The Making of Modern Bangkok
Bangkok was at the end of World War II a compact city with a small population. Nearly four decades of “development”, however, has transformed it into one of the largest metropolises in the world. Despite its modern face – shining hi-rises with new ones rising virtually everyday-the city has been weighed down by all kinds of urban ills that seemingly defy solutions.
The size of Bangkok’s population alone is illustrative of the magnitude of its problems. In 1947, there were officially just over one million people in the greater Bangkok which included its sister city, Thonburi. By 1992, its population has grown to 5.5 million.
But as any Bangkokian could tell, the official figure is way underestimated. To this figure must be added the number of migrants – seasonal as well as long-term – from provinces throughout the country who moved to Bangkok in search of economic opportunities in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands every year. These migrants who still maintain official residence in their home provinces are estimated to be as high as 30 percent of Bangkok’s population. This would make the total population about seven million in 1992.
Unofficial estimates have put the population of Bangkok at present at eight to ten million. This makes Bangkok one of the largest metropolises in the world.
Problems associated with population growth are aggravated by the fact that the boundaries between Bangkok and its neighboring provinces have been blurred by Bangkok’s ever expanding and uncontrolled growth. It is difficult to tell where Bangkok ends and its surrounding provinces begins. These provinces include Nonthaburi and Pathumthani to the North, Samut Prakarn to the East, Samut Sakhon to the south and Nakhon Pathom to the West.
The growth and transformation of Bangkok started in 1960 with Thailand’s first National Economic and Social Development Plan which ushered in the “modern age”. These national plans, seven altogether, have played a significant role in bringing about the increasing imbalance in the economy. The urban sector, in particular Bangkok, has developed and become the center of the country’s economy, while the rural sector has remained at the periphery.
The obvious imbalance of development and opportunities has drawn the influx of rural migrants to the capital city. Although in-migration is not an entirely new phenomenon for Bangkok (immigrants, war refugees, war prisoners, dependents of princes and noblemen had all settled in the capital city ever since its founding ), the streams of modem migrants have to be seen in a different context. These were rural migrants who mainly came to seek employment. A large number were young and single women, and many expected their stay to be only temporary.
The government’s modernization policies of the 1960s focused on the provision of infrastructure, particularly roads, leaving the precise forms of economic development to the private sector initiative. These have promoted an urbanization sequence which totally transformed the Thai way of life. Canals, traditionally serving as water transport, were filled in to pave way for new roads, converting Bangkok into an “automobile city” .
House which used to face the canals now practically made a 180-degree turn to face the new roads, leaving the old way of life behind forever. The new road construction, meanwhile, interfered with the water supply, drainage and flood control formerly provided by the canals. It also led to land speculation and land use changes, building booms, population inflow, former population outflow although to a lesser degree, and service enterprises.
Bangkok still does not have a general land use plan to guide its growth and expansion, and many believe that it would be politically as well as practically impossible to implement one now. The lack of effective town planning has increased the seriousness of the social and environmental impacts of this “maldevelopment”.