Monday, January 13, 2014

Up/Down Chinatown

Regular contributor John Borthwick wanders Chinatown’s fascinating Yaowarat Road.

With its Blade Runner alleys, sidewalk astrologers, herbalists, goldsmiths and cheek-by-jowl eateries, teeming Yaowarat Road could be nowhere but in Chinatown. Yet not just any Chinatown. Bangkok’s, it is claimed, is South-east Asia’s largest.

In Feng Shui terms, Yaowarat Road is a “golden dragon area”, an ideal place for doing business. Five minutes on the street demonstrates the point. With Chinatown sprawling between, and beyond, Yaowarat and Charoenkrung roads, the whole place seems programmed to perpetually buy and sell, sell and buy, not to mention eat, drink and run.

Guess what part of town you're in?

The side sois off Yaowarat are microcosms of Sino-Thai enterprise, specialising in textiles, flowers, furniture or electronics, and everything else from hat-racks to rat-traps. Soi Itsara Nuphap 167, for instance, runs between Yaowarat and Charoenkrung. Enter it and you’ll think you’ve stepped into a Blade Runner set, minus the humidity and homicides. Breathe in, inch forward and by the end, several hundred metres later (and however long it takes), you’ve sampled a universe.

This being Chinatown, you’re never far from food — be it a street stall, cafĂ© or restaurant — that offers respite from the intensity. On Santhipaab Road (No. 539) you’ll find excellent fried oyster omelettes at the little Nai Mon Hoi Thod eatery. When evening falls, footpath restaurants spring up along Yaowarat to provide you with a progressive feast of sea- and every other kind of food. Walk, stop and sample, then do it again; and also do the right thing by skipping the eco-uncool shark-fin and birds-nest soups.

Nai Mon Hoi Thod - delicious!

Not the easiest of finger foods...

Chinese settlers came to Thailand in numbers during the Sukhothai period (1238-1438) and their history in this Rattanakosin area dates back to even before the establishment of Bangkok in 1782. Much later, King Rama V encouraged more Chinese commercial trade and at that time ordered the construction of several main roads here, including Yaowarat in 1891. Bangkok’s Chinatown, one of the oldest overseas Chinese communities in the world, now covers about two square kilometres. Its maze of alleys, often redolent of herbs, incense, perfume and stir-fry, is also a business and commercial centre vital to the Thai economy.

Pics: John Borthwick, 2014

Yaowarat Road flows day and night like an asphalt Yangtze and its taxis, tuk-tuks, cars and pedestrians jostle with a fast-forward urgency, but not all is stress and getting. Shanghai Mansion Hotel, at 479, was built in 1892 and in its eventful life has been a Chinese opera house, stock exchange, textile trading house and department store. Pop in and check out the lobby’s chinoiserie — red sofas, lanterns, checkers and decorative screens — all paying homage to Deco-decadent 1930’s Shanghai. If you feel like staying, there are themed suites that have names like Cherry Blossom Havens.

You can reach Chinatown on foot from Hualamphong station (a 10-minute walk) or from Ratchawong Pier (via Ratchawong Road and Sampaeng Lane to Yaowarat). It is a world apart from Bangkok’s familiar Sukumvit-Silom-Khao San axis.

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