A Year in Bangkok – A Visit to Chinatown

27 03 2011

Welcome to Chinatown.

One of the little jobs for me during school holidays is to stock up on small treats for the children at school. Smiley stickers, which I use in wall charts of their marks and other stickers which are the smallest of rewards for doing something right. Tiny prizes for games and competitions such as pencil sharpeners, rubbers (if you’re from the USA I mean erasers), key rings and other such stuff. Then there are the things I keep already gift wrapped for when it is somebody’s birthday – sets of crayons, pencil cases and such like. The best place to buy things like that is Chinatown. For example, a pack of six Winnie the Pooh pencil cases with contents costs one hundred and fifty baht in Chinatown. Just one of those costs a hundred and forty two baht in my local Tesco Lotus supermarket.

One of the many side streets.

This is almost the height of summer here and temperatures are normally sky high but we are presently enjoying unseasonally cool weather. In fact, we’ve just experienced Bangkok’s coldest day for twenty years. That meant it was a good time to head off to Chinatown for my supplies. The Chinatown in Bangkok was established in 1782 when the Chinese population was moved here from the area now called Ratanakosin Island. That was done by the royal government in order to make way for the new capital. Many people will tell you that you can, quite literally, buy anything in Chinatown and maybe that is true. In the late nineteenth century, a census claimed that Chinatown had 245 opium dens, 154 pawnshops, 69 gambling establishments and 26 brothels. Only the pawnshops operate within the law now and you will see plenty of them there. All the others still exist of course, but they are now ‘underground’. Opium dens have largely given way to back street heroin dealers but a handful can still be found. I was taken to one on my second visit to the area and was pleasantly surprised by the smell of the stuff, which reminded me of newly mown grass.  Some of the restaurants have upstairs rooms where you can join an illegal card game and lose all your money and the brothels are now called ‘tea halls’ or ‘rong nam chaa’. My spell check is telling me here that I have invented the word ‘unseasonally’. If that is true, I can only claim that it is a good word which should have been around for a long time!

Crowded little alleys.

It is highly unlikely that you will be aware of the seedier side of life in Chinatown if you visit there. Chinatown is a small area next to the river and near Hua Lamphong station. There are a few main roads here, most notably Yaowarat and Thanon Ratchawong and countless little alleys. I love the little alleys, some of which are barely wide enough for two people to pass in. When I lived in town, I could get there by taking a boat along the canal to Saphan Panfah and it was then about a twenty minute walk. Now that I am out of town, it is a major excursion and laziness led me to take a taxi there. To do that yourself, just ask the driver to take you to Sampeng.


Dark and narrow.

My Lonely Planet details a really good walking tour of Chinatown which I tried on my first visit. My second visit was with somebody who knew the area well and, since then, I have found it best to go alone – that way I get to do what I like. I love wandering through the crowded little alleys drinking in the sights. Old men with whispy grey beards, Muslim women with headscarves, Indian boys with gelled hair and new clothes, holy men of every imaginable creed, people everywhere selling their wares and trying to make a living in this unforgiving place and of course people like me; the voyeurs and customers. That’s why today was a good day to go – those little alleys soon get very hot and an hour is often enough time to spend wandering along them. Many of these alleys are never touched by sunlight and, despite usually having an excellent sense of direction, I often get lost here. Emerging onto a main road, I love the all-too-brief sensation of being lost before starting to get my bearings again. In today’s cooler weather, I trolled around for three hours before heading off to my favourite bit of Chinatown for food. It is a small part called Little India and is very difficult to find – most of the locals don’t even know it. But, with the aid of a good map, I found it a few years ago and always eat there when I go to Chinatown now. Today I had samosas, rice, butter chicken, dahl, and nan bread – all for just one hundred and twenty five baht – that’s two pounds fifty. It would have cost a lot more just half an hour away in town!

Welcome to Little India

I reckoned there must be a way back home along the river so I got a boat as far as they go which wasn’t really much use. However, it did put me into a part of Bangkok I have never visited before. The final stop was Wat Singkorn, a lovely little temple where they had just completed the work on a new Buddha statue and were busy getting ready for a temple fair to celebrate that. Walking through the temple to the nearest road, I found myself in a Muslim area with delightful old wooden shop-houses fronting the road, many of them selling old fashioned traditional goods and foodstuffs. It was a lovely area to wander through but really deserves a day on its own. By then I had spotted a landmark I recognized and realized that getting home was going to be quite complicated after all so, being of faint heart, I jumped into another taxi and headed homewards.

Lovely old wooden shop-houses.



2 responses

28 03 2011

I love to travel and I really enjoy reading your blog very much. Thanks for sharing this post. Feel free to check out our website.

Top Vacation Travel Tips

30 03 2011
Ben Salmons

Glad you enjoy it. Some good common-sense tips from you too!

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