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Teaching Geography Using the City: The Example of Bangkok

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In an attempt to improve geographic literacy around the world and provide educational standards, the National Geographic Society has identified several themes that form the basis of geographic inquiry. These themes were written in 1984 by the Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) and the Association of American Geographers (AAG). They provide focus and direction for the study of the earth’s landscape, and are defined as follows:

LOCATION—the position of a site based on lines of longitude and latitude or some other reference system, the characteristics of that site, and where it is in relation to other places.

PLACE—properties of a site that provide meaning, identity, and character that help to distinguish it from other places. Places are usually identified and described by their physical and/or human characteristics. Location and place are often discussed in the same context by first identifying the location and then describing its characteristics.

HUMAN/ENVIRONMENT INTERACTION—studying the effects that occur when people interact with their surroundings.

MOVEMENT—this is the interaction of people, places, things, and ideas that come from beyond one’s immediate location.

REGION—an area defined by the interaction between places on the earth’s surface for unifying physical or human/cultural characteristics.

The city can be an excellent example for teaching geography, as each of the above themes is easily conveyed. Among the cities of Asia, Bangkok provides some notable illustrations. From its initial establishment and its selection as a seat of monarchy, to its present-day growth and domination of the urban system, geography’s themes provide a framework for interpreting and understanding the present-day city. This framework can be easily adapted to teaching about the geography of cities throughout the world.


Bangkok lies in the center of an area known as mainland Southeast Asia. Using the common globe-based reference sys­tem, the city is at 100˚ 30’ East Longitude and 13˚ 45’ North Latitude; although when used with a typical map-based refer­encing system (necessary when the round globe is converted to a flat map) other coordinates must be identified. Within Southeast Asia are a number of compara­ble cities that serve as their national capi­tals and as the largest urban center of their respective countries; their differences, however, are easily expressed through geography’s themes.

In studying the city, the concepts of location and place are most prominent in identifying the role that it was established to fill. Three of these roles (defensive, reli­gious, and economic) demand specific functions that result in important differ­ences in the initial location of the city and its interaction with the surrounding region. A city designed to protect a surrounding area (hinterland), for example, will be built at an easily defended location, such as at a crucial bend or fork in a river or against a mountain. By design this location, along with the city’s internal layout, will impede movement both in and around the city through the construction of only a few transportation routes that can be effectively monitored. On the other hand, a city whose main function is economic will be located in an easily accessible area with a variety of transportation routes that accommodate movement of people and goods. There will also be much more interaction between this city and its surrounding region than one designed for protection.

The site for Bangkok was an ideal defensive choice by the first ruler of the current Chakri dynasty, King Rama I (Ramathibodi, 1782–1809) who decided to move the capital across the river where it might be less vulnerable to attack from the Burmese. The king considered the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River a more easily defended location than the western bank. It was on a bend in the river so that a large proportion of the city would be surrounded by water, protecting its western and southern flanks from encroaching armies (Figure 1). Because this site was generally lower than the western bank, it also flooded occasional­ly, but the high water table was ideal habitat for tall dense grasses growing in the boggy ground to the north and east of the city and provided a nearly impenetra­ble barrier to access from the east.

On April 21, 1782 the City Pillar for the new capital was laid, and the con­struction of the first defensive canal was begun along the eastern rim of the city. Ten thousand Cambodian prisoners of war1 labored on this canal, which was completed in 1785. In the seventy succeeding years, a number of additional canals were dug in the region for similar purpos­es, and to move troops to potential battle sites. Throughout this area the marshy land proved an effective barrier to invad­ing cavalry arriving by land and on elephant.

The result of this planning and layout pro­vided an easily defended site with the river as the only accessible transporta­tion link to the outside (Figure 2). Although a hin­drance to the land based military movements of the Burmese with their large numbers of troops, ani­mals, and equipment, the river served as a marvelous transportation corridor for the water-based Thai soci­ety.2 Housing was located near or on the river or canals, and each household could access the water­ways in their small boats.

Satellite images over Bangkok
Figure 1 Mid-infrared wavelength of a Landsat TM satellite image acquired over Bangkok in December 1989. The distance covers approximately 35 kilometers north to south with the Chao Phraya River running along the left or western edge of the city. The historic center of the city is located within the box, and the lighter areas indicate urban growth that is mainly spreading to the north and east. The brightest area, in the upper right portion of the image, is the airport.

The King celebrated the completion of this canal and the laying of the City Pillar with a ceremony that gave the city a new name. Names given to places usually result from one of five fac­tors: the physical environment of the loca­tion, a person important to the city, an event or curious discovery that took place there, in memory of some other place, or as a transliteration from some other lan­guage. The first of these factors provided the name for Bangkok. Originally founded by the Chinese as a favorable trading location, its name was derived from two separate words: bang—a village on a waterway, and makok—the hog plum, a type of olive.

Although known by this name in the West for the past four hundred years, when the city became the kingdom’s capital, a more appropriate name had to be given to the new seat of monarchy. The city’s name was therefore changed from a common description of place to something that would evoke the station and grandeur of a royal resi­dence. The official name for the city successfully incorporated this ideal and resulted in what is likely the world’s longest official city name:


Although its meaning is really found in only the first two syllables, the list of accolades that follows provides the grandeur befit­ting the seat of monarchy, “City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of the Gods Incarnate, Erected by Isavakarman at Indra’s Behest.” Fortunately for general use, the name has been shortened to the first two syllables, Krungthep (City of Angels), the name the Thai use when referring to their capital. Although many of the words in this name are a transliteration from Indic languages, they provide meaning in con­structing the kingdom’s identity. The overall result clearly indicates the signifi­cance of a city, now aptly named in memory of a heavenly abode, and whose layout was increas­ingly designed according to religious ideals.


The most distinguishing physical feature of Bangkok is its canals. In addition to their contribution in defining and describ­ing the city’s place, they also serve as the most prominent example of human/envi­ronment interaction (Figure 3). Since the Ayuthaya period (1350–1767) monarchs had been aware of the advantages of facilitating the movement of goods and people within the realm. Canals were a dominant form of transport, and they became increasingly important to the growing international trade of the king­dom. While canals were dug to link the entire realm, the most important were dug to shorten the distances between natural waterways in the lower river basin.

Another aspect of the nature of water-related human/environment interaction in Bangkok is that the city is sinking.

line drawing of the layout of the capital during the reign of Rama
Figure 2 Layout of the capital during the reign of Rama I (1782–1809)

One of these canals also result­ed in altering the course of the river. The natural channel of the river ran along what is now the southern entrance to the Bangkok Noi Canal, around Taling Chan district and into Bangkok Yai Canal, exiting across from the present-day mar­ket of Bang Khlong.3 Originally dug to provide a more direct passage along the meandering channel, the canal altered the river’s course as the current shifted to this more direct route, changing the main channel of the river to its present-day location. Further digging and dredging to widen and deepen the river produced the current result, which would surprise the traveler taking any of the water taxis that run regular routes along the former river course. Over the years they have now been narrowed by vegetation and houses attracted by the calmer waters and less swift current.

As Bangkok became more prosper­ous in the 1800s, it began to expand in area, and increase its international trade, further modifications to the city’s site were required. Although canal construc­tion was still undertaken for defense and to facilitate troop movement, it was increasingly done to provide access for the water-borne cargoes that were now flocking to the country’s ports. The Phasi Charoen Canal, running west from Bangkok to the Tha Chin River, was one of the first. Its success gave rise to addi­tional canals such as Damneon Saduak, which accessed the western portion of the Central Plain. By the late 1800s, canal excavation formed a complex network of waterways that opened up the interior of the Central Plain to agriculture and allowed the country to become a leading exporter of rice and sugar.4

tall palm trees on the sides of river
The idyllic view of life along Bangkok’s canals, which is increasingly rare.

Another aspect of the nature of water-related human/environment interac­tion in Bangkok is that the city is sinking. Although the low elevation and high water table on the eastern edge of the river was beneficial to the defensive func­tion that canals provided for the older city, the poor drainage and flooding have today become one of the most widely rec­ognized problems, and one of the most difficult to resolve. Because large tracts of the city (which is less than 1 meter above mean sea level) are severely flooded each year, it is not uncommon to find oneself knee deep in water in certain parts of the city during the early part of October. In 1983, when the floods were reported to be the worst in thirty years, water was hip deep through much the city! The most areas (in the eastern suburbs) are sinking at a rate of five to ten centimeters per year, which is far more than the sink­ing of Venice during its worst period.

line drawing of canals surrounding Bangkok and its environs.
Figure 3 Canals surrounding Bangkok and its environs.

The underlying reasons for this con­dition are not the weight of this rapidly growing place, as one might expect, but the combined effects of tidal movements, a faulty drainage system, and extremely serious land subsidence. While the tide and drainage system seem to be the most obvious contributions to the flooding, the widespread uncontrolled pumping of water from the underground acquifer is the main culprit in the city’s subsidence. Because the area is not supplied with nor­mal tap water service, the rapid residen­tial and industrial growth in the suburbs has led to the consumption of large vol­umes of artesian water. The continual pumping of this water over the past twen­ty years is rapidly depleting the acquifer, resulting in flooding, as well as problems with road construction and maintenance.


Some water taxis docked at the shore
Water taxis awaiting passengers. These taxis run fixed and regular routes along the city’s canals.

The growing interaction between Bangkok and its surroundings has placed enormous demands on the transportation system to accommodate both the volume and type of traffic seeking access to the city from increasingly distance places. At the beginning of the current dynasty, there were no roads in Bangkok. Move­ment on land was by way of narrow foot­ways, as the Thai usually lived beside the bank of the river and on floating houses that did not require much access to land transport. In 1861, King Mongkut initiat­ed the construction of several new roads in the capital that could accommodate the changing modes of land transportation and provide greater access into, and par­ticularly within, the city. This develop­ment can be considered a turning point for the capital, as it marked the city’s changing role from performing a defen­sive function in time of war to perform­ing an economic function where accessi­bility becomes a key factor to the city’s prosperity.

. . .there were only about 12,000 registered motor vehicles in the city (Bangkok) in 1925, this number has increased to over 2 million today.

crowed people lining for the water taxis
Queuing for the water taxis at rush hour.

The gradual expansion of the nation­al road network in the 1960s made travel to Bangkok much easier. Because it also served as the country’s domestic and international transportation hub, the city came to dominate the center of the nation­al economy and links with the outside world, without compare in Asia. Although there were only about 12,000 registered motor vehicles in the city in 1925, this number has increased to over 2 million today. Bangkok accounts for over 70 percent of all passenger cars registered in the country, and in 1992 an average of 232 new passenger cars were registered there each day.5 The traffic volume creat­ed by this growth is enormous. More than 20 million trips per day take place around the city,6 with the only highway leading north from Bangkok recording the heavi­est use of any highway in mainland Southeast Asia. Trucking has now become the major mode of shipping materials and goods throughout the King­dom, and almost all goods transported across the country pass through the Bangkok region.

People walking on a shopping street with heavy ground water
Eastern Bangkok after a heavy rainfall

Although the city’s road network grew steadily since the time of King Mongkut, it still lagged in providing the accessibility required for economic functions. Unlike well-developed and integrated road networks in cities origi­nally laid out for economic purposes, Bangkok’s roads developed over the years with little planning or control (Figure 4). As a result, the marginal net­work lacks coherence and, apart from capacity problems, serves traffic needs inefficiently. Since the construction of these early roads, expenditure on new construction and improvement has been minimal, and today Bangkok has one of the lowest proportions of road surface for any city in the world. In the early 1980s only 9 percent of land in the city was comprised of roads, compared with 22 percent in London and 24 percent in New York.7

line drawing of major roads in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area
Figure 4 Major roads in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area

Unfortunately for those who travel this road network, most of the secondary roads, which generally serve to link main roads with local lanes, are all but absent and mainly consist of narrow, winding, and unconnected streets. The bulk of recent industrial and population location therefore has occurred in the form of rib­bon development along the three major transportation corridors leading out of the city to the north, southeast, and south­west. This has resulted in some of the worst traffic jams in the world, as increas­ingly, private vehicle commuters contend with mass transit and commercial vehi­cles for the limited road space. Traffic congestion is now among the worst in the world, and at peak periods speeds can average less than ten kilometers per hour. Although public transport runs over 200 lines and thousands of buses, it is inade­quate. Construction of the light rail sys­tem, that has been planned and discussed for over twenty years, has only recently started. As a result, Bangkok’s roads become more congested each day, and the traffic moves a little slower; it can take anywhere from forty minutes to four hours to cover the eighteen miles from the airport to the central business district.


Traffic congestion
Traffic congestion causing increasing commuting times along the city’s major roadways.

The movement arising from transportation is also related to another form of movement: migration. Together these processes help to introduce the fifth geophic theme, region. Like many other developing countries, Thailand is experi­encing dramatic growth of its urban popu­lation. In 1947, only 5 percent of the country’s population was living in urban places; in 1990, it had climbed to 30 per­cent.8 Most of this growth has focused on Bangkok, where over 90 percent of the country’s migrants end up.9 The increas­ing scarcity of farmland in rural areas, the wealth of Bangkok, and the widening economic disparities between Bangkok and the rest of the country have all con­tributed to this flow toward the national capital and the expansion of Bangkok into the countryside.

In wealthy countries, migration to urban areas is usually distributed throughout the country, as people tend to move to the closest larger city when looking for work. In poorer countries, however, there is often a lack of jobs in the closest city, and migrants often seek out the country’s largest city believing it will have the greatest number of jobs, as well as other activities not found in the smaller cities. If this largest city also per­forms other urban functions such as serv­ing as the country’s capital, as is the case in much of the world, then the attraction becomes even greater.

Traffic congestion on the city’s major roadways.
Traffic congestion causing increasing commuting times along the city’s major roadways.

In Thailand, all the major urban func­tions, which are performed by sever­al cities in the United States, have been located in a single city. This has produced an urban area that can be consid­ered the world’s quintessential Primate City. This is a city that is both consider­ably larger than the second city and domi­nant in all the country’s urban functions such as politics, economics, and culture; it characterizes the country and epitomizes its culture.10 During the colonial era, the economy was increasingly influenced by the export of natural resources, and the expansion of these exports enhanced the dominance of Bangkok. The political and military administrators and the most sophisticated economic institutions, such as banks and agency houses were located in the city. The country’s transportation-communication network also radiated from the city, serving as the most impor­tant hub in the collection, export, import, and distribution of goods.

As a result of these conditions, in few countries of the world can one find a dis­parity between the largest city and smaller cities as great as in Thailand. From an ini­tial population of perhaps 50,000, by 1900 Bangkok expanded to about 600,000.11 With a population of almost six million in 1995 (more than 10 percent of the coun­try’s total population), the formal legal city of Bangkok is by far the most populous in the kingdom. Today about 40 percent of the country’s urban population lives in Bangkok, compared with only 3.5 percent for New York, the largest city in the Unit­ed States. In 1990, the greater Bangkok area was more than ten times larger than the second largest urban place, Nakorn Ratchisima.12 In addition, over 75 percent of the country’s university graduates, 78 percent of its pharmacists, and 45 per­cent of its physicians live in this area which contains 70 percent of the country’s telephones.13

The city is a marvelous example for teaching geography, as each of the main themes can be easily visualized through graphical materials such as maps, photographs, and drawings.

The rapidly growing population of Bangkok is not confined to just the formal city boundaries. The increasing demand for land to house this growth has resulted in extending both the legal area of the city as well as the size of the territory under the daily influence of the city. The city’s legal area has expanded from 1.3 sq. km. in 1900, to 96.4 sq. km. in 1958, and to 470 sq. km. in 1974.14 The increased demands on, and interaction with, the city’s environs (known as the Bangkok Metropolitan Region—the legal city plus the surrounding area administered by the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority) today encompass some 1,565 sq. km.

While the river (or more precisely, lack of bridges across the river) serves as a partial barrier to westward urban expan­sion, the lands to the north, east, and southeast of the city have most easily accommodated the city’s growth. This sprawl is the outcome of a complex web of economic and technological processes. They have allowed for rural and urban interaction that shows up as daily com­muting and commercial transactions along roadways between the central city and the rural hinterland that now extend far beyond the areas of interaction of just a few decades ago. Bangkok’s ‘extended metropolitan region’ now reaches more than 100 kilometers from the location where King Rama I first established his defensive site and seat of monarchy.


The city is a marvelous example for teaching geography, as each of the main themes can be easily visualized through graphical materials such as maps, photographs, and drawings. From this material a variety of description and analysis can be undertaken, starting with a discussion of the functions that the city performs, which help to shape its structure and layout. This description can also show how functions differ from one city to another and from early periods to the present. The historical development of the city is of particular importance, as it provides context and meaning for comprehending the processes that result in the city’s growth. This knowledge further contributes to an under­standing of how related activities such as settlement and transportation patterns, and availablility of resources that attract migrants and economic activities, each contribute to the city’s interaction with its surrounding area.

The diversity of the world is striking­ly reflected in its cities, and their extraor­dinary variety is due to their people, her­itage, and the desire of their inhabitants to shape their local environment. They are a product of their history and their own social, economic, and political environ­ment. These conditions shape growth and result in those qualities that make each city unique.


1. Abha Bhamorbutr. The History of Bangkok: Summary of Political and Cultural Events from the Age and Establishment to the Present (Bangkok, 1982).

2. See Sumet Jumsai, Naga Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988), for an engaging study of this water-based society and the ubiquity of water symbolism in contemporary Thailand.

3. Shigeharu Tanabe. “Land Reclamation in the Chao Phraya Delta,” in Thailand: A Rice Growing Society, ed. Ishii Yoneo, translated by Peter Hawkes and Stephanie Hawkes (Kyoto: Monograph of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 1978); Chula­longkorn University, ongprakob thang kayaphaab krung ratanakosin (Elements of the Physical Geography of Ratanakosin Bangkok) (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press).

4. Lauriston Sharp and Lucien Hanks. Bang Chan: Social History of a Rural Community in Thai­land (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).

5. Alpha Research Co. Ltd. Pocket Thailand in Figures, 1st edition (Bangkok, 1994).

6. National Economic and Social Development National Urban Development Policy Framework. Volume 2, Study Area 8 (Bangkok, 1991).

7. Medhi Krongkaew and Pawadee Tongudai. The Growth of Bangkok: The Economics of Unbal­anced Urbanization and Development. Discus­sion Paper No. 90, Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University (Bangkok, 1984).

8. National Economic and Social Development National Urban Development Policy Framework. Volume 1, Study Area 2 (Bangkok, 1991).

9. National Economic and Social Development Board. Recommended Development Strategies and Investment Programmes for the Sixth Plan (Bangkok, 1986).

10. The geographer Mark Jefferson first developed this concept in a short paper where he noted that London, Paris, and a number of other cities of their respective countries were func­tionally dominant. Mark Jefferson, “The Law of the Primate City,” Geographical Review 29(2): 226–32, 1939.

11. International Bank for Resconstruction and Thailand: Urban Sector Review, Working Paper #7 (Washington D.C., 1978).

12. National Economic and Social Development National Urban Development Policy Framework. Final Report. Vol. 1, Study Area 2, Urban Population, Employment Distribu­tion, and Settlement Patterns. Table 4.7 (Bangkok, 1991).

13. Paiboon Kanjanaharitai. “Bangkok: The City of Angels,” in Urbanization and Regional Devel­opment, ed. Honjo (Singapore: Maurzen Asia, 1981).

14. Charles A. Setchell. Urban Transportation in Thailand: A Review and Evaluation of Policy and Research Needs. Unpublished report to the International Development Research Centre and the Chulalongkorn Unversity Social Research Institute (Bangkok, 1991).


Blofeld, John. Bangkok. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1979.

Bradley, William L. Siam Then: The Foreign Colony in Bangkok Before and After Anna. William Carey Lib., 1981.

Hurliman, Martin. Bangkok. Singapore: Donald Moore Gallery, 1962 (translated from the German). Kirkup, James. Bangkok. London: Phoenix House, 1968 Cities of the World, vol. 11.

Leinbach, Thomas and Richard Ulack. “Cities of Southeast Asia,” in Cities of the World: World Regional Urban Development, 2nd ed., Stanley D. Brunn and Jack F. Williams, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Smithies, Michael. Old Bangkok. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Suksri, Naengnoi. Palaces of Bangkok: Royal Resi­dences of the Chakri Dynasty. Bangkok: River Books, 1997.

Waugh, Alec. Bangkok: The Story of a City. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1971.