Thailand 100 years ago: history of old quarters of Bangkok

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Prior to 1769, Bangkok was an unimportant place near which stoocj one of the forts intended to guard the riverine approaches to Ayuthia, the former capital.

In or about that year, however, it was selected as the headquarters of the army engaged in recovering Siam from the Burmese, from which time it grew rapidly and soon became the largest town in the country and the seat of government of the reorganised state.

In 1782 His Majesty Rama I (Somdet Phra Putayot Fa) definitely fixed upon the place as his capital, and since that date, indissolubly connected with the fortunes of the dynasty he founded, it has prospered until, far
surpassing all former capitals, it has become the greatest city the country has ever at any time possessed.

In its earlier years Bangkok was built very largely upon, or close beside, the river and the innumerable creeks and canals which were excavated with some degree of system at varying distances surrounding the Royal Palace. The houses were either constructed on floating pontoons moored at the sides of the watercourses, or on high piles driven into the mud-banks.

The Royal palaces occupied a large area in a bend on the east bank of the river, and the best land sites all round these were devoted to the erection of pagodas and temples, mostly of brickwork, and many of them of beautiful and elaborate design.

The dwelling-houses were built of light material and usually had thatched
roofs, those of the princes and higher nobles being generally, however, more solid structures of teak-wood, often richly carved, and with high roofs made of tiles. There were practically no roadways, all communication being by water.

About the year 1880, however, the necessity for roads began to make itself felt, and there was constructed a street some five miles long, connecting the neighbourhood of the Royal palaces with the foreign consulates and European dwellings and places of business which lined the east bank of the river below the city.

Since that time the macing of roads has continued, slowly at first but more rapidly later, so that to-day there are over a hundred miles of well-laid out streets, crossing the old canals at a thousand points and lined with neat brick-built houses…

The streets are well-paved ana metalled, and are kept dean, those nearest to the Palace being in the best condition, as being the most likely to catch the eye of royalty. They are continually crowded with traffic of all kinds, thousands of jinrickshaws, hundreds of horsed carriages and motor vehicles continually passing to and fro.

Here and there a row of the older thatched dwellings persists, and a few floating houses still cling to the banks of the river and the principal creeks, but these are doomed to early extinction. This picturesque
castellated fortifications of the city are going also, the gateways have nearly all been removed to facilitate traffic, and whole sections of the walls have been demolished and utilised as road-metal.

Before long Bangkok will be a city of bricks, but it will be also a
city of trees, the verdure of which, together with the graceful spires and bright-coloured roofs of its religious and public buildings, will always redeem it from the monotony of appearance which characterises many cities of the West.

North of the city an extensive park was laid out a few years ago, in the centre of which r the late King built for himself a small palace to which he could periodically retire to enjoy the pleasures of country life.

The park, which is called Dusit, or “the Paradise where all desires are fulfilled”, after the fourth heaven of the Buddhist cosmogony, is now a place of shrubberries, ornamental waters, small artificial hills and kiosks, intersected by well-kept walks and carriage-drives lined with avenues of tamarind and other trees.

The summer palace has grown into a great enclosure containing many fine buildings, in which the Court now resides /rimost permanently, and a magnificent Audience Chamber, while, at a distance round about it, stand many beautiful villas, the palaces of the more important princes and nobles.

A boulevard, about fwo miles long and some 200 feet wide, lined with trees and crossing three canals by means of handsome marble bridges, connects the Dusit Palace with the Grand Palace in the city. This last, a maze of delicate spiral roofs, flashing with gold and silver and overtopping white castellated walls, with surrounding green lawns, stately avenues, white roads and imposing temples and public buildings, forms one of the most remarkable sights of the Far East.

The European residential quarter is to the south and south-east of the town, where many of the foreign consulates, flow nearly all raised to the condition of Legations, have been, or are being, rebuilt. All the main streets are lined with shade-trees, and provided with electric tramways, while the whole town is lit by electricity.

Text: Graham Walter Armstrong
From the book SIAM, Vol.1
London, The Da la Mora Press, Limited, 1924
Photo: old photo from internet

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