Bangkok (1890-1910)/ Segmented City: Disparity between the Water and the Land

While the year from 1890 to 1910 saw the acceleration of road construction, it should be understood that its development was conducted with the absence of a systematic planning.

Though there were regional plannings like the Amphur Sampeng Project and the planning of Dusit Park, with all the king’s foreign advisers, the city failed to come up with an overall masterplan. Thus the construction of the road, instead of being conducted with an overall understanding of the city, was according to the individual will of various parties, be it the monarchic government, the royal aristocracy or the foreign capitalists, in pursuit of their own social, political and economic agenda.

Krung Thep c.1910, showing roads and shop house development. Source: Compiled from Naegnoi et al. 1991
Krung Thep c.1910, showing roads and shop house development. Source: Compiled from Naegnoi et al. 1991

The unbalanced street network is the evidence of this simultaneous nature. By “simultaneous” I mean the construction of roads were only responding to the current demand (mostly economic) but lack a future lens. The roads were most concentrated in the southern commercial center, where the shop houses were also the most developed. Second to it were the roads constructed specially for the royal palaces. For the rest of the city which contained the vast vernacular blocks, the road only passes by.

Here came the disparity between the land and the water: the most well constructed infrastructure is in the area where the foreigners and the Chinese immigrants live, and the royal palaces, while for where the local Thai people lived, there was a lag of construction. Along with the disparity is the social segregation and economic form,  on one side, there were the royal aristocracy and upper classes, who already finished the migration from water to land and lived in a western style; on the other side there were the local Thai people who stayed ashore in the thatched wooden cabinet. As Sternstein said, “these dual, duplicating realities were also manifested in the private realm. At home, the wealthier Thai entertained Europeans in quarters wholly Europeans, but lived in their traditional way in quarters wholly Thai” (Sternstein 1982:21).

The unbalanced development of infrastructure reflects as well as contributes to the making of Bangkok as segmented city where different social classes and economic forms stayed indifferent. While the king born the ambition of bringing civilization to the city,  the aristocracy, foreign capitalists and the Chinese immigrants seem to benefit most from the reform.  His top-down approaches failed to reach all the social status because of the absence of public opinion and overall planning. The fact is that where the road network grew there was also economic growth. In the city’s long journey from water to land, the water was doomed to lag behind and the last piece of water should be left for the slums.

The road construction in this two decades set the framework for the city’s future development. The disparity casts shadows even on today’s Bangkok. When the canal finally dried up, within the block defined by the well constructed roads, there are maze of winding dead end pathways connecting the main roads, which recall yesterday’s waterway. The block cut out by the road thus turns out to be impossible for any automobiles to penetrate and make the city’s road system far from walking-friendly, which contributes to the overuse of automobiles. Together they contribute to the traffic problem and other traumas in today’s Bangkok.



KORFF, R. (2004). Thailand. Bangkok: Place, practices and representation. By MARC ASKEW. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xvii, 358. Tables, Maps, Plates, Bibliography, Index. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 35, 177-179.

STERNSTEIN, L., & DANIELL, P. (1976). Thailand: the environment of modernisation. Sydney, McGraw-Hill.

TERWIEL, B. J. (1983). A history of modern Thailand, 1767-1942. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press.

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