The Growth of Bangkok
Over coming issues we will trace the growth of Bangkok from its almost default position as the capital of what was then Siam into what it has now become, a world-renowned megalopolis and centrepiece of one of the tiger economies of Asia.
A makeshift capital becomes the ‘Venice of the East’ 1782-1914 According to the Guinness Book of Records, the official name of the city of Bangkok is: ‘The Great City of Angels, the Supreme Repository of Divine Jewels, the Great Unconquerable Land, the Grand and Illustrious Realm, the Royal and Delightful Capital City, Home of the Nine Noble Gems, the Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, the Divine Shelter and Dwelling Place of the Reincarnated Spirits.’ To its inhabitants it’s better known simply as Krung Thep and to the rest of the world as Bangkok.
Bangkok was established as the royal capital of Siam in 1782, 15 years after the Burmese had razed the former capital Ayutthaya, and the same time as the beginning of the current ruling Chakri dynasty.
What started as a royal fortified town grew, via overseas trade, into a major commercial port, attracting large numbers of migrants, both from the countryside of Siam and the Asian region, particularly southern China, before finishing as the great sprawling urban industrial metropolis we see today. In that time, Bangkok has gone from being a city based almost totally on maritime transport (the Chao Phrya River and a network of canals) to a predominantly landbased industrial and manufacturing centre as canals were filled in and roads constructed in there stead.
Until the 1820s, foreign trade was mainly conducted with China, exports being linked to the tribute taxes exacted by the government from the Thai provinces and vassal states.
This trade led to substantial migration of Chinese workers to Siam, the vast majority choosing to settle in the burgeoning port of Bangkok. By 1820, Bangkok was already larger, in terms of population, than any other city in Siam. By the 1850s its population had grown to around 100,000 inhabitants. Revenue from foreign trade doubled in the years between 1795 and 1837. Between 1830 and 1850, exports from Bangkok to the British colony of Singapore doubled, while trade from Singapore to Bangkok increased around 33 percent in the same time.
Bangkok’s growth was particularly noticeable during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851), with no less than 62 kilometres of canals dug and 83 temples constructed. Compare this with just seven kilometres of canals dug during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809) and nine kilometres under King Rama II (1809-1824). This massive increase in canal transport led to European visitors declaring Bangkok to be the ‘Venice of the East’, a title the city was to hold until the massive expansion of the 1960s and 1970s made it redundant.