Whether native or newcomer, virtually every Bangkokian you meet has a story. Although no doubt a majority find themselves here owing to the simple fact that they were born in the city, a healthy percentage of the population hail from other parts of Thailand and from around the world. Some migrate for the promise of work, others for the promise of a life in new and exciting circumstances.
Climb into one the capital’s brightly coloured, ubiquitous taxis and the music playing from your driver’s radio or cassette player will often suggest where he or she is from. If it’s mo lam, with the churning sound of Thai-Lao bamboo pan-pipes (khaen) pounding out Zydeco-like chord figures over a strong, simple rhythm, then chances are your drive moved to Bangkok from one of Thailand’s distant northeastern provinces such as Roi-Et or Sakon Nakhon. Switch to luuk thung, a unique hybrid of Thai, Indian and Latin musical influences popular with rural audiences, and the driver almost certainly comes from a province closer to Bangkok, perhaps Suphanburi or Saraburi. And if it’s syrupy Thai city pop or an older, crooning Bangkok style called luuk krung then you’ve most likely hitched a ride with a rare city native.
Switch on the television and tune in to a Bangkok channel around 8pm and let Thai soap opera plots fill in the details of the Bangkok story. Most are set in the capital city and although they are hardly realistic – the men are always handsome, the women beautiful, even their automobiles are spotless – the plotlines are propped up by Bangkok realities. A young Thai Isan girl from the northeastern countryside takes a service job in a wealthy Bangkok household, and the resulting weekly culture clashes keep Thai viewers glued to the screen.
If you could sneak a peek at what Bangkokians eat for breakfast, you’d have a fighting chance at guessing the main trunk of their respective family trees. Khao tom phui, an array of small dishes of dried fish, peanuts and pickled vegetables eaten with hot rice soup, strongly suggests Chinese ancestry. Spot a plate of steaming kaeng khiaw-waan (Thai green curry) or kaeng phet (Thai red curry) over rice and it’s likely your diner comes from mostly Thai genes. A thai pak tai from southern Thailand might be digging into khao yam, a spicy salad of rice, shaved lemongrass, toasted coconut and tamarind sauce. If khao niaw – semi-transparent glutinous rice – is part of the morning meal, it’s almost certain your Bangkok resident hails from northern or northeastern Thailand.
Only a little over half of the city’s inhabitants are in fact true Bangkok Thais; that is, people born of Thai parentage who speak Bangkok Thai as their first language. Thais are found in all walks of life, although they make up the backbone of the city’s blue-collar workforce, prominently construction, automotive repair and river transport. Although Thais can naturally be found in all corners of the city, the old rich tend to live in walled manors in Suan Phlu and Pathumwan, the middle-class in tall condo projects off Sukhumvit Road, the working-class along the river and the poor in the slums of Khlong Toey or Makkasan.
Over a quarter of the city’s population come from Chinese or mixed Thai and Chinese descent. Chinese influence can be felt throughout central Thailand’s Chao Phraya Delta but in Bangkok it is so strong that in certain areas of the city – such as Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, or Pathumwan, the city’s wealthiest precinct – you can almost imagine you’re in Hong Kong or Singapore rather than Thailand.
Although Chinese Thais live in every quarter of the sprawling city, their presence is most evident in a densely populated core of multi-story shophouses along Charoen Krung and Yaowarat roads near the Chao Phraya River, a precinct known as Yaowarat or Sampeng. The Chinese in these areas tend to engage themselves in all manner of commerce, from wholesale trade in auto parts to the manufacture of high-end kitchen utensils. In other parts of the city they dominate higher education, international trade, banking and white-collar employment in general.
Also prominent are people of South Asian descent, who make up Bangkok’s second largest Asian minority. Most trace their heritage to northern India, including many Sikhs who immigrated following the 1947 Partition of India. Other South Asian nationalities found in Bangkok include Sinhalese, Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Pakistanis. Most of the city’s South Asians can be found in two areas. The heaviest concentration find themselves wedged in at the north end of Yaowarat between Chakraphet and Phahurat roads, in a neighborhood known to English speakers as Little India.
South Asian residents are also more thinly spread along and nearby Charoen Krung Road, near junctions with Silom and Surawong roads, an area collectively known as Bang Rak. In both areas they operate a multitude of successful retail businesses, particularly textile dealers and tailor shops.
Malays and Thais who are part-Malay and who adhere to Islam make up the third largest minority in Bangkok. Like residents of South Asian descent, many can be found living in Bang Rak, and like the majority Thais they tend to be found in blue-collar jobs.
Centuries before the Thais migrated into the area, the Chao Phraya River Delta in and around Bangkok was home to the Mon. Bangkokians of Mon descent can still be found in some districts, particularly on Ko Kret, an island in the middle of the river in northern Bangkok and in neighboring Pathum Thani Province. The Mon have their own language and culture, both of which have exercised a significant influence on modern Thai culture.
Bangkok residents of European descent may number around 100,000. The vast majority, unlike their Asian counterparts, find themselves in Thailand for only a few months or years for reasons of work or study. Perhaps reflecting their significant roles in the early development of Bangkok, residents of German and British descent appear to be most prominent.
Whatever the nationality, no matter how little or how much money may line their pockets, Bangkok manages to accommodate all comers in a wide variety of circumstances. Addicted to the city’s throbbing, megalopolitan heartbeat, most would not choose to live elsewhere even when they can.