Called Krung Thep Maha Nakhon or simply Krung Thep by the locals, the mesmerizing city of Bangkok is more than a flourishing Southeast Asian metropolis. With its unique cultural heritage and dynamic modern transformation, there is truly no other place like it in the world. While the city attracts a veritable flood of international tourists from all corners of the globe, it is just as vital to understand Bangkok’s domestic significance: more than fourteen million people live in Greater Bangkok, or approximately one-fifth of the Thai population. It has been the capital city of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, since the 18th century.
As one of two special administrative regions of Thailand, the sprawling urban center of Bangkok occupies a land area of just over 1,568 square kilometers. Located on a river delta, the city itself sits at about two meters above sea level. The Chao Phraya River, which meanders a long course through the country’s heartland, cuts through the city and flows out to the picturesque coast of the Gulf of Thailand.
Energetic and bustling, Bangkok is a global community where people from diverse cultures and backgrounds can meet and mingle. Though it once began as a humble fishing village, over the centuries this international gateway to the exotic “Land of Smiles” has grown into an exciting and dynamic metropolis that is the crown jewel of social, political and economic life for all Thais.
History & Culture
From the very beginning Bangkok’s destiny has been intimately linked to geography. With its strategic location at the Chao Praya River’s mouth, the original hamlet became a fort and customs post as early as the 16th century. It was established as Siam’s new capital by King Taksin the Great following the destruction and loss of Ayutthaya at the hands of Burmese invaders. Under the aegis of successive rulers such as Mongkut and Chulalangkorn, the city expanded as a flourishing entrepot of trade with regional neighbors as well as European merchants. Thailand avoided the fate of all other Southeast Asian nations by maintaining its independence from Western colonialism and modernizing on its own terms at the direction of its absolute monarchy. Bangkok was central to the Siamese government’s ongoing efforts to develop national power and prestige as external pressures intensified, particularly at the peak of the “imperialist age” in the late 19th century.
Ever astute in diplomacy, Thailand even managed to preserve its sovereignty during the difficult years of World War II with the arrival of the Japanese, though Bangkok and much of the country suffered military occupation. After the war, Thailand became a staunch ally of the U.S., aiding its attempts to resist the spread of Communist revolutions in neighboring countries.
With its rich and unique traditional heritage, Thailand’s cultural highlights are many. Having arrived as early as the third century B.C.E., the Theravada school of Buddhism has long played a role in the development of Thai civilization. It is still customary for most young Thai males to undergo monastic education at some point in their lives, and monks are greatly revered in society. Some notable mind-body traditions of ancient origin include the world-famous martial art of Muay Thai, as well as the healing practice of Thai massage. Traditional music and dance are also important parts of Thai culture, and like many other Asian nations its holidays such as Songkran (the New Year festival which features boisterous water throwing) follow the lunar calendar.
Economics & Politics
In the postwar years, the U.S. provided aid and investment helping to build Bangkok’s infrastructure, and the city would become a popular R&R destination for American GIs, leading to the development of tourism as well as the thriving industry of adult entertainment and the sex trade. Rapid economic growth led to the migration of millions of Thais from the countryside amid an unprecedented expansion of the urban center. Major industries today include retail trade, manufacturing (notably automotive), real estate, and finance. The Asian investment boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s led many multinationals to base their regional operations in Bangkok. It consistently ranks by many measures as one of the world’s most desirable locations for expatriates to live and work. The BTS Skytrain has now been operating for over a decade and is an extremely convenient, if crowded, air-conditioned metro system.
The political situation in Thailand is relatively well-ordered by Southeast Asian standards but nonetheless fraught with complications. The country is governed as a constitutional monarchy, with the Prime Minister as the leader of the government and the hereditary monarch as the head of state. While more democratic than many of its neighbors, Thai politics are notoriously unstable, with deep divisions and social tensions that are not always peacefully expressed. In 2006 the controversial prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by military coup, and protests in 2008 and especially 2010 turned violent, with Bangkok as the epicenter of the struggle. Currently the country is ruled by a coalition government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former PM. The Thai monarchy is steeped in patriotic as well as religious overtones and thus enjoys a broad base of support from the general population, who view the hereditary ruler as being a paramount moral authority above partisanship and the factional struggles of the day.
Places to Visit & Cuisine
One could literally spend months exploring Bangkok and still have endless room left to discover. First-time visitors will inevitably be drawn first to Rattanakosin, also known as Old Bangkok. Essential sights there include the Grand Palace, residence of the monarchy, and the beautiful Buddhist temples of Wat Arun and Wat Pho. The latter contains the renowned 43 m long Reclining Buddha statue. Other key areas of the city include Sukhumvit, the trendy newly-developed district of shopping, business, and luxury hotels, and Khao San Road, a time-worn favorite of hippie backpackers. Bangkok suffers from a dearth of green space, so if you find yourself choking amid the fumes of its notorious bustling traffic, head to the expansive Lumphini Park, where many different recreational pastimes can be enjoyed such as cycling, jogging, and boating on an artificial lake.
As if the capital city itself did not contain enough attractions, there are also numerous day trips that will appeal to a wide spectrum of sightseers. The majestic medieval ruins of Siam’s former capital of Ayutthaya are a short 2-hour train ride away. For the more hedonistically-inclined, there is the infamously decadent seaside resort of Pattaya, only 150 km to the southeast, which receives over five million annual visitors. For a more tranquil beach experience, the lovely Hua Hin is a memorable getaway ideal for family vacations.
Finally, one of the main highlights of Bangkok is the extraordinary authentic Thai cuisine. Eating is a cherished national pastime and just a few of the delicacies to enjoy include satay (beef skewers), tom yum goong (spicy soup), som tum (green papaya salad), pad thai, and kaeng kiao wan (green curry). Street vendors are ubiquitous throughout the city and even while enjoying a luxurious river cruise, visitors may enjoy the scrumptious snacks cooked up with fresh ingredients in Bangkok’s famous floating marketplace.