The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok match few people’s visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it’s a vast flatness that holds an estimated population of eleven million, and feels even bigger. Yet under the shadow of the skyscrapers you’ll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets, snail’s-pace traffic jams and hushed golden temples, of dispiriting, zombie-like sex shows and early-morning alms-giving ceremonies. Plenty of visitors enjoy the challenge of taking on the “Big Mango”, but one way or another, the place is sure to get under your skin.
Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you’re not careful you could end up watching DVDs all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major things to do in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, lively and grandiose Wat Pho and the National Museum’s hoard of exquisite works of art. Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the “Marble Temple”), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson’s House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.
For livelier things to do, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown’s bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River, which breaks up and adds zest to the city’s landscape, is the backbone of a network of canals that remains fundamentally intact in the west-bank Thonburi district. Inevitably the waterways have earned Bangkok the title of “Venice of the East”, a tag that seems all too apt when you’re wading through flooded streets in the rainy season. Back on dry land, shopping varies from touristic outlets pushing silks, handicrafts and counterfeit watches, through home-grown boutiques selling street-wise fashions and stunning contemporary decor, to thronging local markets where half the fun is watching the crowds. Thailand’s long calendar of festivals is one of the few things that has been largely decentralized away from the capital, but Bangkok does offer the country’s most varied entertainment, ranging from traditional dancing and the orchestrated bedlam of Thai boxing, through hip bars and clubs playing the latest imported sounds, to the farang-only sex bars of the notorious Patpong district, a tinseltown Babylon that’s the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Even if the above doesn’t appeal, you’ll almost certainly pass through Bangkok once, if not several times – not only is it Thailand’s main port of entry, it’s also the obvious place to sort out onward travel, with good deals on international air tickets, as well as a convenient menu of embassies for visas to neighbouring countries.
Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank, where the French had built a grand, but short-lived, fort in the 1660s. The first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his palace at Ratanakosin, within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city’s spiritual heart.
Initially, the city was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals; even shops and warehouses were moored to the river bank. A major shift in emphasis came in the second half of the nineteenth century, first under Rama IV (1851–68), who as part of his effort to restyle the capital along European lines built Bangkok’s first roads, and then under Rama V (1868–1910), who constructed a new residential palace in Dusit, north of Ratanakosin, and laid out that area’s grand boulevards.
The modern metropolis
Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernization, which has blown away earlier attempts at orderly planning and left the city without an obvious centre. Most of the canals have been filled in, replaced by endless rows of cheap, functional concrete shophouses, high-rises and housing estates, sprawling across a built-up area of over 300 square kilometres. The benefits of Thailand’s economic boom since the 1980s have been concentrated in Bangkok, attracting migration from all over the country and making the capital ever more dominant: the population, over half of which is under 30 years of age, is now forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai.
Every aspect of national life is centralized in the city, but the mayor of Bangkok is not granted enough power to deal with the ensuing problems, notably that of traffic – which in Bangkok now comprises four-fifths of the nation’s automobiles. The Skytrain and the subway have undoubtedly helped, but the competing systems don’t intersect properly or ticket jointly, and it’s left to ingenious, local solutions such as the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boats and side-street motorbike taxis to keep the city moving. And there’s precious little chance to escape from the pollution in green space: the city has only 0.4 square metres of public parkland per inhabitant, the lowest figure in the world, compared, for example, to London’s 30.4 square metres per person.
Top image © Chatchai Somwat/Shutterstock