Bustling Yaowarat Road and its surroundings are packed with maritime history, food, and shopping
It’s the Year of the Rooster (or ‘Fire Chicken’), and though the Chinese New Year celebrations have subsided, Bangkok’s Chinatown remains an exciting and sprawling neighbourhood all year round. While it’s often considered a foodie’s haven—with its myriad of markets, street vendors and restaurants—the area around Yaowarat Road is also one of the city’s oldest and most historical neighbourhoods, originally formed when King Rama I moved the capital of the kingdom from Thonburi (on the west side) to Rattanakosin (the east side of the river) in 1782. Chinese immigrants, who had originally settled in the latter, had to move to make way for the construction of the Grand Palace. They resettled in what is today’s Chinatown, covering a large area around Yaowarat and Charoenkrung Roads.
The easiest ways to reach this part of town are either taking the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Ratchawong Pier, or the MRT to Hua Lamphong station. And because it would be nearly impossible in one article to properly profile the entire area that is officially known as Chinatown, we’ve concentrated on a representative “square”, right in the heart of this exciting neighbourhood.
If you arrive by boat, just head north and then take a right onto the narrow and bustling alleyway known as Soi Wanit 1, or Sampeng Lane. Before Yaowarat Road became the main thoroughfare, this used to be Chinatown’s centre and Sampeng Lane Market is still one of Bangkok’s biggest wholesale markets. Divided into sections, you’ll find everything from cheap clothing and shoes, to jewellery, toys, gold, electronic goods, and so on. The market is open until around 6pm, and it can get very busy during the afternoon, with carts and motorbikes trying to squeeze past tourists, locals, and a horde of shoppers.
If you are ready for a break, take a left onto Yaowarat Road and continue walking east until you reach the large glass front of Double Dogs Tea Room on your right. This air-conditioned, and minimalistic furnished tea house is a welcome and calming oasis amidst the hubbub of Chinatown. Specializing in teas from China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Japan, herbal brews are taken very serious here and are served in miniature ceramic tea pots or larger bone china cups. The menu is educative and easy to read for those who are newcomers to the world of tea. To accompany the brews, you can choose from a selection of Chinese and Western desserts.
Another option to refuel your energy is at Easae (Eiah Sae), an almost century-old shophouse café located on Phat Sai Road. Sparsely decorated, with a few pictures on yellowish walls and dark wooden tables, this authentic and traditional coffeeshop is a favourite hangout for grandpas who sit outside smoking and playing chess. Enjoy wallet-friendly hot and cold beverages, including Thai milk tea and Thai iced coffee, or dig into some homemade bread slathered with condensed milk, orange jam, or egg custard.
Next up, walk until the end of the road and take a right at Song Sawat Road, where you’ll find Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawihan. This ancient temple from the Ayutthaya period was formerly surrounded by a moat connecting to the Chao Phraya River, giving it the name Wat Koh (Temple on the Island). In 1796, King Rama I
renovated the entire temple, and later—during the reign of King Rama IV—the name was changed to honour Prince Samphanthaong, King Rama I’s son who founded the temple. Surrounded by trees, and an old Thai-style wooden house, it offers a relaxed sanctuary a little off the beaten track.
Continue your exploration into Chinatown’s past by strolling along Song Wat Road. Thanks to its many alleys (leading to piers) this road was once the centre for commercial maritime trade—connecting Bangkok, Chonburi, Ban Don, and Suratthani provinces, as well as many other ports, and facilitating the transportation of foods, herbs, and spices to the city. Today the street is lined with beautiful, nineteenth century buildings, decorated with stucco in floral and fruit motifs, and anchored with Corinthian pillars. A little further on, you’ll pass Luang Kocha Itsahak Mosque, which was built around 1895 by Muslim traders. Constructed in neo-Palladian style, it’s reminiscent of villas in Northern Italy.
The best time to experience the real Chinatown, however, is when dusk sets in and Yaowarat Rd turns into a huge food-centric thoroughfare, with hundreds of stalls taking up every available space. Favourites—for good reasons—include T&K Seafood and L&R Seafood restaurants, on the corner of Phadung Dao Road (Soi Texas). Both restaurants—the former in green and the latter clad in red—open in the late afternoon, and are always packed with locals and tourists alike, queuing up to taste their delicious seafood-centred dishes.
While the hippest bars in this general area are found along Soi Nana—a short, four minute walk east from Yaowarat Rd—there is a cool option closer at hand where one can finish off a fun day in this district. Walk east along Yaowarat until you reach Shanghai Mansion Bangkok, a beautiful boutique hotel with an open-air bar called the Shanghai Terrace. From a vantage point overlooking energetic Yaowarat, this cool hangout turns into a laidback lounge from 7:30pm onwards with live jazz music every night except Mondays.
Photos by Julia Offenberger