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IN THE PICTURE #72: ALASTAIR MACDONALD
In this feature called ‘In the Picture‘ we ask great photographers from all over the world to share their 10 most favorite Thailand photos with our readers. See Thailand through the lens of the photographer, read the background stories and learn more about the land of smiles.
With this In the Picture we also want to show that much, almost anything, is possible if you just persevere. Therefore we are very pleased with the contribution of Alastair, a real go-getter who shoots beautiful pictures!
Yes you can Alastair! Thanks for joining us!
Hello Alastair, could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Alastair MacDonald and you can probably guess from the name that I come from Scotland, which is currently still part of the United Kingdom. I was Born in Edinburgh and Raised on the outskirts in a town Called Queensferry. That town is famed for the Forth Bridges, a rail one built in 1890 and a road bridge in 1964. In 2014 as they built the second road bridge, The Queensferry Crossing, I moved across the water and now live in a village just west of Dunfermline in Fife.
I am a Facilities Manager looking after Soft Services for a civil service building in Edinburgh. I was 11 when my brother let me take my first photograph with his camera. I loved the feel of the camera and the decisive crunch it made as the mirror crashed up and the shutter snapped open and closed. Shortly after I was given that Pentax S1a and proudly carried it on a school trip to a local oil refinery. From then on I was hooked. I took photographs using negative film and slide film for many years. In high school I was able to use their dark room as part of my art course and learned how to develop and print my own images.
My interest dropped off around 10 years later as I was not printing and got despondent at prints that came back from labs. My interest only took off again as digital cameras became more common and I picked up my first DSLR a Nikon D90 shortly before my first trip to Thailand in 2009. I am happier now as I can edit my images as I like. Just like the darkroom days.
For many years photography was a side line to my sport. I represented Great Britain and Scotland as a Junior then Scotland as a senior in the sport of target pistol shooting. This was a passion and required a lot of dedication, discipline and time. Unfortunately for me, I, along with many others became ill during and after the Commonwealth Championships in India in 1995.
By 1997 I was diagnosed with Post Viral Syndrome then Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue (ME/CFS) by 2001 I gave up trying to compete. It was after that I bought my first compact digital camera and started to concentrate on photography as a past time.
Due to the condition, which in the main is more or less under control, I cannot hike for miles or climb hills and mountains to get great landscape images. After watching so many YouTube photographers do just that I decided to start my own YouTube channel called Accessible Photography to show people that whatever your abilities you can still get out and take pictures. All the images I show today are accessible. Even Scuba diving. I was able to do scuba lessons in Thailand so long as I had a few days to recover from the journey. Then I had the energy to participate. I found Scuba very therapeutic and calming which helps the overall energy levels in the body.
I wish you all the best and know that (almost) anything is possible!
Buying robes in Bangkok
On a visit to Bangkok, don’t stick to the main tourist areas and venues. Take a wander down streets and see what the locals are doing. This is on Thanon Bamrung Mueang near to the “Giant Swing” a landmark Buddhist monument. The shops here are full of Buddhist items from robes to articles that would be left at a temple during prayers. A very interesting sight indeed. I really felt like I was getting to know Thailand as I absorbed these sights. I wanted to learn more about what I was seeing. Maybe a tour guide could have helped me, but generally I walk around alone, just taking pictures as I go.
Grand Palace, Bangkok
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a site of beauty by day and thanks to illumination, also by night. I was surprised to find that as darkness fell the number of tourists dropped to one. That was me. I had seen images of the palace lit up and knew what a wonderful sight it was. I had taken some images in the Blue hour, that period after sunset, but before full darkness. However I hung around until full dark, not by choice, but due to torrential rain that lasted about half an hour or more. I’d sheltered under a canopy nearby and waited. Once it cleared I went out looking for puddles. Because puddles give great reflections.
What is your favorite destination in Thailand?
My favourite place has to be Koh Tao. I feel at peace there. As I explore the country more, maybe I will find another favourite place. Until then, Tao it is.
Which place / destination in Thailand is still on your wish list to visit?
I have several places marked on my google maps for visiting. Chiang Mai in the North and Erawan National park in the West are two that I must do next.
Reclining Buddha in Bangkok
Here you see the serene golden face of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok. A statue so large you cannot view it side on in full due to the pillars holding up the roof. You can see it in full from either end, the most desired being from his swirl patterned feet. If you can wait for the queue to lessen, once the tour busses are leaving, then you will be able to see him in relative peace. This is the best time, as you can take in the serenity of the scene. Everything about Buddhism has a feeling of peace and wellbeing so long as you can get away from the hordes of tourists and actually enjoy it.
Wat Pho in Bangkok
Wat Phra Chetuphon, also known as Wat Pho, is where you will find the glorious reclining Gold Buddha. I first visit the Buddha in 2009 on my first visit to Thailand. Now 7 years later on my 4th visit, I returned to the sites that first had me fall in love with Thailand. The queue was quite long, but I knew it would reduce later so I took a walk around the buildings and stupas. I found myself in by an open area with lots of Children playing. I discovered that there was a junior school here, much to my surprise. I ensured my camera was set up pointing away from the children and as I got ready to take the picture two boys ran through the scene. I liked the result and preferred it to the better composed images I took just after.
Which place / destination do you recommend our readers to visit and why?
It is hard to recommend where to go in Thailand. Like anywhere really, as people have different likes and needs for a holiday. I would though recommend a few days in Bangkok. Chances are that’s where your plane will land, so stay a while. The reason I say this is simple. You can explore the cultural and historic sites by day and enjoy amazing nightlife at night. Then you can head off to a beach or tour the country having at least learned a little about Thailand before you do so.
Where do you like to eat?
I cannot recommend any particular place to eat. The one place I had started to frequent is now permanently closed. However, I do recommend the street food. It is cheap and delicious. Do not be concerned about hygiene conditions. The food is cooked well and is usually very fresh. Watch the customers ahead of you. If it is busy with locals then it is fine. You may be surprised to learn in places like Bangkok, apartments are sold without a kitchen as street food is so cheap and plentiful the locals just use that.
Dive boat on Koh Tao
One of the many dive boats passes the boat I am on. The sea is calm, the sun shines and despite being the rainy season, there are no clouds to worry about in the sky. I found Scuba diving to be an amazing activity. There is anxiety before hand, but once under that blue water a feeling of deep relaxation takes over. I look at this image and feel myself relaxing and becoming happy. I really should print this and put it on my home office wall.
Koh Tao sunset
A different year and I am back on Koh Tao Scuba Diving. I have changed Dive School from the one based on Koh Samui to Ban’s Diving Resort, which is situated here on Sairee Beach. I quite simply fell in love with this amazing little island. I am not a beach holiday type of guy, but I do love a good sunset and Tao has wonderful sunsets. Here, I will happily sit with a beer in my hand after a good day under the water.
I was so happy to return to Ban’s on my third visit to Thailand that I did something that turned heads. I’d met up with friends at the bar. Got given a bottle of Chang Beer and excused myself. I turned and walked to the steps down to the beach. I took a few steps into the water until it was lapping at my shorts. Then I looked out at the remaining glow in the Western sky and exhaled deeply until totally unwound. My friend was asked what was I doing. He replied, “He’s just happy to be back.”
Tip us a nice coffee shop or bar where our readers can drop by.
I am not a “Bar” person and find it difficult to recommend such places. I will though recommend one, but shall offer a short story first.
On my first trip to Thailand I was in a hotel on my own by Chaweng Beach on Koh Samui. Opposite my hotel at that time was a small bar. I see on Google Street View it has now gone. However, I went in on my last evening and asked for a meal and a beer. It was still early and the place was very quiet. I commented on the lack of customers to the nice lady running the place. She said, “wait a while, my friends are coming”.
Not too long after I finished my meal the friends started to appear. The owner introduced me to each one as they came in. I was brought into the group and we initially had great conversations, mostly about each other’s countries. I learned how the locals drink Thai whisky. A measure in a tall glass filled up with cold water. We then started to party when the karaoke machine was switched on.
I left the bar very happy, yet sad to be leaving these lovely people. The morale of the story, try local bars and chat to people, you never know what will come of it.
The bar I recommend is on Koh Tao. It is Fishbowl Beach Bar and is part of Ban’s Diving Resort. The original wooden structure was torn down and replaced with a concrete bar and restaurant. It was okay, but images now show a very nice place. Or as a diver stated on Facebook, “it’s sick”, which apparently is good. I liked it as everyone there was doing the same thing. Learning to Dive, or how to instruct or actually instructing scuba diving. Great atmosphere and music.
What is your favorite Thai dish?
I love so many Thai dishes, but to be fair, mostly southern Thai as it is mellowed by the coconut milk. I was taken to a proper Local Thai restaurant on Koh Samui on my first visit and told to try the soup. Apologies I cannot remember the name. The Chili oil was red and floated on the top. I struggled to get through it, because I was eating it incorrectly. Don’t skim the top and sip off the spoon. Dig in and pull the noodles and veg through the oil, I was later instructed. No coconut milk in that dish!
Pad Thai goes down well with me now and I would recommend a genuine Pad Thai. Again, talking with the locals and I hear a phrase repeated again and again. No Chili no yummy! They like it hot and if you do too, then skip the tourist places and try local eateries.
Amphawa Floating Market near Bangkok
Having said that I wander on my own taking pictures, I have to say, I did take two tours on my very first trip to Thailand. Tours are an incredibly useful way to get to know a country better. The guide can talk you through what you are seeing and everything comes alive. A tour will also take you to places at the right time on the right day. The Amphawa Floating Market for example. Not so interesting if it’s not happening!
I was utterly blown away by what I saw. The vibrant colours, the exotic food and obviously the unique style of market place. Although I was on a tour, we had the chance to wander freely and do our own thing. This meant I could explore and find compositions, while my tour colleagues went off for a snack and a coffee.
This one place showed me so much. On my first full day I was introduced to fruits I had never seen, food I had never tasted and sights that will live with me forever.
What is your favorite accommodation in Thailand?
If you want to learn to dive in Thailand, and I heartily recommend it as you will not learn cheaper anywhere, then you cannot go wrong with Ban’s Diving Resort on Koh Tao. Accommodation ranges from cheap and cheerful to full on luxury. I opted for a good room with balcony in a quiet block. Yes, divers can party hard and they tend to be in the cheaper rooms close to the bars. I was up the hill, over the road and further up the hill to a large block of rooms. Further on are the apartments with own swimming pools and views out to sea.
Do you have a (travel) tip that might come in handy in Thailand?
My top tip is the same for any far off country being visited. Before you go, buy a book or read articles on line about the country. Not the politics, but the culture. Learn what is acceptable to do and what to expect from the locals. Thailand may be the land of Smiles, but if you are an arrogant, ignorant Farang (Foreigner) they won’t smile for long. Learn a few phrases as well, at the very least hello and good bye. You will have a better time if you do.
Is there a Thai phrase or word our readers need to learn?
Chụ̄̀x k̄hxng c̄hạn khụ̄x (Chee kong Chang Coo). My name is…
China Town Gateway in Bangkok
To be absolutely honest, I would not have headed over to China Town had it not been for this image. I had seen it elsewhere and wanted my own version. A little after taking this image I explored China Town and it is fantastic. I love the Hustle and bustle in the streets and the noise and the smells from the food stalls and restaurants. An absolute delight. Before I explored I took a walk over to that temple across the road. วัดไตรมิตรวิทยาราม (Wat Traimit Wittayaram) has a golden Buddah worth seeing I believe, but when I went, there was a ceremony in progress. I stood at the back and watched and listened. Of course I could not understand what was said, but it was beautiful. Very relaxing and calming.
What type / brand of camera do you use?
I have been using Nikon cameras since just before my first trip to Thailand. I started with the D90 then got a D7000 and just before my last visit stupidly bought a D750. Nothing wrong with the camera but learning a new camera on a trip is not good. I also use a small Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ60. That is great for street photography and I even used it for night time street photography around a night market. The results were very good considering its small size.
Where can our readers find your work / photos?
Last question, who should we also ask our ‘In the Picture’ feature?
Anek Suwannaphoom on Flickr. I have found his work inspiring and his image quality especially evening and night work is exceptional.
Thailand – Land of the smile
Land of Smiles. I could have shown so many images of lovely Thai people smiling at me. However I selected this one, because behind the camera I am also smiling. I am truly happy to be on a boat heading to Koh Tao. I had been learning to Scuba dive, in a swimming pool on Koh Samui, but now my instructor is taking us to Koh Tao and I am happier than I have been in a very long time.
If my memory serves, this is at Koh Phangan, where we stopped briefly on route to Koh Tao. There where a few ladies selling drinks and food to us on the boat. A chilled beer would have gone down well, but I wanted to keep a clear head.
Muay Thai fight on Phuket
On a visit to Phuket I discovered through the hotel I could get discount tickets to Muay Thai. I bought ringside seats and took my camera along. I asked if it was permissible to take pictures and was told yes. I am not sure they realized I would actually be resting on the canvas. The event started, to my horror with children fighting. I suppose they have to start early to become really good. I discover that for poor families this can be a great income for them. The competitors perform a prayer ritual before competing. That in itself is an interesting sight.
Then the match begins. I am not sure of the rules, and I don’t really care who wins. I am there to get some good images and be entertained. I am not really keen on fighting, but it was a good evening. Far more interesting than a boxing match. I left feeling quite a buzz inside me. Even having no connection to the fighters or interest in the outcome, the atmosphere of the event was exhilarating.