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 and culture of the city have come to represent those of the entire country. This situation may once have seemed impossible, given the city’s origins as little more than an obscure Chinese trading port, but, today boasting a population of almost 10 million, Bangkok will continue to shape Thailand’s history.
From The Beginning
Ayuthaya & Thonburi
Before it became the capital of Siam – as Thailand was then known – in 1782, the tiny settlement known as Bang Makok was merely a backwater village opposite the larger Thonburi Si Mahasamut on the banks of Mae Nam Chao Phraya, not far from the Gulf of Siam.
Thonburi had been founded by a group of wealthy Siamese during the reign of King Chakkraphat (r 1548–68) as an important relay point for sea- and river-borne trade between the Gulf of Siam and Ayuthaya, 86km upriver. Ayuthaya served as the royal capital of Siam from 1350 to 1767, and throughout this time European powers tried without success to colonise the kingdom.
Eventually an Asian power subdued the capital when the Burmese sacked Ayuthaya in 1767. Many Siamese were marched off to Pegu (Bago, Myanmar today), where they were forced to serve the Burmese court. However, the remaining Siamese regrouped under Phraya Taksin, a half-Chinese, half-Thai general who decided to move the capital further south along Mae Nam Chao Phraya, closer to the Gulf of Siam. Thonburi was a logical choice for the new capital.
The Chakri Dynasty & the Birth of Bangkok
Taksin eventually succumbed to mental illness and was executed, and one of his key generals, Phraya Chakri, came to power and was crowned in 1782 as Phraphutthayotfa. Fearing Thonburi to be vulnerable to Burmese attack from the west, Chakri moved the Siamese capital across the river to Bang Makok (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 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 King Phraphutthayotfa’s transfer to a temporary new residence a month later.
In time, Ayuthaya’s control of tribute states in Laos and western Cambodia was transferred to Bangkok and thousands of prisoners of war were brought to the capital to work. Bangkok also had ample access to free Thai labour via the prâi lŏoang (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. He also ordered the construction of 10km of city walls and klorng rôrp grung (canals around the city) to create a royal ‘island’ – Ko Ratanakosin – between Mae Nam Chao Phraya and the canal loop.
Temple and canal construction remained the highlight of early development in Bangkok until the reign of Rama III (King Phranangklao; r 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 in importance even the British port at Singapore.
Feature: Extended Families Indeed…
Until polygamy was outlawed by Rama VI (King Vajiravudh; r 1910–25), it was expected of Thai monarchs to maintain a harem consisting of numerous ‘major’ and ‘minor’ wives and the children of these relationships. This led to some truly vast families: Rama I (King Phraphutthayotfa; r 1782–1809) had 42 children by 28 mothers; Rama II (King Phraphutthaloetla Naphalai; r 1809–24), 73 children by 40 mothers; Rama III (King Phranangklao; r 1824–51), 51 children by 37 mothers (he would eventually accumulate a total of 242 wives and consorts); Rama IV (King Mongkut; r 1851–68), 82 children by 35 mothers; and Rama V (King Chulalongkorn; r 1868–1910), 77 children by 40 mothers. In the case of Rama V, his seven ‘major’ wives were all half-sisters or first cousins, a conscious effort to maintain the purity of the bloodline of the Chakri dynasty. Other consorts or ‘minor’ wives were often the daughters of families wishing to gain greater ties with the royal family.
In contrast to the precedent set by his predecessors, Rama VI had one wife and one child, a girl born only a few hours before his death. As a result, his brother, Prajadhipok, was appointed as his successor. Rama VII also had only one wife and failed to produce any heirs. After abdicating in 1935 he did not exercise his right to appoint a successor, so lines were drawn back to Rama V, and the grandson of one of his remaining ‘major’ wives, nine-year-old Ananda Mahidol, was chosen to be the next king (Rama VIII; r 1935–46).
The Age Of Politics
European Influence & the 1932 Revolution
Facing increasing pressure from British colonies in neighbouring Burma and Malaya, in 1855 Rama IV (King Mongkut; r 1851–68) signed the Bowring Treaty with Britain. This agreement marked Siam’s break from 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 (King Chulalongkorn; r 1868–1910), led to the largest period of European influence on Siam. 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 Siam 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 train 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 Siam. A 20km electric tramway opened the following year, paralleling the left bank of Mae Nam Chao Phraya.
Americans established Siam’s first printing press along with the kingdom’s first newspaper in 1864. The first Siamese-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 Siamese 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.
A bloodless revolution in 1932, initiated by the Promoters of Political Change and a willing Rama VII (King Prajadhipok; r 1925–35), transformed Siam 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 Siamese seeking economic opportunities.
WWII & the Struggle for Democracy
Phibun 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. Phibun, who in 1941 allowed Japanese regiments access to the Gulf of Thailand, resigned in 1944 under pressure from the Thai underground resistance and was eventually exiled to Japan. Bangkok resumed its pace towards modernisation, even after Phibun 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.
In 1957 Phibun's successor General Sarit Thanarat subjected the country to a true military dictatorship: abolishing the constitution, dissolving the parliament and banning all political parties. In the 1950s the US partnered with Sarit and subsequent military dictators, Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien (who controlled the country from 1964 to 1973), to allow the US military to develop bases in Thailand during the war in Vietnam in exchange for economic incentives. During this time Bangkok gained notoriety as a ‘rest and recreation’ (R&R) spot for foreign troops stationed in Southeast Asia.
By 1973 an opposition group of left-wing activists, mainly intellectuals and students, organised political rallies demanding a constitution from the military government. On 14 October that year the military brutally suppressed a large demonstration in Bangkok, killing 77 people and wounding more than 800. The event is commemorated by a monument on Th Ratchadamnoen Klang in Bangkok, near the Democracy Monument. King Bhumibol stepped in and refused to support further bloodshed, forcing Thanom and Praphat to leave Thailand.
In the following years, the left-oriented student movement grew more radical, creating fears among working-class and middle-class Thais of home-grown communism. In 1976 Thanom returned to Thailand (ostensibly to become a monk) and was received warmly by the royal family. In response, protesters organised demonstrations at Thammasat University against the perceived perpetrator of the 14 October massacre. Right-wing, anticommunist civilian groups clashed with the students, resulting in bloody violence. In the aftermath, many students and intellectuals were forced underground and joined armed communist insurgents – known as the People's Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT) – based in the jungles of northern and southern Thailand.
Military control of the country continued through the 1980s. The government of the 'political soldier', General Prem Tinsulanonda, enjoyed a period of political and economic stability. Prem dismantled the communist insurgency through military action and amnesty programs. But the country's new economic success presented a challenging rival: prominent business leaders who criticised the military's role in government and their now-dated Cold War mentality.
The Recent Past
The Crisis & the People’s Constitution
In 1988 Prem was replaced in elections by Chatichai Choonhavan, leader of the Chat Thai Party, who created a government dominated by well-connected provincial business people. His government shifted power away from the bureaucrats and set about transforming Thailand into an 'Asian Tiger' economy. But the business of politics was often bought and sold like a commodity and Chatichai was overthrown by the military on grounds of extreme corruption. This coup demarcated an emerging trend in Thai politics: the Bangkok business community and educated classes siding with the military against provincial business-politicians and their money politics.
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, Rama IX summoned both Suchinda and Chamlong for a rare public scolding. Suchinda resigned, having been in power for less than six weeks.
Bangkok approached 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. The country's economy was plagued by foreign-debt burdens, an overextension in the real-estate sector and a devalued currency. Within months of the crisis, the Thai currency plunged from 25B to 56B per US$1. 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. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in to impose financial and legal reforms and economic liberalisation programs in exchange for more than US$17 billion to stabilise the Thai currency.
Feature: Thailand's Constitutional Crises
Since transitioning to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has seen a staggering 18 constitutions (20 by some counts) – on average a new charter every four years, thought to be the most constitutionally unstable of any country.
The most lauded of Thailand's charters is undoubtedly the 1997 constitution. Often called the ‘people’s constitution’, the charter fostered great hope in a population left emotionally battered by the 1997 economic crisis by guaranteeing – at least on paper – more human and civil rights than had ever been granted in Thailand. The document, which was drafted largely by elected officials and subject to public scrutiny, called for the upper and lower chambers of parliament to be fully elected by popular vote, essentially strengthening the influence of voters and the role of prime minister. It was this power to the people that paved the way for Thaksin and his well-loved Thai Rak Thai party to win just short of half of the seats in parliament in 2001, and nearly complete control of parliament in 2005.
Subsequent constitutions, largely drafted under the gaze of military regimes, have grown notably thicker (the draft constitution proposed in 2015 spanned a whopping 194 pages and 315 articles) and have moved in the opposite direction of the spirit of the 1997 charter, essentially weakening the executive branch while increasing the influence and power of the judiciary. The most recent constitution, drafted by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the military junta – and signed by the king in 2017, includes controversial provisions that allow for an unelected prime minister, grants the military sweeping powers and enshrines its amnesty from past and future actions. The document is thought to pave the way for elections in 2019.
Thaksin Shinawatra: CEO Prime Minister
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. Self-styled as a CEO-politician, Thaksin swiftly delivered on his campaign promises for rural development, including agrarian debt relief, village capital funds and cheap health care.
Despite numerous controversies, during the February 2005 general elections Thaksin became the first Thai leader in history to be re-elected to a consecutive second term. His popularity among the working class and rural voters was immense.
However, time was running short for Thaksin and his party. In 2006 Thaksin was accused of abusing his powers and of conflicts of interest, most notably in his family's sale of their Shin Corporation to the Singaporean government for 73 billion baht (US$1.88 billion), a tax-free gain thanks to legislation he helped craft. Demonstrations in Bangkok called for his ousting and many of the PM’s most highly placed supporters also turned against him.
The Coup and the Red & Yellow Divide
On the evening of 19 September 2006, while Thaksin was attending a UN conference in New York City, the Thai military 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 violations of lèse-majesté laws (royal treason), corruption, interference with state agencies and creation of social divisions as justification for the coup. Thaksin quickly flew to London, where he remained in exile until his UK visa was revoked in 2008.
In a nationwide referendum held on 19 August 2007, Thais approved a military-drafted constitution. Under the new constitution, elections were finally held in late 2007. After forming a loose coalition with several other parties, parliament chose veteran politician and close Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej as prime minister. This was an unsatisfactory outcome for the military and the anti-Thaksin group known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), comprised of mainly urban elites nicknamed 'Yellow Shirts' because they wore yellow (the then-king's birthday colour). It was popularly believed that Thaksin was consolidating power during his tenure so that he could interrupt royal succession.
In September 2008 Samak Sundaravej was unseated by the Constitutional Court on a technicality: while in office, he hosted a TV cooking show deemed to be a conflict of interest. Concerned that another election would yield another Thaksin win, on 25 November, hundreds of armed PAD protesters stormed Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports, entering the passenger terminals and taking over the control towers. Thousands of additional PAD sympathisers eventually flooded Suvarnabhumi, leading to the cancellation of all flights and leaving as many as 230,000 domestic and international passengers stranded. The stand-off lasted until 2 December, when the Supreme Court wielded its power yet again in order to ban Samak’s successor, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, from politics and ordered his political party and two coalition parties dissolved.
In December 2008 a tenuous new coalition was formed, led by Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party. Despite Abhisit being young, photogenic, articulate and allegedly untainted by corruption, his perceived association with the PAD did little to placate the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a loose association of red-shirted Thaksin supporters, who by 2010 were holding large-scale protests in central Bangkok to demand that he stand down. Thailand, which had mostly experienced a relatively high level of domestic stability and harmony throughout its modern history, was now effectively polarised between the predominantly middle- and upper-class, urban-based PAD and the largely working-class, rural UDD.
In April 2010 violent clashes between police and protesters (numbering in the tens of thousands) resulted in 25 deaths. Red-shirted protesters barricaded themselves into an area stretching from Lumphini Park to the shopping district near Siam Sq, effectively shutting down parts of central Bangkok. In May the protesters were eventually dispersed by force, but not before at least 36 buildings were set alight and at least 15 people killed. Crackdown-related arson damage was estimated at US$1.5 billion and the death toll from the 2010 conflicts amounted to nearly 100 people, making it Thailand’s most deadly and costly political unrest in 20 years.
Feature: Thailand's Colours of Protest
Most Thais are aware of the day of the week they were born, and in Thai astrology each day is associated with a particular colour. However, in the aftermath of the 2006 coup, these previously benign hues started to take on a much more political meaning.
To show their alleged support for the royal family, the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) adopted yellow as their uniform. This goes back to 2006, when in an effort to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Rama IX’s ascension to the throne, Thais were encouraged to wear yellow, the colour associated with Monday, the king’s birthday. A couple of years later, pink was added to the repertoire as a nod to a previous occasion when the king safely emerged from a lengthy hospital visit wearing a bright pink blazer.
To differentiate themselves, the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) began to wear red, and soon thereafter became known colloquially as the ‘Red Shirts’. To add to the political rainbow, during riots in 2009, a blue-shirted faction emerged, apparently aligned with a former Thaksin ally and allegedly sponsored by the Ministry of the Interior. During the political crisis of 2010, a ‘no colour’ group of peace activists and a ‘black shirt’ faction, believed to consist of rogue elements of the Thai military, also emerged. And during the protests in 2013 and 2014, antigovernment protesters ditched yellow shirts in favour of the Thai flag, the red, white and blue stripes of which were co-opted on ribbons, buttons, shirts and iPhone cases.
Yingluck Shinawatra & a Return to Military Rule
Parliamentary elections in 2011 saw the election of Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of the still-exiled Thaksin. A former businesswoman, Yingluck had no prior political experience and was described by her older brother as his ‘clone’. Yingluck’s leadership was tested almost immediately, when in mid-2011 the outskirts of Bangkok were hit by the most devastating floods in decades. Although nearly all of central Bangkok was spared from flooding, it was largely perceived that this was done at the expense of upcountry regions.
Yingluck's tenure progressed relatively uneventfully until 2013, when she had to deal with the fallout from both a botched rice scheme and a proposed bill that would have granted amnesty to her brother, potentially allowing Thaksin to return to Thailand without facing trial for previous corruption convictions. The bill was rejected, but Yingluck's intentions were made clear. Within weeks, antigovernment protesters were staging frequent rallies, eventually taking over sections of central Bangkok in early 2014. After violent clashes that led to dozens of deaths and a nullified election, in May 2014, Thailand's Constitutional Court found Yingluck and nine members of her cabinet guilty of abuse of power, forcing them to stand down.
The military quickly filled the vacuum after Yingluck's ousting, declaring martial law on 20 May and, two days later, officially announcing that it had seized power of the country, carrying out Thailand's 12th successful military coup since 1932. Yingluck was subsequently impeached (thus banning her from participating in politics for five years) and at the time of writing is facing criminal charges.
In August 2014 former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army Prayut Chan-o-cha shed his uniform to become Thailand's prime minister – the country's 29th since 1932. To date, Prayut's rule has been heavy-handed, quickly squashing protests and incarcerating political opponents in the name of 'attitude adjustment'. Press freedom in Thailand is highly restricted and lèse-majesté-related convictions have spiked.
On 17 August 2015, a bomb planted at Bangkok's Erawan Shrine exploded, killing 20 people, mostly Chinese tourists. At the time of writing, two suspects had been arrested and the incident was thought to be tied to Uighur militants, ostensibly in revenge for Thailand's forced repatriation of 109 Uighurs to China earlier in the year.
On 13 October 2016, at the age of 89, King Bhumibol, Thailand's – and the world's – longest-serving monarch, passed away. The occasion was marked by a year of mourning culminating in a funeral at Bangkok's Grand Palace that cost US$90 million. Power was passed to his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who had assumed many of the royal duties during his father's illness.
Although royal transition was smooth, the junta, at press time in power for more than four years, has failed to address Thailand's slumping economy. Foreign investment, exports and GDP all contracted after the coup. In 2016 a much-needed infrastructure investment plan was announced to help bolster the downturn. Tourism continues to be the bright spot in the economy.
Feature: In Memory of King Bhumibol
King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX; 1927–2016) was born in the USA, where his father Prince Mahidol was studying medicine at Harvard University. He was fluent in English, French, German and Thai and ascended the throne in 1946. An ardent jazz composer and saxophonist, Rama IX hosted jam sessions with the likes of jazz greats Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. The king was also a sailor and a painter. He is credited for his extensive development projects, particularly in rural areas of Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work (Nicholas Grossman & Dominic Faulder eds; 2011) is the official biography of the king.
King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit had four children: Princess Ubol Ratana (b 1951), King Maha Vajiralongkorn (b 1952), Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn (b 1955) and Princess Chulabhorn (b 1957).
Along with nation and religion, the monarchy is very highly regarded in Thai society – negative comments about the king or any member of the royal family is a social as well as legal taboo.
- Thailand: A Short History (David K Wyatt; 1984; updated 2003)
- A History of Thailand (Chris Baker & Pasuk Phongpaichit; 2005)
- Chronicle of Thailand (William Warren & Nicholas Grossman, Editions Didier Millet; 2010)