General Information About BangkokArea: 1,569 km² Population: 8.281 million Language: Thai Currency: Thai Baht
Covering an area of 1,500 square kilometers, the greater Bangkok Metropolis fits into the ‘big city’ league with great ease. Add to that an estimated ten million inhabitants, more than 30,000 taxis and an ever-increasing number of tourists, and you’ll soon realize that getting to grips with such a vast concrete jungle is no easy feat, especially if you’re a first-time visitor. This is where our Area Guides come in pretty handy… Certain areas have become more popular than others, largely due to their good location and the things there to do and see - be it traditional attractions, shopping highlights or a notoriously famous nightlife scene. Navigating this exciting city has also become much easier, thanks to the Skytrain (BTS) and underground (MRT) systems connecting large areas. Get to know Bangkok a little better before your trip
Bangkok became the capital of Siam (as Thailand was previously known) in 1782, when General Chao Phraya Chakkri, the founder of the ruling Chakkri dynasty, assumed the throne as Rama I and moved the court from the west to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. The move appears to have been dictated by strategic considerations: the wide westward bend in the river constituted a wide moat guarding the northern, western, and southern perimeters of the new site. To the east stretched a vast, swampy delta called the Sea of Mud, which could be traversed only with extreme difficulty. Rama I modeled the new city on the former capital, Ayutthaya, 40 miles (64 km) to the north. By the end of his reign the city was established. The walled Grand Palace complex and the temple Wat Pho were completed. A new city wall, perhaps the most imposing structure, skirted the river and Khlong Ong Ang to the east; it was 4.5 miles (7 km) long, 10 feet (3 meters) thick, and 13 feet (4 meters) high, and it had 63 gates and 15 forts. The area enclosed amounted to 1.5 square miles (4 square km).
More wats were built during the reigns of Rama II (1809–24) and Rama III (1824–51). They served as schools, libraries, hospitals, and recreation areas, as well as religious centres. During these years Wat Arun, noted for its tall spire, Wat Yan Nawa, and Wat Bowon Niwet were completed, Wat Pho was further enlarged, and Wat Sutat was begun. There were, however, few other substantial buildings and fewer paved streets; the river and the network of interconnected canals served as roadways.
Rama IV (1851–68) developed the city while continuing, at a reduced rate, the traditional building of watts. The Grand Palace was improved, a number of substantial dwellings were constructed for members of the royal family, several new streets were laid down, and a reduction was made in the large number of floating houses anchored along the riverfront. A new route, Charoen Krung (New Road), leading southward, was constructed, and a new city moat, Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem, parallel to the city’s first canal, was dug and fortified; a long canal led from it to the present port area (Khlong Toei), thus allowing small boats to bypass the large bend in the river immediately south of the city. A pony path, now a major highway, was laid atop the mud heaped up beside this waterway.
During the long reign of Rama V, King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), the city was transformed through a program of public works. The great triple-spired Chakkri Building in the Grand Palace was completed by 1880. The Dusit Palace and an ancillary garden city were later built beyond the wall, being connected to the Grand Palace by the European-inspired Ratchadamnoen Nok Road. A road- and bridge-building program was embarked on in earnest, because King Chulalongkorn, an early automobile enthusiast, foresaw the effect that the motor vehicle would have on city development. Most of the now obsolete city wall was pulled down to build the roads, but two forts, a large gate, and a section of the wall were preserved. The centenary of the city, in 1882, was marked by the inauguration of many social reforms, manifested in the public buildings used for their administration, as well as by the completion of the great royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, which housed the Emerald Buddha. A post and telegraph service was organized in the 1880s, an electric tram service was instituted on Charoen Krung in 1892, and the first line of the State Railway, running from Bangkok to Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, opened in 1900. Nor were aesthetic considerations forgotten, for other new buildings included the marble temple of Wat Benchamabopit (1900), elegant bridges in the French style, and the Italian-inspired National Assembly Hall (Throne Hall).
Rama VI (1910–25) continued the program of public works. He established Chulalongkorn University in 1916, built a system of locks to control the level of waterways throughout the city, and gave the public its first and largest recreational area-Lumphini Park. During Rama VII’s reign (1925–35) municipal areas were delimited as part of a general administrative reorganization aimed at decentralization. In 1937 Bangkok was formally divided into the municipalities of Krung Thep and Thon Buri. At the time of their establishment, the two municipalities, approximately equal in area, together covered about 37 square miles (96 square km); about four-fifths of the city’s population lived in Krung Thep.
Since World War II Bangkok has grown with unprecedented rapidity, which caused problems with transportation, communication, housing, water supply, drainage, and pollution. Tourism rose in importance during the Vietnam War, when the city became a popular destination for U.S. military personnel. By the 1980s, nightclubs and the tourist sex trade-as well as crime and sexually transmitted diseases-were flourishing. Although prostitution is formally illegal and the number of prostitutes per capita is lower in Thailand than in some other Asian countries, the city’s commercial sex industry employs an estimated 100,000 people and is popular among foreign tourists. However, the vast majority of clients are Thai nationals. To combat abuses, notably underage prostitution, the government stiffened penalties for both patrons and brothel operators during the 1990s. That those responsible for modernizing the metropolis are coping with these problems suggests the appropriateness of its official emblem: the God Indra seated atop a sacred white elephant, the four tusks of which denote its celestial status and its ability to accomplish the impossible. Throughout the 1980s the city experienced an economic boom, which was blunted by an economic crisis that hit Asia in the late 1990s. However, the city continued its role as one of Asia’s most important tourist, financial, and commercial centres. The city’s uniquely Thai character, while perhaps diminishing, provides a vibrant backdrop for Bangkok’s cosmopolitan image.
The most important cultural feature of Bangkok is the wat. There are more than 300 such temples, representing classic examples of Thai architecture. Most are enclosed by walls. Many wats have leased a portion of their grounds for residential or commercial use.
The National Museum houses prehistoric and Bronze Age art relics, as well as royal objects dating to the 6th century ad. The city also houses the National Library and the Thai National Documentation Department. Jim Thompson’s Thai House, named for a U.S. entrepreneur and devotee of Thai culture, is composed of several traditional Thai mansions; it contains the country’s largest collection of 17th-century Thai religious paintings. There are also collections of Dvaravati and Khmer sculpture, in addition to examples of Thai and Chinese pottery and porcelain. In 1987 the 200-acre (80-hectare) King Rama IX Royal Park with its extensive botanical gardens was opened to commemorate the king’s 60th birthday.
All of the country’s daily newspapers and most of its weeklies and monthlies are published in Bangkok. Newspapers are printed in Thai, English, and Chinese. Radio and television are controlled by government agencies and the military. Most of the nation’s radio stations and all of its television stations are located in or near Bangkok. Most programs are in Thai, but some special programs are in English and Chinese. Motion pictures are extremely popular. There is a thriving Thai cinema industry, but films are also imported.
Fairs, festivals, and “kite-fighting” contests are held in the parks. The Ratchadamnoen and Lumphini stadiums host professional boxing bouts featuring the highly ritualistic form of boxing known as Muai Thai. Silapakorn National Theatre presents dancing, drama and music.
EducationBecause of its high proportion of school-age citizens, Bangkok’s educational facilities are overburdened. There are too few schools, and the standard of instruction varies. Literacy is extremely high, however. Many of the government-built preprimary and primary schools are located on monastery grounds. Private primary and secondary schools run by foreign religious missions train the children of the elite. There are many private Chinese primary schools and night schools. The city has several universities. Wat Pho, long a traditional centre of learning, has often been considered the city’s first university; it is one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok.
The population’s outstanding demographic characteristics—its youth and the low proportion of non-Thais—are explained by the high rate of natural increase and by the restrictive foreign immigration quotas adopted after World War II. Roughly two-fifths of the residents are under 20 years of age. The birth rate has declined since the introduction of a birth control program. At the same time, the net in-migration of young adults, particularly females, has increased greatly, so that more than a quarter of the resident population of the city is made up of migrant Thais from all parts of the country.
Most of the city’s population is ethnic Thais. The Chinese are by far the largest minority, but there are sizable communities of other Asians, North Americans, and Europeans. Despite their small size, the foreign communities tend to live in certain areas. The Chinese concentrate in the commercial area of Sam Peng, Indians gather around mosques in the Wang Burapha section, and the Western and Japanese communities reside in the affluent, modern eastern section of the city.
Of the foreign groups, the Chinese enter the most intimately into city life. They appear to assimilate readily, and intermarriage is frequent. Their offspring are Thai citizens, and many Chinese families take Thai surnames and are naturalized.
The governmental and commercial districts of the city occupy traditional sites. Government offices were originally housed in the walled compound of the 18th-century Grand Palace, but by the late 19th century they occupied surrounding palaces and mansions. The bureaucracy then spread outward into nearby colonial-style or Thai-style office buildings and homes along Ratchadamnoen Road. Multistoried buildings have been erected to meet the ever-increasing demand for space, and the traditional government compounds have become overbuilt. A number of large camps around and north of the National Assembly Hall constitute the military area.
When Bangkok became the national capital in the 18th century and its citadel was moved to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, Chinese merchants and tradesmen occupying the site moved a short distance southward to the area now known as Sam Peng. Business was at first carried on in one-story wood and thatch houses. By the early 1900s a number of streets had been lined with two-story masonry shop-houses. This ever-expanding district now contains rows of shop-houses that are sometimes five or more stories high. Warehouses line both banks of the river just south of Sam Peng, while industry is concentrated at Sam Rong, south of the port. Nightlife flourishes on Pat Pong Road. The financial district straddles Silom Road.
In the Floating Market a variety of foods and merchandise are sold daily from boats on the canals near Wat Sai. Formerly several such markets and innumerable door-to-door floating vendors served the daily needs of the city’s residents.
IndustryThere are many factories in the metropolitan area, but most operate on a small scale. Larger plants are located in the vicinity of the port, near the warehouses that store imported materials. Manufacturing is chiefly confined to food processing, textiles, the assembly of electronic equipment, and the production of building materials. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the government emphasized reducing congestion in the city and placed a high priority on locating industrial parks on the fringes of Bangkok. Roughly one-third of the country’s output is produced in the city, and nearly half of all firms are located in the metropolitan area. Tourism has increased greatly and is now a major source of revenue in Bangkok.
Bangkok houses about one-third of the country’s banking units, holding three-fourths of all deposits. The Industrial Finance Corporation of Thailand, the Board of Investment, and the Securities Exchange of Thailand are also located in the city.
Culture and History Bangkok
Thailand is a nation that is built on several distinct pillars, including Buddhism and Monarchy. Modern Thailand is influenced by religion, although since the turn of the 20th century, the face of the country has been shaped by numerous outside influences, including Islam, Chinese migration and Westernization. Music, dance, cuisine, language, and art have all played a role in shaping the Thailand of the 21st century.
Centuries before a united country was established, the area was a formation of several different empires, including the Khmer, Lanna, Mon and Malay kingdoms. The first “Thailand” in recorded history is said to be the Kingdom of Sukhothai, which was established midway through the 13th century. Sukhothai continued to grow and develop, becoming the leading kingdom in the region until the mid-14th century, when it was overshadowed and by the ascending Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Ayutthaya is located in the Mae-nam or Chao Phraya valley, which allowed them to expand rapidly as it traded with neighboring states such as China, India, Persia, and European merchants. By the 16th century, they were a dominant power and occupied the legendary site of Angkor from the Khmer Empire, and eventually absorbed northern Thailand’s Lanna Kingdom. In 1767, Ayutthaya was ransacked by an invading Burmese army, and subsequently destroyed. Travelers can explore the ruins at the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park (Khlong Tho, Pratu Chai, 1300).
Upon its demise, the King of Siam (as Thailand was formerly known), King Taksin, moved the entire population to Thonburi and founded a new capital, still upon the Chao Phraya River. After 15 years, his successor, King Chakri, moved it again to its present day location of Bangkok. This became known as the Chakri Dynasty, which still continues to this day. Their Rattanakosin history can be seen at several locations throughout the country, including the Siam Museum (4 Sanam Chai Road, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok) and the National Museum (Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Bangkok).
As colonialism shaped Asia between the 18th and 20th centuries, and all of its neighbors succumbed to European powers, Thailand remained a sovereign state. It used the British and French rivalry to create a buffer zone between the nations. French Indochina and British Asia became separated by Thailand, but still largely influenced the country. In 1932, the first of 17 Thai military coups took place. Absolute monarchy was replaced by a Constitutional Monarchy, vesting political power in the people.
A key US ally in the Vietnam conflict, Thailand prospered as a stable (yet somewhat militarily run) country through the sixties and seventies as it buckled down to become the next Asian manufacturing powerhouse. Mass migration took place to Bangkok as agriculture reformed and grew.
After more than a dozen governments toppled through military coups in the 1980’s, Thailand became a leading Southeast Asian nation, with a stable economy from thriving agriculture and tourism. However, it was responsible for setting off the Asian economic crisis of 1997 which hit the country hard.
In 2006, a bloodless coup overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra’s democratic government, following widespread allegations of corruption and power monopolization, which has led to an ongoing divide between the urban elite/middle class and rural poor. In 2010, Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government experienced a massive protest that lasted several weeks and left 87 dead. Eventual, the trouble subsided, but lost reelection to Thaksin Shinawatra’s younger sister, Yingluck, a political proxy for her sibling who remains in exile to avoid criminal charges.
Buddhism blankets much of Thailand, except for the heavy Muslim influence in the south. Temples, which are known as wats in Thai, are ubiquitous throughout the country, known for their golden decorations and ornate buildings. In Bangkok, Wat Pho, Wat Arun and Wat Phra Kaew are among the most visited sites in the country. Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra Doi Suthep is another famous temple worth exploring.
There are numerous etiquette rules which should be abided, which first and foremost is to respect the monarchy. Any bad talk about the King or his family is strictly forbidden. Touching another person’s head is taboo, as is pointing the feet. Light skin is a symbol of wealth, and as Westerners have tanning salons, the Thais have whitening salons, coupled with many brands of cosmetic pastes meant to lighten the skin. Spirits are also a large part of Thai culture, which is why almost everyone seems to believe in ghosts. Spirit houses are the norm outside most residences and office buildings.
The main sport in Thailand is boxing, which is also known as “Muay Thai.” It is the art of nine deadly weapons, with fighters using the fists, elbows, knees, and legs to down their opponent. Football is another popular pastime, with the English Premier league being showed on television almost every day.
National Identity In the twentieth century, the culture of the Central Tai came to dominate the national culture. The military dictator, Phibun, passed a number of Cultural Mandates that promoted a centralized national culture and identity. Other mandates promoted the use of the national dress and the national language.
Ethnic Relations Thailand often is portrayed as a culturally homogeneous country, but there are approximately seventy-five distinct ethno linguistic groups. The Central Tai is the dominant ethnic group and accounts for 36 percent of the population. The Thai-Lao and Lanna Tai, who together account for about 40 percent of the population, were not assimilated into the national culture until the twentieth century.
Marriage In general, individuals find their own marriage partners, although the choice of a spouse may be influenced by one's family among the wealthy. The value of goods provided to the couple and elaborateness of the wedding ceremony vary with the wealth of the families of the couple. Polygyny was common among the elite in the past but is now rare, although wealthy and powerful men often have a de facto second wife known as a minor wife. Divorce is not difficult and is usually a matter of a couple ceasing to live together and dividing their property.
Domestic Unit The ideal is for a married couple to establish its own household as soon as possible. However, especially among poorer couples, residence with the parents of the husband or wife is common. The nuclear family is the core of the domestic unit, but it often includes members of the extended family. Including unmarried siblings, widowed parents, and more distant unmarried or widowed male and female relatives the husband is nominally the head of the household, but the wife has considerable authority. Female members of the household are responsible for most domestic chores.
Inheritance Property generally is divided equally among the children after the parents die. However, it is common practice for one child, usually the youngest daughter, to assume primary responsibility for looking after the parents in their old age, and this person inherits the family home.
Kin Groups the Central Tai reckon descent bilaterally. Various forms of kin groups may be formed. The most common type is formed by siblings, married children, and sometimes more distant relatives living in a multihousehold compound. Members of these groups may share domestic and other tasks. Sometimes larger kin groups encompass several compounds to form a hamlet cluster. In some instances, a hamlet cluster forms around a wealthy and powerful individual.