Do you know what a “primate city” is?
It’s talked about a lot when it comes to Bangkok for one very good reason…
A “primate city” is one where its size is disproportionally larger than the rest of the cities in the country or region.
Bangkok is an extreme example, possibly the most extreme, as its population of 8-14 million (estimates vary) where no other city in the country passes 300,000 people.
It’s a curious phenomenon that plays out all over the world, and it seems like it’s becoming a problem… More on that in a second.
Why is Bangkok a primate city?
A primate city is one city in a country where we see a concentration of population, wealth, power and infrastructure, at the expense of other populated areas.
The simplest way to classify a primate city is by its population compared to the population of surrounding towns and cities. Let’s look at the biggest cities in Thailand.
The estimate in this table for Bangkok is on the high end, the official figure is eight million, but the point is still clear. Bangkok is a primate city. There isn’t a city or town in Thailand that comes remotely close to the capital in terms of population.
The original minimum limit for a city to be classed as a primate city was that the main city needed to be at least twice as large and more than twice as significant as the next largest place. Bangkok manages to be 40x as large, making it one of, if not the most extreme primate city in the world.
Other examples of primate cities
The primate city is a common phenomenon across the globe, with up to half of countries exhibiting an example in some sense. One notable example is London whose population of 14 million dwarfs the second biggest city of the UK, Birmingham, with one million. Another example is from Japan where Tokyo has a population of 37 million and the next largest city is Osaka with three million.
By contrast, you have a country like Australia which doesn’t this primate city dynamic. The largest city is Sydney whose population is 5.2 million and then Melbourne with 4.9 million. There are a few other intermediate cities there Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide with 2.5 million, 2.0 million and 1.3 million respectively. This isn’t to mention the capital Canberra with just 400,000 people but most of the governmental infrastructure. This diluted spread of people, wealth and jobs means Australia does not have a primate city, usually considered a good thing as I’ll explain in a second.
Here’s a great visualisation of countries around the world. The grey countries are ones with primate cities in, the red countries don’t have any. As you’d expect, Thailand is hiding out there in the bottom right all in grey.
Why the word “primate”?
The word primate is usually associated with the biological order that contains lemurs, monkeys and apes – with humans being grouped into that last one. So what makes it the choice term for a big city in an area of small cities/towns?
The word primate comes from the Latin primas which means “first rank”. This prefix is used in words like prime or primary in English. So the idea of calling somewhere a primate city is that it’s referring to its status as the first, the primary, the largest.
I don’t have a source for this, but I assume we call apes and monkeys the order of primates because we believe in some way that they are the most important or “first” of the species. Bit arrogant of us humans, isn’t it?
What’s it like living in a primate city?
While the word is not commonly used in media yet, this primate city effect is the cause of much of the problems that people experience in developed countries. When a country or region has one powerhouse city that has the best jobs, the best universities and the best (arguably) standard of living, more people move there.
Now all the best people start moving to the primate city, all the jobs tend to concentrate there as well to take advantage. This creates problems on both ends. The surrounding areas experience a brain drain where all the best, young talented people go off to pursue their dreams in the big city. The primate city itself experiences a surge in population which results in increased rents and general cost of living as well as stress on the existing infrastructure.
I’m from the UK so I’m keenly aware of the problems of primate cities. If you’re a young graduate then your first job will probably be in London or you will move to London to find that job. It’s where all the best jobs are. And then even people who don’t have to move there for work like the sound of it because all their friends are moving there and such a big city has so much going on.
I know people who got fantastic degrees from respected universities and entered graduate programs in their dream fields. These people are now living in shared houses with six other people because it’s the only way the can afford rent.
Bangkok suffers from many of the same problems, although being an expat who is on a high wage relative to the cost of living, I’m insulated from them. In fact, the issues even more pronounced in Thailand because all the best universities are in Bangkok so all the students live here as well.
What is the difference between Bangkok and other cities in Thailand?
Airports. Bangkok has two airports. Massive, modern Suvarnabhumi which runs mainly international flights and older Don Meuang which focuses mainly on regional flights. While airports exist around Thailand like Koh Samui, Phuket, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, these run mostly domestic flights. Essentially, if you’re travelling to Thailand then you’ll pass through the capital.
Universities. In my home country of the UK, London has a handful of universities. The rest of the country has loads and loads including the best ones like Cambridge and Oxford. Thailand is very different. While there are universities up and down the country, a huge percentage are in Bangkok. The two most prestigious, Mahidol and Chulalongkorn, are both located in the capital.
Cost of living. The most notably expensive thing here is the rent and housing prices. The price of a two-storey house in a quiet province might get you a small box-room in Bangkok with no washing machine, kitchen and sometimes not even an ensuite toilet. Also, anywhere that has to pay the high rents on their leases like bars and restaurants also sees an increase in price. Good luck finding an 80฿ beer in the capital nowadays!
Transport links. Bangkok is notable for being not only the hub of the country but also the hub of South East Asia and much of Asia in general. Its two airports serve much of this traffic while it also has bus, train and coach stations that connect it with much of the rest of Thailand. Trying to make a trip through two separate areas of Thailand will invariably need a stopover in the Big Mango.