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Bangkok is a youthful city, by all accounts.
Not only is it a hive for young Thais and international expats, it’s also, literally, quite young — it was only founded as the Thai capital in 1782.
Compare that to London in 43 AD, Paris between 250-200 BC and even New York in 1624.
But that’s not to say that there’s not some compelling history about the Big Mango.
In a city with such a unique blend of religiosity, consumerism, community and, of course, that indefinable ‘Thainess’, a rich history is present regardless of its comparatively youthful years.
Let’s take a look at some of the best history books written on Bangkok.
This is one of my favourite books about Bangkok — easy to read, beautifully illustrated and a rich array of source material.
More akin to a historical scrapbook than a straight history book, Tales of Old Bangkok is a collection of excerpts and literature that have been written and spoken about Bangkok since its inception in the 18th Century.
All in the English language, the source material is necessarily from the colonial viewpoint — and is largely from the view of white men. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the minds of early expats and the complex western relationship with Thailand.
This is a great book for architecture nerds or simply those who like a small dose of history entwined with their urban exploration. The book weaves around the entire city, highlighting the incredible design on display, including Khmer, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and even Edwardian.
While hardly a masterclass in literature and doubted in parts by many, this memoir from Leonowens is one of the most controversial books to come out of Thailand and therefore worth a read.
Leonowens was the English governess at the Thai royal court in Bangkok under Rama IV, where she taught the young Rama V. This book and some of her other works were adapted into the popular Anna and the King of Siam, which would later become The King and I.
The controversy stems from Leonowens’ various embellishments about herself, which have lead many to believe extend to her account of the court. Of course, speaking ill — or truly, anything less than adoringly — of the monarchy is heavily frowned upon (understatement of the year) and the author’s remarks about her employers’ temper and human habits shook the Thai establishment.
pimpraphai bisalputra and jeffery sng
While not technically a book about Bangkok, this fascinating insight into the history and development of the ethnic Thai-Chinese is every bit a history of Bangkok’s Chinatown as it is an anthropological study.
Thailand’s relationship with China is lengthy and complex but always irresistibly intertwined — almost half of Thais claim some Chinese ancestry while 14% of the population are ethnically Thai-Chinese.
Not only are the Thai-Chinese large in number but they are incredibly influential; especially in Bangkok, where they head companies, governments and other high profile positions.
Founder of the still successful silk empire and the owner of the exquisite house — now museum — in central Bangkok, the legend of Jim Thompson has captured the hearts and minds of both Thais and foreigners since his disappearance into Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands in 1967.
This book delves further than simply the man himself and looks at Thompson’s wider role in the Cold War in Asia and Thailand’s role in the US’ biggest covert war operation to date. Fascinating stuff.