A Walk in Chinatown Bangkok – Things to see in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Temple Bangkok Chinatown

You may get lost whilst in Bangkok’s Chinatown, but you’ll never have any doubt about where you are.

The rows of shophouses sell coffins and traditional medicine side by side (are they trying to tell you something?), restaurants display glistening cooked ducks on hooks in the window and scarlet paper lanterns sway in the breeze above your head.

Chinatown Bangkok Street

Every tourist who visits Bangkok wants to check out Chinatown, the chance to visit two countries in one. Despite its riot of colours and smells, I find it a frustrating place to visit. There are plenty of gems to see here of course, but they are scattered, hidden down small alleyways or up a flight of suspicious looking stairs.

If you are looking for a great map of Chinatown, I recommend Nancy Chandler, whose beautiful hand sketched creations bring the best of Bangkok  to your fingertips.

Armed with this, you can track down the temple crocodile pond, negotiate your way down Sampang Lane dodging motorbikes and men with carts filled with fresh rambutans and try out some of the tastiest Dim Sum at a local restaurant that last looks like it was renovated in 1973.

For the latest updates check out nancychandler.net – the map is only released every few years, but the team keep their eyes open and their ears to the ground. If you stumble across something awesome, you can be pretty sure that Nancy has been there first.

Market Bangkok Chinatown

Food Bangkok Chinatown

Shopping is a little hit and miss in Chinatown. I love the traditional tea sets that are sold by the dozen and picking up some roasted chestnuts from the carts that line Yarrowat Road. Unsurprisingly it’s also a great place to buy fake goods, direct from the factories in China.

If you are in the market for some gold bling, Bangkok’s Chinatown is considered one of the top spots in the world to pick up high quality precious metal. Many of the ornate pieces that you will see on display are destined to make up the dowry at traditional Thai and Chinese weddings.

Market Bangkok Chinatown Chinatown Bangkok

I tend not to visit Chinatown very often, unless I am with visitors. In the past few weeks I have been there twice, but until the underground extension opens in 2016 it isn’t particularly easy to get to, and whether I take a taxi, boat or train it often takes an hour and half to get there from my house.

It does seem like such a waste though! I am lucky enough to have such an interesting neighbourhood so close, but too lazy to get out there and explore it in-depth. Zebra Bangkok

Best New Rooftop Bar in Bangkok – Octave Sukhumvit

Sukhumvit Road from Ocatve Rooftop

The people who say Bangkok doesn’t need a new rooftop bar haven’t visited Octave on Sukhumvit 57. Opened in late April 2013, it is easily my favourite rooftop in the city, and not just because it’s less that ten blocks from my house. Split over three levels and starting on the 45th floor, they have really let the view do the talking. Cocktails start at 350 baht, beers start at 170 baht and there is a decent selection of wines by the glass. For me, Octave is the best rooftop bar in Bangkok, and as someone who’s visited them all, I don’t make this statement lightly.

Octave Rooftop is only a few minutes walk from Thong Lor Sky Train inside the Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit. Head through the lobby and the lifts are towards the back, just past the Chocolate Cake Company (note to self – return to sample goods).

The bar is cool and funky but not totally pretentious. On the first floor is the lounge area, comfortable seats and booths, a great place to hang if you are coming with a group friends and enjoy Octave Rooftop Bar’s amazing views at the same time. When planning their seating arrangements they have done their best to ensure that most visitors get an uninterrupted view of Bangkok. The DJ on the 45th floor plays chilled out music, and for those with families, children over 12 are welcome on this level until 20:00. I’m convinced plenty of teenagers would be very impressed with the view, although I am less sure how ecstatic those here on a romantic date would be to share their space with kids (thankfully they are banned from the upper floors).

Head up one level and you reach a long bar that glows blue. There are a handful of tables here, but it does feel more like a pit-stop on your way to the main event than a stand alone space. Octave Rooftop have really made the most of Bangkok’s vista, and on the first two floors it wraps around the building, giving you 180 degree views. Whilst the bar area is edgy, the walls are panelled in blonde wood adding a softness that makes the space seem much more welcoming.

Up another flight of stairs you head to the best bit of this Bangkok rooftop, an amazing 360 degree space that makes you feel like you are on top of the world.

360 Bar Bangkok

There is definitely more of a party vibe on the 47th floor, with a DJ booth and space to mingle. Music here could been anything between mash ups of Oasis / Green Day and the latest chart hits. But for me, the best part of this rooftop was that on every floor there was nothing but a thin pane of glass between me and Bangkok. The view from up here is rather marvellous.  I recommend you head on up to Octave Rooftop Bar now before the rest of Bangkok discover it.

Rooftop Bangkok

Closure of Rod Fai Market – Bangkok Train Market

Night Market Bangkok

Update August 2013: Talat Rot Fai is now located in Srinakarin Soi 51, behind Seacon Square. No close transport links – probably best to take a taxi – or a sky train to Punnawithi station then a cab. Most taxis drivers will recognise the name Seacon Square.

Late one night this week, JCBs rolled into Bangkok Train Market (Rod Fai) and started demolishing the structures there. Although the developers and stall owners had been in discussions for a while about the market’s future, no-one who works at one of Bangkok’s most popular night markets was expecting things to take such a dramatic turn. Nothing stands in the way of Thailand’s relentless march for development.

Rod Fai Market was easily one of my favourite late night shopping spots. It opened Friday to Sunday evening and sold a quirky, crazy mix of vintage clothing, Batman statues and cheap, hot, tasty food. Located near Chatuchak Weekend Market, it had become extremely popular for those looking for somewhere alternative to shop.

The extension of the the new Sky Train line is going to go straight through the market’s site, and despite promises to give them six months to find a new home, the Train Market in Bangkok now looks like a pile of rubble. 

For now, Rod Fair is moving to a short-term home behind Insquare Mall JJ before they make a more permanent night market on Srinakarin Road Soi 15. Let’s hope that their new abode retains the charm and romance of the old one.

Where were you Iron Man?

Visiting the Karen Tribe in Chiang Rai – Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe ShrineI have been resisting visits to the Northern tribes of Thailand since we arrived because I was worried about exploitation and staring at people as if they were part of a zoo or freak show. A few months ago I took a trip to Chiang Rai and the opportunity to pay the hill tribes a visit once again came up. In the spur of the moment, I ended up doing something that I really wasn’t sure about or keen on. I have to say that my trip lived up to my fears and expectations. I came away feeling like I had done something wrong, and with more questions than answers.

I had not actually done any research into visits to the tribes, so we followed the advice of the driver we had hired for the day. When we arrived we had to pay for entrance from a sullen young Thai man, who pointed down a dirt path that led into the jungle. Nailed to the trees were wooden signposts leading the way, but already I felt like an imposter. We were not on an exploratory walk; we were basically going to gawp. As a child who was reprimanded when I stared at those who were different it felt so wrong and I was extremely uncomfortable during the hour or so we spent there.

Young Girls - Hilltribe Chiang Rai

The villages look exactly how you expect them to: small wooden huts on stilts made from bamboo and banana leaves. But a permanent home is unusual for these hill tribes, as traditionally they migrated from place to place, clearing forests to farm the land and moving on when the grounds became unsustainable. When Thailand introduced stricter rules about forest protection and slash and burn agriculture, and move the tribes from the highlands to lower less fertile land the Red Karen, Akha and Lahu people were forced to find new ways of providing for their loved ones. Many of the hill tribes first moved to Thailand from Burma, China and Tibet either as refugees because of civil war or persecution. Over half the tribes are not registered as Thai citizens, leaving them with hardly any rights and often nowhere else to go.

Hill Tribe VillageI am not comfortable taking pictures of people under normal circumstances, because it always feels like such an invasion of their privacy, but I did take my camera out during my visit, the photographer in me unable to resist the beautiful and fragile tableaux that were being played out. There were plenty of barefoot children running around the village and even the youngest ones were well-trained in the art of posing. I tried to only take shots of them going around their daily business, but even then I had to wonder how natural this life was to them. My favourite picture of the day was that of a woman chatting on her mobile phone. I think it was the closest I got to the reality of their lives, a clash between old traditions and new technology.

Now these families have turned their front porches into shops, selling products scarves that they have weaved themselves. Although I can understand the need to make a living, it highlights the fact that this is a tourist experience. I found it much easier to slip some money into the donations boxes that were displayed in the village with handwritten School Fund and Karen Development signs tacked to them.

Whilst provisions have been made for children to be educated under the Thai system this isn’t always enforced and often the villagers often have only a basic understanding of the local language and are limited in what they can do to make a wage. If money can be made from inviting visitors into their homes and selling handmade products then am I supporting them? What about my entry fee? Does it really go to help the tribes or is it simply taken by those who own the land, who get rich from allowing these displaced families to reside there? It’s certainly an easy way for a proprietor to make money. There will always be those, like me, who are willing to pay to add local colour to their holiday snaps.

Hill Tribe Girls

The first ‘village’ (the communities live on the same patch of land but each tribe lives in their own hamlet) belonged to the Akha people, who first migrated to Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century from China, with another wave arriving due to civil wars in Myanmar and Laos. Their numbers in the north Thailand are currently around 80,000. No welcome party greeted us. I guess people trampling through your fields to come and take pictures of you in traditional dress for probably the 31st time that week can make you feel a little weary. When they finally appear, we were led us up to a large wooden hut that serves as their meeting point and they performed a half-hearted musical performance. Feeling guilty for disturbing their Sunday afternoon, we slipped some small notes into the tin marked Donations and moved on.

We quickly wandered through the Lahu village, another group originating from China, which seemed almost deserted, and towards the largest settlement, in which big eared (Kayor) and long neck (Red Karen or Kayah) people live. At the edge of the village we found a group of half a dozen children under the age of five playing. So used to visitors, they barely look up from their games. As we walked past stands filled with colourful scarves and women weaving we were greeted with smiles. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a teenager surreptitiously open a compact and powder her face, preparing for her moment in front of the camera.

This village had a real feeling of community, with a small school and meeting hall with an ongoing construction project to add an extra row of huts in the northern corner. But they still heavily rely on the presence of tourists to provide necessary funding. I thought long and hard about what would be the best way to support these communities without forcing them to put their lives on show this way, but with limited resources and a specific set of skills, it seems tricky to help them sustain their traditional way of life, allowing them to work with nature whilst the rest of the world tries so hard to control it, ensuring that they have the same rights and care as all of Thailand’s residents when their ideals clash with those of modern Thais and politicians.

Despite many of the young girls having the first few golden rings around their neck that lead to the slow and painful lengthening process, their futures usually don’t involve staying in the mountains amongst their community, and their lack of education means that even if they head into the city they are more likely to end up working in the sex trade than anywhere else. One in three women working in the go go bars in Chiang Mai originally came from a hill tribe. It makes being a tourist attraction seem like an attractive option. There are NGOs working in the north, attempting and draw attention to the issues that these people are facing, but unfortunately their good work is not headline-grabbing enough, or perhaps just doesn’t get heard over the rustle of tourist dollars.

Young Girl HillTribe

I will not be returning to a hill tribe village in any rush. It was certainly an eye-opening afternoon, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Travelling and exploring should be done with utmost courtesy for the places and people you are visiting, not invading personal spaces or turning their lives into a theatre show, but observing them at a respectful distance, learning and sharing the experience with others.