How Bangkok Wakes Up

In February, I presented a talk at TEDxBKK about “How Bangkok wakes up”.

sunrise on bangkok from my room 5:53 a.m.

I was inspired by the work of Jan Chipchase, formerly a researcher for Nokia, who does wonderful studies of how cities all over the world wake up. When I didn’t see one on Bangkok on his blog, I decided to do one myself.

6:09: Rooftop garden:

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The moon is still out in the garden on the roof of my apartment building. There is an eerie, otherwordly feeling.

6:10: Fitness center:

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There are people already working out in the gym of my building. It’s still pitch dark outside.

6:09: A security guard enjoys the tranquility of the rooftop garden on 20th floor.

6:09

In Bangkok, security guards are often countryside people who come to the city to work and send money home to their families. I wonder if this garden is the only bit of nature in Bangkok that resembles the green countryside of his home.

6:15: Down in the street, motorcycle taxi drivers sweep their work area.

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These guys work in front of my building.

Something particular to Bangkok is how you become attached to the people that make up the street life where you live. Food vendors, motorcycle taxis, security guards — you see them every day, sometimes more often than your own friends. I think of these guys as “my” motorcycle taxi guys. When you move to a different neighborhood, you kind of miss them.

6:04: A stray dog (in Bangkok we call them “soi dogs”) sleeping, bathed in the morning light.

soi dogs at dawn 6:04

The pictures were taken in different seasons, so the sunrise is at a different time for some of them.

The light is soft and grey, air is still clean. Traffic is light, you can easily cross the road.

6:17: Homeless man sleeping on bridge.

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My neighborhood, Saphan Kwai, means Buffalo Bridge. We have no buffaloes on our bridge anymore, but many homeless people sleep there.

6:18: The price of gold in a Saphan Kwai gold shop.

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The price of gold has not posted yet. In Bangkok, gold is a commodity whose price fluctuates daily. Around 7am the prices will be posted.

Many gold shops in Bangkok are owned by Chinese or Thai-Chinese. Notice the red Chinese good-luck color on the side, and also the Chinese writing.

6:17: A chinese shopkeeper is already at his post.

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6:28: A food stall setting up.

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Bangok wakes up in stages, with each successive wave of people being there to provide services the next wave:

5:30 to 6: Food vendors get ready to serve breakfast on-the-go: You see them in the street pushing their carts in the still-darkness, furtive like alley cats. They are there to provide food for:

6 to 7: Working class people like taxi drivers, security guards, maids, sales clerks, construction workers. They are there to drive and open doors for:

6:45 to 8: Middle-class office workers start going to work, you see many people outside wearing office clothes. As this is the social class that can afford to drive and own cars, it’s around this time that Bangkok traffic jams start.

6:33: “all that road going, all those people dreaming in the immensity of it” –Jack Kerouac

6:33 am

Sunrise on Pahonyothin Road. Cars look like river of light flowing, there is not yet a traffic jam.

The sun is starting to rise in the east, but car lights are still on. The main street is already busy, but the side streets are still quiet.

6:40: opening neighborhood restaurant.

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I was surprised to realize what long hours some people worked. One of my neighborhood restaurants closes at 10pm, but I never realized that they started setting up and preparing food at 7am. That’s 15 hours!

6:10: A fleeting market:

6:10 monks

In Montreal, depending on the hour, stores are open or closed. but in Bangkok, stores are THERE or NOT THERE.

Very early in the morning, monks gather alms from the Buddhist faithful. Most of them walk around, but sometimes they gather in one spot. Around one of these spots a small market has sprung up dedicated to selling items that people will buy only to give them to the waiting monks.

This fleeting market exists only between about 6 to 7am. By 9am, it’s GONE. I lived in this street for months without ever realizing it existed because I was never there at that hour.

This impermanence of the urban landscape is a very interesting aspect of Bangkok.

6:46: garbage on the streets

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Bangkok streets are generally clean, but at this hour street sweepers are not done their job so there is a lot of garbage around.

7:12: sweeping the streets:

7:12 am, cleaning the streets

7:20: coffee stealing dog:

7:20, this dog tried to steal my coffee

This dog tried to steal my coffee while I was taking a picture.

7:36: Flag not up yet:

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In Thailand, the flag is raised at 8am after the national anthem. In front of Kasikorn Bank in Ari, the flag is still tied up.

7:36: monks hanging around:

7:36 monks hanging around

7:52: orange juice

7:52 AM orange juice

Of course Bangkok is famous for its street food. Here we see an interesting Bangkok reinterpretation of the standard Western breakfast: orange juice sellers and beautiful smile.

7:46: Take your life into your hands

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These green buses are one of Bangkok’s most dangerous modes of transport. They cost 7B vs. about 8-20B for other buses. Almost every story I’ve heard about bus accidents seem to involve these green buses. The drivers are very hot-headed, they seem honor-bound to race other drivers if they ever encounter another green bus.


(NOTE: since I gave this presentation, these green-buses have since been decommissioned by the city for being too dangerous.)

8:13: Office workers emerge from the Skytrain at BTS Ari.

8:13 am, BTS ari, people on the way to work

Ari is a more affluent area of Bangkok. Just a 10 minute walk away from Saphan Kwai, there is a huge difference: it has many government offices and banks, we see many good-looking middle-class people wearing office clothes getting off the Skytrain.

8:00: The Thai national anthem.

8:08 Raising the Flag for the National Anthem

Raising of the flag at government office in Mo Chit.

8:18: School children on field trip to Children’s Museum at Mo Chit.

8:18 am: children on a field trip

They were very excited to see me, all screaming at me “hello, hello” to take their picture.

8:18: Breakfast is jook at the best jook place in Bangkok.

8:18 am breakfast!

8:46: Some people don’t want to wake up.

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5:26:: Those people include me.

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This is a picture of me waking up in the darkness to work on this project.

People’s willingness to be photographed increased at the morning went on. Early morning, people were very grumpy at being photographed.

Why is that?

In the morning, we still belong completely to ourselves. We are on our way to offices and schools, to places where we’ll belong to other people, where people will put their demands on us, and we’ll have to respond to them. The early morning is a time of transition: we’re on our way there, both physically, and mentally. We don’t want anyone to intrude.

8:16: Man walking cute beagle in Soi Ari

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Fortunately, other people are very happy to wake up, as we see with this man walking his cute beagle in Soi Ari.

How does your city wake up?

2 Responses to “How Bangkok Wakes Up”


  1. 1 Angie June 23, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Neat series! I like looking at how other countries arrange their shops. For me, that’s more foreign than different architecture and scenery, for some reason.

    • 2 julielavoie June 23, 2010 at 8:33 pm

      Hi Angie, yeah, it’s so true! I guess because you expect architecture to be different, and food, and language, but what’s up with toothpaste being different?

      I love visiting grocery stores in other countries, I can just stare at stuff for hours!

      The shops in these pics are mom and pop shops though, there’s plenty of walmart-type big chains stores too, and probably a 7-11 every 5 minutes!


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