Bangkok’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinese settling in the city and it’s one of the oldest Chinatown’s in the world. Apart from Antarctica, there is at least a Chinatown in every continent. They often reproduce the Chinese lifestyle whether you are visiting San Francisco, Jakarta or Paris.
When in Bangkok i love getting to Chinatown on the ferry. It’s probably the cheapest option and the more scenic as well, plus going by the river one can easily avoid the infamous Bangkok’s traffic jams and pollution. Once aboard, the temperature drops and the gentle breeze gives you a little relief from the constant heath.
Chinatown lies few stops away from Khao San area. The ferry goes down a zig-zag itinerary across both river sides to drop the locals in some of the less touristic areas, and during this 20 minutes boat trip one can enjoy the view of some picturesque neighbourhoods whose sight is hidden from the city lanes.
If you have been to Venice at least once, you will notice how similar the life along the docks is.
Every ferry has at least one person working at the gate. They hop up and down at every stop and use a special whistle to give directions to the driver.
Some of the main temples can be best admired from the river. Towards the sunset evening their golden roofs reflect the amber light of the sunset.
Monks don’t need to pay for the ticket, and when the boat is full, they have some reserved seats.
Unlike western people, Asians don’t like to stay in the sunlight. A fair skin is much appreciated down here, so they often protect their face from the strong sun.
Once in Chinatown, Thai signs nearly disappear and they are suddenly replaced by Cantonese and Mandarin characters.
This is one of the busiest areas of the city. Every corner is bursting with life: people carrying goods, open kitchens, shops selling gold and old women selling lottery tickets. They all make this neighbourhood look like a scene from a movie.
When the Siam (former name for Thailand) King Rama I shifted the kingdom’s capital to the eastern bank of the Chao Phrya River in 1782, the Chinese community was one of the first to feel its impact.
The area that they lived was designated for the construction of the king’s new palace, now known as the Grand Palace, so the Chinese community had to shift further away to Soi Sampheng, also known as Soi Wanit. This street marked the beginning of a new Bangkok Chinatown or Yaowarat making it one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world.
The Royal family members have made several visits to Bangkok Chinatown especially during the Chinese New Year. The Thai Royal family is highly respected and very popular with the Thai-Chinese community so the Royal visits are always considered major events and people who participated retold their experiences with pride.
Most of the wares being sold – car parts, cheap electronics, low-quality plastic toys from China – are not necessarily of interest to travellers. But unlike much of Bangkok, which is fully geared toward serving the needs of the city’s burgeoning tourist and expat population, Chinatown’s charm lies in the fact that, over here, it is not really about the traveller; Chinatown exists first and foremost for the Thai-Chinese.
Away from the busy main road, while looking for some interesting shots, i bumped into a Indian film crew, pre-shooting for an upcoming Bollywood movie. Bangkok’s Chinatown’s charme is such, that even Asians themselves find it exotic!
This is when the streets start to turn into open restaurants. Chinatown doesn’t have a big drinking scene, but the lack of bars is well replaced by a multitude of food stalls selling an incredible array of food.
It is said that many families in Bangkok don’t even have a kitchen at home. Eating out is so cheap and easy that even locals spend their evenings eating traditional food and enjoying a drink while chatting with a friend. One of the main greetings in Thailand is pretty much the sentence “Have you eaten..?”.
Bangkok Chinatown is unique with its prominent number of shops and stalls offering birds nest soup and shark’s fin soup. Some of these restaurants attract not only locals but Chinese from the region and even Japanese tourists.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is a cultural space shaped by local community and dynamics, not managed or developed for tourist consumption. Definitely a must visit to understand the complex ways in which Thai-Chinese manage their ethnicity identity and their loyalty to the Kingdom.