I live in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, just a short tuk-tuk ride from Asok BTS station. The balcony of my condo has fantastic views of the gleaming towers of the ‘new’ Bangkok – shopping centres, luxury hotels, office blocks. In 10 minutes I can be shopping at Tesco, Boots or H&M, sipping a latte at Starbucks, or having lunch at McDonalds, Burger King or Subway. In short, this part of Bangkok, the part in which, along with Silom, most tourists spend their time, is much like any other modern city.
But this is only half the story of Bangkok, and visitors who want to experience something more quintessentially “Asian” don’t have to look very far. Bangkok’s 200-year old Chinatown district, built around bustling and historic Yaowarat Road, has barely changed in decades and offers the old-school Southeast Asian bustle & street life that is missing from the city’s more modern districts.
Chinatown is best visited on foot – indeed, most of the interesting bits are inaccessible any other way – and so I begin my visit at Bangkok’s venerable Hualamphong railway station, which is where the MRT line terminates, and which is just a short walk from Chinatown itself. Another interesting way to visit is to get the river ferry to Memorial Bridge, have a wander around the fascinating Yodpiman wet market, and wander up to Chinatown from there.
As a roving gourmet, I decide to head to Chinatown on an empty stomach and within minutes of emerging from the MRT I’m tucking into a bowl of pork noodle soup on the pavement opposite the picturesque Wat Traimit temple, home to a priceless 5-ton Buddha statue made of 83% pure gold which has an interesting story – when the Burmese army were approaching the former capital of Ayutthaya, the Thais had the statue encased in plaster to hide its true worth, and this is how it stayed for 200 years, until workmen who were moving it to its new home at Wat Traimit dropped it, and spotted gold glinting through the cracked plaster.
After Wat Traimit, I wander past the catchily-named Wat Pathumkhongkha Ratchaworawiharn (which is closed for reasons a local tuk-tuk driver attempts to explain to me, before trying the old “1 hour for 20BHT” scam, which invariably involves the victim being dragged around various jewellery stores), before coming across a real gem – Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawiharn, a beautiful royal temple dating from the Ayutthaya period and clearly well off the tourist trail; whilst Wat Traimit was full of tourists, I have this one to myself.
From here it’s a short walk to Yaowarat Road and Chinatown proper. There are few international chainstores here – it’s all jewellery shops, restaurants and traditional family-run businesses, which colourful Chinese signage out front, and a world away from the more developed part of Bangkok. The main draw of Chinatown, and where much of its trading takes place, is Sampheng Market, a dizzying maze of lanes lined with market stalls and thronged with shoppers where it is easy (and fun) to get lost.
Indeed, after wandering the lanes for an hour or so in 35C heat, I’m tired, thirsty and hungry and duck (no pun intended) into an appealing looking place called Hong Kong Noodles, which turns out to be a real find – with its stylish minimalist decor and distinctive red & black branding, it’s a cut above the usual hole-in-the-wall noodle joint but is excellent value – I order roast duck with wontons, noodles with grilled pork, shrimp dim sum and two drinks, and the whole lot sets me back less than $5, which is amazing for food of such quality.
Back out into the chaos of Sampheng Market, stopping every 10 minutes to replenish fluids from one of the mercifully plentiful fresh juice vendors, I come across a couple of charming Chinese temples set back from the lanes – Leng Buai Ia shrine, and Wat Mangkon Kamalawat. But neither offer much respite from the heat & crowds, so I battle my way out of the lanes and find a slightly quieter street lined with old shophouses – it’s amazing to think that once upon a time, much of Bangkok looked like this. I do a bit of shopping for my apartment – some incense, a rug, and the quintessential 2013 Asian market product, knockoff Angry Birds merchandise, until I can take no more, and slump into a taxi back to Hualamphong to take the MRT back home.
Chinatown has worn me out, but I’ll be back, if only for the noodles and dim sum. But I think I’ll wait until the weather has cooled down for my next visit.
Tim Russell is Director of Sales & Marketing - Asia Pacific at Remote Lands, the world's leading Asia-only ultra-luxe travel designer. Contact him on tim [at] remotelands [dot] com.