Bangkok’s Chinatown is a fascinating, contradictory and endlessly fun part of this teeming megalopolis, and one that many travellers tend to overlook. Get all the information you need about exploring this part of Thailand’s capital city here.
Bangkok is a huge,teeming pulsating metropolis with so many things to see and do, and has been a popular hub for backpackers for decades now. Despite this popularity in many ways Bangkok is such a vast city it is hardly surprising that even with so much tourism in the city there are parts that few travellers still visit.
Chinatown – known locally as Yaowarat – is a truly unique and distinctive part of Bangkok, and is definitely one of those rare and hidden parts of the city where you can still go to escape large parts of the tourist hordes, not entirely, but still.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is very much a working one, with every bit of space not taken up by shopfronts, cars and vendors filled with flashing neon Chinese characters, flamboyantly garish gold shops and crowds of locals that is enough to give anyone a touch of claustrophobia, and even by Bangkok’s standards, Chinatown is a huge assault on the senses, but everything you could want or need as a traveller you will generally find here.
Relatively Tourist Free.
One exception to that rule is tourists. One thing you won’t find here is an absolute abundance of travellers. Don’t get me wrong they are there, but just not at the same level as they are in other areas of Bangkok, and believe me that is very much a good thing.
Perhaps helped by the ring of permanently gridlocked traffic that often completely surrounds the area and seemingly acts like some sort of defensive wall preventing anyone from getting in, Chinatown does not feel as overrun with tourism as many other areas, and as a result has a much more local, and as a result, natural feel.
You can wander down entire streets where shops and vendors are there to service locals, not tourists, which in Bangkok has become a rarity in and of itself. You can explore at your leisure without being constantly bombarded with touts, and get yourself completely lost in the labyrinthine sois and and side streets, safe in the knowledge that it really isn’t difficult to get your bearings.
Chinatown is not all that big, and it can be easily explored on foot, once you get past the crowds of course.
Despite it’s relatively diminutive size, Chinatown has a huge amount of sites and attractions packed into it that are more than worth exploring. Like any Chinatown the best place to start is always the Chinatown Gateway. This traditional arch marks the official start of Chinatown and is a great place to start any walking tour.
Close by is Wat Traimit, a generally nice but unremarkable temple but it is what is inside that is worth seeing. The worlds largest solid gold Buddha statue. This alone makes the short pilgrimage to the complex more than worth it, but it is also worth setting extra time aside to visit the Yeowarat Heritage Centre inside the same complex to get a deeper glimpse into the history, the culture and the people of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
But perhaps Chinatown’s biggest draw is its nightlife, which is when the area really explodes into life. The already packed streets fill up even more with vendors and street food stalls of all kinds and you could easily fill night after night just wandering through the crowds sampling food and browsing through the stalls.
If like me you like a bit of electro swing and have fantasies of 1920s Shanghai, the awesome bar and restaurant at the Shanghai Mansion hotel has live jazz and swing acts most nights and is a perfect respite from the crowded streets. The food is very pricey here and the drinks aren’t far behind, but it is worth getting dressed up just for one night for the ambiance.
It isn’t all perfect however. Given Chinatown’s reputation as being a foodie haven in a city already famous for its food, I was actually surprised and disappointed by the fact that most of the food options were – well – bad!! And that is one thing I never thought I’d say about Bangkok.
If you look around a bit there are some great food stalls selling some amazing pad thai and spring roles as well as the obligatory fruit juices. These are cheap and tasty as all hell! There are even a few inventive desert stalls that are worth checking out.
The big problem is that the majority (and by that read almost all) of the restaurants and the eateries sold shark fin and birds nest products, both of which I have huge problems with on ethical grounds and absolutely refuse to support or patronize in any way.
This really limited my eating options in Chinatown and meant that for my entire stay there I was limited to the same couple of street stalls, and as good as they were that is not what the foodie experience in Bangkok should be like!
Don’t let that completely put you off the area though.
In essence, Chinatown is a surprisingly off the beaten path part of an extremely touristy city, and one that will throw up more than a few surprises for anyone who takes the time to explore it.
I loved my time exploring this part of Bangkok, and apart from the shark fin soup problem and having to go elsewhere to eat, it was genuinely a fascinating experience. The one thing Bangkok does, no matter how many times I visit, is manage to always surprise me with something new.
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I’ve been to Bangkok a couple of times now, I’ve never been here though which is surprising!
Actually Sarah it is quite understandable, Bangkok is so huge and so sprawling that it can take years of short trips to cover most of it, and even then you will find that you’ve missed out quite a lot!
Thanks for sharing this amazing post, this area of this beautiful city looks very alluring in these photographs.
Thanks for reading. 🙂
Is that shark fin soup really everywhere? So sad! I would never go anywhere that supports that supposed delicacy.
Unfortunately it is Natalie yes, and the thing is you will find it in a lot of places all over south east Asia, the problem I had here in Chinatown was that it was SO prevalent that there were very few alternatives. I would never support any business that sells them either, so I spent a lot of my time there limited to a few Pad Thai street stalls or heading away from Chinatown to eat. It was quite sad.
I lived in Bangkok for 8 years and I made a few trips to Chinatown. I absolutely hated the place. It always seemed 10 degrees hotter and 10 times more crowded than already crowded Bangkok. It is an interesting place to be sure. Just not my cup of tea. Nice story though. 😉
Thanks very much, it certainly isn’t for everyone I agree.
It is far from my favourite part of Bangkok but I do enjoy visiting from time to time, especially at night for the food.
There are some great Pad Thai stalls there!
I have never read about this side of Bangkok before, definitely adding it to my list!
Not many backpackers get to this part of the city Louise, unless they are staying /exploring long term. It is definitely worth visiting though!
Love Chinatown! Always a fun experience.
It really is!