Since the late 18th century, the history of Bangkok has essentially been the history of Thailand. Many of the country’s defining events have unfolded here, and today the language, culture and food of the city have come to represent those of the entire country. This role is unlikely, given the city’s origins as little more than an obscure Chinese trading port, but today boasting a population of 10 million, it is certain that Bangkok will be shaping Thailand’s history for some time to come.
One of Taksin’s key generals, Phraya Chakri, came to power and was crowned in 1782 as Phra Yot Fa. Fearing Thonburi to be vulnerable to Burmese attack from the west, Chakri moved the Siamese capital across the river to Baang Mákàwk (Olive Plum riverbank), named for the trees that grew there in abundance. As the first monarch of the new Chakri royal dynasty – which continues to this day – Phraya Chakri was posthumously dubbed King Rama I.
The first task set before the planners of the new city was to create hallowed ground for royal palaces and Buddhist monasteries. Astrologers divined that construction of the new royal palace should begin on 6 May 1782, and ceremonies consecrated Rama I’s transfer to a temporary new residence a month later.
Construction of permanent throne halls, residence halls and palace temples followed.
The plan of the original buildings, their position relative to the river and the royal chapel, and the royal parade and cremation grounds to the north of the palace (today’s Sanam Luang) exactly copied the royal compound at Ayuthaya. Master craftsmen who had survived the sacking of Ayuthaya created the designs for several of the more magnificent temples and royal administrative buildings in the new capital.
Upon completion of the royal district in 1785, at a three-day consecration ceremony attended by tens of thousands of Siamese, the city was given a new name: ‘Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit’. This lexical gymnastic feat translates roughly as: ‘Great City of Angels, the Repository of Divine Gems, the Great Land Unconquerable, the Grand and Prominent Realm, the Royal and Delightful Capital City full of Nine Noble Gems, the Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, the Divine Shelter and Living Place of Reincarnated Spirits’.
Foreign traders continued to call the capital Bang Makok, which eventually truncated itself to ‘Bangkok’, the name most commonly known to the outside world. The Thais, meanwhile, commonly use a shortened version of the name, Krung Thep (City of Angels) or, when referring to the city and burgeoning metropolitan area surrounding it, Krung Thep Mahanakhon (Metropolis of the City of Angels).
In time, Ayuthaya’s control of tribute states in Laos and western Cambodia (including Angkor, ruled by the Siamese from 1432 to 1859) was transferred to Bangkok, and thousands of prisoners of war were brought to the capital to work as coolie labour. Bangkok also had ample access to free Thai labour via the phrâi lǔang (commoner/noble) system, under which all commoners were required to provide labour to the state in lieu of taxes.
Using this immense pool of labour, Rama I augmented Bangkok’s natural canal-and-river system with hundreds of artificial waterways feeding into Thailand’s hydraulic lifeline, the broad Mae Nam Chao Phraya. Chakri also ordered the construction of 10km of city walls and khlawng râwp krung (canals around the city), to create a royal ‘island’ – Ko Ratanakosin – between Mae Nam Chao Phraya and the canal loop. Sections of the 4.5m-thick walls still stand in Wat Saket and the Golden Mount, and water still flows, albeit sluggishly, in the canals of the original royal district.
The break with Ayuthaya was ideological as well as temporal. As Chakri shared no bloodline with earlier royalty, he garnered loyalty by modelling himself as a Dhammaraja (dhamma king) supporting Buddhist law rather than a Devaraja (god king) linked to the divine.
Under the second and third reigns of the Chakri dynasty, more temples were built and the system of rivers, streams and natural canals surrounding the capital was augmented by the excavation of additional waterways. Waterborne traffic dominated the city, supplemented by a meagre network of footpaths, well into the middle of the 19th century.
Temple construction remained the highlight of early development in Bangkok until the reign of Rama III (1824–51), when attention turned to upgrading the port for international sea trade. The city soon became a regional centre for Chinese trading ships, slowly surpassing even the British port at Singapore.
By the mid-19th century Western naval shipping technology had eclipsed the Chinese junk fleets. Bangkok’s rulers began to feel threatened as the British and French made colonial inroads into Cambodia, Laos and Burma. This prompted the suspension of a great iron chain across Mae Nam Chao Phraya to guard against the entry of unauthorised ships.
During the reign of the first five Chakri kings, canal building constituted the lion’s share of public works projects, changing the natural geography of the city, and city planners added two lengthy canals to one of the river’s largest natural curves. The canals Khlong Rop Krung (today’s Khlong Banglamphu) and Khlong Ong Ang were constructed to create Ko Ratanakosin. The island quickly accumulated an impressive architectural portfolio centred on the Grand Palace, political hub of the new Siamese capital, and the adjacent royal monastery of Wat Phra Kaew.
Throughout the early history of the Chakri Dynasty, royal administrations added to the system. Khlong Mahawawat was excavated during the reign of King Rama IV to link Mae Nam Chao Phraya with Mae Nam Tha Chin, thus expanding the canal-and-river system by hundreds of kilometres. Lined with fruit orchards and stilted houses draped with fishing nets, Khlong Mahawawat remains one of the most traditional and least visited of the Bangkok canals.
Khlong Saen Saep was built to shorten travel between Mae Nam Chao Phraya and Mae Nam Bang Pakong, and today is heavily used by boat-taxi commuters moving across the city. Likewise Khlong Sunak Hon and Khlong Damoen Saduak link up the Tha Chin and Mae Klong. Khlong Prem Prachakon was dug purely to facilitate travel for Rama V between Bangkok and Ayuthaya, while Khlong Prawet Burirom shortened the distance between Samut Prakan and Chachoengsao provinces.
When King Rama IV loosened Thai trade restrictions, many Western powers signed trade agreements with the monarch. He also sponsored Siam’s second printing press and instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines. Although the king courted the West, he did so with caution and warned his subjects: ‘Whatever they have invented or done which we should know of and do, we can imitate and learn from them, but do not wholeheartedly believe in them.’ Rama IV was the first monarch to show his face to the Thai public.
In 1861 Bangkok’s European diplomats and merchants delivered a petition to Rama IV requesting roadways so that they could enjoy horseback riding for physical fitness and pleasure. The royal government acquiesced, and established a handful of roads suitable for horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws. The first – and the most ambitious road project for nearly a century to come – was Th Charoen Krung (also known by its English name, New Rd), which extended 10km south from Wat Pho along the east bank of Mae Nam Chao Phraya. This swath of hand-laid cobblestone, which took nearly four years to finish, eventually accommodated a tramway as well as early automobiles.
Shortly thereafter, Rama IV ordered the construction of the much shorter Bamrung Meuang (a former elephant path) and Feuang Nakhon roads to provide access to royal temples from Charoen Krung. His successor Rama V (King Chulalongkorn; 1868–1910) added the much wider Th Ratchadamnoen Klang to provide a suitably royal promenade – modelled after the Champs Elysées and lined with ornamental gardens – between the Grand Palace and the expanding commercial centre to the east of Ko Ratanakosin.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Bangkok’s city limits encompassed no more than a dozen square kilometres, with a population of about half a million. Despite its modest size, the capital successfully administered the much larger kingdom of Siam – which then extended into what today are Laos, western Cambodia and northern Malaysia. Even more impressively, Siamese rulers were able to stave off intense pressure from the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English, all of whom at one time or another harboured desires to add Siam to their colonial portfolios. By the end of the century, France and England had established a strong presence in every one of Siam’s neighbouring countries – the French in Laos and Cambodia, and the British in Burma and Malaya.
Facing increasing pressure from British colonies in neighbouring Burma and Malaya, Rama IV signed the 1855 Bowring Treaty with Britain. This agreement marked Siam’s break from an exclusive economic involvement with China, a relationship that had dominated the previous century.
The signing of this document, and the subsequent ascension of Rama V’s son, King Chulalongkorn, led to the largest period of European influence on Thailand. Wishing to head off any potential invasion plans, Rama V ceded Laos and Cambodia to the French and northern Malaya to the British between 1893 and 1910. The two European powers, for their part, were happy to use Thailand as a buffer state between their respective colonial domains.
Rama V gave Bangkok 120 new roads during his reign, inspired by street plans from Batavia (the Dutch colonial centre now known as Jakarta), Calcutta, Penang and Singapore. Germans were hired to design and build railways emanating from the capital, while the Dutch contributed the design of Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station, today considered a minor masterpiece of civic Art Deco.
In 1893 Bangkok opened its first railway line, extending 22km from Bangkok to Pak Nam, where Mae Nam Chao Phraya enters the Gulf of Thailand; at that time it cost just 1B to travel in 1st class. A 20km electric tramway opened the following year, paralleling the left bank of Mae Nam Chao Phraya. By 1904 three more rail lines out of Bangkok had been added: northeast to Khorat (306km), with a branch line to Lopburi (42km); south-southwest to Phetburi (151km); and south to Tha Chin (34km).
Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci contributed several national monuments to the city and helped found the country’s first fine-arts university. Americans established Siam’s first printing press along with the kingdom’s first newspaper in 1864. The first Thai-language newspaper, Darunovadha, came along in 1874, and by 1900 Bangkok boasted three daily English-language newspapers: the Bangkok Times, Siam Observer and Siam Free Press.
As Bangkok prospered, many wealthy merchant families sent their children to study in Europe. Students of humbler socioeconomic status who excelled at school had access to government scholarships for overseas study as well. In 1924 a handful of Thai students in Paris formed the Promoters of Political Change, a group that met to discuss ideas for a future Siamese government modelled on Western democracy.
After finishing their studies and returning to Bangkok, three of the ‘Promoters’, lawyer Pridi Banomyong and military officers Phibul Songkhram and Prayoon Phamonmontri, organised an underground ‘People’s Party’ dedicated to the overthrow of the Siamese system of government. The People’s Party found a willing accomplice in Rama VII, and a bloodless revolution in 1932 transformed Thailand from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. Bangkok thus found itself the nerve centre of a vast new civil service, which, coupled with its growing success as a world port, transformed the city into a mecca for Thais seeking economic opportunities.
Phibul Songkhram, appointed prime minister by the People’s Party in December 1938, changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand and introduced the Western solar calendar. When the Japanese invaded Southeast Asia in 1941, outflanking Allied troops in Malaya and Burma, Phibul allowed Japanese regiments access to the Gulf of Thailand. Japanese troops bombed and briefly occupied parts of Bangkok on their way to the Thai–Burmese border to fight the British in Burma and, as a result of public insecurity, the Thai economy stagnated.
Phibul resigned in 1944 under pressure from the Thai underground resistance, and after V-J Day in 1945 was exiled to Japan. Bangkok resumed its pace towards modernisation, even after Phibul returned to Thailand in 1948 and took over the leadership again via a military coup. Over the next 15 years, bridges were built over Mae Nam Chao Phraya, canals were filled in to provide space for new roads, and multistorey buildings began crowding out traditional teak structures.
Another coup installed Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1957, and Phibul Songkhram once again found himself exiled to Japan, where he died in 1964. From 1964 to 1973 – the peak years of the 1962–75 Indochina War – Thai army officers Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien ruled Thailand and allowed the US to establish several army bases within Thai borders to support the US campaign in Indochina. During this time Bangkok gained notoriety as a ‘rest and recreation’ (R&R) spot for foreign troops stationed in Southeast Asia.
In October 1973 the Thai military brutally suppressed a large pro-democracy student demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but King Bhumiphol and General Krit Sivara, who sympathised with the students, refused to support further bloodshed, forcing Thanom and Praphat to leave Thailand. Oxford-educated Kukrit Pramoj took charge of a 14-party coalition government and steered a leftist agenda past the conservative parliament. Among Kukrit’s lasting achievements were a national minimum wage, the repeal of anticommunist laws and the ejection of US military forces from Thailand.
The military regained control in 1976 after right-wing, paramilitary civilian groups assaulted a group of 2000 students holding a sit-in at Thammasat, killing hundreds. Many students fled Bangkok and joined the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT), an armed communist insurgency based in the hills, which had been active in Thailand since the 1930s.
Bangkok continued to seesaw between civilian and military rule for the next 15 years. Although a general amnesty in 1982 brought an end to the PLAT, and students, workers and farmers returned to their homes, a new era of political tolerance exposed the military once again to civilian fire.
In May 1992 several huge demonstrations demanding the resignation of the next in a long line of military dictators, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, rocked Bangkok and the large provincial capitals. Charismatic Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, winner of the 1992 Magsaysay Award (a humanitarian service award issued in the Philippines) for his role in galvanising the public to reject Suchinda, led the protests. After confrontations between the protesters and the military near the Democracy Monument resulted in nearly 50 deaths and hundreds of injuries, King Bhumibol summoned both Suchinda and Chamlong for a rare public scolding. Suchinda resigned, having been in power for less than six weeks, and Chamlong’s career was all but finished.
During the 20th century Bangkok grew from a mere 13 sq km in 1900 to an astounding metropolitan area of more than 330 sq km by the turn of the century. Today the city encompasses not only Bangkok proper, but also the former capital of Thonburi, across Mae Nam Chao Phraya to the west, along with the densely populated ‘suburb’ provinces, Samut Prakan to the east and Nonthaburi to the north. More than half of Thailand’s urban population lives in Bangkok.
Bangkok started the new millennium riding a tide of events that set new ways of governing and living in the capital. The most defining moment occurred in July 1997 when – after several months of warning signs that nearly everyone in Thailand and the international community ignored – the Thai currency fell into a deflationary tailspin and the national economy screeched to a virtual halt. Bangkok, which rode at the forefront of the 1980s double-digit economic boom, suffered more than elsewhere in the country in terms of job losses and massive income erosion.
Two months after the crash, the Thai parliament voted in a new constitution that guaranteed – at least on paper – more human and civil rights than had ever been granted in Thailand previously. The so-called ‘people’s constitution’ fostered great hope in a population left emotionally battered by the 1997 economic crisis.
Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, whose move to float the baht effectively triggered the economic crisis, was forced to resign. Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai was then re-elected, and proceeded to implement tough economic reforms suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). During the next few years, Bangkok’s economy began to show signs of recovery.
In January 2001, billionaire and former police colonel Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister after winning a landslide victory in nationwide elections – the first in Thailand under the strict guidelines established in the 1997 constitution. Thaksin’s new party called Thai Rak Thai (TRT; Thais Love Thailand) swept into power on a populist agenda that seemed at odds with the man’s enormous wealth and influence.
The sixth-richest ruler in the world as of late 2003, Thaksin owned the country’s only private TV station through his family-owned Shin Corporation, the country’s largest telecommunications company. Shin Corp also owned Asia’s first privately owned satellite company, Shin Satellite, and a large stake in Thai AirAsia, a subsidiary of the Malaysia-based Air Asia.
Days before he became prime minister, Thaksin transferred his shares in Shin Corp to his siblings, chauffeur and even household servants in an apparent attempt to conceal his true assets. Eventually the country’s constitutional court cleared him of all fraud charges connected with the shares transfer in a controversial eight-to-seven vote.
Thaksin publicly stated his ambition to keep his party in office for four consecutive terms, a total of 16 years. Before he had even finished his first four-year term, however, some Thais became annoyed with the government’s perceived slowness to react to problems in the countryside, leading to regular demonstrations in Bangkok.
In 2003, Thaksin announced a ‘War on drugs’ that he claimed would free the country of illicit drug use within 90 days. Lists of alleged drug dealers and users were compiled in every province. The police were given arrest quotas to fulfil, and could lose their jobs if they didn’t follow orders. Within two months, more than 2000 Thais on the government blacklist had been killed. The Thaksin administration denied accusations by the UN, the US State Department, Amnesty International and Thailand’s own human rights commission that the deaths were extra-judicial killings by Thai police.
Meanwhile, in the south, a decades-old Muslim nationalist movement began to reheat after the Thaksin administration dismantled a key intelligence operation. Sporadic attacks on police stations, schools, military installations and other government institutions resulted in a string of Thai deaths. Tensions took a turn for the worse when Thai police gunned down 112 machete-wielding Muslim militants inside an historic mosque in Pattani in April 2004. Five months later, police broke up a large demonstration in southern Thailand. After around 1300 detainees were stuffed into overcrowded trucks, 78 died of suffocation or from being crushed under the weight of other arrestees.
Several other crises in public confidence shook Bangkok and the nation that same year. Firstly, avian influenza turned up in Thailand’s bird population. When it became known that the administration had been aware of the infections since November 2003, the EU and Japan banned all imports of Thai chicken. Avian flu claimed the lives of eight Thais – all of whom were infected while handling live poultry – before authorities got a handle on the crisis. By mid-2004 the epidemic had cost the Thai economy 19 billion baht.
Just as the bird flu came under control, the Interior Ministry said that in March 2004, all entertainment establishments in Thailand would be required to close at midnight. In Bangkok the government exempted three districts – Patpong, Ratchada and Royal City Avenue (RCA) – in an all-too-apparent attempt to appease the city’s most powerful mafia dons. Public reaction against this decision was so strong (mafia figures who control other areas of the city reportedly announced a billion-baht price on the prime minister’s head) that the government back-pedalled, allowing nightspots to stay open till 1am, regardless of zoning.
Immediately on the heels of the uproar over new closing hours came the government’s announcement that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and other state enterprises would be put on an accelerated schedule for privatisation. Tens of thousands of government employees demonstrated in Bangkok, and once again the government backtracked, putting privatisation plans on hold.
In the 2004 Bangkok gubernatorial race, Democrat Apirak Kosayodhin scored an upset victory over Paveena Hongsakul, an independent candidate with the unofficial support of the ruling TRT, capturing 40% of the vote. Apirak won on promises to upgrade city services and mass transit, and to make city government more transparent – a direct challenge to Thaksin’s self-dubbed CEO leadership style.
Thaksin’s Surprise Comeback & the Final Straw
During the February 2005 general elections, the Thaksin administration scored a second four-year mandate in a landslide victory with a record 19 million votes, surprising academic critics who expected the bird flu crisis, drug war deaths, early bar closing and privatisation protests to dent the party’s images. Armchair observers speculated that the blame lay with the opposition’s lack of a positive platform to deal with these same problems. Thaksin thus became the first Thai leader in history to be re-elected to a consecutive second term.
However, time was running short for Thaksin and party. The final straw came in January 2006, when Thaksin announced that his family had sold off its controlling interest in Shin Corp to a Singapore investment firm. Since deals made through the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) were exempt from capital gains tax, Thaksin’s family paid no tax on the US$1.9 billion sale, which enraged Bangkok’s middle class.
Many of the PM’s most highly placed supporters had also turned against him. Most prominently, media mogul and former friend, Sondhi Limthongkul organised a series of massive anti-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok, culminating in a rally at Bangkok’s Royal Plaza on 4 and 5 February that drew tens of thousands of protestors.
Retired major general Chamlong Srimuang, a former Bangkok governor and one of Thaksin’s earliest and strongest supporters, also turned against him and joined Sondhi in leading the protests, which strengthened throughout February. Two of Thaksin’s ministers resigned from the cabinet and from the TRT, adding to the mounting pressure on the embattled premier.
Thaksin’s ministers responded by dissolving the national assembly and scheduling snap elections for 2 April 2006, three years ahead of schedule. The opposition was aghast, claiming that Thaskin called the election to whitewash allegations of impropriety over the Shin Corp sale.
After Thaksin refused to sign a pledge to commit to constitutional reform, the Democrats and two other major opposition parties announced that they would boycott the 2 April election. Regardless, the results gave the TRT another resounding victory, with 66% of the popular vote. However, in the Democrat-controlled south, 38 TRT candidates failed to gain the 20% of the vote required to win an uncontested national assembly seat. This led to fears of a constitutional crisis, as the government would not have enough parliamentarians to open the national assembly.
During the campaign, TRT was accused of ‘hiring’ smaller parties to run in the election to ensure their victory. Thaksin initially claimed victory, but after a conference with the king, announced that he would take a break from politics. Thaksin designated himself caretaker prime minister before another round of elections was scheduled for later that year.
Then on 25 April, the king gave a speech urging the judiciary to solve the deadlock. This gave the Constitutional Court a green light to nullify the elections, ostensibly due to questionable positioning of voting booths. Elections were set again for 15 October, but postponed until late November after several election commissioners were convicted of illegally aiding Mr Thaksin in the April polls.
During this time, tensions rose between Thaksin and the palace after Thaksin claimed a ‘highly influential individual’ planned to overthrow him. Many suspected he was speaking about Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, or even the king himself.
On the evening of 19 September 2006, while Thaksin was attending a UN conference in New York, the Thai military led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin took power in a bloodless coup. Calling themselves the Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarch, the junta cited the TRT government’s alleged les-majesty, corruption, interference with state agencies and creation of social divisions as justification for the coup. The public initially overwhelmingly supported the coup, and scenes of smiling tourists and Thai families posing in front of tanks remain the defining images of the event. Thaksin quickly flew to London, where he has more or less remained in exile.
On 1 October 2006, the junta appointed Surayud Chulanont, a retired army general, as interim prime minister before elections scheduled for the following October. The choice of Surayud was seen as a strategic one by many, as he is widely respected among both military personnel and civilians. The Surayud administration enjoyed a honeymoon period until late December, when it imposed stringent capital controls and a series of bombings rocked Bangkok during New Year’s Eve, killing three people.
In January 2007, an Assets Examination Committee put together by the junta found Thaksin guilty of concealing assets to avoid paying taxes. Two months later, Thaksin’s wife and brother-in-law were also charged with conspiracy to evade taxes. In late May, a court established by the military government found TRT guilty of breaking election laws. The court dissolved the party and banned its executive members from public service for five years.
In July, growing dissatisfaction with the junta’s slow progress towards elections reached a peak when a large group of antigovernment protesters known as the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship lay siege to the residence of Prem Tinsulanonda, who they accused of masterminding the coup. Several protesters and police were injured. Nine of the group’s leaders were sent to jail, the largest crackdown yet by the junta, which had previously tolerated small-scale protests.
Two months later the Supreme Court issued warrants for Thaksin and his wife, citing ‘misconduct of a government official and violation of a ban on state officials being party to transactions involving public interests’ in reference to an allegedly unfair land purchase in 2003. Thaksin’s assets, some 73 billion baht, were frozen by a graft-busting agency set up after the coup. However, despite his apparent financial troubles, in July 2007 Thaksin fulfilled a long-held dream when he purchased Manchester City Football Club.
In a nationwide referendum held on 19 August, Thais approved a military-drafted constitution. Although the document includes a number of undemocratic provisions, including one that mandates a Senate not entirely comprised of elected politicians, its passage was largely regarded as a message that the Thai people want to see elections and progress.
Under the new constitution, long-awaited elections were finally conducted on 23 December. The newly formed People Power Party, of which Thaksin has an advisory role, won a significant number of seats in parliament, but failed to win an outright majority. After forming a loose coalition with several other parties, parliament chose the veteran politician and close Thaksin ally, Samak Sundaravej as prime minister. This, and Thaksin’s return to Thailand in March 2008, has ushered in what is certainly yet another period of uncertainty in Thailand politics.