Official name Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, is the capital of Thailand and, with a population of over eleven million inhabitants, by far its largest city. Its high-rise buildings, heavy traffic congestion, intense heat and naughty nightlife may not immediately give you the best impression — but don’t let that mislead you. It is one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities with magnificent temples and palaces, authentic canals, busy markets and a vibrant nightlife that has something for everyone.
For years, it was only a small trading post at the banks of the Chao Phraya River, until King Rama I, the first monarch of the present Chakri dynasty, turned it into the capital of Siam in 1782, after the burning of Ayutthaya by Burmese invaders but they did not take over Ayutthaya. Since then, Bangkok has turned into a national treasure house and functions as Thailand’s spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, educational and diplomatic centre.
« Bangkok » originally was a small village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. After the fall of Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, King Taksin the Great turned that village into Siam’s new capital and renamed it Thonburi. In 1782, King Rama I moved the capital to the eastern bank of the river at Rattanakosin; originally the site of a Chinese community, who were moved outside of the new city walls to Yaowarat. King Rama I named the city Krung Thep, as it is now known to Thais and which in English is translates as the « City of Angels ».
The full name « Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok popnoparat ratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit » (กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานี บุรีรมย์อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์) is listed as the world’s longest location name by the Guinness Book of Records; an English rendering goes like this: « The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn ». The original village of Bangkok has long since ceased to exist, but foreigners never caught on to the change.
Life was taking place on the water; ordinary people lived on bamboo-rafts along the river, while floating vendors roamed the water to sell fruit and vegetables. The only stone structures built on land were temples and palaces. In the 19th-century, Western powers incorporated much of Southeast Asia into their colonial empires. King Rama IV and V felt that the only way to keep Siam independent was to modernise the country along European lines. Traditional canals were filled up and turned into roads. King Rama V moved the residence of the King to Dusit and laid out that district’s grand boulevards along European lines.
Bangkok really started to develop after World War II. The economic centre shifted from the orderly planned city of Rattanakosin in an eastward direction, leaving Bangkok without an obvious centre. Bangkok established itself as the driving power behind Thailand’s new role as a newly industrializing country from the 1980s onwards. Rapid economic growth has attracted migration from the countryside, with millions of Thais moving here from Isaan to make a living.
This rapid expansion turned Bangkok into one of the most cosmopolitan and happening cities in Asia; but also ensured numerous problems. A wide gap has emerged between those who profit from economic activity, and those who came to the city from the countryside in search of work. Bangkok’s seemingly never-ending traffic jams continue as the new Skytrain and metro systems are not really connected with other means of public transportation.
When traffic slows to a crawl and there are no mass-transit alternatives for your destination, by far the fastest mode of transport is a motorbike taxi(มอเตอร์ไซค์รับจ้าง motosai lapjang). The people in the coloured tabards are motosai cabbies. They typically wear colourful fluorescent yellow-orange or red vests and wait for passengers at busy places. Prices are negotiable before you ride but is the best way when the traffic is not flowing as well as usual in Bangkok (!).
For the adrenaline junkie, a wild motosai ride can provide a fantastic rush. Imagine weaving through rows of stopped vehicles at 50 km/h (30 mph) with mere centimetres to spare on each side, dodging pedestrians, other motorbikes, tuk-tuks, stray dogs and the occasional elephant while the driver blithely ignores all traffic laws and even some laws of physics. Now do the same while facing backwards on the bike and balancing a large television on your lap, and then you can qualify as a local — though you might die in the process. Imagine your loved ones arranging to ship your dead body home from Bangkok because you took a dangerous risk you were warned not to. Motorcycle accidents are brutally common, and transportation of this sort is inherently hazardous. Be aware of the risk before using motorcycle taxis. Many tourists and Thai alike recommend avoiding them except as a last resort. Under no circumstances ride without a helmet.
The overwhelming majority of motorcycle taxis do not travel long distances, but simply shuttle up and down long sois (side-streets) not serviced by other transport for a fixed 5-20 baht fare. These are marginally less dangerous, especially if you happen to travel with the flow on a one-way street.
The law requires that both driver and passenger must wear a helmet. It is the driver’s responsibility to provide you with one, so if you are stopped by police, any fine is also the driver’s responsibility. This is worth bearing in mind when you hire a motorbike or moped. Make sure that if there are two of you, the hirer provides two helmets instead of one. When riding, keep a firm grasp on the seat handle and watch out for your knees.
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