The original version of this article is in this months SLOW magazine (September 2018) available in British Airways exclusive business lounges operated by British Airways Comair in partnership with FNB Private Clients and RMB Private Bank.
Trawl through any major city and you’ll encounter lively pockets of ethnicity that offer a delightful infusion of the traditions and customs of other nations. As Chinatowns go, Bangkok’s is rated as one of the world’s best and largest, a pulsing microcosm of Thai-Chinese life that has the exploring crowd in its element.
Known informally as Yaowarat, Chinatown lies close to the landmark-laden Old City, sandwiched between the Chao Phraya River and the Krum Kaseng Canal. Announced by the imposing ceremonial gate (paifang) planted at the Odeon Circle, it’s one of the few areas in Bangkok that has resisted rapid urbanization, maintaining unique characteristics inherent of a bygone era.
It was more than two centuries ago when the Chinese began peddling their rice to neighbouring Siam. Burgeoning trade opportunities and better life prospects enticed blue collar workers who gathered their people, loaded their junks and set sail from mainland China. Once on Bangkok terra firma they hunkered down on land bequeathed by King Rama I and established a thriving settlement, the remnant of which is evident today.
Over the past few decades, the seedier element brought on by a glut of opium dens, brothels and gambling houses of old has been eclipsed by a new wave of style-centric gallerists, artisans, architects, designers and chefs, all making their mark with a slew of stunning venues, desirable hangouts for creatives and aficionados.
There are several gems that stand out in the labyrinthine maze of this quirky precinct. Soi Nana (not to be confused with the one in the red-light district) is a 400 metre strip located on the Eastern fringe and undoubtedly one of Bangkok’s coolest streets, marrying a perfect synergy between hipsterdom and heritage. Most of Chinatown’s appeal lies in its quaint charm and there have been numerous stand-offs between its passionate preservers and commercial developers with a gentrification agenda. Change is inevitable though with plans underway for the opening of a new subway station in 2019 next to the Dragon Lotus Temple, a move that will greatly improve pedestrian access to the area.
Fine examples of ancient Chinese-style architecture are everywhere. Many buildings remain exactly as they were, while others have been stylishly reimagined by their innovative occupants. Cho Why is a case in point – a contemporary art space that attracts a dedicated following through exhibitions, installations and events such as rooftop paella evenings, craft beer fairs and film screenings. A meander through the surrounding warren of alleyways will reveal secluded eateries and drinking holes that are some of Bangkok’s best kept secrets, frequented predominantly by its citizens but where foreigners (farangs) are warmly welcomed. Tep is an established traditional Thai music bar and, a few steps away in a renovated triple story building, is one of the city’s most highly rated coffees shops, Nana, which comes as no surprise with award winning barista Warong Chalanuchpong in charge of the brew crew. At street level you’ll find a florist- Oneday Wallflowers– where you can learn to create bespoke bouquets, and the topmost floor leads on to Wallflowers Upstairs, a trendy bar that overlooks the street scene below.
Day or night, Chinatown is a heady experience with no shortage of things to do. Gastronomes make a beeline for the glorious Chinese food outets for which Chinatown is so famous. Both top end restaurants like Cotton in the Shanghai Mansion Hotel and street food stalls like Lek Rut entice with fare that will make you forget everything you thought you knew about Cantonese cuisine. For Spanish tapas, El Chiringuito is unchallenged and if gin is your thing, then look no further than Teens of Thailand, Bangkok’s only dedicated gin bar.
Part with your Baht at Sampeng on Soi Wanit 1, one of the busiest and most comprehensive markets you’ll encounter in Bangkok. Between early morning and 6pm when it shuts down, tourists rub shoulders with locals, bargaining for goods at row upon row of stalls heaped with everything from incredible food to cheap trinkets, porcelain, textiles, craft, furniture and gold, the most traded commodity in Chinatown. Shop for it in its purest form on Yaowarat Road, the main artery that snakes through the centre of town, where specialist stores like Hua Seng Heng have operated for more than fifty years and for those wanting to turn heads in their trainers, Balanna Plaza is a sneaker paradise.
There are more than 40,000 exquisite temples (wats) in Thailand and Chinatown has its fair share of sacred eye candy. Wat Traimit is houses a massive Golden Buddha and Wat Mangkon Kamalat, aka Leng Noei Yi, was built in 1871 and is the most important Chinese temple in all Bangkok. Access it via Itsarphap Lane where vendors specialise in the sale of dry goods like nuts, herbs and spices.
Chinatown pulses with its own heartbeat, rich in legacy and longevity. If you’re heading to Bangkok in the Land of Smiles, add it to your itinerary and immerse yourself in a marvellous collision of culture and tradition.
I was in Thailand courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, SA. My visit to Chinatown was not sponsored-all opinions are my own.
My recommended accommodation: The stylish Siam @ Siam design hotel