Origin stories are always fun. The most widely known is about Spider-Man, where Uncle Ben dies and delivered the most iconic line of all time, “With great power comes great responsibility”. This is apparently untrue as Uncle Ben never said that phrase himself.
What is true, however, is the origin stories of the name of Southeast Asian capital cities. Now, ignoring that very forced and awkward segue, let’s start with the first city…
1. How Kuala Lumpur Got Its Name
Kuala Lumpur might be one of the leading cities in Southeast Asia now, but it’s fascinating to think that it was raised from its once ‘muddy’ history. According to Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, the founder of the city is the Mandailing nobleman Sutan Puasa, a leader of trading post at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers called Pangkalan Lumpur (the muddy base). At his request, the Royal Selangor Court sent 87 Chinese prospectors to venture up the Klang River in 1857 where they set up a Chinese settlement, which was then referred to as Kuala Lumpur (muddy confluence).
The leader of the Chinese community named Hiu Siew was responsible for establishing the Chinese settlement after clearing the jungle, and he was appointed as the first Kapitan Cina (Chinese captain). But it was the third Kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy, who was responsible for transforming Kuala Lumpur from a mining post into a flourishing commercial centre, which attracts prospectors from around the region. Fast forward to today, Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant metropolis thanks to its diverse inhabitants, who come from different corners of the world. And thank goodness for that, because without its multi-cultural past we wouldn’t have our roti canai, char kway teow and nasi biryani!
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Kuala Lumpur here
2. How Bangkok Got Its Name
Fun fact: you wouldn’t hear Thais referring to their capital city as ‘Bangkok’, only foreigners call Thailand’s the capital city with that name. The locals themselves refer to the city with a totally different name: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. Now, say that again in one breath.
It translates to English as: “The great city of demigods (mistranslated to ‘angels’ in English), the great city of immortals, the grand capital city endowed with Navaratna (the legendary ‘nine gems’ in Buddhism and Hinduism), the city of royal palaces, home of the gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman (god of creativity) at the request of Indra (the king of heaven).” Imagine if Daenerys actually ruled this city as well.
Dubbed as the longest name for a capital city in the world, locals just call it ‘Krung Thep’ which is in turn is short for ‘Krung Thep Maha Nakhon’ (usually translated as ‘the Great City of Angels’ in English).
Then where did the name ‘Bangkok’ come from? Before it became a proper city, the area was called with different colloquial names, one of them being Bangkok. It became the name most foreigners were familiar with because the area was a custom outpost in the 15th century. One theory explains that the word ‘Bangkok’ originates from the name of a locality within the city called Bang Makok or Village of Wild Plum (Elaeocarpus hygrophilus). If the village was filled with durian trees instead, it would have been named Bang Turien, which certainly is more badass!
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Bangkok here
3. How Singapore Got Its Name
Practically everyone in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia knows this myth of origin: When Sang Nila Utama, a prince from Srivijaya in Sumatra, thought he saw a lion in Temasek (Singapore’s former name), he renamed the place Singapura, Sanskrit for ‘Lion City’. Many people who prefer the whitewashed version of Singapore origin are quick to dismiss this origin myth, pointing out that the lion is not native to this part of the world. D’uh, no sh*t Sherlock.
It couldn’t have been an actual lion that Sang Nila Utama saw, the Singapore Zoo was not in business back then. Some argued that it might have been a tiger instead, but really, that is not the point here. Singa (or Simha in Sanskrit) was seen as a mythical being in the olden days, people in our region didn’t really think it actually exist. Their chance of seeing one was as slim as seeing a picture of a Kardashian without makeup. Myth of origin is not something to be taken seriously, or else we wouldn’t have places named Ha Long Bay (Bay of Descending Dragon) in Vietnam, Athens in Greece, or Qilin in Heze, China.
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Singapore here
4. How Vientiane Got Its Name
Bangkok is not unique when it comes to its name origin. Many cities around the world are named after the plants commonly found in the area, from Palm Springs in the United States to Guilin (Sweet Osmanthus Forest) in China and even Malaysia’s own Penang (Areca nut palm). This is also the case with Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Its name come from two words namely ‘wiang’ which means ‘settlement or city’ in Lao, while ‘chan’ is a word that is derived from Sanskrit chandana, which means sandalwood. Wiang Chan, therefore, means ‘City of Sandalwood’.
During colonial time, the city’s name was romanised into ‘Vientiane’ to adjust to the French spelling and this is how the city’s name is written in the Latin script until now. Sadly, you won’t really see sandalwood trees in Vientiane today. We imagine it must be nice back then when the trees could be found in abundance. Instead, modern-day Vientiane is abounding in crumbling French colonial buildings, which we don’t really mind. It’s just extra nice if we had both.
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Vientiane here
5. How Manila Got Its Name
Another capital city named after a plant is the capital of the Philippines. Manila’s name is believed to come from Tagalog ‘may nilad’ which means ‘there is nilad’. Nilad or sagasa (Scyphiphora) is a flowering mangrove plant that grows in the low-lying banks of the city.
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Manila here
6. How Phnom Penh Got Its Name
This might come off as weird for Westerners, but in many Asian countries, as a form of respect, we address all older ladies who are not related to us with ‘aunties’. From the next door auntie who always shares her delicious home-cooked meals with us to random aunties on the street who scold us for skipping school, aunties are simply the salt of the earth and there should be cities named after them.
Well, that’s exactly what the Cambodians did. The kingdom’s capital city is named after an old lady called Daun Penh (or Auntie Penh). One day, Auntie Penh, who lived near Tonle Sap River in the 14th century, found statues of Buddha and Vishnu (a principal god in Hinduism) inside a floating candlenut tree along the river. Taking this as an auspicious sign, she set them up in a temple on a hill for worshiping. The words spread out fast and pilgrims thronged the shrine, and the area was dubbed ‘Phnom Penh’ or translated as Penh’s Hill in English.
Centuries later when the city of Angkor Thom was sacked by Siam, the king of the Khmer Empire moved the capital to Phnom Penh. To this day, Wat Phnom or Hill Temple, where Auntie Penh built her shrine many years ago, is still a revered place and focal point of the city. We think there should be more cities around the world named after aunties. Imagine a town in South Carolina called Auntie Jemima or a town called Makcik Bedah in Klang Valley, wouldn’t that be awesome?
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Phnom Penh here
7. How Bandar Seri Begawan Got Its Name
The capital of Brunei was formerly known as Bandar Brunei or Brunei Town, but it was renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in 1970 to honour Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III (1914-1986). Bandar is a Persian loanword in Malay which means ‘town/city’, while ‘Seri Begawan’ is the title of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien II which translates as ‘The Radiant Lord’, from Sanskrit shri (radiant) and bhagavan (one who is revered).
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Bandar Seri Begawan here
7. How Jakarta Got Its Name
Long before it is known by the name Jakarta, the site of what is now the capital city of Indonesia was a port in the river estuary named Kalapa which served the Hindu Kingdom of Sunda, so it was also known as Sunda Kalapa. The Portuguese gained a foothold in the bustling port of in 1522, alarming the kingdoms throughout Java.
Fatahillah, a commander from the neighbouring Islamic Sultanate of Demak, led troops from different kingdoms in the island to drive out the Portuguese in 1527. To celebrate, he renamed the area ‘Jayakarta’ which means ‘complete victory’, from Sanskrit jaya (victory) and krta (accomplished). Jakarta History Museum, located in the city’s Kota Tua (Old Town), is named after Fatahillah. Instead of Portuguese officers, the museum area is now swarmed with local tourists and street hawkers.
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Jakarta here
9. How Naypyidaw Got Its Name
Myanmar’s capital city is named Naypyidaw, which means ‘seat of the king’. It doesn’t make much sense today, as Myanmar is no longer a kingdom and the capital city was only established in 2005, but the name is historically used to refer to the previous Royal Capitals of Burma. For example, Mandalay was referred to as Yadanabon Naypyidaw (The Royal City of Gems).
10. How Hanoi Got Its Name
In 1831, Emperor Minh Mang changed the name of the city from Thang Long (Soaring Dragon) to Hanoi (River Interior), which refers to its location between two rivers. Not really what we call an improvement, but hey, who are we to argue with the emperor of Vietnam!
GETTING THERE: Book your flight to Hanoi here