Bangkok’s Firsts: A journey to the city’s oldest sites

Bangkok is known as the City of Angels. But how did this City of Angels come to be?

Though it’s easy to get distracted in the day-to-day bustle of Thailand’s modern capital, there’s an undeniable thread of history to follow through the metropolis, small pockets of history easily missed.

Over the course of a month, we’ve visited a selection of landmarks that sit ubiquitously in the city today. Delve into the early days of Bangkok with a brief journey to each of these historic sites as listed below. 

1688: Ton Son Mosque

Bangkok was not always the capital city of Thailand. For a very long time, the city served as a transit port along the Chao Phraya River on the way to Ayutthaya.

Located on the left side of the Bangkok Yai canal in the Wat Arun Subdistrict lies the Ton Son Mosque, founded during the reign of King Narai in the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Built by one of the king’s royal eunuchs, Chao Phraya Ratchawangsanseni (Mahmud), the historical mosque – serving the Sunni sect of Islam – is the oldest in the country. It served as a house of worship for Muslims travelling into the historic capital.

Thailand, previously known as Siam, is known for its religious tolerance, especially for its time. Many officials from various cultures and backgrounds served for the Siamese royal courts throughout the many eras and turns of the kingdom.

To this day, the mosque still functions as a place of worship and also houses a graveyard, where important Muslim figures in Thai history still rest.

1847: Immaculate Conception Church

Thailand’s first Catholic church, known as the Immaculate Conception Church also pays tribute to the country’s long history of religious tolerance as well as the prosperous Ayutthaya era, in which King Narai reigned. The church is the longest running Catholic church in Thailand today. 

In 1674, King Narai granted land in Bangkok to the Portuguese missionaries, who first arrived in the kingdom in 1567. However, the church wasn’t truly completed until 1847, due to the capture of Ayutthaya and subsequent political and societal upheavals that followed within the country.

The church also represents the significance of refugees and their contributions in Thailand history. Back in 1785, when King Rama I invited Portuguese traders back into the country to stimulate the economy, they also came with Cambodian refugees who fled their home country due to the civil war. The Cambodian refugees played an integral part in the rebuilding of the church. 

During that time, over 500 Cambodians took refuge inside the church, inspiring the name Wat Khamen (Cambodian Temple).

1864: Charoenkrung Road

One of the clearest markers of urban development in Bangkok was the completion of the first road. Construction began in 1861 after Western consuls complained to King Rama IV about illnesses brought on because of the lack of roads to travel on horseback and horse-drawn carriages.

Charoenkrung Road was built in two phases, and was only paved with asphalt in 1922. The 8.6 kilometre road stretches from Sanam Chai road near the Grand Palace, running through Rattanakosin Island and Chinatown, to Rama III road, ending at a bend of the Chao Phraya river. Though the city’s expansion has lessened the importance of Charoenkrung, the road represents the shift from canal systems to land transport, a significant change in Bangkok’s landscape and its way of life.

1874: Bangkok National Museum

What started off as a smaller exhibition to display his late father’s royal collections as well as ancient artifacts and antiques, King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) founded Thailand’s first public museum at the Concordia Pavilion inside the Grand Palace on 19 September, 1874.

Originally named “Concordia Museum” or “The Royal Museum”, his majesty ordered the museum to be relocated to the grounds of the Front Palace (Wang Na), or Boworn Sathan Mongkol Mansion, which previously served as the royal residence for king viceroys in 1887,  renaming it “Wang Na Museum”.

The museum was renamed as the “Bangkok National Museum” in 1934 under the direction of King Rama VIII and the Fine Arts Department. Today, it serves as the main branch of national museums in Thailand and is one of the largest museums in Southeast Asia, housing Thailand’s largest recollections of local art, artefacts, antiques and objects.

Inside one of the hallways in Bangkok National Museum. Photo credit: www.mynmv.com

1876: Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Siam officially opened itself to foreign trade during the mid-19th century when it signed the Bowring Treaty with the United Kingdom in 1855. Back then, foreign seafarers manning the ships that traded through Bangkok had no place to stay. This wasn’t until Captain Dyers, an American, founded the Oriental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. 

The hotel subsequently burnt down in 1865, but was rebuilt several years later by a 29-year-old Danish businessman named Hans Niels Andersen. Through his partnership his fellow Danish captains, two famous Italian architects, and encouragement from Prince Prisdang Jumsai, the Oriental Hotel officially opened as the Kingdom of Siam’s first luxury hotel on 19 May, 1887. 

Completed with carpeted hallways, a smoking bar, a ladies’ rooms, a bar and a 40-room capacity – unseen in the country outside of the royal palaces – the Oriental Hotel survived through many of Siam’s upheavals and was even occupied by the Japanese army during the Second World War.

After the many decades, ownerships, and revamps that followed, the hotel formally changed its name to Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok in September 2008. Over 143 years later, the Mandarin Oriental still lies on the forefront of Thailand’s most luxurious hotels, and is ranked among the best in the world.

The Oriental Hotel. Photo credit: www.bangkokbooks.com

1888: Siriraj Hospital

Two years after a worldwide cholera outbreak, King Chulalongkorn founded Thailand’s first hospital, located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, in 1888. Inspired by the death of his 18-month-old son, Prince Siriraj Kakudhabhand, who died from dysentery in the year prior – the king named the hospital Siriraj.

Siriraj Hospital officially opened on 26 April 1888 – marking the kingdom’s first ever hospital which housed 50 hospital beds and treatment for patients in modern and traditional Thai medicine. Two years later, the faculty of Medicine, Siriraj Hospital – the oldest and largest medical school in Thailand – was founded. The faculty is now operated under Mahidol University.

History of Siriraj. Photo credit: www2.si.mahidol.ac.th/en/

Siriraj today remains as one of the largest and busiest public hospitals in Thailand and Southeast Asia, with a capacity of more than 2,000 beds and over three million patients annually. There is also a historical museum inside the hospital, open to public visits and academic research, called the Siriraj Medical Museum or the Museum of Death.

Siriraj Hospital. Photo credit: www2.si.mahidol.ac.th/en/

1893: Paknam Railway

After two years of construction, Bangkok’s first railway line opened in April 1893, servicing the public with eight trains, four running in each direction. Passengers were able to travel from Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok to Paknam station in Samut Prakan. The entire journey took approximately one hour. 

The line was built by the Paknam Railway company, established by British navigator Alfred John Loftus and Danish naval commander Andeas du Plessis de Richelieu, though King Rama V had also invested 200,000 baht in its construction. It was electrified in 1926 and continued to run until 1959 – with a brief suspension in 1942 because of flooding – when it was closed due to the financial losses it incurred. Today, the railway no longer exists; in place of it is Rama IV road. 

Paknam Railway. Photo credit: www.anurak-sp.in.th

1917: Chulalongkorn University

Chulalongkorn University, located right at the heart of Bangkok’s Pathumwan District, is the first and oldest institute of higher education in the Kingdom of Thailand.

King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) originally founded the “Civil Service Training School” inside the Grand Palace, with the intention of training royal pages and civil servants in various specialized fields in his efforts to modernize Siam in 1899. The king then changed the name of the school to “Royal Pages School” in 1902.

On 1 January, 1911, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) moved the school into the area of now-demolished Windsor Palace in the Pathumwan District, renaming it “Civil Service College of King Chulalongkorn” as a tribute to his late father. The king also established it into a college campus, subsidizing land and buildings throughout the area with five schools teaching eight major subjects.

King Rama VI giving a speech to his audience. Photo credit: www.chula.ac.th/en/

But it wasn’t until 1917, however, that the school was open to the public. Upon realizing that education should be open to all citizens – and not just government bureaucrats – king Vajiravudh transformed the college into “Chulalongkorn University”, Thailand’s first national university with four main faculties: Arts and Science, Public Administration, Engineering, and Medicine.

Today, Chula is ranked as one of the most prestigious, selective, and research-intensive universities in the country and Asia.

Rendering of Chulalongkorn University. Photo credit: www.chula.ac.th/en/

1966: Nightingale Olympic Mall

Forget Central World and Paragon, Bangkok’s first ever shopping center still sits humbly on the corner of Tri Phet Road in the Phra Nakhon District even to today.

Founded by Nat Niyomvanich in 1930 with a single shophouse, the Nightingale-Olympic mall formally opened to the public as Thailand’s first department store on August 5, 1966. It immediately grew in popularity among the teens in Bangkok during the 1960s. The seven-story mall offered a myriad selection of cosmetics, fashion items, sportswear, stationeries, lingeries, instruments, games, a beauty salon and even Thailand’s first fitness club.

Inside Nightingale-Olympic mall. Photo credit: www.bbc.com

Although it is now pretty antiquated and run-down compared to the glittering high-rises and mall empires in Bangkok, the Nightingale-Olympic is still running – operated by Nat’s younger sister, Aroon Niyomvanich, who is now over 90 years old. The mall is still open to visitors, and offers a very vivid glimpse into the past, reminiscent of Thailand’s antique and retro stores of the 60s and 70s.

However, only two stories are currently open to the public – with its first story operating and selling products and the second serving as a museum. No cameras or documentation are allowed once on site.

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