Bangkok, more formally known as "krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit"*, is located on the southern extreme of the Chao Phraya River, a short distance from the Gulf of Thailand.
It is Thailand’s national capital, as well as its cultural and commercial center. With a population of between eight and nine million, it is also Thailand’s largest city…by far! Less than 250 years ago, however, it was essentially nothing. It was home to a military garrison, a few inns for travelers and some farming villages and markets. This makes Bangkok, by Asian standards anyway, a very youthful city.
Bangkok’s rise to prominence was directly related to Thailand’s (The Kingdom of Ayuthaya’s) defeat by the Burmese in the mid 18th century. The defeat was catastrophic, resulting in both the destruction of the ruling dynasty and the capital city, Ayuthaya.
The new Thai leader, a former army general, Phraya Taksin, established a new capital in what is today Thonburi, on the western side of the Chao Phraya River, For several years, Taksin, who became king, developed the new city but today only the massive Wat Arun, the “Temple of the Dawn,” built to be the chief Buddhist temple, remains.
King Taskin, who is said to have become increasingly bizarre in his behavior, was finally removed from power in the early 1780’s, and another general, Phra Buddha Yodea Chulaoke (also known as Phraya Chakri), was invited to be king and crowned on April 6, 1782. He was the first king of a new dynasty – the present dynasty – and decided to move the royal capital across the river – within sight of Wat Arun - to its present day location.
This place was called “Rattanakosin.” On April 21, 1782, the raising of the city pillar took place and on May 6, 1782, construction of the Grand Place began. The new city was carefully planned to resemble as closely as possible the old Thai capital of Ayuthaya. It included magnificent palaces and temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, the new chief temple. The city was to be surrounded and bisected by waterways and canals.
In 1785, construction was declared “complete” and a consecration ceremony took place in which Bangkok received its new official name, indicated in the first paragraph, which was abbreviated to “Krungthep,” or “City of the Angels.”
During the first several decades of its existence, Krungthep, or “Bangkok” as it was called by foreigners, was what social scientists call a “preindustrial city.” It was a geographically small area, in this case an island, inhabited by social elites, who were the royal family and leading aristocrats ministers, priests; and servants, craftsmen and slaves.
Transportation within the city was largely through or on the canal systems. Of course, construction did continue. More canals were built as were palaces, temples and city walls. And there was some expansion east and south - “China town,” or Yaowarat developed fairly soon after the beginnings of Bangkok due to large scale trade with China, and Indian traders settled in Pahurat and other areas.
It wasn’t until after the middle of the 19th century that Bangkok as it might be recognized today began to develop. For a variety of economic and political reasons the city began to expand outward. Perhaps paramount among these was the opening up of Thailand to trade with Europe and America.
The first paved roads were built in Bangkok in the 1860’s – as much to please foreigners as for the benefit of Thais, it is said. Social developments, such as the abolition of slavery, also contributed to this development.
Henceforth, large numbers of country people were able to move to Bangkok to pursue fame and fortune…or just survival. Government planners exerted as much control over the situation as they could and tried to develop the city in a planned and orderly manner. European artists, architects and engineers were employed to do work which was felt should be done.
Beginning in the 1930’s, foreign interest in Thailand began to increase significantly and this interest has continued to the present. Of course the interest in trade and commerce continued and increased significantly but foreigners began to view the location of Thailand as a crucial component in the struggles of international control and conquest.
Foreigners and foreign money poured into Thailand and most or at least a lot of the money found a home in Bangkok, where a city skyline gradually began to take shape. More recently, foreigners have become interested in Thai people both as consumers and as workers, facilitating more development.
And, of course, since the 1960’s development for tourism has brought about extensive inflows of people and money. As one would expect, economic development has helped cause a corresponding development in entertainment and educational activities. Development has been difficult to control as large numbers of rural people have flooded into the city, creating a huge market for residential structures.
Today, Bangkok is a vibrant, “alive” city. Visitors can’t help but be impressed by the wide range of economic activity… people seem to be anywhere and everywhere trying to make their way in the world of work and money. It is a city that never seems to sleep as activity at night is almost as common as activity during the daylight hours.
It is also, however, perhaps, too noisy, too dirty, too crowded and too active, with too much construction and vehicular traffic, and too many vendors trying to sell too many things…everywhere. Those with money are able to shelter themselves from the unpleasantness of day-to-day life somewhat, but for most people in Bangkok, daily living can be very, very unpleasant.
A very big challenge for all concerned is to make the Bangkok of the future a pleasant and happy city where people can enjoy the results of their hard work. The development of modern mass transportation systems in Bangkok in the past ten years – the Skytrain and the Underground - indicates that authorities are trying to do this. But surely much more needs to be done.
Of course new challenges and problems are always on the horizon…many are now saying that climate change and the instability of the geological area Bangkok is situated on may present Bangkok with serious problems in the not too distant future. But, that is a problem for another discussion!!!!
* The official Thai name for Bangkok
- "Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit" refers to Bangkok as being the dwelling place of kings, gods and reincarnated spirits, and the location of temples, palaces, and sacred truths. It also makes reference to the Thai people or realm as being unconquerable.