Amongst the biggest and liveliest of South Asia’s cities Bangkok revels in much of Thailand’s wealth and is considerably larger than the country’s next biggest city – ten times bigger! Government is based there and it is Thailand’s Royal Family’s residential base.
Bangkok has many facets and the traveler will experience many of these; masses of people and cars; the traffic congestion is well-known, to the exotic and erotic nightlife, through splendid catering and cuisine at the hotels and restaurants, the marvelous shopping opportunities and the many, varied tourist attractions.
The Chao Phraya River which bisects Bangkok, is Thailand’s longest river. Four main rivers in Northern Thailand top up the watershed that feeds the Chao Phraya. Bangkok’s temporary predecessor, Thon Buri – founded in 1769 as capital after the vanquishing of Ayutthaya by King Taksin – lies on the west bank of the river. King Taksin’s successor moved the seat of power to the east side and labeled Bangkok as capital three years later.
Bangkok’s official name, dating from the end of the 18th century, is made up of 50 syllables, the first two of which – Krung Thep – make up the name the locals give to Bangkok. To summarise; it is known popularly as the City of Angels, and was made more famous by the 1975 hit for Murray Head, the song ‘One night in Bangkok’ from the musical ‘Chess’.
The municipal area of Bangkok, which covers more than 560km², is home to at least six million people. Commuters from as far away as Ayutthaya and Rayong and a multitude of neighbouring satellite towns flood into the city regularly.
Historic Bangkok was home to many canals, earning itself the soubriquet of ‘Venice of the East’. After the early 20th century however, many of these canals were filled in to allow for the creation of drainage systems and more conventional streets. The few that do remain can still be seen, but tend to be heavily polluted. Across the river more canals have survived and it is possible to tour within the city of Thon Buri to see how Bangkok used to be.
Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue has always been the hub of political activity, especially political change. The military government was forced to resign in October 1973 after students demanded a proper constitution; maintaining their actions and emphasizing them with bloody clashes until they had succeeded.
Bloodshed resulted again, exactly three years later, ending when the military stepped in to install a right wing government. The people took to the streets again, in May 1992, after shock coup the year before, and the government was impelled to cede power after further bloodshed.
Chronic traffic congestion plagues Bangkok, despite the 1999 opening of the Skytrain and the metro system which followed in 2005. The rush can start as early as 6.30am running until 10.00am; then returning at 3.30pm when the schools let out and continuing well into the evening. September-October; late in the rainy season, is a time potentially fraught with risk as floodwater from the North causes chaos, particularly when combined with high tides and tropical storms.
The Royal Quarter partly comprised of Rattanokosin Island and Banglamphu are prohibited to mass transit systems. The only points of entry are by bus, taxi and boat. The area is home to many of the key historic attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Po and the National Museum to name just three– hence the ban above.
The unofficial centre of the city is the Siam Square and Silom area, where the subway lines draw together and many visitors find themselves. Along the Sukkumvit Road can be found the expat community, over the last thirty years, as they have established themselves there, a thriving development of hotels, shopping malls and restaurants has arisen. This area, containing the country’s most sumptuous retail attractions and is frequented by the well-to-do sophisticates. Perhaps it is no great shock that this area and adjoining blocks was targeted by the ‘Red Shirt’ protesters for their 2010 siege. The protracted siege ended when the army came into clear the area and the retreating protesters set fire to some of the buildings.
The wide avenues and leafy suburbs of the Dusit area were developed under the reign of King Rama V towards the end of the 19th century. The present home of many government departments and Government House it is also where the Vimanmek Palace, the National Assembly and Chitlada Palace – the King’s residence – can be found. The Royal Turf Club and a zoo are in the area also.
A cluster of guesthouses found their way into a Lonely Planet guidebook – fast forward twenty years and you have the Khao San Road, a haven for a wide range of backpackers and tourists from far and wide as well as travelers from Thailand itself, it is now one of the liveliest and busiest tourist areas in the city.
Chinatown and Phahurat, where time seems to have stopped, the area retaining its old character is a must-see for visitors to get an idea of the traditional flavor of the country. Another tourist venue, albeit for very different reasons is Patpong – a pair of streets named for the original owner in the1960’s who leased the shops to go-go bar proprietors and others hoping to cater to the crowds of Westerners; mostly GIs on leave from Vietnam.
95% of Thailands estimated 200 000 US$ millionaires in live and around Bangkok. While the median salary for a factory worker is around 8 000 baht (US$250), a 45m² luxury studio requires about 40 000 baht per month. A pavement restaurant will ask a mere 20 baht for a bowl of noodles, but a pint of Guinness at a typical Sukkumvit pub costs 250 baht! The truly wealthy can visit the new Siam Paragon shopping mall and indulge in a Maserati, Ferrari or Bentley – but be prepared for duty charged at 250%!
Getting to Bangkok
Recent improvements to the transport network and traffic infrastructure mean that Bangkok is the key point in Thailand travel and transport; boasting links to the southern islands, the north of the country and other regions too. One of the world’s largest airports means Bangkok is an important player in travel.
International flights; including non-stop services to the USAs east and west coasts; transit flights from Europe, ultimately destined for Australia; from over 40 different airlines in many different countries ply their trade at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Not to be forgotten are the many budget airlines – more than 10 – that make regional flights, practically hourly, within the region, to destinations both within Thailand and to neighbouring countries.
The rail network which extends from Bangkok is somewhat sparse, but locals and finance-conscious tourists alike make good use of the busy bus service – VIP services available – which covers all areas of the country. While rush-hour traffic is infamous, reasonably priced taxis are available for negotiating the city; but the best bet of all is the BTS Skytrain or MTR Metro; fast and efficient and geared towards the areas of the city that are designed for the tourist. Boats are also available on the rivers and canals for a slightly different transport experience.