Bangkok’s Chinatown

Photo by Dave Stamboulis

Shophouses, street food and the oldest coffee shop in Bangkok

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Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the more fascinating parts of the city, full of interesting shops, excellent food, and plenty of history. It can be crowded and hectic, but outside of Chinese New Year and the Vegetarian Festival, it isn’t too bad, and definitely well worth a visit. Here’s a walking tour that isn’t too hard to follow, complete with enough pit stops to make for a very pleasant afternoon’s outing in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Take the MRT subway to Hualamphong, site of the main railway terminal and its terminus station. Take Exit 1 over to Rama 4, cross the bridge, and head at a 45 degree angle left onto Wat Traimit Road. This leads down to the giant Wat Traimit, which is famed for its 700 year old 5.5 ton Buddha image, the largest in the world. Hordes of devotees flock here regularly to pay homage and make merit at the Buddha image. If you are wandering in this area at night especially around any festival time, there is a high chance you will see local Chinese opera troupes performing streetside, a beautiful, but seemingly dying art, as the audience consists only of old folks.

Continuing down Traimit Road, one quickly comes to the huge Chinatown Arch, which signals the entry into busy Chinatown. Turning right, the road splits, with Charoen Krung heading right and Yaowarat, Chinatown’s main drag, heading left. Lots of neon lights take over, with fancy shark fin and bird’s nest restaurants lining the sidewalks, along with gold shops and plenty of street vendors selling roast chestnuts and imported fruit from China.

Seafood, coffee and shophouses in Bangkok’s Chinatown

If you continue a few blocks down, past the Chinatown Hotel, you will come to Soi Padungdao. This corner is famed for its several outdoor seafood restaurants, T&K and Lek & Rut, packed every night with tourists and locals, and serving up some of the freshest and cheapest seafood offerings in Bangkok. Giant prawns, squid, sea bass, and piping hot bowls of tom yum get ferried out of a small kitchen half a block away, and diners are seated at communal style tables, so it’s pretty easy to make new friends and have a close look at what delicacies your neighbors are eating.

Whether or not you are hungry, it is worth making a detour down Padungdao one block to Padsai Road and go left half a block to Eiah Sae, which is perhaps the oldest coffee shop in Bangkok. Almost 70 years old, Eiah Sae has been churning out the owner’s great grandparents coffee recipe to an endless array of chain smoking regulars, ranging from old Chinese men to hip young couples looking for an excellent cup of joe. With its Art Deco purple walls and 20 baht café Boran (old style coffee), you can’t go wrong here.

Retracing your steps back up to Yaowarat, hang a left and continue over to the next soi, Plaeng Nam. This atmospheric soi features plenty of quaint Chinese shophouses, vendors pushing their trolleys, and two fantastic open air restaurants opposite one another serving dirt cheap pre-prepared dishes, with a lot of atmosphere to boot.

Bangkok’s Chinatown: wet markets and textiles

Just after the restaurants, you come to busy Charoen Krung Rd. Going left here and crossing the street brings you to Wat Mangkon Kalawat, perhaps Chinatown’s busiest temple. Consistently filled with incense smoke and worshippers waving joss sticks, this place gets incredibly packed out during any Chinese festivals or holidays, and is well worth a visit.

If you recross the street opposite the Wat, you will find the entrance to Trok Itsaranuphap, a single file wet market full of produce, spices, and pungent smells. Recrossing Yaowarat, the market continues several blocks down to Wanit Rd, also known as Sampeng Lane, where you turn right. This is the old Chinese shopping community, moved here after Rama I established his new capital on Rattanakosin Island. This narrow passage is also hopelessly crowded and full of textiles, sewing machines, souvenirs, and plenty of snacks to keep you sated.

From here, you can either retrace your steps to get back to the railway station and subway, or else walk due south to the Chao Phraya River, from where you can board a river ferry to the main Saphin Taksin Pier and skytrain station of the same name.

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