Bangkok is nothing if not resilient. Recent years have brought explosive protests, army curfews and actual explosions to Thailand’s capital, but the city keeps grinding onwards. Thailand’s seat of power since the era of direct palace rule has taken on added prominence now that the staunchly royalist and Bangkok-centric military rules the country outright. But intimately familiar with junta rule after 12 previous coups d'état, the city's inhabitants tend to to be concerned with everyday woes, such as money, traffic and flooding.

Return to Authoritarian Rule

Thailand’s ruler, former army general Prayut Chan-o-cha, has quipped that the country is ‘99 percent democratic’ now that his junta reigns supreme, but that’s not remotely true. Since the coup d'état in 2014 that landed him in power, Thailand is still most accurately described as a military dictatorship.

The junta’s darker side was previously only felt by the political class: deposed officials, academics, activists and dissidents. The military government has rounded up critics for ‘attitude adjustment’, which translates to confinement on an army base. Prayut tends to equate dissent with sedition and once joked about ‘executing’ critical journalists.

But the military's policies are starting to have an impact on average Thais. Beginning in 2016, the junta put pressure on the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) to shut down street vendors in a handful of neighbourhoods. The next year, the BMA was ordered to shut down all of Bangkok's street stalls, though at press time it remains to be seen if these orders will be enforced or if the vendors will obey them.

The junta’s vow to eliminate corruption and ‘return happiness’ to all Thais remains largely unfulfilled: the economy is stagnant, the currency has weakened (good news for tourists, perhaps) and the bombing of a heavily touristed shrine in 2015 indicates that Bangkok is not immune to the threat of international terrorism.

The military has promised elections in 2019, but a new constitution (the country's 20th charter – only two nations in the world have had more) ensconces military power indefinitely while also assuring that the junta can't be found guilty of having committed any human rights violations.

A Changing Urban Landscape

In recent years the military junta has embarked on several policies and projects that have had a huge impact on Bangkok's skyline.

At ground level, a ban on street vendors in certain neighbourhoods has already altered the city's footpaths. Yes, it's now possible to walk along Th Thong Lo without having to wind through a virtual gamut of stalls and vendors, but this comes at the expense of the street food that is both a cheap eating option for locals and a massive draw for tourists.

Above and below the streets, Bangkok is furiously expanding its public transport network. By 2020, Bangkok's MRT (metro) is set to reach Ko Ratanakosin, making getting to some of the city's most famous tourist destinations a breeze. It is also being expanded to regions west of the city centre. At the same time, the city's commuter train network is being expanded north, eventually linking Don Mueang International Airport with the city centre.

Yet the most significant impact these changes are having is on 'old' Bangkok. In 2016 the BMA ordered all of the vendors at Bangkok's long-standing nighttime flower market to relocate indoors. A plan to build a 14km promenade along Mae Nam Chao Praya has already resulted in the demolition of nearly 300 riverside structures, many of which were decades old. And the BMA seems intent on going through with long-held plans to demolish the 18th-century Mahakan Fort and the centuries-old community that flanks it, replacing both with a 'tourism park'.

These forces, coupled with commercial interests, mean that Bangkok is changing at an astonishing rate, and some fear its transformation will result in a sterile, Singapore-like city.

Sinking into the Earth

All of Bangkok’s glitz and grime, its glowing mall districts and drab cement slums sit on squishy ground. Centuries ago this area was a marshland. Today, it’s the foundation upon which Bangkok rests and the city is literally sinking.

Thailand’s disaster specialists have long predicted this sinking problem. Rising sea levels are partially to blame, as are factories on the city’s outskirts that suck up groundwater and hasten the massive city’s descent into the ground. Experts warn that by 2100 much of Bangkok may be flooded and unlivable.

But far-off doomsday scenarios are overshadowed by more immediate concerns: the annual ritual of panicking over floods. Monsoons can transform side streets into streams. Worse yet, the city is vulnerable to the occasional megadeluge that brings large-scale flooding. A 2011 tropical storm was among the worst in recent memory, leaving millions homeless, killing around 800 people and causing more than US$45 billion in damages.

Wracked by political turmoil, Thailand’s leaders – both the junta and the elected party it ousted – have done little to prepare for the next flooding calamity. A proposed solution to the long-term sinking problem, a sea wall in the Gulf of Thailand that would cost billions, remains laughably far-fetched, and come the next monsoon, it's likely that the rains will, yet again, catch Bangkok off guard.