Thailand’s shining capital is its showcase of both sophistication and tourist sites. In 200 years it has become the pulsating heart of Southeast Asia, where a legacy of cultural sites witness an ever evolving city of around seven million that is modern, timeless, chaotic, and a political powder keg – all in equal measures.
Bangkok was founded relatively recently in Thailand’s historical timeline, and was characterised as a stately royal city for a century before expanding to its present CBD in the 20th century.
Political upheavals left Bangkok financially vulnerable before and after WWII, which was then followed by a period of rapid development, then a traumatic economic meltdown, followed by recovery and finally more political heartaches that remain unresolved.
Bangkok became the capital of Thailand in the tumultuous years following the Burmese sacking of the former Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. With the Kingdom still reeling from this defeat, General Phraya Taksin, along with General Chakri, managed to drive back the Burmese and Taksin became the new king of Siam, establishing Thon Buri as the country’s new capital on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River. Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) is one of the few sites remaining from this early period.
Founding of a new capital
Taksin’s reign and Thonburi’s status as the capital were destined to be short-lived because, according to Thai historians, he went mad with imagined divine power, was declared insane and ultimately overthrown. General Chakri was chosen to be the new king and the royal line of the Chakri Dynasty continues to Thailand’s present-day monarch. Bangkok is very much a city based on the fortunes of their prosperous reign.
Phaya Chakri, or Rama I (as he was posthumously known), moved the capital of Siam to the eastern side of the river and gave this former Chinese trading port of ‘Bang Makok’ (place of olive plums) a royal title. The official name is so long that Thais simply refer to their capital by its first two words ‘Krung Thep’ – City of Angels. The full name has 66 syllables and is acknowledged as the longest city name in the world. Throughout its history the city has been known internationally as Bangkok.
Rama I built Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and it has become one of the most revered sites in Thailand. The history of Bangkok was further shaped by Rama I’s refurbishment of Wat Pho and the building of the Grand Palace; two of Bangkok’s most important historical sites. Until the end of the 19th century, this was the royal and political centre of the city and country where the royal family resided and administered from.
Prospering under King Chulalongkorn
The first paved street in the history of Bangkok was built during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and this move towards modernisation was carried on by his son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Until then, much of the city, which sits on marshland, was navigated by a network of canals. It came to be known as the ‘Venice of the East’, but many canals were filled in during a massive public works initiative during the 20th century. Over on the Thon Buri side of the river you can, however, experience the old Bangkok where boats are more useful than cars. A few canals remain in central Bangkok, and are even used for public transportation, but they are filthy, smelly and best avoided.
King Rama V oversaw an important expansion of the city when the strength of Siam was at its zenith. Trade brought plenty of foreign influences and commerce began to turn Bangkok into the busy regional city it is today. At this point the present commercial district of Silom, Sukhumvit and Siam Square were little more than outlying suburbs, canals and rice paddies. Chinatown began to arise as an important dockyard, before the port was established at Klong Toey, further downstream.
A distinctive difference can be seen between the narrow lanes of the Rattanakosin Isle (which is not really an island but occupies a bend in the river), where the original seeds of the city began around the Grand Palace area, while the newer grand boulevards and tree-lined blocks in the Dusit area to the north (c. 1880s) was developed for the emerging mandarin class. This remains one of the more picturesque areas of the city – a low-rise, low density neighbourhood home to many government buildings (Parliament and Government House), the Vinmanmek Palace and the Abhisek Throne Hall, and Chitralada Palace (where the King and Queen reside).
Stepping into the 20th Century
Over the decades development has sprung up in several clusters, notably the Siam Square area and modern business centre near Silom, with the expat area of Sukhumvit Road emerging after the arrival of American GIs and tourists from the 1960s onwards. You will find very little preserved here, because giant shopping centres, skyscrapers and expensive hotels point to a more affluent city that arose from Thailand’s economic miracle growth in the last few decades of the 20th century.
The construction of the Memorial Bridge in 1932 marked an important step in Bangkok history as it opened up major development on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya. Although the seat of the monarchy has been in Bangkok for two centuries or more, they haven’t always been present.
One of many coups launched in the city was the 1932 overthrow of absolute monarchy by a group of Paris-based students who had brought democratic ideas back with them. Although a constitutional monarchy was permitted, the next king, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), resigned and left a vacuum from 1935 to the end of WWII. One important change during this era was the changing of the country’s name to Thailand.
During WWII, a puppet government under the military ruler Phibul Sonkhram ruled Thailand from Bangkok, having sided with the Japanese early in the war in order to maintain their own personal grip on power. This was to cost the country dearly at the end of the war, when the Allies demanded war compensation. One bright milestone during this grim period was the return to Thailand, after the war, of a resident King. But Rama VIII, the teenage Ananda, was found dead just six months into his reign, under mysterious circumstances. His, brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej, ascended to the throne, and has ruled ever since, becoming one the oldest reigning monarchs and one of the country’s most beloved kings.
Post war growth
The Vietnam War marked a major period of change in the history of Bangkok as money poured into the country from abroad and improvements were made to the city’s infrastructure. Since that time Bangkok has grown into a thriving metropolis, spreading over 1,568 square kilometres, consisting of some 50 districts – home to one-tenth of the total population of Thailand.
Mass migration from the declining agro-based heartland, resulted in a massive urbanisation of the city and a lot of haphazard town planning, which has resulted in many of the city’s poorer characteristics today. This migration brought with it cultural diversity and many suburbs of the city now have distinctive characters, such as from the Isaan region of the northeast of the country. Travel out into the ever-expanding suburbs and you’ll note the sprawling modern housing complexes that are sought after by the emerging middle class.
The history of Bangkok continues to be shaped with each successive governor and political parties holding power and promising to alleviate some of the urban ills of the city such as the traffic and pollution. Efforts have been made to ‘green’ Bangkok, and though it has just four square metres of park per person (a tenth of London), there is plenty of sprouting tropical trees and water scattered about the city. Perhaps the most welcome addition, from the perspective of commuters, is the BTS Skytrain, which was established in 1999 and the MRT Subway in 2004, considerably easing Bangkok’s infamous traffic woes.
The growing pains of democracy
Bangkok has also been at the heart of Thailand’s democratic growing pains. Over successive crisis students, yellow and red shirted protesters, and disenfranchised farmers have all used its streets as a stage of protest.
In 1973 a large peaceful student protest gathered around the Democracy Monument on Rachadamnoen Avenue, near the Grand Palace, demanding an end to military rule. It was brutally put down, and again during a reprise protest in 1976, but ultimately achieved its goal of evicting the military rulers and replacing them with a democratically elected government.
Tanks take to the streets during the 2006 coup
Again in 1992, the masses returned to the same spot to protest an attempt by the military to encroach on governance. This time the protagonists were summoned before the King and the crisis resolved, with the military backing off, and the protest leader going on to become Bangkok Governor. Before the decade was out, the city faced a different crisis as the rapidly unfolding Asian financial crisis began in Thailand, with Bangkok playing a central role. Unchecked property development, cheap credit and rampant speculation were the key components of this traumatic period, and even today many unfinished buildings (called “ghosts of ’97”) bear witness to this. It left vast numbers of Bangkokians unemployed or bankrupt.
But perhaps the most turbulent of recent times has been the ousting of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, in which massed protests against his ethics prompted a military purge. Now despised by the tax-paying urban middle class, he remains enormously popular with the rural poor. When his nominee party returned to power in the 2007 election, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) again took to the streets protesting against attempts to repeal corruption convictions against the exiled leader. They then moved on to Government House, laying siege to it for three months and violently clashing with police outside parliament in October 2008.
Bangkok’s shiny new Suvarnabhumi Airport then became the next target and venue of their desperate and destructive protest, and the two-week shutdown of this gateway to Thailand had devastating effects economically, as well as being a huge inconvenience to tourists. With coincidental timing, a court ruling for election fraud disbanded this ruling party and power was transferred to the opposition through a parliamentary vote.
But this didn’t go down well with the vast army of ‘red shirt’ Thaksin supporters who also took to the streets, culminating in riots in April 2009, forcing the army to bring the city under control during a hastily declared state of emergency.
Poor old Bangkok, its commercial sector already wary and shell-shocked, hadn’t seen the end of this long running saga. In April 2010, Thaksin and his allies again voiced their displeasure at being politically shut out. A well-organised, well-financed protest – better described as a militant attempt to overthrow the government from the streets – dragged on for three months, involving bloodshed and a city under siege that made the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
In a cynical attempt to shame the government by drawing in the military and ‘spilling blood’, the UDD movement (United Democratic movement against Dictatorship) held the country to ransom, occupying a large swathe of the city around Siam Square. This was easily achieved with the help of a sympathetic ‘Tomato Police’ force, who stood by and watched. Although many involved were simply poor farmers demanding a more equitable deal and politics free of military meddling, the movement was hijacked by a dodgy agenda to pardon the exiled Thaksin.
Attempts to clear the protest were met with armed resistance from a murky security gang known as the Black Shirts. The Democrat-led government acceded to their demands and offered a fresh election within three months, but hard line protest leaders rejected this. A day later the Black Shirts’ commander – a renegade army general – was assassinated by a sniper, and the army finally moved in, clearing the protesters within three days but causing 90 fatalities. It was one of the darker weeks in Thailand’s history, but the government survived.
Unfortunately, parts of the city didn’t. Arsonists among the retreating Red Shirts, encouraged by firebrand speeches on the stage to ‘burn down Bangkok’, set fire to dozens of buildings in the area. The damage was widespread, including the shiny Central World Shopping Centre, which was gutted of its designer label contents. The protest leaders were rounded up on terrorist charges and the city returned to normal. Its residents turned out in droves to clean up and a state of emergency remained in place for the rest of the year. Council elections in August revealed that Bangkokians overwhelmingly rejected Thaksin and his Red Shirts; however, the following general election on 3 July, 2011, saw the defeat of the coalition in favour of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, where his sister, Yinkluck, would become Thailand’s first female PM.
Bangkok today represents the modern, prospering and tax-paying nerve centre of Thailand. Here you will find the sophisticated young generation, the gutter politicians, the ‘hi-so’ (high society) and also the army of migrant minions serving them. Yet, scratch below the surface and you can witness age-old habits and relics from an older Bangkok.
Read more: History of Bangkok on Wikipedia