#GoodbyeThonburi: Expat photog turns lens on his vanishing Bangkok home

Photo: Graham Meyer
Photo: Graham Meyer

As photographer Graham Meyer, 33, prepares to depart Bangkok, he has taken to the streets to document Thonburi, the neighborhood he has lived in for over a decade. In the process of bidding his farewell, he has peeled back the curtain on the spaces, rituals and communities disappearing as “the other side of the river” gentrifies.

For over 10 years, Meyer, who has documented the city’s boheme and party scenes and called Thonburi home. But he never felt compelled to document the landscape around him until last year, when the pandemic put plans to move to Japan on hold. It also left him, like so many, largely bound to the confines of his community.

Knowing a departure date loomed, even if it was further off, Meyer started photographing the people and places around him over a series of long walks – a personal way to say goodbye.

”I started shooting things I walk past every day but never thought to photograph,” he said. “Things that were disappearing but special.”

Over the last half of the 2010s, Thonburi has experienced an increasingly rapid transformation. Markets have been razed and malls erected, most glaring among them IconSiam, the luxury landmark by the river. Rail lines now cut through communities, extending further and further west as young white-collar workers seek affordable property away from the city center. Bars, restaurants, and houses that once lined the river have been replaced by high-rises.

Klongsan Plaza, a market lane of random sellers that also housed artist studios and The Space arts venue, tenants were recently told to vacate. It now seems destined to become another condo, hotel or shopping center.

Photo: Graham Meyer

Those who do not live in or ever cross the river to Thonburi may not have noticed these events. They’ve transpired with mechanical efficiency, as they often do in Bangkok, even if time seems to have hardly changed at all. 

“Without [distinguishable] seasons, time moves in a different way in Bangkok. It feels as if it never passes,” said Meyer, who posts his work under the handle False Digital.

Shot mostly on film, his images reveal a Thonburi overshadowed by breakneck development: a man stretching in a park with a cigarette in hand, kids skipping over a makeshift jump rope fashioned out of shoes, a fake ivy wall outside a flattened stretch of land set to become a condo. They’re often funny and absurd. 

“I’m interested in things that are silly, off-putting, or out of place,” he said. “I like asking questions with my pictures.”

Photo: Graham Meyer

Sometimes, however, they’re foreboding. In many images, the Four Seasons Residences across the water rise up like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, offering a look into the future of this valuable land along the river.

As Meyer said goodbye to Thonburi, he revealed a neighborhood losing parts of itself, too – an unwitting documentarian of a district in transition.

He says the construction of the BTS Gold Line wreaked havoc on the neighborhood, making already busy roads nightmarishly congested as traffic lanes were reduced to one per side of Charoen Nakhon Road.

“I try to show what everyday life is like in Thailand without the National Geographic gloss that Western audiences are accustomed to. It’s a local community, not a zoo,” he said.

Photo: Graham Meyer

Meyer says he’s drawn to “absurd things,” like a shot of a man stretching before exercise with a cigarette between his fingers. But he also likes asking questions, both literally and with his camera.

He explains that for years he saw men gathering to play takraw in a riverside park, but only last year did he finally ask them about it. Once he spoke to them, he learned that one of the players was a former muay Thai champion from Isaan, and most were blue-collar workers in the community: security guards, newspaper deliverymen, factory linemen. 

“They’re normal people but kind of local legends when it comes to takraw,” he said. 

Photo: Graham Meyer

“Many of the people living here [in the local community] are from Isaan. They work in the factories here,” says Meyer. “Some never even leave their soi.”

But he added that a Japanese man who runs a factory on the street organizes return trips to Isaan for his workers every year, and he has converted an empty building into a community hall with a ping pong table and room to unwind after work.

Photo: Graham Meyer

Meyer said he celebrated Songkran with the kids who jump rope and their families each of the six years prior to the pandemic.

Other shots place the people in context. The shot BK chose for this issue’s cover was The Merry Kings Department Store, an abandoned mall at the Wongwian Yai roundabout.

Photo: Graham Meyer

“Supposedly it was one of the first large malls in Bangkok. When I first moved here, only the first floor was open and they sold deadstock goods from the ‘80s. The reflective film on the windows is falling off, and every day at sundown they create these interesting patterns,” he said.

It’s more than a backdrop, though. 

“I bought a Kodak film coffee mug there which I still use every morning,” he added.

A few years ago, the mall finally closed. “Even when it was open, they almost never had any customers,” Meyer said. “I’d imagine it was a bit of a fire hazard in its current state, too.”

As for his decision to eschew digital, he thinks “film makes you think about the next shot you take, not the one you just took.”

“It’s grainy and imperfect, like the way we dream, or how we remember things,” he said.

muPhoto: Graham Meyer

This story originally appeared in BK.

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