Bangkok has a sizeable Chinese community, one that can trace its roots back to before this city became the Thai capital. There was a thriving Chinese trading community here as early as the 16th Century; as trade grew between the two nations so did the number of ethnic Chinese living along the banks of the Chao Phraya River. So much so that I read somewhere that over half of all Thais living in Bangkok can trace their heritage back to Chinese settlers.
When the Thai capital was moved from Ayutthaya to Bangkok in 1782, the Chinese community was moved outside the city walls to the current location around Thanon Yaowarat. Here it flourished and became the capital’s economic powerhouse. The sheen may have been taken off the area by new shopping malls, but you can’t beat Chinatown for authenticity and vibrancy. Vegetarians may want to look away at this stage…
There is nothing more authentic than the food on offer in the markets of Chinatown. This is a foodie paradise, although I freely admit that some of the sights were the polar opposite of appetising. Basically, if it is edible you’ll find it in Chinatown. Absorbing the atmosphere, not to mention the smells, was endlessly fascinating and I could have spent several days wandering around observing the endless flow of humanity.
It isn’t just food that draws people here though, dotted throughout the area are a number of Chinese temples that are small oases of tranquility amidst the pulsating surrounding streets. One of the most important Chinese temples is the lovely Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, located down a side street within a hidden courtyard. So strong is the incense that you can almost smell the temple before you see it.
I never really know how to react in a Buddhist temple, they are frequently a bizarre mixture of calm piety and fairground burlesque which I struggle to reconcile. At Wat Mangkon Kamalawat it was the gaudy statues of the Four Heavenly Kings that greet you inside the entrance that disoriented me; get beyond that though and the temple is a peaceful place where people, young and old, make their devotions.
Founded in 1871, Wat Mangkon Kamalawat translates as Dragon Lotus Temple and is built in classic Chinese style (not that I can tell the difference) with a couple of dragons on the roof. This is the most important Chinese temple in Bangkok and is at the centre of celebrations for Chinese New Year. It has a constant flow of worshippers, outside the courtyard numerous shops sell incense, candles, flowers, fruit and other offerings.