Emerging onto the traffic clogged Thanon Yaowarat after several hours of wandering through Bangkok’s Chinatown, I felt a peculiar mix of exhilaration and exhaustion. The whole experience was a little overwhelming: fascinating, disorienting and disconcerting at the same time. Even at a few weeks distance I retain intense and vivid memories of it. Provided your schedule is flexible walking around Chinatown is a joyful experience.
Chinatown is an undiluted, full-on sensory assault. Wherever you look there is a dizzying amount of activity going on, and try as you might it’s impossible not to get lost amongst the narrow lanes and alleys. Rather than fight the inevitable, it is probably best to surrender yourself to the experience, put the map away and embrace being lost.
All humanity seems to be crammed into the maze-like warren of streets that comprise Chinatown. Streets are packed with people buying and selling, eating and drinking, chatting and praying at the numerous incense infused temples that are hidden down alleyways. To add an element of danger motorbikes and even cars squeeze through the throngs of people on streets barely wide enough to accommodate them.
As with much else in Bangkok, Chinatown is all about the food. I had a breakfast of fresh fruit juice and barbecued pork rice cakes at a street stall; later I found a small restaurant that did delicious jiaozi, baozi and shumai dim sum. Everywhere I turned there was food being cooked and eaten, but it is the stalls selling fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and all manner of herbs and spices that catch the eye and fill the nostrils.
There were definitely sights and smells I wish I hadn’t experienced, seeing various bits of animals on sale for food or medicine rank high on the list. I know it happens, but I still find it a bit of a shock to see shark fins for sale. That you can still find these things is an indication that Chinatown today is as authentic as it was a hundred or even two hundred years ago. I didn’t see rhino horn or tiger parts but I imagine they can be found.
Chinatown remains one of Bangkok’s few neighbourhoods that hasn’t as yet been gentrified; or blighted by the type of urban development that has seen many of the city’s historic areas swept away, to be replaced by high rise buildings and modern shopping malls. Yet the relentless pace of Bangkok’s growth and development make this a very real threat – another anodyne shopping mall is just what the world needs.
It would be a crying shame if the raw, unadulterated nature of the district, not to mention many livelihoods, were to be destroyed just so a few well connected developers can make a killing on the property market. The sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown will live with me for a long time, it would be unforgivable if others weren’t able to enjoy that same experience in future.