also a large buffet restaurant up there close to the top but although it was once a reasonably okay affair, I ate there again two or three years ago and it had definitely slipped down from ‘quite passable’ to ‘blatantly sub-par’ even by Bangkok two/ three star standards (oooh what a snob).

You generally need to take two lifts, the first one will get you up to a large and very noisy reception kind of floor where you then have to decide if you want to pay 'the full monty' to go up to the upper floors or not and the tickets are issued there. You are then fed into a line that leads to the other lifts that go up about another eighty floors or so. It’s quite the fast run up and you can sometimes even feel your ears pop as you go. For cheapskates, be aware that at certain times of the day (very late afternoon to be more specific), one really can get some very solid cityscape sunset opportunities just from the lower reception floor alone as it is already quite high up and has some huge windows and vistas on offer. That’s assuming you can get any peace or quiet from the tourist groups, in fact whilst I am on that subject…

Please be warned that, as with lots of touristy spots in Bangkok in recent years, this place has the tendency to be overrun by busloads of mainland Chinese tourists who might have a different idea about how to behave in public than a Westerner might. The tour leader (often a Chinese speaking Thai but sometimes a Chinese national working illegally as foreigners are prohibited from tour guide work in Thailand) will often simply either not be willing, ready or able to reign them in either and it can be quitea shock. Lots of shouting very loudly just for the purposes of a ‘normal’ conversation, pushing, shoving (even some spitting on the floor indoors when I last went) and general lack of respect for basic decorum in a public place can really put a downer on things. I wish I could put a more positive spin on that but it is difficult, I am trying not to judge but that was honestly my impression of the situation, maybe it's better at other times and I just got unlucky.... sorry if anybody disagrees or is offended.

The whole feel of the Baiyoke Tower is as with much of the Bangkok constructions of that era (80’s and very early 90’s), it’s generally a bit of a run down, old ‘former glory’ vibe that looks like they might have to close it soon, but yet it still somehow keeps crawling along year after year just fine. I know about the theory of too big to fail but what about too tall to fail? To be fair, I’ve never actually stayed in it as a hotel. I doubt it would be that impressive though.

So...I'm sorry if the first installment of places to shoot reads more like a place to not shoot (I really must split my infinitives more often, to hell with grammatical convention) but it’s just somewhere that I thought really warranted dealing with before I look elsewhere. Consider this case closed.

CCP