Bangkok, or Krung Thep as Thais call it these days, has grown from a swampy settlement on the Chao Phraya River to a buzzling Asian metropolis. How has this city transformed from its humble beginnings to a force majeure in the region? Within its perimeters, past, present, and future collide and make this place unforgettable in both physical and spiritual planes.
After the demise of Ayutthaya, King Taksin gathered his troops, won many battles, gained back Siam’s sovereignty, and settled in Thonburi—as the Thai capital—for 15 years. In 1782 King Rama I then founded Bangkok, across the river from Thonburi, because of its better strategic location. Modelled after Ayutthaya, the Grand Palace and its glittering spires became the centre point, while the river and canals wrapped around this new capital as moats.
In Thai, “bang” means a village situated on a waterway. Hence, the rest of Bangkok’s name possibly derives from either the word “koh” meaning an island or “makok” meaning wild plums (that used to grow in the area). Once a customs outpost and mooring spot for ships, it was compared to Amsterdam and Venice. As a province, its old name was Phra Nakorn—or Thai for Angkor—meaning a grand city. Now, akin to Los Angeles, it has become the “City of Angels” with its new official name, Krung Thep.
During the height of King Rama III’s reign, trading with foreign countries prospered. His Majesty completed the construction of the big prang of Wat Arun, or “the Temple of Dawn”, one of Bangkok’s historical landmarks, after his father King Rama II’s initiation. However, it’s on the old capital side, like Bangkok’ rive gauche. Not until 1971 did Thonburi and Bangkok merge into one province. Other Thai cities, such as Chiang Mai and Korat, cannot even compare to the size of Bangkok’s population. Over the last two centuries this city has metamorphosed into an extraordinary place.
During the era of colonization in Southeast Asia, foreign powers began closing in on Siam. Kings Rama IV and V controlled the country’s fate and changed the faces of Bangkok’s buildings. Palaces, temples, mansions, and even shophouses during that period were influenced by the European architectural styles. In the 19th Century the next wave of Chinese émigrés arrived and worked their ways from rags to riches. These first generations led to Sino-Thai family dynasties which are now the captains of the country’s industries, businesses, and finance. But many of their humble abodes in Chinatown and the neighbouring districts were destroyed in the name of progress. Fortunately, some of these shophouses and warehouses have been restored and repurposed for 21st Century hipsters.
Fascinatingly, Bangkok’s metropolitan seal is Indra, the Hindu God of the Sky with a green body, on Airavata or Erawan, a mythical white elephant. The emblem appears all in green. Its colour was conceivably inspired by the Emerald Buddha image, made from jade, which is one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddha images. It also contributes the name of this era—Rattanakosin, meaning the “jewel of Indra”. However, the real estate boom has led to condominiums and shopping malls mushrooming all over the city, causing Bangkok to lose its green space. Lumphini Park, established by King Rama VI, is merely the small green heart. With King Rama IX’s projects, Bangkok has kept its green lungs in Bang Krachao, the largest urban zone without any tall buildings and skyscrapers. But without respectable city planning and birth control policies for condominiums and other developments, this space may also be invaded in the future.
Bangkok may not perfectly represent Thailand but it is now the centre of everything—government, economy, commerce, education, religion, transportation, art and culture, etc. Hence, during the week there may be over 10 million people traversing through Bangkok and its environs, rather than the 7 million inhabitants in Bangkok proper. This results in many issues that earn Bangkok many superlatives: the longest traffic jams; the hottest city; the worst air pollution; etc. This would-be megacity is also barely above sea level, so floods are common here. The area was once full of rice fields and fruit orchards, and is more conducive for agriculture than real estate. Why do angels want to live in purgatory?
Bangkok’s future may lie under water because it keeps sinking, like Venice. If we are not trying to solve these problems of traffic congestion, pollution, and overpopulation, we are going to be inundated and live in the Netherworld. But if it all goes under water one day, just remember that you’re in the “City of Angels” and angels can fly.
Bangkok is the place that many people—including me—call home, whether it is Heaven or Hell.