22 Sep Bangkok’s Chinatown
Bangkok’s Chinatown and Yaowarat Road
No visit to Thailand’s capital should pass without time in the most vibrant and multicultural of the city’s districts, Chinatown or as it’s locally known, Yaowarat. Found in the Samphanthawong district, modern Chinatown covers a large area around Yaowarat and Charoen Krung Road bordering the Chao Phraya River to the south, and has been the main center for trading by the Chinese community for some 200 years.
By day Yaowarat Road doesn’t look too different from other parts of Bangkok, except for the market feel and sense of being in one of the oldest parts of Bangkok. But by night when the neon lights break into action and the streets fill with food stalls and curious crowds, you will feel the infectious transformation and imagine for just a moment that you were in China.
You’ll come across street markets, shop houses, colonial-style architecture, beautiful temples, friendly people and a glance into commercial Bangkok as it has been for the last two centuries. Take your time here, find a spot to sit down with a traditional Thai iced-coffee or better still a pot of Chinese tea, and watch the local traders go about their day. The stores are not targeted at tourists and you will find interesting everyday things on sale and intriguing insight into life in this community. These are a few things to seek out while there.
Each night the main road of Bangkok’s Chinatown changes into one of the best and busiest street food locations in the world, with restaurants, cooking carts, tables and chairs spilling onto the sidewalk and road. The bright neon lights flicker, red Chinese lanterns guide the way and huge crowds move from one stall to the next, indulging in the best Asian street food you could imagine.
Popular choices include dim sum, flat noodles in a broth, seafood platters, sweet Chinese dumplings, exotic fruits and homemade ice cream. Don’t limit yourself to one restaurant, allow a moveable feast as you move from one to the next making your way up Yaowarat road, eating and sampling, doing some shopping for spices and tea, and a lot of crowd watching as you do. Traffic is a little crazy so we recommend you take the MRT there followed by a short tuk-tuk ride into the heart of the action. Ask for mild chilly, unless you’re feeling brave.
Wat Mangkol Kamalawat
Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, also known as Wat Leng Noei Yi, is the most respected temple in Chinatown and contains Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian idols. Incredibly popular, you will always find worshippers here, especially during Chinese New Year and the Vegetarian Festival. Lotus flowers are floated are offered, the sweet smell of incense fills the air, and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to line up for a blessing from the resident monks. The temple is set back from Charoen Krung Road and looks very unassuming, but once inside you’ll marvel at the opulence and intricacy.
Sampeng Lane Market
Sampeng Lane runs parallel to Yaowarat Road and is known to be the best place to shop for cheap clothing, jewelry and accessories, attracting the crowds throughout the year. The alleyway’s correct name is Soi Wanit 1, and in days gone by was known for opium dens and brothels. Given the narrow winding passageways that can barely fit two people at a time, it was an easy place to disappear to. Today add motorcycles, pushcarts and tourist to the bustling setting of a popular market and you get a real taste of the old city. Most popular items to shop for here are shoes, watches and clothes. Ceramics, lanterns, Chinese spices, silk and other beautiful fabrics.
Seek out a show and go to a Chinese Opera. With roots going as far back as the Tang Dynasty, this is a cultural treat. Chinese opera is one of the oldest performing arts in the world and combines literature and music into the most dramatic and visual spectacle. Performers are elaborately made up for hours and deliver good old-fashioned entertainment. Shows are usually free and you won’t be disappointed.
Sala Chalermkrung Khon Theatre
Sala Chalermkrung is a theatre built in 1933 that has been immaculately maintained and remains much unchanged from when it first opened 80 years ago. There are red velvet cushions, brass fittings and charming sepia photographs. When it opened its doors it was the first cinema with audio and air-conditioning in Thailand, today the theatre is home to Khon, a traditional Thai masked dance with delicate costumes and enchanting story lines.
Visit the Heritage Centre
For more background, the museum and heritage center at Wat Traimit offers insight into the history of the Chinese migration to Thailand, and the community’s evolution to present day Thai Chinese. With the audiovisuals and displays you can walk the historical journey of the Chinese immigrants, taking time over photos of early Chinatown, traditional Chinese homes and very realistic life size models doing hard labour, portraying how hard life was for the first arrivals.
Given the narrow roads and alleys and the distance you will want to cover on your visit, consider taking a cycle tour through Chinatown. With your guide you will be introduced to the markets, ancient temples and narrow walkways where life has remained much unchanged for generations. Having a guide ensures you learn the history and traditions of the area with a fair amount of anecdotal stories to add charm and context. This is usually a half-day activity.
As you walk the narrow lanes taking in the ambience and familiarising yourself with the neighbourhood, remember to keep an eye out for the incredible street art that adorns the walls, telling the story of the people that live there, their heritage and evolution to modern day. There are lots of cats featured too and it’s evident they have always been lively part of the area.
Best Kept Secret?
Find your way to the unassuming River View Guest House on Songwad Road and head to the restaurant and bar on the 8th floor. It offers the best views across the Chao Praya River and is the perfect place for affordable sundowners and a meal after a busy day of exploring.