29 November 2011

Is central Bangkok flooded huh?

While everybody is asking whether it is safe to visit Bangkok in the wake of the kingdom's most crippling flood in 50 years, I decided to go see for myself.

And I'm happy to report, everything is as per normal in central Bangkok!

View from Mo Chit BTS Station looking out to the city skyline framed by the roof of a multi-storey carpark. It's business as usual in Bangkok.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, I watched the news very closely and was worried over how many pairs of swimming trunks to bring. And also the health risks following severe inundation. I was expecting chaos.

But instead, nothing has changed except for visibly fewer tourists and tons of sand bags. My flights there and back were largely unoccupied and the streets seem quieter.

Many shop fronts were lined with sandbags in a better-safe-than-sorry bid against potential flooding.
I had wanted to plan some self-exploratory sightseeing tours but faced with the uncertainty in weather and flood situation, I decided to stay put in central Bangkok and explore the streets instead.

So armed with the Casio Exilim ZR100, I ventured into backlanes and roads unfamiliar to feel a pulse of Bangkok off the usual touristy track. This post is a conglomerate of Bangkok streetscapes and musings captured during the explorations from the day I touched down to the night before I left.

I hope you'll enjoy this series of images and travel anecdotes.

Bangkok Through the Lens of EX-ZR100

The photos are not arranged in any particular manner but I try to group them according to location, themes (eg. architecture, street photography) or subject matter (eg. animals, plants, food) to string together a story of my encounters.

Most of the shots were taken at and around Bang Rak distirct where I stayed during the trip, and some new perspectives of old places I'm seeing for the first time.

Exterior of Suvarnabhumi Airport. I've not seen this perspective although I've passed through the airport several times. I think it is one of the world's most beautiful modern airports.

Cheapest, and perhaps the fastest way to get from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city center is by the Airport Rail Link (Express). It costs 90bht one way and takes about 15 minutes.

Frozen in flight is an assembly of white birds within a small park outside the airport. This photo of the 2 shadows symbolises the freedom to fly and explore the world with EX-ZR100. The arches formed by my arms represent wings of a bird.

One the worst hit during the flood was the auto manufacturing industry with hundreds of new cars submerged and factories damaged.

Central Bangkok gets the tourism green light. In the middle is the majestic Bangkok State Tower. The streetscape of Bangkok is an odd mix of tired vacant buildings juxtaposed with up-class complexes.

Came across the Bangkok Post Office building situated at Charoen Krung Road. The sky was heavily pregnant with clouds but there was a break just above the post office with sun rays pouring down. It seemed like heaven had a delivery :) 

Very interestingly patterned building visages found along Surasak Road. The yellow one with the disc-shaped windows belonged to Holiday Inn Bangkok. So groovy and retro!

The ultra chic CentralWorld Shopping Mall which was previously the World Trade Center. It was set on fire last year by the Red Shirts during an anti-government protest. Good to see that it has been reinstated.

Thai Red Cross charter in Bangkok. Came to do a HIV blood test after reading about it online. Test result : Negative. Will post more about it in a dedicated blog entry about the experience.

Thailand is famous for her many extravagantly decorated wats that shout of architectural flambouyance. So it was quite a break to come across the understated, old-school Sathorn Church.

Wandered into a backstreet market near Bangkok's Shangri-La Hotel. The girls were missing 1 more player. I would've joined in, but I didn't want to come back to Singapore horizontally.

[Bridge Roof]. This man turned a corner under a bridge into his home. I wonder what was he thinking about lying there, oblivious to me taking his photos.

[Bridge Woof]. On the pedestrian bridge where the photo of the vagrant was taken was this dog  taking a nap.

Angry birds! The red-eyed pigeons look so fierce. Shot with the one-touch High Speed (HS) function as the pigeons were very fidgety and it was hard to get them in focus with normal mode. 

Don't know the name of this wat near Saphan Taksin BTS Station but it leads to a floating platform on Chao Phraya River. A pretty good spot for sunset over the river shots.

Wat you sweeping? Sweeping nothing is clearing something, and sweeping something is clearing nothing. Okay, that's a weak attempt at exemplifying the 色即是空,空即是色 Buddhist mantra. This temple, again don't know its name, is near Siam BTS Station.

Catching shadow and light with HDR mode.

Spotted these roses left by devotees for the four-faced Buddha statue in front of CentralWorld Shopping Mall and loved how the water was trailing from one of them. Shot in HDR mode as the roses were very dark when contrasted with the sky at this low angle.

Attempt at creating an abstract shot with water flowing over 2 leaves stuck on the wall. Shot in High Speed (HS) mode to achieve sharpness of the rapid current.

Goofying it up with a pair of vanity frames at the famous Jatuchak Weekend Market.

Relaxing over a cuppa at the destination for wholesale bargains, Platinum Mall. I was having this white tea at Black Canyon Coffee. White-black, tea-coffee... it's an afternoon of polarity.

Tom yum kung... My fave Thai soup. I have a bowl on a daily basis whenever I visit Thailand. A-roy khrup!

Another of my favourite while in Thailand. I'll hunt down roadside stalls that sell these delicious snacks. Unfortunately, they aren't readily available and usually it's a matter of luck to chance upon an insect street seller. I've yet to come across one that sells scorpions.

Let's play a game of Where's Wally. But try and spot the cam whore in this photo instead. Saw that person? Shot in Premium Auto mode with -1EV (exposure value) to underexpose the sky so that the mild sunset colours can appear richer. However, the evening hues still looked rather distreet. I should've tried -2EV.

Walking on water is no longer a miracle with these floatation spheres at the Sam Yan Fun Fair!

Used to love thrill rides but as I got older, they kinda frighten me. From the ground, the City Hopper ride looked rather mild, but oh, how wrong I was! This amusement contraption is the kind that makes you change your underwear after riding it. 

Time always seem to zoom pass so quickly when in Bangkok. So many things to do, so much to shoot. The impression of each visit always leave a memory longer and larger than the actual encounters themselves. Shot in Manual mode (f/3.0, 0.3 sec, ISO 800). I was surprised the photo turned out pretty sharp enough though the exposure time was long and it's a handheld shot.

There's always a tinge of sadness when it comes time to depart from Bangkok but these images will remind me of the delightful discoveries I made during this trip.

All photos in this post have been shot with Casio Exilim ZR100 with basic Photoshop post processing done. The photos show how the camera performs in a variety of situations and imaging needs with wonderful results. Can't wait to shoot my next destination with it!

For more photos taken with the camera, please visit my album A Month with Casio Exilim ZR100.

24 November 2011

Singapore - Merlion Park at Marina Bay

, Surrounded by iconic buildings and structures on all sides, the Marina Bay basin is perhaps the most Singapore of Singapore. Some of the definitive architecture found within this waterfront neighbourhood include the Singapore Flyer, Art Science Museum, Marina Bay Sands, URA City Gallery, Merlion Park, Esplanade Bridge and Esplanade Theatre.

Shot with EX-ZR100 Panoramic mode.
The marina is beautiful when viewed or photographed from any angle day or night. But when it comes to getting a photographic perspective that is unmistakably Singapore, then a visit to the Merlion Park is a must.

Home to our nation's tourism Mascot, the Merlion, the coastal park includes a viewing deck that offers a great vantage point to take in all of Marina Bay.

Sunrise at Marina Bay. Shot with EX-ZR100 HDR-Art mode.
But more than just an ideal spot to snap evidence of having been to Singapore, I recently discovered that the Merlion Park can be quite a nice location to shoot an urban sunrise.

Simulating the golden hues of a sunset at 7:06am with EX-ZR100 Best Shot (Sunset) mode. 
To shoot sunrise, I arrived at the park at around 6.45am. A few photogs were prowling the area for shots too while early risers sweated in and out of my shots during their morning jogs and workouts.

Can't fight the yellow railings so decided to make use of their shadows to compose this shot. Taken in HDR mode of the EX-ZR100.
The moment I arrived at the park, a major "Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!" escaped my breath. There's nothing more agonising than making that extra effort to wake up before dawn, taking the first bus, enduring hunger, only to find an ugly argh-gly yellow barricade marring the shots.

I wonder when will the railings be removed.

Framed against the towering skyscrapers of the Central Business District (CBD), this is the quinessential angle to take a "I was here in Singapore" shot.

The 8.6m Merlion statue at the park is the original. There are 4 other replicas of varying sizes found in around Singapore. This signature Singaporean symbol was designed by Fraser Brunner in 1964, a curator with the now defunct Van Cleef Aquarium.

The statue was made and installed at the mouth of Singapore River in 1972.

Another view of the Merlion with the Esplanade Theatre's beloved durian roof and Marina Square in the background.
The current location of the Merlion is not the original. After the Esplanade Bridge was built in 1997, view of the statue was blocked. So it was shifted to the Merlion Park in 2002.

As its name suggests, the Merlion is half fish (to represent Singapore's origin as a fishing village) and half lion (an allusion to Singapore's early name, Singapura, which means Lion City).

Met a couple who was walking and taking photos of their dog. And the owner is using the same camera as me! The Casio Exilim ZR100.

Such a fine looking dog with a good nature. I would never dream of Joy and Rainbow, my Min Pin and Jack Russell, to sit still for me to photograph. I think this is a puppy Golden Retriever.

A cub statue sitting behind the larger one welcomes visitors to the park.
The Merlion has sort of become a figure of speech for us locals. When someone is puking a lot, we say that person is doing the Merlion.

Here's an example of how to use it in speech : "I was so drunk, I was Merlioning the whole night." It was once my frequently used sentence.

Esplanade Bridge with City Hall in the distanced marked by the very tall Swissotel The Stamford.

Underneath the Esplanade Bridge. Shot with EX-ZR100 HDR-Art mode.

The bridge offers a spectacular vanishing point for perspective shots. I shot this with the HDR-Art mode and no Photoshop enhancements have been done to it.
Apart from the Merlion Park, don't forget to get under the Esplanade Bridge to take some amazing perspective photos. The above image was taken at 8:05am. I think that's a good time to shoot because the rising sun rays filtered in under the bridge and hit the water surface causing a textured reflection on the bridge walls.

Can see how shack I looked and my eyes were puffy from lack of sleep. And my hair...

Haven't done sunrise photography in a long time because I'm not the bird-that-catchesthe-worm sort. But this impromptu shootout has rekindled my interest.
By 8.30am, troops of tourists were marching in. I'm always happy to see visitors to my homeland, but it was beginning to get harder to get clean scenic shots without hats and umbrellas blocking my view.

What a glorious day for photography but alas, my EX-ZR100 was running out of juice. It was time to retire the camera like these drained leaves shot in HDR-Art mode.
I hope this post has given you an insight about shooting sunrise at one of Singapore's key tourist attraction.

All photos have been shot with Casio Exilim ZR100 with minimal Photoshop post-processing done. I'm using the camera as part of a blogging challenge to explore its capabilities.

11 November 2011

Bangkok - Muang Boran (Ancient City)

With the unprecedented flooding of Bangkok and her surrounding regions, one district had headlined news around the world as one of the critical strongholds against this Day After Tomorrow catastrophe. The district in the spotlight is Don Muang (now spelt 'Don Mueang'), home of Bangkok's former international airport which now serves as the hub for domestic air travel.

The airport also became a temporary headquarters for the Thai Flood Relief Operations Centre (FROC) during the crisis until 29 Oct 2011. FROC beat a hasty retreat when the airport showed signs of going the way of the Titanic, forcing it to relocate operations to somewhere near the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market.

I've passed through Don Mueang Airport in my earlier Bangkok trips before the swanky Suvarnabhumi International Airport took over in 2005. I don't recall much of the older flight terminal but the name Don Mueang rings fresh with me. Just over a year ago, I visited one of the district's lesser known attraction, Muang Boran (also spelt Mueang Boran).

Muang Boran is like a budding flower yet to blossom as a must-see touristic attraction in Bangkok. 
Bangkok's Best Kept Secret

In many ways, I consider Muang Boran to be the best kept secret of Bangkok as few people know about it and even fewer travel guides mention it. Even Bangkokians and local taxi drivers seem to have no idea where it is!

We took a cab with a map of how to get to Muang Boran and still the driver didn't know his way. We also got lost a couple of times because apparently, those people on the streets whom the driver stopped to ask for directions were equally clueless and sent us on a dodo hunt. Either that or the driver really liked having me in his car.

What was supposed to be an hour's drive from Bangkok's city centre took us about one hour and a half to get there. The cab meter registered 215bht (approx. S$9.00) but the driver wanted to give us a penalty discount as he took it upon himself for losing the way. Seeing that he's so apologetic, we paid for his mistake.

Address : 296/1 Sukhumvit Road, Bangpoo, Samut Prakan 10280, Bangkok, Thailand. 
Tel : +660 2709 16448. Opening Hours : 9:00am - 5:00pm. Admission : 400bht (adult), 200bht (child).
My Muang Boran trip was made on 31 Jul 2010, and I think it is definitely a sight worth checking out. But perhaps not now, as it could be flooded although its website didn't post any warning or closure notice.

So what's the big deal about this place? It is a BIG deal alright. Shaped like the map of Thailand, the sprawling park houses more than 100 replicas, some of them full-scale, of ancient Thai architectural marvels found all over the country.

From grand palaces to temple ruins to majestic pavilions and massive sculptures, the park is an open history book that traces Thai architecture during the monarchic periods of Dvaravati, Ayuthaya, Lanna (13th - 18th century), Sukhothai (12th - 14th century), U-Thong (12th - 15th century), etc.

Trams are available to ferry visitors around the park. But I think the best way to see Muang Boran is on bicycle. Bikes can be rented at the ticketing office cum visitor centre.
If there's one advice I would give about visiting this place, that would be DO NOT attempt to cover Muang Boran on foot. There are simply too many things to see and not enough time to see them!

Especially if you're into photography, this place brings all the iconic architectural designs of Thailand together against scenic backdrops that make for great looking pictures. And it's not just the outside of the buildings that look fantastic, the inside of the various palaces and villages are also immaculately fidel to details and decorations.

It's a pity that the sky was mostly overcast during my visit. One aspect I think Muang Boran can improve on is its opening hours. It closes at 5pm. I think it should operate till 8pm to allow time for shooting sunsets at the park. I can imagine it would be beautiful.

'Muang' means city or land and 'Boran' means ancient, so the name translated into English is literally 'Ancient City'.

The entrance gate is crowned with the faces of bodhisattva facing the 4 cardinal directions. It reminded me of the Bayon stone faces at Siem Reap, Cambodia. Also looking like stone reliefs were some toads I came across at a pond. A reminder that nature provides inspiration for the many things that man built.

Seems like this toad is meditating. I got carried away photographing the jumpers and didn't notice the bad-ass thorns on the huge lily pad. I got pricked when I tried to shift the position of one of them. Ouch!

(Left) The unfurling leaf of Victoria Amazonica with a red underside. This giant leaves of lily speies can grow up to 3 metres in diameter! (Right) Replica of Phra Maha That, Chaiya, Surat Thani with the top of its stupa resembling an unopened lotus / lily bud.

Before sandstones and bricks, early Thai houses were of bamboo and thatch. They were often stilted to accomodate flooding, escape predation and to keep livestock.

Elevated view of Muang Boran. This is only one part of the whole park. Visible is a sculpture from the Hindu creation myth, Churning of the Sea of Milk, and a cluster of huts at the Waterside Village. 
The Architectural Collection at Muang Boran

With their distinctive pointy roofs and flamboyant porticos, traditional Thai buildings are an embodiment of the kingdom's rich cultural heritage and religious beliefs. But more importantly, they are also built with a common sense of the climate, geography and community needs as Thailand is a vast country afterall (51st largest country in the world in terms of land mass).

What we've come to recognise as Thai architecture today is a culmination of influences from her surrounding neighbours such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. Hence, it is not surprising to find the practicality of Borneo's long houses shared in Thai stilt houses, a similar use of sandstone for construction predominant in early Khmer masonry, and colourful chien nian (剪粘) techniques used to decorate Chinese temples resplendently reinterpreted in Thai dwellings.

And they are all collected here in Muang Boran. Within walking and cycling distance of each other. What a touristy orgasm for me!

 Stupa of Phra Maha That, Ratchaburi.

I didn't manage to cover every nook and cranny of Muang Boran because it was exhausting. Come covered up if you don't fancy a sunburn and be prepared to perspire.

Chofahs are the iconising emblems of any distinctively Thai building. They are the curvy fingernails that extend out of roofs as a symbolic ornament that represents the Garuda, a half-bird-half-man protective guardian that serves as the transport for the Hindu god, Vishnu.

The harmonious Thai-nese Phra Kaew Pavilions.

Highly decorated interior of one of the Phra Kaew Pavilions.

Na rak mak mak (very cute)! A group of photographers were having a shoot outing with 2 pretty models in traditional Thai costumery. After the men had their shots with this model and moved away, I went up to her and asked to take a photo too. So lucky to get this shot!

The Sanphet Prasat Palace uses greys and whites to great effect. 

Another view of the Sanphet Prasat Palace reflected on a lagoon.

Faux lakes and lagoons are strategically placed around the park to add a component that not only relaxes, but creates picturesque sceneries for photographs.

Exterior of the Grand Palace (Dusit Maha Prasat Palace)

Opulent arching doorways and ornate floor-to-ceiling decorations within the palace.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the prettiest of them all?" Mirror replies, "I am the prettiest of them all!" Tough luck for Snow White's evil queen if she's trying to outdo this palace mirror.

Can't remember the name of this pavilion but it has a Moscow-gothic look with a fairytale quality.

Garden of Pha Daeng-Nang Ai. This sculpture tells the tragic love triangle of King Pha Daeng, Princess Nang Aikham and the serpent prince, Naga.

The Ramayana Garden immortalises the battle between devas and asuras within a fountain.

Remnants of a wihan from the Dvaravati period. A wihan is a room where meetings and prayers are held.

Again, can't quite recollect what's this site about but it's up on a hill plateau at Muang Boran.

The site is lined with these pahllic-shaped stones that I assume to representations of Lord Shiva. The Hindu god is frequently represented in the shape of a penis to confer fertility.
Experimentation to see how Muang Boran looks in black and white. Pretty good I think.

Attempt at colour splash photo processing (black and white photos with a dash of single colour) with this Dvaravati period Buddha statue seated in a teaching position.
Well, this brief account of the exhibits is just a scratch of the architectural collection found at Muang Boran. I find the replication works to be so fine and authentic, it's as good as seeing the original monuments!

Old Market Town

Other than the buildings, olden day lifestyles are also resurrected at the Old Market Town of Muang Boran. Street shows and processions take place here amidst shops selling souvenirs and items of nostalgia.

We came to the Old Market Town in the morning as it is not too far from the park's entrance but all the shops were closed. We passed by it again on our way out of Muang Boran at around 4.00 pm and the place was abuzz with activity.

Retro sweets and toys! Those white egg-shaped candies with an orangey taste were one of my childhood favourites.

Knick knacks for sale while a traditional streetside puppet theatre showed what kept villagers entertained in the yesteryears.

Hanging mobiles fashioned out of natural materials such as coconut husks, wood chips and feathers.

Fried quail eggs! Sinfully heavenly!
Waterside Village

There are a few F&B outlets around Muang Boran but the best place to eat would be at the Waterside Village. Here, you can dine on traditional Thai favourites by the waters and enjoy some respite. All the park staff were in traditional costumes so it was a rather amusing dining experience.

Thai baht is no good at the Waterside Village. To make purchases, we had to convert our bahts to these copper coins which were used in the past.

Freshly made som tam (spicy raw papaya salad).

My day trip buddy, Yik Fan, and I found the whole waterside dining experience refreshing though sitting on the floor was a little uncomfortable and there's no air conditioning. But well, being here is all about getting a taste of living in the past right?
A New Tide in Bangkok's Tourism

Once the best loved vacation spot for many, Bangkok is currently a tourism taboo due to the floods. It is estimated that it'll take 3 months to reinstate all affected areas. I hope the recovery would not take so long. I can't wait to visit Bangkok again.

I'm not sure if Muang Boran is drowned out as well although it seems likely. I was looking through my photos taken during my visit and found this shot...

It was taken atop a small hill. To one side was the overview of Muang Boran you saw earlier in this post and to the back, it looked out to what seem like factories. I wonder if these were the ones that were inundated. I hope not.

Here's my wish for the Thai people during this crisis... may your resilience carry you above muddy waters and have you blossom yet again. Hang in there!
Thailand's worst flood in decades is most devastating. Not just for the loss of property, livestock, and human lives but for a tourist like me who love the country.

I pray that this monstrous tide will pass over soon and as Bangkok rebuilds itself to welcome visitors once more, may Muang Boran radiate as one of its best attractions yet!
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