Through the guts of Bangkok

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit is the longest city name in the world. It translates to “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.” That pretty much describes Bangkok: Big, messy, complicated, and lots going on

A man standing by some tuk tuks on the streets of Bangkok at dusk
Tuk Tuks in Bangkok

Incidentally, Visvakarman and Indra are principle deities in Hinduism and Buddhism respectively. The “9 gems” refers to the auspicious combination of diamond, ruby, emerald, yellow sapphire, garnet, blue sapphire, pearl, topaz and cat’s eye - essentially Thailand’s crown jewels.

Bangkok is like Thailand’s beating heart

It is the central node around and through which the economy, politics, and society ebbs and flows. And its Thailand’s portal to the rest of the world, which is why the Kings that held the mouth of the Chao Phraya became the Kings of Siam.

Bangkok is kind of a big deal even by international standards. It regularly exceeds even Paris and New York for the number of international visitors. There are more high-rises in Bangkok than any US city except New York. Were Thailand a wealthier country, Bangkok would be listed amongst the world’s most powerful and influential cities.

Bangkok is truly one of those cities - like Paris, New York, or Tokyo - that can take a weekend to see, but needs a lifetime to truly know and fully appreciate.

Bangkok is also Thailand’s black hole.

22% of Thais live here - over 14 million people - which, for an agrarian country, is kinda insane. Its a classic example of a “primate city” - a city that is disproportionately larger and more important than any other in its country. And as Thailand continues to grow - at around 4 to 5% per year on average - so does Bangkok grow even more disproportionately. It engulfs the surrounding countryside slowly, but is sucking in the whole country’s energy, including Thailand’s young people.

There’s now just so much “stuff” in Bangkok that the city is sinking into its floodplain - around and inch every year on average. A tropical floodplain is a terrible place to put a Bangkok, and as we head north from Hua Lumphong, we see some of the problems that result…

Rocking out of Bangkok on a train

Bangkok was once referred to as “the Venice of the East” (but so have a lot of cities in Asia) due to its sprawling canals, or “Klong”. Although many have been paved over, they still serve a vital function for Bangkok for flood mitigation, transport, and (unfortunately) sewage disposal. Bangkok wouldn’t work without them.

A few hundred metres north of Hua Lumphong is a small bridge over the Klong Saen Saep. It was built by King Rama III in 1837 to transport soldiers during a conflict between Siam and Annam over Cambodia. It connects the Chao Phraya river to the Prachin Buri and Chachaoengsao rivers. It was once so abundant with lotus flowers that King Mongkut built the “Lotus Pond Palace” on its banks. Today it is completely opaque, litter-filled, and smells so bad that the passengers on the ferry boat tend to wear masks.

As you push out of Hua Lumphong, you will also need to keep your hands inside the train. One of the few points for which the Thai rail system is famous is the precious little space left between the passing trains and the structures on either side. The tracks are built on public land. It is up to the Thai rail police to evict squatters. But there are too many people in Bangkok that are pushed to the economic fringes and forced to squat in such ambiguous spaces that they don’t.

In fact, they do anything but. Wander around Hua Lumphong or Bang Sue stations, you may actually find a couple of brightly painted train carriages with little gardens. They’re library trains put there by the Railway Police for the less fortunate children that live in and around the two stations — giving them a safe place to play, and to learn to read.

I have nothing but respect for the Railway Police for that. And I can only say that, for all the time that I was hanging around Hua Lumphong Station, cold-selling to about 150 people in total, desperately trying to convince them to try out the WindowSeater app, I got nothing but smiles and nods from the Thai Railway Police (and I can only assume that what I was doing was a minor felony). Bless them. Their uniforms look pretty dapper too. But I digress.

In Maeklong – a town to the southwest of Bangkok – locals have a regular wet market where fresh fruit and vegetables are actually laid over the train tracks.

In Maeklong — a town to the southwest — locals have a wet market where fresh fruit and vegetables are actually laid on the tracks. When the train’s horn blows, produce is shifted, people disperse, awnings are withdrawn before a slow-moving train chugs through. Its a sight to behold, and there are plenty of tourists that go there just for the spectacle.

As we continue North through the guts of Bangkok, there’s one other curiosity that foreigners often point to: The drooped, tangled, even nest-like arrangement of electricity cables. Upon seeing this, Bill Gates once tweeted that it was a sign of “energy poverty”, and evidence of people stealing electricity from the grid. But the truth is that private utilities companies hire the poles from the metropolitan electricity authorities, and their competing interests mean that they don’t coordinate or share. Although they look dangerous, most are telephone and internet wires with low voltages. Higher voltage wires are placed higher up, only becoming dangerous if vehicles collide with them, and the weight drags down multiple poles. Their arguably unsightly appearance is usually shrugged off by Thais as a necessity.

A tangle of many wires hanging on a pole in Bangkok
Tangles of wires in Bangkok. Its not so bad.

The stretch North of Hua Lumphong tells us a lot about Bangkok through its more nasty growing pains. But despite the dirty canals, pockets of disorder, and occasional messy appearance, its not nearly the full story. And it boggles me that so many visitors leave Bangkok thinking its a city of sin and filth. Don’t be one of these people.

There’s too much to tell you about Bangkok in this humble format. But if you just escape the maddening tourist drags, and look past the chaos that is inherent in putting an epic Asian city in a monsoonal floodplain, I promise you can readily find a city that is among the world’s most culturally, historically, and gastronomically fascinating.

For now, I have a few more stories to tell you before we leave the city limits, which I leave to the next post.

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