“O Bangkok Magic name, blessed name”
Published by Signal Books: www.signalbooks.co.uk North American edition by Oxford University Press: www.amazon.com Available in Thailand from Asia Books. Excerpt from Bangkok. A Cultural and Literary History by Maryvelma Smith O’Neil Available in Thailand from Asia Books.
“But where does one begin with Bangkok,” English writer F. K. Exell mused in 1963. “It was a complete mixture of spurious West and inscrutable East. It was dirty. It was clean. It was beautiful. It was ugly. It was ancient. It was modern. It had scented temple flowers and the stench of rotting fish.”
For more than a century after Bangkok was founded in 1782 most westerners approached it expecting to find the ‘Venice of the East’, as the former Thai capital at Ayudhya had been called, and would only later discover its unique aspects. Ayudhya had been a prosperous city – like Bangkok, built on canals – and one of the greatest maritime ports of Southeast Asia until the Burmese vanquished it in 1767. The Chakri monarchs aimed to replicate the spiritual and physical glory of Ayudhya in the new capital. And succeeded, to judge from many nineteenth-century-travelers who responded with rapt delight at first view of the astonishing spectacle that appeared just after their steamers rounded the wide bend of the Chao Phraya River. A British traveler reaching Bangkok in 1865 thought he saw a mirage: the city “seemed to have arisen from the waters” right before his eyes. He would have seen the houseboats or huts built on stilts that stretched along the river banks as far as the eye could see. Picture them shaded by tall, slender palm trees. Flame-of-the-forest flowers accent a cerulean sky. Pendulous yellow blossoms - floral chandeliers -overhang impenetrable mangrove swamps.
The king owned all the land – because he is god-like, proclaimed a royal decree. His earthly abode was a fortified palace complex adjacent to the Chao Phraya, the river of kings, coursing through Bangkok before spilling into the Gulf of Siam thirty-five miles downstream. Over the centuries, the river became a bustling international emporium with great ships - first junks, then steamers - dwarfing the native dwellings. As the city laid claim to the vast, low-lying deltaic plain of the Chao Phraya valley, traditional amphibious habitats were gradually abandoned. Over the next century the water-world of Old Bangkok was paved over; the last holdouts of the unique floating city were evicted by government order in the early 1950s.
One of the most destructive factors in the changing nature of the “city in a garden” was undoubtedly the laying down of roads, replacing the watery lattice of canals that had been one of the great wonders of Southeast Asia. Rama IV Road, built in 1857, was the first truly public thoroughfare. New Road (Charoen Krung), the earliest macadam street for wheeled vehicles in the burgeoning commercial area next to the port, dates from 1862. The first major boulevard, which swathes through the old city, was cut in the late nineteenth century following King Chulalongkorn’s first visit to Paris.
During the second half of the twentieth century a sprawling, land-based, industrial metropolis began to mushroom on the alluvial plain. The rapid, unplanned and unimpeded expansion in the 1960s was largely due to American development money. Strategic roads led northeast to US military bases on the Thai border. These highways also encouraged an influx of poor peasants who gravitated to the capital, many ending up in sprawling slums.
Although so much has changed in Bangkok over the last century, visitors today experience feelings similar to those recorded in 1863. A sense of bafflement follows the generally conflicting impressions of the place; but few were bored then, and few now. An English visitor remarked that the “continuous and picturesque contrast of splendour and poverty, of fastidious etiquette and informality,” kept one on one’s toes. The same is true today.