There is nowhere like Bangkok’s Chinatown. It is a culinary parade through some of the most interesting and cooked to perfection Chinese and Chinese blended with Thai food cuisine globally. Food is everywhere and rarely taste bad. There is sprawl and activity in all the print outlets and mechanic workshops that mentally brings you to Hanoi. You get that sense of a close-knit community teeming with those that rely on each other.
Bangkok’s Chinatown prevails as an enclave of Chinese culture in a new homeland untouched by the years of communism in China. Even though you can get the same impression in Taiwan. The buildings here are often older than in Taiwan. In Taiwan, so much was built and modernised after Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang soldiers arrival to the beautiful island. Furthermore, Bangkok’s Chinatown is more vivid than its equivalent in Singapore.
A walk through Bangkok’s Chinatown
I launched my walk this day from the 105-year-old grand lady; the train station Hua Lamphong will shut down permanently by December. I took my time to capture pictures of the iconic facade and great hall.
After that, I walked past the legendary Wat Traimit temple with its stunning 5.5 ton golden Buddha. With tour groups, this was a must in every city tour of Bangkok. At the time of my walk, the temple was temporarily closed, but otherwise, you should visit. The seated mildly smiling Buddha was crafted in Sukhothai and then brought to Ayutthaya. Somebody covered the Buddha in stucco to keep the Burmese invaders of 1767 from stealing it. For a long time, its actual value wasn’t known, so this Buddha was placed in a simple building under a tin roof.
In the 1950s, the Buddha statue needed to move from its modest building to a new Viharn building. The movers used a pulley system with a rope to move the heavy bust. As the statue approached the pedestal, the rope to the pulley broke down, and the figure fell to the solid floor revealing the true nature.
The other explanation of what happened to the Buddha statue alleges that it was raining when the movers transferred it. The statue fell to the ground when the movers tried to place it on the pedestal. In the morning, the rain and mud had washed away the covering, and it was gleaming with gold.
Time to Eat
After reflecting shortly over the Buddhas fantastic story, I proceeded to Odean, a guidebook classic and a very decent place to get some excellent noodles with the amount of crab that you request. They also serve very delicious crab balls. I went for the middle-sized crab claw.
Happy and filled up, I made a short visit to the shrine honouring Guan Yin (Kuan Yim). This shrine was founded in 1903 and is part of the Thian Fa Foundation.
Originally this was a charity hospital that served the poor and needy in Chinatown. At the time of its establishment, there were substantial medical care and spiritual comfort for the Chinese immigrants. Therefore the shrine is located in the vicinity of the hospital.
I dropped into the old market and then allowed myself to get lost in the bustling side streets. Then I headed over to the old Yisheng for an “ancient coffee” with what felt like ancient old men. Seated one by one at each table, they solved some of the world’s problems. Rather loud, but still not hostile.
Then I strolled through the sois of Yaowarat again wishing that I had more bellies to indulge in all the amazing street food in the area. If not crab, there is always duck or some incredible Chinese pork belly dishes.
Actually, Michelin has a guide to some of the best street food here.
In Chinatown, any food seems to be available. Sometimes for good and evil. Chinatown is also where Thai people buy their gold, and the Chinese always loved selling it to them. We purchased our wedding gold at Yaowarat in 2004. Any Chinese decoration or fantastic plastic gadget can also be found here. But most of all, Chinatown is very culinary. The smell of roasted chestnuts cuts through the streets and blends with the aroma of coffee and roasted duck. Billboards hanging high and low are reminiscent of an almost bygone era in Hong Kong.
The neighbourhood prizes those who wander and investigate. The pleasure of Chinatown is discovering something new; the unexpected is never far away.
I was always walking with all senses present. Chinatown is full of life. Omnipresent and luminous at night. Humid and hot at times in the daytime, but never dull. The heat was starting to get to me. After capturing street art snapshots, I called in my Grab and returned to Novotel Siam Square.
Chinatown’s attraction lies in the point that it is not really about the traveller; Chinatown is for the Thai-Chinese. Therefore there is never any doubt about its genuineness. The minute I leave Chinatown, I get the sense that Somerset Maugham had in the cities of the orient. There is some secret that I didn’t get to take part in. Hence there is always the desire to return and explore more.
Need a company to host your experience?
You can try Your Tour Desk in Bangkok. They offer anything from transfers, to yacht rentals and excursions.
If you plan to stay in Chinatown
Here are some suggestions for hotels in Chinatown. If you book with Booking.com on these links, I will make some earnings from it with no extra cost to you. It helps me keep Thailand Tidbits running. Thanks in advance.
To stay in Chinatown is very rewarding. Seeing how the are comes to life with all streetfood cooked in the morning as well as all the wonderful late snacks prepared in the evening.
A brief history of Chinatown
When the Grand Palace was built in 1782, the Chinese settlement moved to Samphaeng. This is the area of the origins of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
The Chinese population in Thailand grew in the first three reigns of the Chakri Kings through free immigration. Famine in southern China caused many Hokiens and Teochews to migrate to Southeast Asia.
Chinatown underwent brisk expansion following the signing of the Bowring Treaty, a treaty that enabled international trade in the mid 19th century. Import-export businesses prospered, and many warehouses arose in the area.
At the same time, the only paved roads in Bangkok were inside the king’s palace. Well-off westerners who’d settled on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya river became frustrated, grumbling that their horse-drawn carts battled to navigate Bangkok’s messy byways. Therefore Charoen Krung Road – The New Road was born in 1864. This road created new energy into the city. Artisans moved into the area, establishing shophouses that functioned as residences and workplaces.
Chinatown, now a highly dense shantytown, was ravaged by numerous fires. The devastation opened the path for constructing many new roads like Yaowarat (young king), which was built in 1891—cutting through Bangkok like a dragon.
By the turn of the 19th–20th centuries, Chinatown had become Bangkok’s main commercial area, as well as a red-light district hosting opium dens, theatre’s, and gambling houses.
The capitals business and economic buzz have now shifted to the districts of Siam, Sathorn and Sukhumvit. But still, Chinatown endures a vibrant local hub that still essentially expresses what life was like in the early 20th century.