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Atlas of Thailand

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Doryane Kermel-Torrès

Chapter 7. Bangkok and the Bangkok metropolitan region

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1Also known under its shortened Thai name of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, Bangkok was for a long time a secondary city, but it is now one of the most important in the world (see plate 6 Networks in Eastern Asia). Between 1950 and 2000, its urban population increased from 700,000 to 8,000,000 inhabitants (this figure represents the total population of districts within Bangkok and contiguous districts, where the population density is greater than 1,000 inhabitants per km2). In this, the Thai capital has followed the pattern of many southern cities, though it stands out in the crushing demographic weight placed on the country’s urban network.

2This domination is not only demographic. It is also political, administrative and economic. The Bangkok Metropolitan Region, made up of six provinces, produces more than half the country’s wealth (plate 58 Urban and industrial development around Bangkok). The centers of command, commercial headquarters and above all financial activity, are all concentrated in the business districts of Bangkok: in the second half of the 1990s, 60 % of all funds deposited in the entire country were in Bangkok province alone. It is possible, of course, to detect some weaknesses in the capital’s supremacy, especially in the area of politics. In recent years, the democratization of Thailand has produced a diffusion of political power away from Bangkok and hence the increasing influence in Parliament of representatives from the provinces. Any loss of power by the Bangkok elite is still fairly limited, however, as the administrative machinery remains extremely centralized. Moreover, recent trends in world economy have tended to reinforce the economic strength of what it is now a mega-urban region where a large proportion of the country’s industrial infrastructure is concentrated. In terms of port and airport facilities, Bangkok remains unrivalled and is therefore the only city in Thailand able to take a leading role in the development of the South-East Asia corridor.

3This primacy is not a new phenomenon. The city was designated capital of the Kingdom of Siam at the end of the 18th century, after the sack of Ayutthaya by the Burmese army, and it rapidly became not only the country’s demographic heart, but also its economic lungs and political head. This role is partly due to its advantageous geographical position. Situated as it is in the Central Plain, the country’s rice-growing heartland, Bangkok was the chief gateway to the country. The mouth of the Chao Phraya was a strategic location, close to sea trading routes and also at the crossroads of internal routes due to the use in the 19th century of canals (khlong) through the Central Plain for virtually all transport. Bangkok also owes its development to the creation of what was in fact an aquatic civilization, whose inhabitants cultivated a specific variety of floating rice and lived on rafts or in houses built on stilts, thus enabling them to adapt to the floods that inundate the delta every year. With such assets, Bangkok formed an ideal base for the constitution of an absolute monarchy. The Chakri dynasty, whose family history has been linked with the Siamese capital since its inception, was thus able to extend its power over all the kingdoms and principalities that did not fall under the control of the colonial powers (see plate 21 Formation of the nation-state territory).

4For most of the 20th century, the sources of the capital’s supremacy remained the same. Bangkok remained a focal point for exchange networks and rice exports continued to feed the economic growth. Although the river and canals have had to compete with rail and road transport, the erosion of their influence has in fact been very slow. There were only 5,000 motor vehicles on the streets of Bangkok at the end of the Second World War. The waterways had already had time to make Bangkok into a trading hub and especially the undisputed political center of the still emerging nation, which Siam then was. The transport networks built throughout the country in the 20th century (railways from the 1890s, major roads from the 1950s) thus all radiate from the capital, and this has only strengthened the city’s pre-eminence (see plate 24 Transportation networks).

5The mass of funds that have been drawn to the capital by the insertion of Thailand into the global economy have profoundly changed the landscape of the former “Venice of the Orient” over the last decades (plate 59 Bangkok metropolis development patterns). Siamese traditions and culture are still very visible, but Bangkok is committed to physical and functional changes that will bring it ever closer to the major cities of the developed countries. The high-rise buildings in the business districts are the clearest sign of this convergence, but the rapid and massive growth of an urban middle class also forms a solid basis for the movement towards modernization in which the Thai capital is engaged. Beyond the appearance of frivolity and consumerism, a truly urban, cosmopolitan and modern culture is being created. Changes in the content of electoral debates and the growing influence, via the press, of the urban public sphere are proof of this.

6In addition to the extremely rapid increase in the urban population, these transformations are accompanied by many serious problems. The Thai capital is now paying in kind for years of neglect when the city grew unchecked by the authorities until the mid-1980s. The position of Bangkok as the center of the manufacturing, trade and services sectors was exacerbated at that time by the structural change of the Thai economy, with the balance of growth shifting from the primary sector to manufacturing. The major problems of congestion and lack of infrastructure then became one of the government’s urgent priorities as economic globalization was putting a high premium on the competitivity of major cities. To make up lost time, Bangkok became one of the biggest construction sites in the world: two mass transit lines and one hundred kilometers of expressways have been opened to traffic since 1987 and one subway line is also expected to open soon. Yet the impact of billions of dollars of investment has been greatly reduced by the absence of any real planning policy and through political interference in the workings of the city’s bureaucratic machinery. Any coordination of public action is highjacked by competitiveness, which is rife in the different administrative departments. For the politicians who govern them, the fact that they have been assigned to these departments for the public good seems of minor importance; they are interested mostly in the additional sources of income that their responsibilities can provide.

7The legal and administrative means for a better planning system do exist, but it is rare for a public official to dare to use them to oppose any person of influence, or supposedly of influence. The means are also lacking for recruiting qualified people. For these reasons, the application of existing land and building laws is hesitant. The first major plan for the agglomera-tion was drawn up at the end of the 1950s, but it was not until 1992 that a document of this type was approved by ministerial decree. Yet still no specific plan has been drawn up to enable this general plan to become operational.

8Here more than in any other city, however, urban and regional planning was indispensable. Contrary to what usually occurs, Bangkok’s periurban fabric has not been shaped by a pre-existing rural framework. First, the roads that serve the outskirts of Bangkok have only recently been created, where nothing existed before. Roads have been superimposed on the waterway network, yet there are no links between the two. As outlying villages are almost all located on canal banks, the advance of urbanization has simply engulfed them. Second, these villages were of recent construction, and they were scarcely able in themselves to form an urban nucleus. At the end of the 19th century, just a few kilometers from the capital, malaria decimated the population and it was not unusual to see elephants trampling over the paddy fields. A few decades later, urbanization began to destructure the rural fabric, which had been so painstakingly created, with only a few small hamlets developing. The particularly anarchic growth of the road system, and thus the traffic problems that the Thai capital suffers today are in part the result of these features of the rural fabric (plate 60 Road system and motorization in Bangkok). Satellite towns, often linked with industrial areas, were tentatively created by the authorities from the end of the 1970s. Their role has remained a very modest one, however, as they were too far away to become metropolitan subcenters yet too small to become regional centers.

9The democratization of Thailand and the ever-increasing political involvement of the citizens in the problems that affect their daily lives should lead the administration and political leaders to a more rational management of the city. In this respect, even though public opinion would seem to be particularly concerned with problems of traffic, pollution and flooding, it must be stressed that housing remains a constant problem. Since the Second World War, the slum population has fluctuated between one fifth and one quarter of the city’s total population.

Bangkok: a primate city

Skytrain viaduct and Phrom Pong station on Sukhumvit avenue

Skytrain viaduct and Phrom Pong station on Sukhumvit avenue

Photo Eric Charmes

The two overhead lines cover 27 km, with trains running above the existing roads, thus confirming the scale of the transformations that have taken place in a capital famous for its traffic jams. Urban motorways, an underground metro (due in 2004) are just some of the "mega projects" launched by public enterprises with the input of foreign capital, and run by private companies.

Hyperblock near Sukhumvit avenue

Hyperblock near Sukhumvit avenue

Photo Eric Charmes

Behind the screen of tall buildings (hotels and condominiums) attracted by the proximity of the major transport axes, the built-up density is still low and there are many detached houses, occupied by rich families. The densification of residential zones close to the city center has been accompanied on the periphery by the development of private housing estates for the middle classes.

The extension of Bangkok’s area of influence: the creation of a metropolitan region

10Historically, the first rivals of the Chao Phraya and its tributaries, the railways, have not been very influential in the development of the Bangkok metropolitan region. This development was centered for the most part around the three main national roads, construction of which was begun in the 1930s: Sukhumvit, Phahon Yothin and Peth Kasem (see also plate 60 Road system and motorization in Bangkok). These major axes were strengthened by the presence of the Don Muang international airport in the north and of the port of Khlong Toey in the south-east. The northern provinces of Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi and the seaboard province of Samut Prakan in particular have benefited from the proximity of the capital, and Greater Bangkok was created from this entire area (4,717 km2). The western provinces of Samut Sakhon and Nakhon Pathom, which together with Greater Bangkok make up the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (7,758 km2) have also been influenced by the capital, but for various reasons, their urban and economic development have been limited. The city’s historic center is on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya and when the city turned towards terra firma, the river represented a major obstacle: the first railway bridge was opened only in 1926 and the first road bridge six years later. The advance of the urban front was hindered to the west by the high price of the land, cultivated under market gardening, and the more fragmented layout of plots.

11Globalization and the influx of foreign industrial investment have in no way altered the preferred directions of development of the metropolitan region; on the contrary, these have been strengthened by the proximity of the port and airport infrastructure which are of international standard. Thus when the major influx of foreign investment began in the second half of the 1980s, a large proportion was concentrated around Bangkok. Major manufacturing plants were set up in the urban fringes and sometimes beyond the limits of the metropolitan region itself, in the industrial estates established at the instigation of the authorities.

12The policy of industrial deconcentration has particularly benefited the coastal strip to the south-east, the Eastern Seaboard. Chon Buri province lies about 100 km from Bangkok and is linked by major motorways. With its industrial parks and two deep-water ports (the main one being Laem Chabang where the traffic is greater than in the Bangkok port), the province now contributes 5 % of the national wealth, although it contains only 1.7 % of the population. This strong focal point to the east and south-east of Bangkok is set to be strengthened by recently completed and underway infrastructure (Nong Ngu Hao international airport at Samut Prakan, new Laem Chabang container terminals), all to be connected or already connected to Bangkok by expressways and motorways. The Chachoengsao and Chon Buri provin-ces are now integrated into the orbit of the capital just as much as the less distant provinces of Samut Sakhon and Nakhon Pathom. The definition of what specialists used to call the Extended Bangkok Metropolitan Region, now termed Bangkok’s Mega-Urban Region, remains a little vague, however, with some including the province of Rayong further along the Eastern Seaboard, or even provinces such as Ayutthaya to the north and Ratchaburi to the west.

13With the exception of the Bangkok Metropolitan Area (BMA), the Greater Bangkok Area and the Bangkok Metropolitan Region are not represented or managed by any elected body or specific administrative entity. They are significant only for the planners. The only competent authority in the field of regional planning is the state, via the Department of Town and Country Planning (DTCP) and the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB). The province of Bangkok (BMA) has an unusual status, in that under pressure from the Bangkok middle classes, the government has democratized control of the Bangkok municipality and the Governor, elected by direct universal suffrage since 1985, has an ever-increasing degree of autonomy.

14Inside the municipal body, a Department of City Planning was created in 1995 which prepared quite independently a general plan, in force since July 1997. In terms of regional planning, however, the impact of this plan remains fairly limited, mainly because the urbanized area extends considerably further than the limits of the BMA, even though, after merging with Thon Buri in 1972, the Bangkok municipality gradually expanded to cover the entire province, an area of 1,569 km2. In this type of matter, conflicts of interest between the municipality and the state will surely have a more and more marked effect on the future of the metropolitan region.

Plate 58 – Urban and industrial development around Bangkok

Bangkok and neighboring provinces in the national economy (1981-1996)

Bangkok and neighboring provinces in the national economy (1981-1996)

Sources: BOI, 1995 nesdb, 1994, 1999 ; nso, 1995

The changing Bangkok landscape: vertical expansion and suburban sprawl

15Since the 1980s the population density in the areas surrounding the historic heart of Ratanakosin has been decreasing. This area has always been dominated by rows of long, narrow shophouses where the ground floor consists of a shop or workshop and the upper storeys are used for living quarters. As floors were added and vacant areas filled in by slums, some very high population densities were reached (almost 90,000 inhabitants per km2 in 1980 in districts like Pom Prap Sattru Phai), leading to a very great deterioration in the quality of life. The well-off populations were the first to leave, followed by the middle classes. These areas, which for a long time made up the economic heart of Bangkok, have also lost their pre-eminence. As it was impossible to renovate the fabric of the Chinese shophouses, because of a very fragmented plot layout and congestion on the main streets, the much larger constructions associated with the modernization of Thailand have been built to the north-east and the south-east of the city, where the homes of well-to-do families have been built on large plots of land. These areas, like those served by Silom, Ploenchit and Witthayu avenues, which formed the original city suburbs, have undergone massive renovation. They are now Bangkok’s Central Business Districts (CBDs) where shops and office blocks have taken the place of the detached houses.

16The business quarters also stretch out in corridors along the main traffic routes. These have a pronounced power of attraction, with Bangkok’s water-bound past making road access and frontage precious commodities. Far to the north, around the complex of roads and motorways that lead to the airport (see also plate 60 Road system and motorization in Bangkok) high-rise company headquarter buildings pierce the skyline and the imposing mass of the many shopping malls is in evidence. The landscape is the same in the area around Sukhumvit avenue, and to a lesser degree along the rest of the main highways.

17Behind these major roads today there are vast expanses of residential areas, whose inhabitants are taking advantage of the more widespread use of the car. These suburban residential communities (muban jatsan) are now developing in the peripheral districts of the Bangkok Metropolitan Area (BMA) and in the neighboring provinces, which have recently enjoyed the greatest population growth. Traffic problems, however, have restricted this spread and the pressure on land has also increased around the CBDs. From the end of the 1970s, in the residential areas around Sukhumvit and Sathon avenues, the population began to grow more dense; town houses and condominiums began to take the place of traditional detached houses.

18The outskirts of Bangkok are still far from resembling a dormitory town. In the absence of any monitoring of land use, factories are often located close to houses, and workshops and small businesses are sometimes set up inside houses in the middle class areas. Along secondary roads the traditional rows of shophouses also create local centers of activity. The functional specialization of urban space is, however, on the increase. More and more shopping malls have appeared since the middle of the 1980s, located at intersections on the suburban road network. For an ever-increasing proportion of Bangkokians, the commercial streets and markets have now given way to air-conditioned shopping malls and huge super-markets.

19The opening up by the private sector in the 1980s of the market for low-cost condominiums made up in part for the lack of public housing provision, but given the very high rate of population increase in Bangkok, the number of people still in poor housing remains very high. These living conditions are both the downside and one of the sources of Thailand’s “economic miracle”, which relied very heavily on low-cost labor. Far from being a simple product of growth, the economic integration of this pool of low-cost labor has been favored by the spatial distribution of the slums. Apart from the Khlong Toey slum, close to the port (with several thousand inhabitants), the slums are all fairly small (about a thousand inhabitants on average) and very scattered. Many are close to areas of employment, despite the fact that their location is subject to the centrifugal force of land market pressures. The large amount of land left inaccessible by road and the ability of the Thais to mix together while yet maintaining their social distances have played a key role in this opening up of urban land to the poor. Spatial and social segregation are at work, however. Although the phenomenon may be much less pronounced than in the Philippines, gated communities, reserved for very specific social categories, are increasingly to be found.

Plate 59 – Bangkok metropolis development patterns

Bangkok metropolis

Bangkok metropolis

Evolution of Silom- Rama IV area (1967-1995)

Evolution of Silom- Rama IV area (1967-1995)

Sources: BMA, 1998 Davisi Boontharm, 2001 ; Ministry of Interior, 1997 ; NSO, 1995, 2000

Massive but inadequate investment in transport

20During the rush hour, in the streets of the business districts, cars move barely as fast as the pedestrians. It has been estimated that cars in the capital city spend on average 44 days a year stuck in traffic jams. People who use one of the 10,000 buses provided by public and private companies (one of the largest fleets in the world) are scarcely better off. For those who want to go fast, motorcycles and moto-taxis are the most efficient means of transport, though they are uncomfortable and dangerous. In order to reduce the amount of time lost every day, some executives rent apartments in the center of town close to their work-place, spending the weekends with their families in their suburban houses. Others convert their car into an office and deal with everyday business matters on their portable telephone. These are stopgap measures however, only available to the better-off, and they are not sufficient to prevent hundreds of millions of dollars of work time being lost. The economic cost of this congestion is such that it threatens the competitivity of the Thai capital. The people of Bangkok are suffering on a daily basis from this situation: the time lost in travelling to and from work is in fact taken out of leisure time and household chores. Children probably suffer the most: absent parents, long rides in crowded buses, mealtimes disrupted. A study has also shown that their intellectual development is impaired as a result of the effects of the lead contained in exhaust fumes.

21Since the mid-1980s, the government, under pressure from businesses and Bangkok public opinion, has indicated that this matter was giving them cause for concern. With the support of private foreign funds attracted by Thailand’s economic miracle, Bangkok has been transformed into one vast construction site. Some important features, however are still lacking. The city has survived right up to the end of the 20th century without a mass transit system, and the 23 kilometres of overhead rails opened in December 1999 are still largely inadequate. Also, although the expressways which now circle over the city make long distance travel easier, long lines always build up at the entrances and exits. The traditional public road network, difficult to privatize and therefore unable to benefit from foreign funds, remains not able to cope with the steady streams of vehicles.

22Partly because of the capital city’s aquatic past, the surface area covered by the public road network is very limited. It represents in some central districts no more than 6 to 7 % of the urbanized area, compared with 20 to 30 % in most western metropolitan centers. Moreover, in the absence of any planning provision, it has taken on a very haphazard form. Apart from the major roads (thanon), the streets (soi) have developed without monitoring by any public body; they are linked one with another according to the whim of building operations and agreements between property owners to obtain a right of passage, and they very rarely link two major roads together. Moreover, the canals have blocked expansion in a number of cases. Inside the gaps in the major road network, which on the outskirts of the city can be as great as several dozen square kilometres, urban expansion is organized around interlacing residential streets, many of which are cul-de-sacs. The case of Lat Phrao superblock speaks volumes. This is a suburb of approximately 70 km2, developed from the 1950s almost exclusively through a combination of initiatives by local farmers and private developers, yet no major road was built through this residential area until 1996, by which time the population had reached nearly half a million.

23What is more, the number of vehicles on the roads is increasing at a very fast rate and each new road provided is almost immediately saturated. After half a century of very rapid growth, the number of privately owned vehicles registered in the province of Bangkok alone is now almost two million. This growth is probably far from over, as the rate of private vehicle ownership is still low and varies considerably over the different social strata, with a high level of multi-ownership among the better-off households.

Plate 60 – Road System and motorization in Bangkok

Motorization evolution (1955-1996)

Motorization evolution (1955-1996)

Sources: Charmes E., 2000 ; NSO, (various years)

© IRD Éditions, 2004

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