The governmental and commercial districts of the city occupy traditional sites. Government offices were originally housed in the walled compound of the 18th-century Grand Palace, but by the late 19th century they occupied surrounding palaces and mansions. The bureaucracy then spread outward into nearby colonial-style or Thai-style office buildings and homes along Ratchadamnoen Road. Multistoried buildings have been erected to meet the ever-increasing demand for space, and the traditional government compounds have become overbuilt. A number of large camps around and north of the National Assembly Hall constitute the military area.
When Bangkok became the national capital in the 18th century and its citadel was moved to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, Chinese merchants and tradesmen occupying the site moved a short distance southward to the area now known as Sam Peng. Business was at first carried on in one-story wood and thatch houses. By the early 1900s a number of streets had been lined with two-story masonry shop-houses. This ever-expanding district now contains rows of shop-houses that are sometimes five or more stories high. Warehouses line both banks of the river just south of Sam Peng, while industry is concentrated at Sam Rong, south of the port. Nightlife flourishes on Pat Pong Road. The financial district straddles Silom Road.
In the Floating Market a variety of foods and merchandise are sold daily from boats on the canals near Wat Sai. Formerly several such markets and innumerable door-to-door floating vendors served the daily needs of the city’s residents.
Homes generally consist of small, detached one- or two-story wooden houses or row houses. Most of these are overcrowded because there are far too few of them to house the expanding population. Government programs alone are insufficient to meet the housing shortage, and funds from the World Bank have been used to build low-income housing, such as the Din Daeng and Hua Mak developments. The government allows squatters to occupy unused public land. The number of squatters is small, and most of them are concentrated in the Khlong Toei area near the port.
Beginning in the 1960s, housing developed rapidly in the city. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s more than 100,000 new units were built. There was also an emphasis on renewal in inner-city areas. Private real-estate developers provide homes for middle-income groups, and many government agencies provide homes for their employees. Homes may be crowded onto small lots with rudimentary sanitation facilities. These developments have spread out haphazardly on the periphery of the city.
The population’s outstanding demographic characteristics—its youth and the low proportion of non-Thais—are explained by the high rate of natural increase and by the restrictive foreign immigration quotas adopted after World War II. Roughly two-fifths of the residents are under 20 years of age. The birth rate has declined since the introduction of a birth control program. At the same time, the net in-migration of young adults, particularly females, has increased greatly, so that more than a quarter of the resident population of the city is made up of migrant Thais from all parts of the country
Most of the city’s population are ethnic Thais. The Chinese are by far the largest minority, but there are sizable communities of other Asians, North Americans, and Europeans. Despite their small size, the foreign communities tend to live in certain areas. The Chinese concentrate in the commercial area of Sam Peng, Indians gather around mosques in the Wang Burapha section, and the Western and Japanese communities reside in the affluent, modern eastern section of the city.
Of the foreign groups, the Chinese enter the most intimately into city life. They appear to assimilate readily, and intermarriage is frequent. Their offspring are Thai citizens, and many Chinese families take Thai surnames and are naturalized.
There are many factories in the metropolitan area, but most operate on a small scale. Larger plants are located in the vicinity of the port, near the warehouses that store imported materials. Manufacturing is chiefly confined to food processing, textiles, the assembly of electronic equipment, and the production of building materials. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the government emphasized reducing congestion in the city and placed a high priority on locating industrial parks on the fringes of Bangkok. Roughly one-third of the country’s output is produced in the city, and nearly half of all firms are located in the metropolitan area. Tourism has increased greatly and is now a major source of revenue in Bangkok.
Bangkok houses about one-third of the country’s banking units, holding three-fourths of all deposits. The Industrial Finance Corporation of Thailand, the Board of Investment, and the Securities Exchange of Thailand are also located in the city
Bangkok’s transportation system was originally based on water travel. The city’s maze of canals connected with the river earned it the name “Venice of the East.” The advent of the automobile, however, brought drastic changes. The number of vehicles in the city (including three-wheeled taxis, private cars, and buses—colour-coded according to the region of service) increased, and a shortage of road space developed. The problem was met first by filling in most of the smaller and a number of the larger canals. This proved to be more than an aesthetic loss, however, because the waterway system had served to drain the waterlogged delta; flooding of the lower-lying parts of the city thus became increasingly frequent. Furthermore, the measure did not solve the problem of lack of space. Traffic became so congested that movement was increasingly difficult. To help ameliorate these problems, an authority was established in the 1970s to oversee bus transportation in the city, and in 1999 the city opened Skytrain, an elevated rail system.
Lines of communication radiate outward from the city. Roads run north to Laos and Chiang Mai, east to Kampuchea, and south to Malaysia. Railways run to the borders of Laos and Malaysia, to Chiang Mai in the north, and to Ubon Ratchathani and the Kampuchean border in the east. Bangkok International Airport is one of the busiest in Southeast Asia.
The port of Bangkok, located on the Chao Phraya River at Khlong Toei, is connected to the sea by a channel dug through the sandbar at the river mouth some 17 twisting miles (27 km) downstream. The port handles nearly all the nation’s imports and exports.
The government of Bangkok Metropolis is administered by a governor and deputies. Developmental responsibilities rest with a large number of governmental agencies. Bangkok houses the headquarters of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). In addition, the city houses various other UN agencies, including branch offices of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank).
Most of the city’s water supply comes from purification plants; it is drawn from the Chao Phraya and from deep wells. The pumping of water from wells has caused subsidence in parts of the city, which has increased flooding. Many people obtain water from polluted waterways. Sanitation facilities include sewers, storm drains, and the canals; some large buildings are equipped with septic tanks. Bangkok consumes more than half of the country’s electric power.
Bangkok has most of the country’s hospitals and clinics. Special services are offered for patients with tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases, and there are government homes for the indigent, handicapped, and aged. The Pasteur Institute and WHO supply vaccines. Family-planning clinics have proliferated in recent years. In the 1990s cases of AIDS increased among Bangkok’s prostitutes and drug users. The government has established special wards in hospitals to treat patients afflicted with the disease and has taken other measures to prevent the spread of HIV infection.
Because of its high proportion of school-age citizens, Bangkok’s educational facilities are overburdened. There are too few schools, and the standard of instruction varies. Literacy is extremely high, however. Many of the government-built preprimary and primary schools are located on monastery grounds. Private primary and secondary schools run by foreign religious missions train the children of the elite. There are many private Chinese primary schools and night schools. The city has several universities. Wat Pho, long a traditional centre of learning, has often been considered the city’s first university; it is one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok.
The most important cultural feature of Bangkok is the wat. There are more than 300 such temples, representing classic examples of Thai architecture. Most are enclosed by walls. Many wats have leased a portion of their grounds for residential or commercial use.
The National Museum houses prehistoric and Bronze Age art relics, as well as royal objects dating to the 6th century ad. The city also houses the National Library and the Thai National Documentation Department. Jim Thompson’s Thai House, named for a U.S. entrepreneur and devotee of Thai culture, is composed of several traditional Thai mansions; it contains the country’s largest collection of 17th-century Thai religious paintings. There are also collections of Dvaravati and Khmer sculpture, in addition to examples of Thai and Chinese pottery and porcelain. In 1987 the 200-acre (80-hectare) King Rama IX Royal Park with its extensive botanical gardens was opened to commemorate the king’s 60th birthday.
All of the country’s daily newspapers and most of its weeklies and monthlies are published in Bangkok. Newspapers are printed in Thai, English, and Chinese. Radio and television are controlled by government agencies and the military. Most of the nation’s radio stations and all of its television stations are located in or near Bangkok. Most programs are in Thai, but some special programs are in English and Chinese. Motion pictures are extremely popular. There is a thriving Thai cinema industry, but films are also imported.
Fairs, festivals, and “kite-fighting” contests are held in the parks. The Ratchadamnoen and Lumphini stadiums host professional boxing bouts featuring the highly ritualistic form of boxing known as Muai Thai. Silapakorn National Theatre presents dancing, drama, and music.
Bangkok became the capital of Siam (as Thailand was previously known) in 1782, when General Chao Phraya Chakkri, the founder of the ruling Chakkri dynasty, assumed the throne as Rama I and moved the court from the west to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. The move appears to have been dictated by strategic considerations: the wide westward bend in the river constituted a wide moat guarding the northern, western, and southern perimeters of the new site. To the east stretched a vast, swampy delta called the Sea of Mud, which could be traversed only with extreme difficulty. Rama I modeled the new city on the former capital, Ayutthaya, 40 miles (64 km) to the north. By the end of his reign the city was established. The walled Grand Palace complex and the temple Wat Pho were completed. A new city wall, perhaps the most imposing structure, skirted the river and Khlong Ong Ang to the east; it was 4.5 miles (7 km) long, 10 feet (3 metres) thick, and 13 feet (4 metres) high, and it had 63 gates and 15 forts. The area enclosed amounted to 1.5 square miles (4 square km).
More wats were built during the reigns of Rama II (1809–24) and Rama III (1824–51). They served as schools, libraries, hospitals, and recreation areas, as well as religious centres. During these years Wat Arun, noted for its tall spire, Wat Yan Nawa, and Wat Bowon Niwet were completed, Wat Pho was further enlarged, and Wat Sutat was begun. There were, however, few other substantial buildings and fewer paved streets; the river and the network of interconnected canals served as roadways.
Rama IV (1851–68) developed the city while continuing, at a reduced rate, the traditional building of wats. The Grand Palace was improved, a number of substantial dwellings were constructed for members of the royal family, several new streets were laid down, and a reduction was made in the large number of floating houses anchored along the riverfront. A new route, Charoen Krung (New Road), leading southward, was constructed, and a new city moat, Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem, parallel to the city’s first canal, was dug and fortified; a long canal led from it to the present port area (Khlong Toei), thus allowing small boats to bypass the large bend in the river immediately south of the city. A pony path, now a major highway, was laid atop the mud heaped up beside this waterway.
During the long reign of Rama V, King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), the city was transformed through a program of public works. The great triple-spired Chakkri Building in the Grand Palace was completed by 1880. The Dusit Palace and an ancillary garden city were later built beyond the wall, being connected to the Grand Palace by the European-inspired Ratchadamnoen Nok Road. A road- and bridge-building program was embarked on in earnest, because King Chulalongkorn, an early automobile enthusiast, foresaw the effect that the motor vehicle would have on city development. Most of the now obsolete city wall was pulled down to build the roads, but two forts, a large gate, and a section of the wall were preserved. The centenary of the city, in 1882, was marked by the inauguration of many social reforms, manifested in the public buildings used for their administration, as well as by the completion of the great royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, which housed the Emerald Buddha. A post and telegraph service was organized in the 1880s, an electric tram service was instituted on Charoen Krung in 1892, and the first line of the State Railway, running from Bangkok to Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, opened in 1900. Nor were aesthetic considerations forgotten, for other new buildings included the marble temple of Wat Benchamabopit (1900), elegant bridges in the French style, and the Italian-inspired National Assembly Hall (Throne Hall).
Rama VI (1910–25) continued the program of public works. He established Chulalongkorn University in 1916, built a system of locks to control the level of waterways throughout the city, and gave the public its first and largest recreational area—Lumphini Park. During Rama VII’s reign (1925–35) municipal areas were delimited as part of a general administrative reorganization aimed at decentralization. In 1937 Bangkok was formally divided into the municipalities of Krung Thep and Thon Buri. At the time of their establishment, the two municipalities, approximately equal in area, together covered about 37 square miles (96 square km); about four-fifths of the city’s population lived in Krung Thep.
Since World War II Bangkok has grown with unprecedented rapidity, which caused problems with transportation, communication, housing, water supply, drainage, and pollution. Tourism rose in importance during the Vietnam War, when the city became a popular destination for U.S. military personnel. By the 1980s, nightclubs and the tourist sex trade—as well as crime and sexually transmitted diseases—were flourishing. Although prostitution is formally illegal and the number of prostitutes per capita is lower in Thailand than in some other Asian countries, the city’s commercial sex industry employs an estimated 100,000 people and is popular among foreign tourists. However, the vast majority of clients are Thai nationals. To combat abuses, notably underage prostitution, the government stiffened penalties for both patrons and brothel operators during the 1990s. That those responsible for modernizing the metropolis are coping with these problems suggests the appropriateness of its official emblem: the God Indra seated atop a sacred white elephant, the four tusks of which denote its celestial status and its ability to accomplish the impossible. Throughout the 1980s the city experienced an economic boom, which was blunted by an economic crisis that hit Asia in the late 1990s. However, the city continued its role as one of Asia’s most important tourist, financial, and commercial centres. The city’s uniquely Thai character, while perhaps diminishing, provides a vibrant backdrop for Bangkok’s cosmopolitan image.