Ever since I started studying Thai, one perennial question that stuck with me is the name of Thailand’s capital city - why is it called Bangkok in English but pronounced “Krungtheep” (กรุงเทพ) in Thai? For a long time I had been irritated by this dissonance (or rather, not knowing the reason behind it).
On February 15, the Office of the Royal Society of Thailand (ORST) announced a new policy regarding the name of Thailand’s capital city. Bangkok will soon officially be called Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, although the former will continue to be recognized as well.
Name changing in Southeast Asian cities is nothing novel: the eastern Indonesian metropolis Makassar used to be called Ujung Pandang; Yangon was Rangoon until 1989; and we all know Ho Chi Minh City’s old name, Saigon. Even Thailand’s official name has been through changes and was called “Siam” for a period of time - but where exactly did the name “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon” come from?
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon
The full written form of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon is actually กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลก ภพนพรัตน์ ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์ มหาสถาน อมรพิมาน อวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะ วิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์ (pronounced “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”)
The lengthy name roughly translates as “the City of Gods, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Impregnable City (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the Grand Capital of the World Endowed with Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City Abounding in Enormous Royal Palaces Which Resemble the Heavenly Abode Wherein Dwell the Reincarnated Gods, a City Given by Indra and Built by Vishnukarm.”
I recall my Thai teacher once demonstrated the full pronunciation in our first class, having to catch her breath twice in between - that was a spectacle. For obvious reasons the Thai people do not speak the full name in daily usage, and instead they use the shorter abbreviation Krung Thep, written as กรุงเทพฯ.
The next question one might ask is, where does “Bangkok” (บางกอก) come from then? A theory is that the name is derived from “Bang Ko” (บางเกาะ), bang meaning a village on a stream and ko meaning island.
A Britannica entry offers an alternative explanation for the origin of the name:
//The name Bangkok, used commonly by foreigners, is, according to one interpretation, derived from a name that dates to the time before the city was built—the village or district (bang) of wild plums (makok).//
The Bangkok Post article further elaborates on how this name came to be recognized as the official one:
//Bangkok has been in use officially since November 2001 under an Office of the Royal Society announcement. It came from an old area of Bangkok, which is now a part of the greater metropolitan area of the capital, Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai districts. Historically, it has been in common use for a long time.//
As can be seen in the comments section, the Facebook post drew mixed reactions from netizens. Some criticized this change as being unnecessary. To be fair, however, Bangkok really isn’t getting a new name per se - it has many names to begin with and it is just that “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon” will be recognized as the official one from now on.
I am sure a few of us, myself included, would find it satisfying that the official Thai and English names are finally “in-sync.” However, most of us will simply continue to use the familiar and easier “Bangkok” in our daily lives.