The Growth of Bangkok – Part 2

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The Growth of Bangkok – Part 2

In the last issue we traced the growth of Bangkok from its almost default position as the capital of what was then Siam to the point where it was being called the ‘Venice of the East’. This appellation started to appear around the middle of the nineteenth century. In this piece we will continue into the second half of that century.

The signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855 led to acceleration in the growth of the Bangkok city environs. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was the treaty encouraged Western businesses to set up shop in Bangkok, leading to an influx of foreigners and the expansion of the private sector of the economy.

This in turn led to a demand for land, for the construction of both housing and businesses and, of course, saw more labour coming into the city from the provinces searching for work. A situation that continues to this day.

Although the numbers of Caucasian residents in the mid-nineteenth century was relatively small, their influence was significant. When European diplomats complained to the government about the difficulties of getting around the small city, King Mongkut ordered the laying down of the very first land thoroughfare in the city. Constructed in the 1860s, Chareonkrung or ‘New’ Road attracted the majority of the good hotels, trading houses, and banks as it developed into the diplomatic and commercial centre of Bangkok, remaining the city’s pre-eminent land artery for almost a century.

As foreign trade grew, it became necessary to dig more canals in order to shorten the length of time it took for rice barges and the like to bring exports from the hinterland to Bangkok.

Between 1860 and 1910 some 15 new canals were constructed to facilitate this growth in trade. At the same time, road construction also continued, although it generally followed the lines of the canals.

The port area grew apace after 1865 with the formation of the Bangkok Dock Company, supported by British capital. Interestingly, Bangkok’s growth at this time was largely restricted to the banks of the Chao Phrya River rather than extending very far inland.

New building tended to concentrate close to the river and the major canal feeder network, giving Bangkok a kind of snaking expansion. This style of growth continued well into the twentieth century with any inland incursions that did take place tending to follow the line of the great canals, leading to the eventual expansion of major traffic thoroughfares such as Silom and Rama IV.

According to sources, in 1883 wages in Siam were allegedly three times higher than in Japan, a country on the fast track to modernisation during this time.

continued next issue.