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Bangkok Then and Now
This is the opening chapter from the English-language edition of Bangkok Then And Now :

Yesterday, Today
A.D. 1900 to A.D. 2008. Only one hundred years and the merest blip in the span of geologic time, yet the century has been witness to change more dramatic than any in Thailand's history, altering Bangkok's face forever.

In 1900, Thailand was an agrarian society, comprising concentric circles of habitation defined by the lush surrounding vegetation. Villages and towns were dots embraced by vast fields of vibrant green rice, the fields in turn enfolded by the darker green rainforests still inhabited by hunters and gatherers. The largest dot was Bangkok, the nation's commercial core and an urban island in an endless sea of rice paddies veined by canals.

In truth, 'dot' describes 19th century Bangkok less accurately than 'line'. The city's evolution mirrored its rural roots, following the ribbon pattern of settlement whereby most of the populace clung to the banks of the nurturing Chao Phya River.

The mighty Chao Phya was the nation's liquid road to northern towns such as Chiang Mai, reached by a six-week boat journey. The river was also Thailand's highway to the world; ships with foreign names adorning their sterns sailed it on their way to and from distant ports, dropping anchor off the city's quays and wharves. A century ago, not a single bridge spanned the river. The first, the Rama VI Bridge, would not be constructed until 1926, and not for vehicular or pedestrian traffic but for trains traveling down the southern peninsula to Singapore.

Until the 16th century, there was no Bangkok, only Thonburi. The Chao Phya River flowed along a course now defined by Klong Bangkok Noi and Klong Bangkok Yai. To shorten the travel time between the sea and the capital at Ayutthaya, King Chairajathiraj (reigned 1534-1546) ordered that a two-kilometer canal be dug across the river's neck from a point now marked by the Bangkok Noi Railway Station and Wat Arun. Erosion ultimately widened the channel to become the river we know today.

Thonburi (Money Town) was a sentinel town with fortresses on both sides of the river - the one the mouth of Klong Bangkok Yai still exists - to guard against invasion from the sea. As Thonburi was also Ayutthaya's customs port, many Thais settled there and it soon grew into a small city. After Ayutthaya's destruction by the Burmese in 1767, King Taksin (1767-1782) moved his palace to Thonburi's safe haven in the vicinity of Wat Arun…

…The city of Bangkok was defined by water. Crisscrossed not by streets, but rather by dozens of canals; transportation was primarily by boats of which there were dozens of types suited to their purpose. The most prominent, the sampan (literally, 'three boards', to describe its construction), carried passengers, hawkers, even entire restaurants from door to door. Most city roads were dirt tracks; in 1900 Bangkok's first paved street was less than 40 years old. Although the first automobile made its appearance in 1897 - purchased by a noble, Chao Phya Surasakh Montri - it was horse-drawn gharries, Victoria Brougham carriages and trams that carried people through the streets. Oxcarts ambled along city lanes and horse-pulled taxis trolled for fares along the main thoroughfares, while rickshaws raced from one end of town to the other…

On their journey through the city, travelers threaded a jumble of buildings - most of them built of wood - that hugged the ground. Few residential or commercial buildings rose higher than three stories and wat (temple) roofs were still the tallest structures on the skyline - 398 of them in 1908, according to contemporary count - creating a veritable mountain range of sharp peaks…

...Flash forward to A.D. 2000. Like a juggernaut, modern Bangkok has buried the paddy fields that once hemmed it. The primate city is now the locus of a galaxy of satellite cities, each with its independent sun - usually an enormous shopping mall covering several acres - with homes and small businesses arrayed around it. The city has ballooned westward. While in 1932 the Memorial Bridge plunged like a knife into untouched jungle, the steel and concrete of modern Bangkok blankets both riverbanks. Eight bridges now span the Chao Phya, with more under construction each year, stapling the twin halves of a city into a single entity…

Street Life
From contemporary descriptions, one can visualize a typical street on market day. Shopfronts extend goods-laden shelves into the street - there are no sidewalks - blurring the division between the buildings and the street. Store awnings shade shoppers wearing turbans, caps, topis, and other headgear, and clothed in caftans, sarongs, dhotis, and the garb of a dozen nations. Barefooted or sandaled, they gingerly step across open drainage ditches to reach the stalls. At one corner, carts await passengers, the horses switching their tails across their rumps to chase away pestering flies. At another corner, cone-capped coolies sit on the drawbars of their rickshaws rolling rough tobacco in banana-leaf wrappers, gossip in low voices while scrutinizing passersby for potential customers.

A fine carriage struggles to make headway, obstructed by pedestrians who rule the roads, crossing wherever they wish. The carriage adds to the swirling dust kicked up by a herd of cows on their way to the slaughterhouses at Thanon Tok. Vendors shout their wares: sweets, betalnut, or nostrums, homemade perfumes, and sundries from around the world. Mangy dogs scavenge for scraps in the fly-blown garbage heaps.

Jostling for space, hand-drawn carts - one yoked man pulling while others push from behind - transport produce from the docks to the markets. Creaking wheels screech above the babble of Thai mangled by a dozen different tongues. From a back alley comes the clang of iron striking iron as a blacksmith beats metal into horseshoes or a carter repairs the leaf spring of a carriage. In another lane, muted hammering reveals a cooper creating crates and barrels used in an age before cardboard and plastic…

…Despite the noise of milling people, the street is quiet when compared to the machine-generated clamor of today's thoroughfares. Only occasionally does a furiously-rung tram bell break the hum of commerce. A Sikh policeman with his imperious turban blows his whistle ceaselessly in a vain effort to bring order to the streets. The air reeks with the stench of raw sewage, of the cloying scent of incense from a Chinese shrine, and the searing odor of chilies sizzling on a wok. An elegant lady on her way home, clasps a lavender-soaked handkerchief to her nose as she steps daintily over the ditch.

And overhead, the sun beats down with hammer-like ferocity.

© Copyright 2016 by Steve Van Beek
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