History of Bangkok

Mother Earth Travel > Thailand > Bangkok > History

In just over two hundred years, Bangkok has grown from a small collection of villages scattered amongst the canals and rice paddies alongside the Chao Phraya River to an enormous sprawl of a capital. Extending upwards and outwards to become Thailand's dominant city by a long way, Bangkok's history has mirrored that of the still-reigning Chakri dynasty of kings that founded it. The seeds for this were sown back in 1767, when invading Burmese armies razed the old capital of Ayutthaya just to the north, tearing down temples and carting off most of the population that survived, including the royal family, as slaves. Out of this chaos, a Thai general named Phraya Thaksin founded a new capital at Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river opposite modern Bangkok, declared himself king, and immediately set about reclaiming much of the surrounding country. One of the few surviving legacies from this period is Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn; enlarged and reconstructed since, it originally formed part of Thaksin's royal temple.

Despite his military successes, Thaksin became more and more excessive in his behavior and was finally ousted in a coup, with power transferred to another general, Chao Phraya Chakri. Chakri kickstarted the modern history of Bangkok by transferring the capital from Thonburi in the west, to the eastern bank of the river, founding Bangkok itself in 1782. Set on the fortified island of Ratanakosin, Chakri refurbished many of the existing temples in the area (such as Wat Pho), as well as building modern day tourist sights such as Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace, and Lak Mueang, the shrine to the guardian deity of Bangkok. Also dating from this period is the National Museum, built originally for Chakri's vizier, Prince Wang Na.

Under Chakri and his successors, Bangkok continued to expand, particularly due to trade, so newer communities such as Yaowarat (mainly Chinese traders) and Pahurat (the Indian quarter) were established, extending outwards from the 'Old City' of Ratanakosin. The third king in the Chakri dynasty, Phra Nang Klao, also developed a new system of royal titles, naming himself Rama III, and his predecessors Rama I and Rama II. Rama III was also responsible for restoring Wat Pho and Wat Arun to the form they are in today, as well as beginning the aborted construction of Wat Saket, the spectacular Golden Mount Temple (which was completed further down the track by Rama V).

Rama IV, also known as Mongkut, is probably best known by Westerners as the ruler in the film 'The King and I' and the more modern 'Anna and the King'. Thais tend to find these interpretations offensive and growing evidence now tends to suggest the accounts of Anna Leonowens, on which these movies were based, are pure fiction at best. The real Rama IV was a brilliant leader, who was able to skillfully negotiate treaties with foreign powers to prevent the colonization of Thailand. Bangkok benefited from his trade policies during this time with an expanded port and, for the first time, paved streets.

Rama V (also known as Chulalongkorn or the Great King) took to the throne in 1868 at the age of 15 and immediately continued his father,  reforms, setting the foundations for the modern Thai government, as well as moving the royal palace to the tree-lined avenues of Dusit and building Bangkok's first railway system. His old Chitlada Palace grounds feature the Vimanmek Teak Mansion and the Abhisek Throne Hall, both excellent examples of royal Thai architecture. Rama V's long reign brought peace and stability to Thailand and his death in 1910 saw Thailand and Bangkok go through a period of great change, with the first in a long series of coups starting unsuccessfully in 1912 involving a group of disgruntled soldiers during the reign of Rama VI. During this time, both the Victory Monument and Democracy Monument were designed and constructed by Corrado Feroci, an Italian artist credited with helping found Thailand's modern art movement. A coup in 1932 by Western-educated Thai students proved more successful, ending the absolute monarchy under Rama VII and replacing it with a constitutional model.

Rama VII abdicated in 1935, leaving the ten-year-old Rama VIII in his place, and power passed into the hands of Field Marshall Phibun, the first in what would prove to be a long line of military dictatorships for Thailand and Bangkok. Probably one of the best examples of colonial style architecture still standing from the 1930s is the Neilson Hayes Library in downtown Bangkok on Surawong Road. Phibun allied with the Japanese during World War II, sparing the capital from destruction, but lost his position of absolute power after the war to a democratic civilian government. He regained absolute power in murky circumstances surrounding the death of Rama VIII who died from a gunshot wound in his palace bedroom.

The current King Bhumibol (Rama IX) was crowned in 1946, and the first few decades of his reign were marked by the rise of communism in Indochina, leading to growing American military aid and a continuing succession of military dictators. The enduring legacy in Bangkok of this time are the bars of Patpong and Soi Cowboy, catering to American soldiers on R & R from the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. One of the reminders of this turbulent time is Jim Thompson's House and Museum, preserved exactly as the silk magnate left it following his mysterious disappearance.

In 1973, massive student demonstrations forced General Thanom, the current military ruler, to leave the country. A civilian government took over, but lasted only until 1976, when more student demonstrations against the return of Thanom were brutally crushed by right wing forces fearing a communist takeover. General Prem Tinsulanonda, a moderate, took power in 1980 and is credited for leading Thailand out of this mess, granting amnesties to the communists, and overseeing a period of growth and stability that turned Bangkok into the vibrant modern capital it is today.

One downturn in this trend of liberalization has been another military coup in 1991, overthrown in 1992 by bloody Bangkok street demonstrations with some help from Rama IX. Since then a succession of four civilian governments has seen the capital enjoy a much more stable political climate. The only other crisis of note was the 1997 Asian economic meltdown, whose legacy is still apparent in Bangkok today, with scores of unfinished condominiums and office towers. And, if you want to party in a defunct finance company, head to Specs, a new and lively club on Silom Road.