Bangkok Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, and it’s as old as the city itself. Chinatown is at the bottom of Rattanakosin Island, which is the historic part of the city by the Chao Phraya River. Even without the Chinese-themed stores there is a distinct feel to this area compared to central Bangkok. Part of that is because there are few high rise apartments here, and there is no metro system (yet).
On my last few visits to Bangkok I’ve been spending more time in Chinatown. The nearest metro station is Hua Lamphong which sits on the boundary of Rattanakosin. Once you cross the canal next to the station you are in the old city.
For first-time visitors a good place to start is to follow the red heritage walking signs. That will take you around the most interesting parts of the area if you are limited for time. For this trip I was just wandering around side streets to see what I’ve missed on previous trips.
While it’s still called Chinatown, it’s becoming less so every year. There is a new Chinatown in Huai Khwang that probably has a better claim to the title now. That area is home to the Chinese Embassy, and new Chinese arrivals are more likely to go there. Old Chinatown though remains as the far more visually appealing area.
While the many temples are worthy of a visit, I delight in the little things like old shop signs.
New buildings can’t replicate the weathered charm of old shops.
And there are tempting alleyways that kept luring me off the main roads.
Previously I stayed at the Shanghai Mansion, which is one of the coolest theme hotels I’ve stayed at. It’s on Yarawat Road and it’s styled in 1930’s Shanghai.
This time I stayed in a guesthouse for four nights so I could explore the area at night.
There are many new guesthouses and hostels opening up, making it an appealing alternative to Khao San Road. I stayed at La Locanda near Soi Na Na, which is not to be confused with the more infamous Soi Nana of Sukhumvit 4.
The relatively cheap rents in heritage buildings has provided a fertile environment for hipster bars and independent stores to open up. You can see that there is a cool scene emerging here, which will no doubt become so popular that the rents explode and then kill what made it popular in the first place.
Chinatown has always been a bit of a cafe wasteland, so I was also happy to see some cool cafes in the area now. As.is on 45 Rama IV Rd was one of my favourites.
Part of my motivation visit to Chinatown has been to document the changes happening, before the metro arrives. The mass transit system of Bangkok is expanding, and the Blue MRT line is being extended from Hua Lamphong through Rattanakosin. It will have a stop at Chinatown (Wat Mangkon station) and near the Grand Palace. This will change the way tourists see the city as well, as you could stay on Sukhumvit Road and get the metro to the biggest tourist attraction in one train trip.
You can already see signs of gentrification on Charoen Krung Rd, near the future Wat Mangkon metro station. There’s an apartment and Holiday Inn Express development under construction, along with previously unseen chain stores.
At the western edge of Chinatown is Khlong Rop Muang (Khlong Ong Ang), which is a typical Bangkok canal filled with black goop. Apparently Bangkok has more canals than Venice, though you wouldn’t know in the inner city as they have been covered up. The canal is being renovated with new walkways added on the side.
Khlong Rop Muang forms the boundary of Chinatown and Little India. The Little India of Bangkok is not a distinct area like in Penang or Kuala Lumpur. You will just notice more Indian market stores and budget hotels catering for Indian wholesalers.
There are some great Indian restaurants here in the little alleys by the canal. Maybe with this canal restoration a more attractive Little India precinct can be created.
Further along Yarowat Rd there is a street lined with old shophouses that is being renovated. It’s encouraging to see they have been renovated rather than demolished.
Another motivation to base myself in Chinatown was to eat all the things. On one of my walks along Yarowat Road I noticed a large queue forming outside an old cinema. It was a pork noodle soup stand that had recently won a Michelin award. I made a note to visit earlier the next day to avoid the queue.
I got there at 5.25pm and secured the last spare seat. Within minutes a queue had started to form in front. I didn’t know what time it opened so I was fortunate in my timing.
Like all good food outlets this place didn’t have a name, just a sign just said “Chinese Noodle Pork Soup”. I looked it up afterwards and the name is Kuay Jab Uan Pochana. Even if I didn’t see the queue I would have been enticed by this pile of crispy pork.
After a half an hour wait they started serving soups, and I can now say that if you are going to queue it is worth the wait. An amazing soup for 50 baht.
Another Michelin street eat is Pa Tong Go Savoey, which I was drawn to by another crowd.
This deep-fried Chinese dough is a popular snack which is delicious as soon as it is taken out of the fryer. By the time I got to the last piece though I was regretting my life choices.
Another famous place is Nai Rk Roll Noodle, which also had a queue. By this point I was queued out, so I will have to go on another visit.
Also on Yarowat Road among the street vendors are two sweet stalls that serve black sesame dumplings in ginger soup. I have been known to make a cross-city journey to Chinatown just to have a bowl of this sweet delicious soup.
I passed another stall that had a long queue but I couldn’t see what they were queueing for. I asked a guy at the end of the queue, and he just joined the queue and didn’t know what it was either.
The most popular activity in Chinatown (by my unscientific reckoning) appeared to be taking a selfie in front of the street signs of Yarowat Rd.
The metro line is expected to open in September 2019, so it will be interesting to see how that changes Chinatown in the future.