Chinatown Bangkok was started when King Rama I decided in 1782 to establish the new capital Bangkok on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. The Chinese immigrants who were originally settled in the area that is now the Grand Palace had to move out to a strip of land a kilometre down the river. Over the years the settlement grew. Today, Chinatown Bangkok or Yaowarat covers a square bounded by Phadung Krung Kasem Canal to the east, the Ong Ang Canal to the west, Luang Road to the north and the Chao Phraya River to the south, an area of about 2 sq km. The casual visitor to Chinatown would probably only have the time and energy to cover the main street Yaowarat Road where most of the activities are concentrated. The other road of interest is Rachawong Road which is off Yaowarat Road.
If you are coming to Chinatown by road the most convenient way to start your tour of this Bangkok legacy is to take the subway to the Hua Lam Phong station located on the eastern bank of the Phadung Krung Kasem Canal. Nearby is the Hua Lam Phong railway station from which trains travel to every part of Thailand. Across the road from the train station is Traimit Road where the famous Wat Traimit or Temple of the Golden Buddha stands. This wat houses a 3 m high Buddha made of more than 5 tonnes of gold! Within the same compound as Wat Traimit, is the Saphanthawong Museum a community museum dedicated to the early Chinese immigrants in Bangkok. Outside the main entrance of Wat Traimit is a traffic island on which stands a huge Chinese arched gate, the Odeon Gate, built in 1999 to mark the 72nd birthday of King Bhumipol, the present king. This gate marks the start of Yaowarat Road and the walking tour of the rest of Chinatown.
Yaowarat Road, the main street in Chinatown Bangkok, was built in the reign of King Rama V. The crowded street winds through bustling heart of Chinatown like a mythical dragon rearing its head at the Odeon Gate. Shop signs in both Thai and Chinese give the visitor a clear indication that he's in Chinatown. The street is lined with ubiquitous goldsmith shops, sharks' fin and birds nest restaurants, shops and vendors selling Chinese herbal medicine, dried mushrooms, salted fish, roast duck, Chinese calendars, almanacs and of course, lottery tickets. The avid bargain hunter would have a ball a time browsing through the shops and stalls. Every year during the Chinese New Year, Yaowarat Road is closed to traffic for street festivities, lion dances and food fairs.
A member of the royal family attends the occasion every year much to the joy and pride of the Yaowarat community. Most of the bigger hotels in Chinatown are located along Yaowarat Road. The most prominent however is the Grand China Princess at the Ratchawong junction, right in the heart of Chinatown, overlooking the old city and the Chao Phraya. About a kilometer down Yaowarat Road turn left into Ratchawong Road another street full of vendors selling everything from stickers, deep-fried snacks to roasted chestnuts. Ratchawong Road has two significant landmarks in Chinatown.
Fifty metres after turning into Rachawong Road you'll encounter a tall Chinese arch to a narrow soi on the left. During the Lunar New Year in 2004, this soi, Soi Phalittaphon, was renamed Soi Sun Yat Sen, after the father of the Chinese revolution who visited Chinatown Bangkok in 1908, during his tour of South East Asia to raise money from the overseas Chinese for the revolution. Walking through this narrow soi, the visitor would have to cope with the crowds of shoppers and the frequent passage of vehicles. The shops and stalls along this packed soi sell a wide variety of goods and even Christmas trees.
Further along Rachawong Road is an even narrower soi to the right. The soi is so congested that it's barely passable to human traffic. Packed with stalls on either side, it would take a very determined shopper to weave his way through. It's difficult to imagine that this is the famous Soi Sampheng or Soi Wanit where the original Chinese settlers first moved in and started Chinatown in 1782. At the end of Rachawong Road is the Rachawong Pier on the Chao Phraya River.
If you are coming by boat, this is the pier to alight and start your of Chinatown in reverse. If you have arrived by road, you may wish to leave by boat for a change. A tour of Chinatown Bangkok provides a fascinating insight into a very different way of life. The busy streets are a melting pot of communities engaging in trade and commerce at every level - a legacy of the early Chinese immigrants and their enterprise. .
By: Eric Lim