Dig into a fascinating area
Chinatown, known locally as Yaowarat, is arguably the most fascinating part of Bangkok. Exceptional food and cheap goods line the lanes, incense smoke coils from shrines and generational businesses persist in old shophouses. Seeing as it’s also crowded, hot and difficult to navigate, we’ve come up with a walking tour to help you explore with some strategy.
This ambitious itinerary will take you on a roughly four-kilometre loop through Chinatown and its neighbour, Pahurat (or Little India), with stops at markets, shrines, temples and food stalls. Come ready to dodge pushcarts as you bend through tight spaces packed with people, and don’t fret if you get lost. The entirety of Chinatown, rather than individual sites, is the main attraction.
So without taking all of this too seriously, start with a Chao Phraya river ferry to Ratchawong Pier and walk straight away from the river on Ratchawong Road. Take a quick left (west) on Anuwong Road and then a right (north) into the second alley on the right, marked by Novltex Textile at the corner. Walk straight north from here, passing several other small textile shops, and you’ll find the red gate to Boonsamakan Vegetarian Hall at the end of the lane.
Meat is strictly prohibited at this small shrine that’s a focal point for the annual vegetarian festival. Decked out in ocher and red, it boasts beautiful woodcarvings, red-eyed dragons and an altar enshrining spirit images, and the lot out front is used for Chinese opera performances on occasion. From here, take the alley running west and hang a quick right and then left, which will deposit you on Maha Chak Road. Across the street from this point is the entrance to Wat Chakrawat, a 19th-century Thai temple best known for the three full-grown crocodiles that laze around as monks dutifully clean their pit.
Exit Wat Chakrawat to the west and go left (south) on Chakrawat Road, then cross the street and take the first right (west) down narrow Soi Bophit Phimuk. Go straight across the canal and take a right (north), and the lane will curve west past stalls selling Punjabi sweets and the streetside grill at Toney, worth a stop for Indian food.
Keep straight west down the lane and you’ll come out on Chakphet Road in the heart of Pahurat, where fabric shops mainly run by Indian-Thai Sikhs line the street. Turn right (north) and walk a couple of hundred metres before using the pedestrian bridge to cross the road; hang a left (south) on the other side and look for the flower-lined entrance on the right to Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabah, one of the largest Sikh places of worship outside of India.
Approach one of the men hanging around the stairs if you’d like to cover your head and go up to see the prayer and reading rooms in this cavernous gurudwara, or just walk through the ground floor and exit on the west side. Take a right (north) and you’ll enter a tangle of alleys stuffed with brazenly bright fabrics, traditional Thai costumes and cheap clothes.
Make your way all the way west through the fabric market and then take a right (north) on Tri Phet Road, followed by the first right on Pahurat Road—you’ll now be heading east back towards Chinatown. If you could go for some air-con along with traditional Thai sweets, pop across the street to the Old Siam Plaza.
Continue east down Pahurat Road, passing loads more fabric shops, and take the same pedestrian bridge that you used earlier to go back across Chakphet Road. Immediately on the other side, look for a sign marked “Saphan Han Market” pointing east down an alley. This is the start of Sampeng, a tightly packed lane cutting straight through the length of Chinatown with one market blurring into the next. Prepare for tight quarters at the shops selling all of the cheap Chinese-made knickknacks you can imagine.
A few blocks are all that we can take of this steamy, mercantile lane. Take a left (north) when you hit Ratchawong Road, crossing the street when possible, and then turn right (east) on Charoen Krung Road and hop across that as well. After 100 metres you’ll reach the entrance to Wat Leng Noei Yi marked by four imposing guardian images. Take your time to explore one of the largest and oldest Chinese temples in Bangkok.
Just east of Wat Leng Noei Yi, turn left into Charoen Krung Soi 23 and consider refuelling on a bowl of pork fat-slathered coolie noodles (kuay tiao pat jang) from the charcoal-fired stove to the right. Then wander down the alley into a century-old community, Charoen Chai, which trades in joss paper offerings burned at traditional Chinese funerals. Occupying one of the attractive old wood shophouses on the south side of the lane is the Historic Hut, a free museum spotlighting the history of this old and proud community that we hope will not be replaced by a condo when a nearby subway station opens in 2020.
Making your way back to Charoen Krung, cross the road and head straight south into Soi Itsaranuphap directly across from where you just came. This drops you into Talad Mai, the “New Market” that’s been open for two centuries and still appears authentically Chinese. Along the narrow passage you’ll pass hanging bags of fish maw along with Chinese tea, fresh meat, dried fruit and vendors who still speak the Teochew dialect that came with their grandparents.
About halfway down the lane, look left for an easy-to-miss alley leading to Leng Buai Ia, one of the oldest Chinese shrines in Thailand. Built in 1658, it enshrines images of the red-faced icon of war, Guan Yu, alongside Mazu, the southern Chinese goddess of the sea and heaven. After a quick peek inside, return to the main market lane and turn left to keep inching your way south to Yaowarat Road, the backbone of Chinatown.
Turn left (east) on Yaowarat and you’ll have some options. You could cross the road to enjoy the air-con while perusing the exceptional tea menu at Double Dogs. Or you could stay on the north side of Yaowarat and turn left into Soi Plaeng Nam for street eats: steamed dumplings from a 50-year-old cart at the entrance to Wat Yuan; a hearty plate of phra ram long song (rice and pork with peanut sauce) from Mae Akarawan; or rice porridge with your choice of stir-fries at Khao Thom 24. Once you’ve had a rest and a bite, make your way east down Yaowarat and look for the entrance to one of Chinatown’s largest shrines on the right side of the street.
Located next to a charity hospital opened in 1902 and still run by the Thian Fa Foundation, the Chao Mae Kuan Im Shrine centres on a small but exquisite statue of Kuan Im (or Guan Yin, Chinese “goddess” of compassion) carved from a single piece of golden teak many centuries ago and carted to Bangkok during China’s Cultural Revolution. The shrine also houses beautiful murals and portraits of early 20th century leaders representing the five main dialect groups that settled here: Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese and Teochew.
Continue east and you’ll soon reach the end (or beginning) of Yaowarat Road marked by the imposing Odean Gate standing over a traffic circle. Make your way to the east side of the circle to find the entrance to Wat Traimit, which is hard to miss thanks to the towering spire atop a lavish marble mondop. Inside sits the world’s largest solid gold statue in the form of a Buddha image miraculously discovered here in the mid 20th century. It’s the single biggest sightseeing draw in Chinatown.
By now we reckon you’ll be ready to call it a day. You could pop a few hundred metres north to the artsy bars of Soi Nana (not to be confused with Sukhumvit’s seedy Soi Nana), or head east across the Phadung Krung Kasem Canal to catch up with the metro at Hua Lamphong MRT Station. If you’re heading back towards Khao San Road and the Thewet area, a free canal boat departing from a pier next to Hualamphong Railway station can take you there.
Another option, if you have a bit of steam leftover, is to head southwest from the Odean traffic circle on Tri Mit Road (Jay Ben is a great spot for wok-fried noodles here) and then turn right (west) on Song Wat Road. This relatively quiet kilometre-long street takes you past some gorgeous heritage architecture before emerging back on to Ratchawong Road; take a left and you’ll be back at the river ferry pier where we started.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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