Bangkok's Chinatown - A Walk Around Yaowarat Road
Bangkok's Chinatown brings back a lot of fond memories to me. Because I grew up, went to school and made many Chinese-American friends while living in New York City's Manhattan Chinatown neighborhood. I was introduced early on to Chinese culture. My babysitters and neighbors in our apartment complex were all Chinese. I even learned how to speak the Cantonese dialect, though not as perfect as I'd like.
Currently since the weather is coolest during December in Bangkok I took advantage of the low humidity and made several trips into the city's own colorful Chinatown. Though Bangkok's Chinatown is smaller compared to New York City's its atmosphere and culture is unmistakable. There is a huge presence of Chinese heritage as seen by the shops, foods and ornate temples dedicated to Chinese deities spread throughout the town.
The Chinese in their own right has a culture rich history that runs deep in the Kingdom of Thailand. Both cultures were so similar that the assimilation into each others society blended effortlessly. And today there is a large portion of Thais who can claim Chinese heritage. Even the Thai language has similar vocabulary with Chinese Hokkai dialect. Chinese shops and businesses have Chinese signage as well so that the roots are unmistakable.
The Chinatown we see today is not at its original location though it's just as old. The original Chinatown though was not far at all, just northeast where today the Grand Palace stands. It was King Rama I who had ordered the Chinese settlement at the time to be moved to its current location right right by the bend of the Chao Phraya River. From there the resilient Chinese re-established themselves and prospered successfully to this day.
If you want to learn more about the Chinese in Bangkok you can check out my hub on Wat Traimit. It's a popular temple right next to the Chinatown gate that has a new museum with exhibits and information about the history between the Chinese and Thais.
Every major city with a Chinatown seems to have a popular road that runs right through it. In New York City it's Canal Street. Well in Bangkok it's Yaowarat Road. Yaowarat Road is the heartbeat of Bangkok's Chinatown linking all the alleys together.
Yaowarat is not a big or long avenue at all. You can walk through it in about 15 minutes, barring foot traffic of course. The streets are lined with jewelry stores selling gold, old Chinese medicine shops and restaurants selling exotic foods like shark fin and bird's nest soup. Then you have the street hawkers and side street shops. Mix that all together and there really is not that much space to walk at all. But that's part of the fun. When Yaowarat becomes so congested you might have to take a walk through one of the many side streets. And you might see something you never expected to see or find. It is always nice to be pleasantly surprised.
How to get to Chinatown
The main access to Chinatown by car is called Yaowarat Road. With so many smaller roads leading to Yaowarat Road a bottle neck of sorts is created so traffic in the area is a nightmare, not that traffic throughout the city is any better. Coming to Chinatown by taxi especially during the weekends is not recommended as you can expect to be stuck in traffic for at least an hour.
If you are not staying anywhere near Chinatown then here are 2 of the best ways to get there:
- River Express Ferry Boat
- Take the MRT underground train to Hua Lumphong station
Taking the river express ferry boat is what I like to call the scenic route. And there are many ferry stops on the Chao Phraya River. But if you're staying in central Bangkok the best way to get to a ferry stop is to take the BTS Sky Train to Saphan Taksin station.
From there take the orange flagged ferry boats. These are the Express River Ferry Boats and as of writing cost 14 baht per person. Fares are purchased on the boat and paid to a conductor. Keep in mind you have to catch the boat heading north. If you need there is an information table near the ferry entrance. Disembark at Ratchawongse Pier and continue walking down for about 10 minutes or until you see the Grand China Princess Hotel (it's big so you can't miss it) and you will have reached the north end of Yaowarat road.
Taking the MRT underground train to Chinatown is of course the less scenic route, however, it is the quickest. But the station is not exactly right on the doorsteps of Chinatown. Though you can walk there and while on the way can visit Wat Traimit Temple in about 15 minutes. Once you see the Chinatown Gate (pictured right) then you've reached where Yaowarat Road begins. Or you can hop on a tuk tuk which should cost about 30-40 baht depending on the driver. If you find a driver asking more I'd find another tuk tuk.
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Even though Chinatown is not centrally located staying in a hotel in the area will put you closer to many of the Thai heritage attractions than staying in central Bangkok where most of the super deluxe shopping centers are.
Chinatown is close to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho Temple and Thai museums too. It's not a walkable distance but you can take a taxi or my favorite mode of transportation the express river boat ferry to get to those places easily and more quickly.
And even if you do like a little taste of the shopping scene in central Bangkok (20 minute train ride) or the massive Chatuchack Weekend Market (30 minute train ride) just use the MRT underground train at Hua Lumphong station, which is a short tuk tuk ride from Yaowarat Road.
Bangkok's Chinatown is certainly unique even through the long history that the Chinese and Thais share in the Kingdom. I miss New York at times and the funny thing is whenever I take a walk through Bangkok's Chinatown I get a little sense that I'm back home, wandering the streets from which I grew up early on.
The Chinatown here in Bangkok is a wonderful place to explore. Just take a wander through the side alleys. Take a glance into a temple and you will see centuries old traditions. Or sample some of the yummy delights served by hawkers and side street restaurants who are passionate about the foods they create.
And with Chinese New Year in Thailand coming up soon in early February, it will be an exciting and even better reason to take a walk through Yaowarat Road again.
Chinatown is a must see destination and is worthy of at least one full day in the land of smiles.
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