Lying south of Dusit and Banglamphu, Bangkok’s Chinatown, locally known as the Yaowarat district, is one of the city’s major attractions. It is a showcase of Chinese culture within Thailand. The city’s Chinatown district is an old business center that covers a large area starting from Flower Market Bangkok to the main Yaowarat Road and the adjoining Chareon Krung Road.
Chinese moved into the area as early as1780’s. It is oldest ethnic enclave in the city. When the royal family’s Grand Palace was constructed in 1782 by King Rama I to mark the foundation of Bangkok as Thailand’s new capital, after Ayutthaya was annihilated by the Burmese, the Chinese community was asked to move just outside the city walls. The area then became the main centre of commerce for two centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, Yaowarat was the most fashionable part of Bangkok. It had the smartest shops, the tallest buildings, pawnshops, cinemas and Chinese operas. The area also had a seedy reputation for the large number of opium dens, brothels (which hung green lanterns outside instead of the Western style red lights), and a fondness for gambling and drug dealing-all of which are illegal nowadays.
Bangkok’s Chinatown Features
At present, the charms and attractions of this area are hard to describe. Thus, exploration here is a must. Many of the buildings house beautiful decorative motifs, giving a view of Chinese religions and the unique cultural history and lifestyle. Ancient Chinese superstitions have also survived here. Look closely at the sides of some houses and you will see “feng shui” mirrors, called “pat kwa”, placed strategically to deflect and chase away evil spirits.
The Chinese in Chinatown have been living in Thailand for generations, and now generally consider themselves very much as Thais — most can no longer speak any Chinese. The genuine Chinatown lies down the busy numerous smaller roads, narrow alleys and backstreets. Many of these are full of shops selling all types of quality goods, hence a paradise for shoppers. With market stalls strewn around, you will find many all sorts of products at very attractive prices.
Yaowarat is best known for the more than 100 gold shops that can be found along both sides of the Road. Gold shops here are mostly owned and run by Thai-Chinese, reflecting the love of gold they are often thought to have. Some of the world’s finest gold products can be found and purchased here. At almost any time of the day, shops here are crowded with people — Thais, tourists and even wholesale buyers from neighboring countries. All gold bought here can be resold by weight for a small markdown that is strictly controlled by the government.
Yaowarat district also teems with tiny shops and curb side vendors selling a myriad of spices, seafood, fruits and vegetables. Looking for the mysterious ingredients in the arsenal of traditional Chinese medicine is also a must when visiting Chinatown. There is an amazing variety of herbal medicines and ancient potions for every ailment on sale.
You can even try speaking to the herbalist about the properties of the medicines and hear their fantastic stories – myth and natural science – with your purchase! The area is also a steamy realm of touts, shoppers and suppliers, of carts, motorcycles and men carrying big bales of cloth on their backs, all made hazy by the smoke from roasting chestnuts and a hundred braziers cooking snacks of meat pies, biscuits, pork and chicken. It even has antique shops, tiny machine shops, clothing stores and stands offering unidentifiable junk. Traditional Chinese paintings and porcelains, Thai ceramics and figurines are also sold here at bargain prices.
At night, it is always a delight to visit Yaowarat. When getting dark, this lively Chinese community becomes the largest Chinese restaurant in Bangkok, serving a wide variety of food until well past midnight. Dozens of eating establishments offer everything from shark-fin soup to fried mussels and steamed pork innards served on rice or noodles, birds-nest soup, dim sum, shark fin soup and many other traditional Chinese delicacies. Hundreds of hawker stalls also electrify the atmosphere of the streets around here. These best and cheapest food stalls typically come with favourite dishes including khao tom (boiled rice), khao kha mu (stewed pork leg on rice), and many, many more.
Every year, the Chinese New Year Festival, generally around January or February, is celebrated in Bangkok’s Chinatown with a big bang. It features parades, dragon dances, firework displays, opera shows and other traditional Chinese performances. At this time of the year, Bangkok’s Chinatown springs into colourful and hectic life, with light, red and gold decorations. Tens of thousands of residents opt to stay home to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The celebration draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, hence a good chance to promote this area of Bangkok.
While Bangkok has many places and surroundings to offer, a visit to Bangkok’s Chinatown would be a fascinating journey to seethe Chinese cultural essence and heritage that could hardly be found anywhere else in Thailand.