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In Chinatown’s maze of alleyways, overloaded vespas and tuk tuks vie for space with street food vendors, shoppers from around the world and old school human-powered pushcarts. Shopping here is a grittier and more crowded experience than, for example, Terminal 21, Asiatique or even Chatuchak, but there’s nothing like getting lost in Chinatown‘s colourful markets that don’t seem to have a clear beginning or end. No matter what you bring home, shopping in Bangkok‘s Chinatown is an unforgettable experience.
A good place to start is Song Wat Road, which runs along the river parallel to Yaowarat Road and Soi Wanit 1 just around the corner. Unless you’re looking for an old motorbike engine or 50 metres of fishing net, you probably won’t buy much here, but soaking up the busy atmosphere surrounded by striking old shophouses makes it worth a stroll. Shop after shop specialise in some tried and true product, and many have supported families for generations.
If heading northwest on Soi Wanit 1, a series of narrow alleyways will soon envelop you. Entire stretches are dedicated to cheap shoes and hats while intersections clog up with street food vendors. Though probably unnerving for the claustrophobic, this maze of “shopping alleys” that stretches for blocks between Yaowarat Road and Song Wat Road is a feast for the senses.
Try on cheap clothes and gold necklaces, play with Chinese-made toys and knick-knacks, or arrange wholesale shipments of, for example, generic umbrellas or fake Nikes. Be prepared to bargain hard, and watch out for all the pushcarts and vespas fulfilling their unending missions of keeping those shelves stocked.
If seeking an even greater variety of stuff, head to the west end of Yaowarat Road almost to Pahurat (Little India) and descend into Saphan Lek (Iron Bridge) market, which features loads of stalls tucked along a canal that sell everything from bael fruit candies to DVDs of Chinese Buddhist chants. Keep a tight grip on your belongings all through Chinatown but especially in this area — pickpockets are common.
Continue back east from here and you won’t even notice the transition into the roofed Samphing market, which boasts a dizzying array of cheap wears.
The markets and alleyways really do blend together and it wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t get lost once or twice. Should that be the case, there’s little doubt that eventually you’ll re-emerge onto Chinatown’s backbone: Yaowarat Road. Although perhaps best known for its incredible street food, Yaowarat is also a good place to shop for Chinese tea and herbs, gold, gems and unique souvenirs.
By the time you make it to Yaowarat, we guess you’ll be lugging a few puffy bags of cheap stuff through the packed late afternoon footpaths. After a bite to eat — Team Red seafood perhaps – Yaowarat is the place to catch a taxi. Or you can head for the river and catch the express boat at Ratchawong pier; just don’t get lost in those alleys again. Chinatown gets packed on weekend afternoons so it’s best to come on a weekday.
How to get there
Chinatown can be accessed from Ratchawong Express Boat pier or Hualamphong MRT station, with the former placing you closer to the action.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 10th December, 2014.