A look back into how Thailand was in the days when Lookeast was founded.by Ken Barrett
Rather alarmingly for those of us who were around at the time, 1971 is beginning to sound rather like ancient history. That was the year President Richard Nixon lifted the U.S. trade embargo against China, and the year in which the Pentagon Papers, detailing America’s policies in the Vietnam conflict, were released.
Thailand had very little international profile at that time, so the 1971 coup overturning the civilian government and replacing it with a military junta and martial law made little impact in the way of headlines.
A distinguished visitor arrived during that year, when California Governor Ronald Reagan came to Bangkok as President Nixon’s representative. Nixon himself had been to Thailand two years previously, when Bangkok’s mayor, Chalit Kulkanthorn, had presented him with the keys to the city.
Mass tourism had yet to happen in the Kingdom, with the bulk of the tourists being American military who used the country as an operational base and as an R&R destination.
Some far-sighted people, however, knew that one day tourists would flock to the country in their droves. One of them, Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui, built one of Thailand’s new generation of five-star hotels and the Dusit Thani successfully opened in 1970. Standing on the site of an old mansion, it was Bangkok’s second tallest building standing at just a handful of meters shorter than the Chokchai Building on Sukhumvit. However, there were concerns that its shadow would pass over the revered statue of King Rama VI that stands at the gate of Lumpini Park.
Despite its size, the hotel had been built in a time-honored way with ropes and pulleys, for Bangkok had no tower cranes in the 1970s. The construction workers lived in the basement while the building grew above them.
In front of the Dusit Thani, the Sala Daeng intersection with Rama IV Road was busy with traffic, as there was no flyover. The Rama IV Road was a traffic nightmare for many years as the Thai-Belgian Friendship Bridge, which was originally built in Brussels as the King Leopold II Bridge, and then used as a temporary structure for the World Expo in 1958, was not shipped to Bangkok until the late 1980s.
The trams had only stopped running along Silom Road a few years before in the early 1960s, and the klong had been filled in soon after. In Patpong, taxis and tuk-tuks cruised down the strip, as the now popular Patpong Night Market was still many years away. Patpong itself had only just emerged as a nightlife center. Conceived by Udom Patpongse as a business district for the Western companies that were piling into Bangkok after World War II, Patpong housed airline offices, shipping lines, news bureaux, the U.S. Information Service, and a few restaurants and bars. The first go-go bar, the Grand Prix, opened in 1969 in what had been a barber shop. The district was just dawning into its glory days, which continued through the 70s and 80s right up to the advent of the night market, which somewhat defused its potent exoticism.
Further down Silom Road, the site of the Bangkok Bank, which was to become the city’s tallest structure in 1980, was occupied by a distinctive old mansion house, while another of the first wave of international hotels, the Hilton, stood on the corner of Surasak Road. This structure, now remodeled, is today a Holiday Inn.
On the other corner of Silom Road that is now the site of a Robinson Department Store stood an old house that was used as a school, and diagonally opposite to the hotel was an enormous stretch of green lawn in front of the mansion housing the Queen Saovabha Institute and the Thai Red Cross.
Behind here, as it does today, stretched the campus of Chulalongkorn University. Slightly to the northwest there had been another large expanse of greenery, as the marshy fields of Pathumwan extended all the way to the banks of the Saen Saeb canal and Sra Pathum Palace, which had originally been built as a rural retreat by King Rama IV.
A large area of this land had been ceded to the university, which decided to build shops and generate an income from the rentals. Siam Square was laid out in 1965, and within a few years the Siam Theatre, Lido Theatre, Scala, and the British Council building had opened, along with a number of shops and restaurants. By 1971, Siam Square was the coolest spot in town, helped by its easy accessibility: 25 bus routes service this area, and visitors can even arrive by boat along the Saen Saeb Canal. The 13 steps in front of the Siam Center have been one of Bangkok’s prime rendezvous spots for two generations.
Siam Square was the location for another first-generation international hotel: the Siam InterContinental. Old timers will remember the enormous amount of land it occupied, with a huge car parking area in front, and vast gardens to the rear. Space had not been a factor when the hotel was built, and few residents were aware of the stretch of parkland that featured its own klong until the hotel was pulled down. Siam Paragon, the Kempinski Hotel, Centara Grand, and the Bangkok Convention Centre, along with the access road, all stand at least partially on the land today.
On the western side of the square, Phayathai Road crossed the Elephant Head Bridge, next to which stood a collection of lovely old teak houses assembled by a man named Jim Thompson, who had mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia a few years previously. No one quite knew what to do with the house, which was deemed to be too beautiful to pull down.
At Victory Monument, the road became Highway Route 1, a dual carriageway that was pleasantly tree-lined as it cruised through green suburbs up to Lad Prao. After here it became a single-lane highway passing through rice fields and minor suburbs until it reached the airport, which had been built on land belonging to the Royal Thai Air Force. The large plot upon which the Centara Grand and Central Plaza complex was built 10 years later was still State Railway of Thailand land housing workshops.
The State Railway of Thailand was also responsible for the Chatuchak Weekend Market. If you had wanted to visit a market in 1971 you would not have travelled out to Chatuchak. Established as Bangkok Market in 1948, when the government decided that every province should have its own market, and Sanam Luang had been the original site for Chatuchak. The market was then shifted across to the grounds of Saranrom Palace and then out to Sanam Chai, which is where everyone headed. After that, it briefly settled at Sanam Luang again before the government decided the land was to be used for part of the celebrations surrounding the 200-year anniversary of Bangkok, in 1982. The State Railway owned an immense tract of land around the Lad Prao area, and donated the grounds at Chatuchak.
As for Bangkok’s great center of tourism, Sukhumvit Road, it really wasn’t much to get excited about back in 1971. The road had been patched together from a series of shorter roads and trails, and it was given its name in 1950. Reportedly there was a proposal to name the road after Lek Nana, who had developed the western end after World War II, but he modestly declined. So it was by a flip of history’s coin that one of the world’s most famous shopping streets was named after Phra Pisan Sukhumvit, who was the chief engineer of the Highways Department.
Sukhumvit Road was a long, straggling line of nondescript shophouses, a few of which remain to this day. Nana Plaza wasn’t there as it was only built some years later as a shopping mall, and morphed into a nightspot in the early 1980s when a number of bars, displaced by road widening along Sukhumvit, moved in.
There was no Soi Cowboy: the little street only gained its name when retired U.S. airman named T.G. Edwards, nicknamed “Cowboy” after his distinctive headgear, opened one of the first bars there in 1977.
Was Bangkok really a neater, greener city in 1971? Yes, it was. But without the changes that have taken place it would not have become one of the world’s prime tourist destinations.