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Tea Leaves

Thailand's vibrant cafe culture serves 'selfie society'

For many young coffee-shop afficionados, online posing tops pursuit of caffeine highs

Patina, which opened in Bangkok's Old Town in January. They make a mean cappuccino, but that's not why the place swarms with photographers every weekend. (Photo by Chris Schalkx).

"A little to the left!" "Chin up!" "Smile more!" The air around me is filled with a cacophony of clicking smartphones, beeping cameras and photographers hissing directions at their models. Young women in frilly tank tops sip on iced lattes, trying hard to look as effortless as possible. Behind me, a girl scolds her camera-toting boyfriend for what I can only assume is an unflattering picture.

One would think I'm in a photo studio, but I am actually enjoying a coffee at one of Bangkok's newest cafes. Patina, which takes its name from the time-worn walls of its 200-year-old home, opened in January in the heart of the city's Old Town. They make a mean cappuccino, but that's not the reason the place is swarming with photographers every weekend. Search its location on the Instagram app, and you'll find hundreds of smartly dressed young Thais nonchalantly leaning over its vintage furniture or posing coquettishly under the crystal chandeliers.

The same scenes are playing out in stylish coffee shops around the country. At a cafe down the street from Patina, photo shoots spill out onto the sidewalk as people impatiently await their turn to pose in front of the graffiti-covered entrance. When their shots have been reviewed and sent off to collect virtual praise on Instagram, coffees are chugged and the shutterbugs move on to the next cafe to hunt for more Instagram fodder.

"Cafehopping," as they call it in Thailand, isn't just an Instagram hashtag; it's a national sport. Armed with portable tripods and semiprofessional camera gear, thousands of Thais flock to Bangkok's coffee shops every weekend to pose in front of neon signs and pastel-hued walls. Striking poses like Parisian supermodels, they capture their coffee and cake like modern-day incarnations of Giorgio Morandi, the 20th century Italian painter who specialized in simple subjects such as bottles and bowls.

Some hit half a dozen cafes a day, collecting trendy check-ins like trading cards and racing in an undeclared contest to be the first to "discover" new spots. The leaders have carved out a niche as internet "cafe influencers" and can command hefty sums for sponsored posts on their Instagram pages.

When I moved to Thailand almost eight years ago, finding decent coffee was still a challenge. These days, cafes are as ubiquitous as street food stalls. Hardly a week goes by without a new one opening somewhere around town. Microroasteries and cupping workshops have popped up like mushrooms, and I can now find rare blends from Ethiopia or El Salvador almost as easily as instant coffee powder. Homegrown beans have also seen a resurgence in popularity, with specialty cafes and home-delivery subscriptions drawing on small-batch farms in Thailand's mountainous north.

All too often, it isn't the coffee that is turning heads. Many new cafes seem designed to one-up the competition -- not with the quality of their brews, but with the photogenic attractions of their interiors and drinks. Bangkok's contemporary cafe scene is a bonanza of elaborate backdrops and flower-flecked concoctions, voguish furniture and gimmicky photo props. Some advertise "loads of photo corners," or list the best times for photography on their Instagram pages ("sun-dappled terrace between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.") Others have installed photo booths to lure in shutterbugs like bees to honey.

A common sight at Bangkok's trendiest cafes: Fashionable clothes, dozens of poses -- and perhaps a coffee as well. (Photo by Chris Schalkx).

Judging by the crowds, the tactic seems to pay off. "I think it's great as it brings more publicity to the spaces they visit," says Eric Chan, co-owner of the highly popular Sarnies cafe on Bangkok's Charoenkrung Road. "A lot of cafehoppers take this quite seriously, and the ones who are prominent in the cafehopping world would usually have their own devotees who trust their choices."

Not everyone sees it that way. When I asked some of my cafe-owner friends what they thought of the scene, nearly all let out a deep sigh. "When we just opened, the crowds were crazy," says Natruja Threekhunwatana, manager of The Somchai in Thonglor, one of Bangkok's trendiest neighborhoods. "People would bring suitcases with clothes and change their outfits in the bathrooms. It was difficult to manage -- we wouldn't even have tables available for new guests. After that, we decided to prohibit photography for a while."

Steven Lim, co-owner of Luka cafe in Sathorn, another fashionable district, frequently sees the same in his cafe. "We even have shopping websites [whose staff] come with a van and a model. They order one coffee and secretly do multiple shoots with products, accessories and outfit changes," he says.

By the time I'm ready to leave Patina, the people posing for selfies at the front door are still going at it. Their coffees haven't been touched and have long gone cold.

Thailand's cafe culture is undeniably booming. But for many young Thais, finding a caffeine high seems to take second place to the pursuit of a pretty backdrop in their endless quest for online affirmation.

Chris Schalkx is a Bangkok based writer and photographer. 

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