Bangkok, the World’s Most Extreme Primate City

primate city (noun) : the largest city in its country or region, disproportionately larger than any others in the urban hierarchy 

Thank you Wikipedia. 

So in my research on Thailand, I came across the term “primate city,” which is not an alternate reality in Planet of the Apes, but is in fact a term describing city that is disproportionately larger than any other city in a given country.

Places like Paris and London certainly fit the bill as they are culturally, financially and population-wise much larger and weightier than the corresponding “second city,” Marseille and…Birmingham? (Manchester? Edenborough? You get the point.) New York doesn’t really count, because although its population is just about twice that of LA’s, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that Hollywood has a substantially strong influence on the nation.

However, Bangkok is recognized as the world’s most obvious example of this, as it’s 50 times larger than next city (depending on how you measure the size of a city). There’s a litany of cities around the 150,000 population range, and none approach Bangkok in importance. In Thailand this means that something like 70% of the countries resources are poured into the capital.

This could be good or bad. Some argue good, because it makes it an obvious place for direct investment and a quality city for those in the countryside to come to. Some argue otherwise, as vast amounts of resources dumped into Bangkok after a certain point only yields marginal effect. A boatload of money poured into paving a Bangkok street might not give the same cost-effective benefit as mending a highway in the north of the country, for instance. Offering quality education to a rural area of the southern peninsular region might serve the community better on a per dollar/baht basis than in the capital.

Infrastructure improvements have made Bangkok a wonderful city

In any case, many of the problems in the country (social, economic, political) can trace at least a portion of the origin in this structure. As the young flock toward Bangkok from rural Thailand, those peripheral cities become top-heavy with the elderly. Who is to take care of them? Who is to pay for the end-of-life care?

A rather different issue, political flash points erupt massively because all their resources are disproportionately in the big city. (Imagine if, literally, all political resources in the US came at a loggerheads on, say, Wall Street, instead of protests spread across the country. Could be pretty serious stuff.)

Because money is poured into the capital, it leaves fewer jobs in the countryside forcing people to the city. In the city, as the marginal benefit of increased investment dwindles, fewer quality jobs remain in the capital, meaning the unfortunate red-light district in the city expands (or least doesn’t shrink). This is a massive issue that the government wrestles with in a fairly conservative country all things considered. This issue cannot be discussed in a single paragraph.

As great as the capital has been for Thailand for the last few centuries, the fact that it’s the world’s largest primate city might actually hurt as time goes on. In China, one mechanism that has stemmed the flood of rural workers to Beijing and Shanghai has been the hukou system that (in theory) keeps migrants from inundating the infrastructure. It has mostly worked, albeit with underground workers popping up to the tune of several million.

In Thailand, there isn’t such a system and so there’s still a massive influx to cosmopolitan Bangkok. This isn’t to say Thailand only has interesting things in Bangkok. Surely the mountainous regions in the north are stunning, as are the beaches in the south. Fiery cuisine and elephants also attract, but policy should be set to allow a second or third city to flourish. Time will grant a decision on the efficacy of the status quo.


Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Like what you’re reading on Thailand? Check out some other related articles in: The Thailand Chronicles!

Capturing a lightning storm at SkyBar, a high-end spot at the highest point in Bangkok


3 thoughts on “Bangkok, the World’s Most Extreme Primate City

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  1. We’ve been in Bangkok for a few weeks now and hadn’t actually considered this issue. Certainly it seems A LOT larger than anywhere else we’ve seen in Thailand. It’s the only place I could consider living in this country 🇹🇭 thanks for an interesting piece

    Liked by 1 person

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