Although thoroughly Thai at its core, Bangkok is a complex cosmopolitan city with an amazing diversity of cultural influences
Newcomers to Bangkok, for the most part, begin their urban explorations by visiting the classic city landmarks that best illustrate the cultural and spiritual links to Thailand’s historic past. However, once you’ve done the temple tour it’s worthwhile exploring the equally interesting cosmopolitan make up of this multi-faceted, manic metropolis.
Modern-day Bangkok became the capital of Siam (as Thailand was previously known) in 1782, when General Chao Phraya Chakri, the founder of the ruling Chakri dynasty, assumed the throne as Rama I and moved the court from the west to the more strategic eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River, relocating the prior Chinese who had settled there to the area between Wat Sam Pluem and Wat Sampheng. Under the direction of the new King, fortifications were rebuilt, and a series of moats were created, encircling the city in an area still known as Rattanakosin Island (although it’s just as commonly referred to as ‘Old Town’).
Rama I modelled his city after the former capital of Ayutthaya, with the Grand Palace and royal temples by the river. Government offices were housed within the palace, while residences of nobles were concentrated south of the palace walls, and settlements spread outwards from this new city centre. Under the reigns of successive monarchs, old temples, palaces, and monuments received renovations, while new canals were built, gradually expanding the areas available for agriculture and creating new transport networks. Outside the city walls, settlements sprang up along both river banks. To this day, ramshackle homes still line portions of the city’s rivers and khlongs (canals), giving a bit of insight into what life was like when waterways served as the main method of transportation and most of the population lived close on or near the water—often in floating houses.
As Bangkok continued to grow, several non-Thai ethnic communities formed outside the city walls. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants settled in the city, especially during the early 19th century. They excelled in trade, and their prominence in the city was so great that Europeans visiting in the 1820s estimated that they formed over half the city’s population. Today, a visit to Bangkok’s Chinatown, with its many traditional Chinese temples, restaurants, and shops, shows that the core of this thriving community has held fast to its roots. And, more recently, culturally significant community spaces such as Lhong 1919 have shone a new spotlight on Bangkok’s important Chinese heritage.
But the Chinese weren’t the only settlers. The Portuguese also established a sizeable community on the west side of the Chao Phraya River, while a migration of Indians led to the establishment of two districts known as ‘Little India’. The smaller, but no less vibrant of the two is the Pahurat neighbourhood, just west of Chinatown (between Pahurat Road, Chakraphet Road, and Triphet Road). Many Punjabi Sikhs settled here in the early 20th century, and the Sri Guru Singh Sabah temple, built in 1932, is said to be the second largest Sikh temple outside of India. However, an earlier wave of Hindu immigrants arrived in Bangkok from Tamil-Nadu in Southern India in the 1800s, and carved out their own community in the Silom Road/Surawong Road area of Bangrak. Here is where you’ll find Sri Maha Mariamman, Bangkok’s best-known Hindu temple, which was constructed in the 1860s. And to this day, each year in late October the Thai-Indian community celebrates its Hindu heritage during the Navratri Festival, in which a colourful (and wonderfully noisy) parade takes over the area in and around the intersection of Pan Road and Silom Road.
Of course, Western European influence is also clearly visible in the city, with churches such as Assumption Cathedral dotting the riverbank, and the Christ Church Bangkok anchoring the aptly named Convent Road in the CBD. And if you want to see how the Japanese have left their mark on this city, just take a stroll in and around the Thong Lor and Phrom Phong districts along Sukhumvit Road, where you’ll find some of the best sushi and sake this side of Mt. Fuji.
Nai Lert Park Heritage Home
Although the Swissôtel Nai Lert Park may be gone forever, its neighbour, the Nai Lert Park Heritage Home, lives on. The abode originally belonged to Phraya Bhakdi Noraset—better known as ‘Nai Lert’, one of Thailand’s most renowned developers—but after an extensive renovation it was reopened a few years back as a museum, offering a glimpse of traditional Central Thai architecture. The property consists of a pair of connected teakwood houses, surrounded by a sizeable balcony and a beautifully landscaped garden, while within artifacts and collectibles tell the story of the original owner’s illustrious life and career.
M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage Home
Born of royal descent and educated at Oxford University, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995), was a remarkable Renaissance man who penned more than 40 novels, stage plays, short stories, and poems, started a political party in 1945, and served as the nation’s 13th prime minister from 1974 to 1975. Opened to the public following his 1995 passing, the M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage Home (19 Soi Prapinit) is an impressive compound where he once resided. It consists of five century-old teak homes collected in central Thailand over a period of 20 years. In addition to antiques and personal effects on display, there is a library which includes rare books Kukrit collected during his life. Oddly though, few international visitors seem to find their way here.
By Bruce Scott