Chaotic and fascinating, Bangkok’s Chinatown should not be missed. Incense smoke, “wok breath” and the herbaceous scents of Chinese medicine fills the steamy air. Thick crowds of pedestrians, push carts and rumbling Vespas squeeze through back lanes packed with vendors selling textiles, gold, used car parts, stuffed animals, coffins, knock-off electronics, shark fins, oolong tea and a stupendous array of food.
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Yaowarat, to use the local name, was established in 1782 when a large Chinese community was relocated to make way for the Grand Palace in Ko Rattanakosin. Hailing mainly from the Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese and Cantonese dialect groups, Chinese immigrants kept pouring into Bangkok into the early 20th century. Many worked as “coolies,” unloading cargo from trading junks and stocking warehouses that lined the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. Hard-working families opened shophouse businesses that are now often run by descendants of the original owners.
Today the Chinese-Thais adhere to many of their ancestors’ traditions and superstitions while also blending into the greater Thai society. Some older folks still speak (or shout) their native tongues and browse Chinese-language newspapers while sipping olieng coffee and jasmine tea along the footpaths. Colourful Chinese shrines stand hidden by crumbling mortar walls. During Chinese New Year and the Vegetarian Festival, dragons roam the streets to the crash of drums, cymbals and gongs.
Yaowarat Road is often touted as the street food centre of Bangkok -- if not the universe. Every day from before dawn until 3:00 in the morning, streetside chefs churn out a dizzying variety of foods rooted in Chinese cuisines but often with Thai twists. You might gulp some exhaust with your meal, but those Mercedes aren’t queuing up for takeaway for nothing. Wet markets, teashops, pricey sit-down restaurants and medicinal drink stalls also dot Chinatown.
It’s best to think of the area as one living museum where you’re as likely to be captivated by an obscure shrine or historic community as you are by any big-name attraction. Wat Traimit, Wat Leng Noei Yi and Wat Chakkrawat are all worth a visit, but it would be a mistake to scoot from one to the next without wandering around on foot. And don’t forget to look up! Stacks of century-old Sino-European architecture has been preserved in Chinatown.
One market blends into the next in the vicinity of Sampaeng Lane , which feeds into a labyrinth of alleys bundled between Yaowarat Road and the river. Especially on weekends, be prepared for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds pierced by take-no-prisoners trolleymen who aren’t afraid to whack a few Achilles heels as they rush chintzy goods to the endless stores. Keep your valuables secure, be ready to get lost, and don’t expect a Starbucks to save you.
Just north of Yaowarat stretches Pahurat, or Little India, a predominantly Sikh community known for its Indian textile shops. While most are now Thai citizens, the Sikhs have retained a stronger sense of individual cultural identity than many of the Chinese-Thais down the road. Today the neighbourhood hosts substantial numbers of Nepalese, Pakistani and Burmese immigrants as well.
To the south, the crowded lanes give way to a more laidback air in Talad Noi, where rusty “chop and sell” car parts overflow from some of the area’s best-preserved shophouses. In recent years, a bunch of small art galleries have joined hip bars and cafes in the vicinity of Talad Noi and Soi Nana (not to be confused with the Nana red-light district on Sukhumvit) on the southern fringe of Chinatown. Head here to let loose with the cool kids.