You’d better believe it: Bangkok is a large city! It sprawls over 5,986 square kilometres, and that is 800 square kilometres larger than New York City’s five boroughs. The centre of business, finance, education, and government for the whole country, it is the magnet drawing people from all of the provinces, for a variety of reasons. As of this writing, Bangkok’s total population is around ten million inhabitants. There are at least 350,000 to 400,000 foreign inhabitants of Bangkok. However, exact figures are impossible to compile for either Thais or non-Thais.
It wasn’t always like this. Most of the world’s big cities gradually increased in size over the course of many years and so were able to plan for more people, more services and better infrastructure.
There was urban planning for such things as mass transportation and zoning into residential, commercial and industrial areas. Not so with Bangkok. Long-time expats remember the Bangkok of a mere forty years ago with no high-rises taller than six or seven storeys. Much of the city was green. One ‘old hand’ recalls Sukhumvit Road as a two-lane country road with a canal on either side providing flood drainage. Sukhumvit residents of the 1950s and early 1960s thought of going ‘downtown’ as a journey from the country to city. In the city what few cars there were vied for space on the roads with the electric tram system that ran through the much of what is now the ‘centre’ Even before the end of trams, the rickshaws had already disappeared.
So imagine, if you can, the explosive growth from that picture just a few decades ago to the Bangkok of today. If you live in this wonderful, overwhelming, bewildering, exotic, and sometimes infuriating city, remember that wherever you came from probably had 100 or more years to deal with what Bangkok has had to face in less than a middle-aged person’s lifetime.
With that glimpse of what Bangkok used to be, lets look at what the ‘Big Mango’ is today.
Where is downtown in Bangkok ?
Like the American city, Los Angeles, Bangkok is really a batch of suburbs and villages without a clearly defined centre to cluster around. In the past, each one had a particularity, a unity of its parts, such as Baan Batr where monk’s bowls (batr) are hammered into shape and prepared for sale for a man’s ordination. Not so far away is an area still called the Fireworks village, but for reason you might guess, it’s not there anymore.
The so-called Thieves Market was where, once upon a time, you could recover your stolen TV set. Nearby is the village dedicated to the gong and bell trade, with cast Buddha and deva images on display, as well. That, at least, is still there.
The major avenues – as opposed to lanes, which are called Sois wind through the city. In older parts of town, each may be lined with shops selling the same goods: electrical goods and motoring accessories on Vorachak Road, gold shops on Charoenkung Road. On either side of the new avenues – built up on an attempt to avoid traffic jams or to open up empty areas of the city – you may find auto dealer’s displays, cinemas, restaurants, office buildings, banks, insurance companies, and shopping centres.
Areas of Bangkok
South of Bangkok: Sathorn and Silom
Over the years, expats tended to cluster in certain areas of the city, either along major avenues or in small lanes just off these avenues. The oldest area was that along Sathorn Road, two parallel roadways separated by a shallow canal. In former years this was ‘Embassy Row’ and also had many substantial, beautiful colonial-style homes with walls guarding their lush gardens. The Khlong itself was lined with splendid mahogany trees, and, while the carriageways were very narrow, it had a pleasant tropical ambience. Nowadays it’s an urban nightmare.
The mahogany trees where unceremoniously butchered overnight and, one by one, those beautiful, wide, verandah-circled houses were bulldozed, to be replaced by high-rise offices.
Parallel to Sathorn-with high-rise buildings, bank headquarters, jewellery factories, and sales facilities-lies Silom Road. Formerly called Windmill Road because of a large windmill that used to be located there, it is now an avenue dedicated to commerce. Off Silom is the world-famous Patpong Road, a short, privately-owned street lined with bars and populated with people in the dance, drink and short-time sex business; their clients; or the curious ‘just looking over the merchandise’ types. Many people believe that the authorities should close down this or that establishment for violations of public morality and for giving Thailand a bad name abroad. Whatever you think of the sex trade there, it’s fun to shop at the night market, which is interspersed between the go-go bars and spills out onto the Silom Road pavements.
Near the River
Along both sides of the Chao Phraya River you will find a wealth of places to explore. This is the area where some of Bangkok’s expensive hotels are to be found, the Oriental among the most famous. There are shopping malls and riverside restaurants galore. Expensive condominium high-rises go up regularly. Sathorn, Silom and Surawongse all end at Charoenkrung Road (or New Road), which runs parallel to the river on the Bangkok side. The largest and oldest of the post offies is here. Nearby is Chinatown, or Yaowarat, which definitely deserves wandering through.
If you go up Charoenkrung Road – towards the higher soi numbers leading off it- you will be in the area of Bangkok called Yannawa. This area is becoming more developed, with the new expressway and mass transit system running through it. Rama III, Chan Road, and others have many new high-rise office buildings and residential blocks, and several banks have built their headquarters in this area. Foreigners are moving to Yannawa in large numbers, as transportation to the city centre becomes harder.
The area where the river bulges and loops has a well-known district called Banglampoo. This area of backpackers’ guesthouses and restaurants, and also many shops and markets catering to those with low budgets or with economy on thier minds.
West of Bangkok: The Road Zones
One park of the city, fortunately still relatively untouched by major changes, is Dusit. The central feature here is what used to be the royal family’s summer palace, Wang Chitrlada. In the early years of this century, Chitrlada Palace was considered to lie so far out of the city as to be rural.