Just under 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is a tropical metropolis that is also one of the most traveller-friendly cities in Asia. A furious assault on the senses, visitors are immediately confronted by the heat, the pollution and the irrepressible smile that accompanies many Thais. Despite the sensationalised international news reports and first impressions, the city is surprisingly safe (except from some petty crimes) and more organised than it initially appears, and full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The high relative humidity and warm temperature favour the growth of tropical plants — you’ll find orchids and delicious fruit everywhere. Bougainvillea and frangipani bloom practically all over the city. Thai cuisine is justifiably famous, varied, and affordable. Bangkok for many represents the quintessential Asian capital. Saffron-robed monks, garish neon signs, graceful Thai architecture, spicy dishes, colourful markets, traffic jams and the tropical climate come together in a happy coincidence. It is difficult to leave with lukewarm impressions of the city.
“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.
Addresses in Bangkok use the Thai addressing system, which may be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Large roads such as Silom or Sukhumvit are thanon (ถนน), often abbreviated Th or glossed “Road”, while the side streets branching off from them are called soi (ซอย). Sois are numbered, with even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other side. Thus, an address like “25 Sukhumvit Soi 3” means house/building number 25 on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides — for example, Soi 55 could be across from Soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Sukhumvit Soi 3 is also known as “Soi Nana Nuea”, so the address above might thus also be expressed as “25 Soi Nana Nuea”. The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit’s soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11. Note that some short alleys are called trok (ตรอก) instead of soi.
To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekkamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phahonyothin Soi 7) have their own sois. In these cases, an address like “Ari Soi 3” means “the 3rd soi off Soi Ari”, and you may even spot addresses like “68/2 Ekkamai Soi 4, Sukhumvit Road”, meaning “2nd house beside house 68, in the 4th soi of Ekkamai, which is the 63rd soi of Sukhumvit”. In many sois, the house numbers are not simply increasing, but may spread around.
To further bewilder the tourist who doesn’t read Thai, the renderings of Thai street names in the Latin alphabet are not consistent. The road running towards Don Mueang Airport from Victory Monument may be spelled Phahonyothin or Phahon Yothin or Pahon Yothin or Phaholyothin depending on which street sign or map you consult. It’s all the same in Thai, of course, only the romanisation varies.
And if that’s not confusing enough, most of the larger streets tend to change names altogether every few kilometres. Sukhumvit is called Sukhumvit on one side of the tollway (roughly east), but it becomes Phloen Chit just before you cross Witthayu Road (aka Wireless Road) going towards the river. Keep going just a few more streets and it becomes Rama I Road (or Phra Ram Neung Road) after you pass Ratchadamri Road. But if you were to turn right onto Ratchadamri, in just a few blocks you’ll find yourself on Ratchaprarop Road (past Phetchaburi, aka New Phetburi, which is called Phitsanulok closer to the river). Got it?
Fortunately, there’s logic to these name changes: most of them are neighbourhoods. It wouldn’t make sense to call the road Sukhumvit if it’s no longer running through the Sukhumvit area, would it? Thus, Sukhumvit becomes Phloen Chit where it runs though the Phloen Chit area. It’s when you’re able to grasp the city in terms of its neighbourhoods that it both becomes more navigable and more charming. Likewise, Pratunam and Chatuchak are much more than just markets; they’re neighbourhoods, each with their own distinct character.
Related to this last point, compass directions are not widely used by Thais to navigate in Bangkok. That’s probably because they aren’t very useful; the city’s Byzantine layout, the changing street names, the winding river, and the lack of obvious landmarks all conspire to confuse your internal compass. Thus, asking for directions in terms of “Is that west from here?” will probably earn you little more than a confused look from a local. You’re better off to familiarise yourself with the neighbourhoods and navigate to and from them. “How do I get to Thong Lo?” will get you there faster than asking for directions to Sukhumvit Soi 55.
One exception: the Chao Phraya River is the landmark in Bangkok, and many directional references can be made as “toward the river” or “away from the river”. If you aren’t too close, that is: since the river winds around the most popular tourist areas, river references tend to be most helpful when you’re wandering farther afield than Khao San Road, Sanam Luang or Rattanakosin. And wander you should.