Discovering a Little History Beneath Your Feet (Bangkok)

Visitors prepare to cross Chao Phraya Sky Park, the world’s first public park spanning a river.


Chao Phraya, often translated as “River of Kings,” is the carotid artery. Without it, there would be no Bangkok.  The very origins of the name Bangkok being, “village on the stream.”  Pumping from the central plains to Bangkok, the Chao Phraya travels over 200 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand.   Along its course, it feeds the myriad klongs, or canals. Bangkok alone has over 1600 miles of these canals. Weathered wooden houses built on stilts line the waterways.  Their charm lost as the tides recede, unveiling the grime beneath. The klongs are everything.  They supply water to homes, allow for transportation, and even are a means to subsistence fishing. Similar to a king or queen’s hegemony, the River of Kings, is dynamic.

Since the mid-16th century, the Chao Phraya has borne its share of rerouting and diverting. If for no other reason than the fact that water is what allows life to prosper. Surprisingly, the Chao Phraya watershed covers more than one-third of the nation’s land. Crops, usually rice, depend on the inundating. Further, for generations the Chao Phraya has allowed for movement.  Of materials but also people. Barges pull materials up and downriver and for approximately .60 USD passengers climb aboard ferries, commuting into and out of the city. 


Khets and Khwaengs

Bangkok is so large that it is subdivided into 50 districts (khet).  These are then further subdivided into approximately 180 khwaeng. More complicated than New York’s five districts or boroughs. One glance at a map and the most intrepid cartographic adventurer’s head is left spinning.  A sprawling knotted maze, it does not remotely resemble a grid-design.  Having more than tripled the population in my lifetime alone, the rapid growth does not evidence strong urban planning nor regulation.  Unlike a city like Paris, designed for the pedestrian with its broad boulevards and green spaces,  Like many large cities in the developing world, growing so fast comes inevitably with challenges in avoiding chaos. Function winning out over form, leaves an unfortunate wake of severe pollution and congested roadways. 

Rising out of the tropical steam is a concrete jungle of sorts.  A city no foreigner, local, or even veteran taxi driver could fully “know.”  The rate of change simply does not will it. Rather, certain neighborhoods become more familiar than the next.  One such area is called Chao Phraya Riverside. For a visitor to Bangkok, it is virtually impossible to avoid this area.  Here is where the historic temples and palaces are, as well as many of the fanciest hotels.  Likely too, this is where a visitor will hop a ferry to cross the river or just enjoy a sunset cruise.  


The World’s First Public Spanning a River 

Out on the Chao Phraya, life appears to slow down.  I’m unsure if it is the slow speed of the boat and the water beneath us, a substitution for our feet.  A break from the seemingly infinite and relentless concrete. Maybe it’s just the gentle wind in our face or an ability to see all around.  With 14 million residents making up Bangkok’s metropolitan area, it makes sense that in Bangkok alone, more than a dozen bridges cross the Chao Phraya.  Automobiles, the metro, and boats all make the crossing, yet recently foot travel was an added means of transport.  In an attitude of “never too late,” June of 2020 commemorated the opening of the world’s first public park spanning a river, at  Chao Phraya Sky Park. In an effort to promote urban well-being, pedestrians are afforded the opportunity to walk or cycle across the river.  Remarkably, the project makes use of an abandoned Skytrain project and estimably is parallel to an existing bridge steeped in history.


A Confluence of History

The bridge over River Kwai, just 80 miles northwest from Bangkok, tends to receive more press than any other bridge in Thailand, if not the world. Understandably, because how many bridges have Oscar-winning epic war films screenplayed after them? Yet, the Bridge over River Kwai is not the only bridge of significance in Thailand.  The Memorial Bridge, like many place names in Thailand, has several titles.  Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge in Thai, is named after the first monarch of the 18th century Chakri Dynasty, King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I).  However, sometimes the name is shortened to just Saphan Phut, Phut Bridge, or even Buddha Bridge. Regardless of moniker, the Memorial Bridge is a confluence of history and is right in the heart of Bangkok. It was the first bridge to cross the Chao Phraya (1932), eleven years before the harrowing construction of the Bridge over River Kwai. Though not built entirely out of steel and free of the barbaric construction by the hands of  slaves, the Memorial Bridge reflects the early ties between Thailand and Japan.  It would operate for approximately a decade, before the world was thrust into war.  As possibly can be predicted, with Japan as an ally to Thailand, the Memorial Bridge would become a target. Though initial bombing raids in 1944 by the United States were not successful, less than a year later, the bridge was hit and partially destroyed. 


Uncovering History Without Digging

Amidst Bangkok’s concrete is story.  Many stories do not even require any “digging.”  Rather, a bit of adventure in your step and an opening of eyes and ears, likely will reveal the unimaginable. Answers to questions begging to be asked.  Like, how exactly did the Ayutthaya Kingdom maintain more than four centuries of rule?  Or, where did the idea come from to adorn what’s considered the most beautiful temples in Thailand, Wat Arun, with Chinese porcelain the Chinese used as ballast in their boats? Personally, I want to uncover why so many Buddha statues given in veneration at shrines, end up being headless.

Headless Buddhas