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BTN in the Bangkok Post´s Brunch magazine

Evolution of “Bangkok Then and Now”.

By Steve Van Beek

The best-selling book, Bangkok Then and Now, explored the evolution of the capital city from a quiet backwater to a major metropolis. Photos taken in 1900 were juxtaposed with those taken in 1999. In some instances, little had changed. In other cases, the modern photos bore virtually no similarity to the old ones. The pictures were accompanied by text that recreated city life in 1900, and were augmented by Bangkok Times newspaper stories which conveyed the flavor of the period. They revealed that the things 1900-era citizens loved and hated about the city were unchanged a century later.

Published in 1999, Bangkok Then and Now was an instant hit, a surprise to everyone associated with it. Year after year, we just kept printing it and Asia Books kept selling it.

It might have continued its extraordinary run forever but, last year, we looked around Bangkok and realized that the book was no longer an accurate mirror. Too much had changed. Buildings and landmarks had been erased. The structure and essential feel of the city had been altered. If we wanted the book to be an honest reflection, we had to take a fresh look and produce a new edition.

Where to start? The basic text was still solid but it needed updating, which meant expanding the book. But it was the outdated photos that were the glaring problem. In many instances, traditional establishments had either been razed or transformed. A century-old noodle shop had become a convenience store; a venerable old town restaurant had been refurbished as a watch emporium.

In some places, vantage points for “Now” matching shots for “Then” photos had become available. We'd also found better copies of old photos, as well as some pictures we'd never seen before, many of them sent to us by readers who had stumbled across them in family albums.

In the end, we replaced 68 photos, but more importantly, we gained a new perspective on how the city came to be. The exercise also raised some interesting questions about where Bangkok might be headed and whether the new direction contributed to improving the quality of life that citizens should demand of a city that has arrived at this economic prominence.

Then, Now, and the Future

Armed with three vantage points—1900, 2000, and today—we have a triangulation that enables us to peer into the future. To do that, we need to understand where it all began by taking a running start from 1782, the year Bangkok was established as Thailand’s capital.

In its first century, Bangkok comprised a riverside royal enclave hemmed by the river and a city wall that embraced the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Its initial growth took place along a narrow strip that hugged the eastern riverbank north and south of the Grand Palace. While many nobles continued to call Thonburi “home”, the bulk of Bangkok's population lived just south of the city in Chinatown and in small craft villages east of the newly-erected city walls. Over time, these settlements gradually merged neighborhoods as former rice fields were turned into houseyards.

The elite lived in several districts. Almost from the city's founding, princely houses lined Phra Athit Road. After 1863, wealthy Bangkokians began building homes along the lower end of the newly-paved New Road, an area known as Bangkolem.

The first regal venture beyond the city walls came with the construction in 1900 of Vimarnmek Palace as a pastoral retreat for King Chulalongkorn. It was linked to the city by the newly-laid, tree-lined Rajdamnern Avenue.

Farther east, Sapatoom district, the jungled countryside retreat favoured by King Mongkut (1851-1868), soon sprouted grand mansions. Today's lone survivor from this era, Wat Patumawanaram on Rama I Road, is now dwarfed by Central World Plaza and the Siam Paragon-Siam Centre-Discovery Centre complex. Phya Thai Road running between Discovery Centre and the Victory Monument was also an exclusive residential area.

According to contemporary accounts, the future lay to the north. An article in the February 1900 Bangkok Times predicted that “the best residential quarter of Bangkok will be found [along Paholyothin Road], probably in the comparatively near future.” It would be a slow evolution, spurred by the road to Don Meuang (where hunters shot birds in the marshlands) whose fields were paved to became Bangkok's International Airport in 1914. Even slower was the settlement along the rural rice field road known as Sukhumvit, which carried travelers to the seaside spa at Si Racha. Both districts would experience their primary growth in the 1950s, followed in 1960 by the opening of New Petchburi Road that cut through Pratunam Market, one of the city’s biggest bazaars.

In 1900, the remnants of the city wall were being dismantled as an impediment to traffic and shortly after, canals were filled to make roadbeds. Klong Hualampong, the last major canal to be buried, became Rama IV Road in 1955.

Midway through the 19th century, King Mongkut had decreed that anyone financing the excavation of four parallel canals running northeast from New Road would be deeded the land on either side. Soon, the plots along Sathorn, Silom, Suriwongse, and Siphya were covered in vegetable gardens with windmills (Silom) drawing water from the canals to irrigate them. The upper end of Silom at Red Pavilion (Saladaeng) was a thriving cattle market.

Eventually, palatial homes replaced the gardens. By the middle of the 20th century, developers were razing them in order to erect a modern business district. In the early 1970s, two of the city's three tallest buildings (the third being the Chokchai Building on Sukhumvit) would rise from Silom Road: The Dusit Thani Hotel and the Bangkok Bank head office.

The 1960s growth of commercial buildings was spawned, in part, by money pouring into the country in support of the Vietnam War. Through the 1970s, wooden shops in smaller neighborhoods were replaced by concrete shophouses. Bangkok spread outward and housing estates sprang up beyond the city limits, a novelty permitted by the relatively light traffic flow.

The picture changed in the 1980s when clogged arteries dimmed the allure of suburban life and downtown condos became more appealing. The decade saw a shift from a horizontal to a vertical city as the Municipality struggled to address gridlock by building expressways to route traffic around the city. Unfortunately, since Bangkok was 45 times larger than Thailand's second largest city—Chiang Mai—all traffic was destined for the city rather than around it. Trucks were banned from the streets until 9 p.m.; a motorist driving out of town encountered lines of parked trucks extending for a half dozen kilometers beyond the city limits, waiting for the hours to tick by until they could deliver their cargoes to city centre depots.

In the 1990s, city officials attempted to remedy the worsening traffic problem with new expressways that sliced through the capital's heart and pushed the city limits deep into the countryside, essentially sharing city jams with the outlying areas. Satellite hubs with malls and all the amenities took some of the pressure off central Bangkok.

Bangkok’s transformation since its recovery from the 1997 economic debacle has been remarkable. Near the end of the century, the BTS Skytrain—and shortly afterwards, the MRT—were inaugurated but their effect on reducing congestion has been marginal because their reach is limited. Megamalls have emerged, aided in part by the rapid transit systems.

The price for the modernization has been the further eradication of heritage monuments and neighborhoods that define the city as “Thai”. The 00s have seen old Bangkok reduced to pockets of odd buildings; even the treasure houses that hid behind shophouses as silent testaments to the city's past, are being razed as construction projects embrace larger and larger pieces of downtown real estate.

Many of the “improvements” are aesthetic eyesores. On a rainy day, the skybridges that dangle from the Skytrain tracks provide a sheltered walk above traffic—but not above the exhaust fumes—but they are unsightly. On the other hand, they do raise one above the deathtrap sidewalks where one's head continually bobs to keep from being decapitated by shop signs or impaled by awning poles. Or breaking an ankle on a footpath made lethal by the erection of any excuse (bus arrival sign, faux arbors, non-functional drinking fountains) to assault one with advertising messages in the name of offering a public service. Every conceivable geegaw blocks footpaths, obstructing the smooth flow of motorcycles for whom they are a legitimate extra lane when street traffic impedes their movement.

The new millennium has also seen the proliferation of convenience stores and fast-food outlets, often in legacy buildings. Numbingly uniform, garishly overlit at night, they destroy the relaxed ambience of formerly quiet neighborhoods not to mention driving out of business the friendly family groceries that gave neighborhoods their character. Add to it the fresh markets which are being obliterated by massive supermarkets.

There are some bright spots. A few old buildings are being renovated as boutique shopping malls. Moreover, small low-rise complexes modeled on 19th-century buildings—a la Singapore—have been built around plazas ringed by tree-shaded sidewalk cafes. The desire to recreate the first world in the third world which motivated most builders in the 90s, seems, in part, to have been replaced by a nostalgia for this city’s lost past. The new consciousness may stem from developers responding to visitor nostalgia for Bangkok’s colonial yesteryear, but it is a welcome change from simply replicating the anonymous buildings and malls found anywhere in the developed world. And some of old Bangkok remains; you just have to plunge deeper into the back alleys to find it.

Many of the past decade's changes cannot be conveyed through two-dimensional book pages accessed by only one of our five senses—sight—and as frozen moments rather than moving images.

Perhaps the most notable change is the sense of “sell” found in enormous billboards, and profuse signage that marks most streets. Add to it the dangerous distraction of blinding, truck-mounted LCD displays huckstering non-essential goods to trapped motorists who are perceived by commercial interests to be mere targets for their messages.

The biggest assault on the senses cannot be portrayed here: noise. A Skytrain ride has become an ordeal for those seeking a tranquil ride, from the omnipresent monitors on the platforms that harangue waiting passengers, to the monitors inside the cars which harass with loud, non-stop advertising of the intrusive sort found in Bladerunner. It is difficult to retreat from noise because everywhere, one is besieged by it.

Siam Square and the open-air aprons attached to shopping centers deafen passersby, with noise blaring from every speaker, especially when an ersatz rock concert is presented (again, to lure shoppers). The use of hyper-decibel presenters in front of stores or in enclosed malls like Panthip Plaza is an abrasive innovation. Not to mention the supermarket DJs nattering on manically, the logical extension, one supposes, of mindless muzak. Finding a quiet oasis in this city is a struggle.

The mystery is that only foreigners and a handful of Thais seems to feel abused, suggesting that most Thais simply do not hear the din, are so cowed that they don’t protest, or simply are not bothered by it. Our guess is the latter. Is noise really equated with life quality?

The pride of the city, its Venice-of-the-East canals, are a disgrace. The water quality is wretched; were this Venice, the canals would be closed as health hazards. The joy of riding a canal bus is reduced by the fear that splashed water might dissolve body parts. Not to mention the stench they exude.

Today, the city streets are cleaner but not the air above them. In many instances, I re-shot the same photo six and seven times—especially those from high buildings—because the atmosphere was sludge. The one respite is that when the air becomes too thick one can duck into restaurants where, prior to the anti-smoking regulations, the cigarette smoke pall inside rivaled the smog outside.

The list seems to be endless. Everyone who isn't cocooned by air-conditioned cars and offices, has a pet peeve. Anyone who walks the streets or uses public transport or ventures off the main thoroughfares understands the thrall in which 90% of this city's citizens live. Poor them. No wonder one passes bus stops and sees ranks of unsmiling faces. This, in the Land of Smiles.

Where are we going? For decades, “traffic” has been the perennial acceptable excuse for showing up late. Say it and the listener shakes his head in sympathy. Will it be so in the future?

It’s hard to say. Solving traffic problems is a Sisyphean problem; new road construction seldom eases the jams for more than a day or two. One hopes that no new, view-marring expressways will carve through the city but since the car is king (ask any pedestrian trying to negotiate a zebra crossing) we may see more of them snaking through neighbourhoods. But there is hope on the horizon.

The life-saving mass rapid transit lines are too short to aid those living outside the city limits but that may change. Coupled with rising fuel prices, a host of new subway lines reaching deep into the countryside will give drivers additional reason to park and ride. They will also provide inner city residents good reason to re-locate to the outskirts where the air is cleaner, the temperatures lower, and the noise less blaring. And, unlike expressways and monorails, subways are good neighbors: silent and unobtrusive.

A workshop of city planners from around the world convened in Bangkok last May to explore how life could be improved in the capital. Most of the planners concluded that things could be fixed only by creating car pool and no-drive zones and by a return to the canals. Given that the canals are blocked off from the main river by watergates and that bridges are too low to allow the passage of commuter boats, this may be overly optimistic. There is scope for improvement of existing canal services but until enclosed boats are introduced, with safer entry and exit (during the nanosecond the boat pauses at a landing, one leaps for his life to board or disembark), it will continue to transport only those who cannot afford cars.

What could the city look like 30 years from now? Will it be more park-like? In the 1970s, park space was estimated to be one quarter square meter per person. Perhaps it was the sight of clusters of Thais blanketing every grassy traffic island, enjoying the evening air (such as it is) while munching on snacks and conversing, oblivious to the traffic roaring by that inspired the city fathers to set aside more land for parks. The imminent (for at least two decades) transformation of the Tobacco Monopoly into a city park will create an additional city lung, an encouraging sign.

Many streets are now lined by trees that are tenderly tended by the occupants of the shophouses they front. Building regulations decree that new buildings be set back from the street or stair-stepped to avoid creating canyons. A welcome new development is that many building owners are using that space creatively. Buildings with frontage may concrete over the grassy areas but they plant islands of trees, ensuring that the open areas are filled with people at lunchtime and the evening. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

As an antidote to traffic, more office workers will elect to live in tall condos (anathema to most Thais a generation ago) to avoid a long commute. We will see taller and more spacious buildings, crowding out what is left of single-family residences. Soon, wats will be dots in an otherwise uniform cityscape.

The question is whether these improvements will be accessible to all. One suspects that they will not. Little affordable public housing is being built and that which exists is not being upgraded. Slums exist beside high-rises and no one seems to notice the incongruity or income disparities. One suspects that eventually only a single, moneyed class will live in Bangkok. In many cities of the world, city workers cannot afford to live in the cities they serve, but must commute from outlying areas. If this becomes the case, a valuable diversity will be lost and, with it, something of the character that has made Bangkok unique.

But, who knows, maybe aesthetic rather than pragmatic or commercial considerations will become uppermost in city planning. We will see a more balanced growth that places quality of life and room for all levels into the equation, rather than commercial considerations. One of the constants is that Bangkok constantly surprises. Surprise us anew, Bangkok.

The author welcomes reader's own visions of Bangkok's future. What will Bangkok look like in 30 years? Send them to vanbeek.steve@gmail.com.

2,800 words


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