Yaowarat and Phahurat Tour
The Yaowarat and Pahurat Tour is a one day and night guided walking tour through Yaowarat and Pahurat, the home of Bangkok's sizable Chinese and Indian communities.
Yaowarat and Pahurat certainly don't take first place on the Bangkok to-do list of most travelers. Most will recognize Bangkok as a city of must-see temples, palaces, bazaars, shopping malls and go-go bars, and while most of that can also be found in in this district, what makes these neighborhoods different is their lack of big attractions. No "must-sees" to be found here, just a lot of sights you could see if you feel like it. But don't push it — the area is best experienced by watching and enjoying the general atmosphere. Just walk through the tiny alleys, browse through what the markets have to offer (usually the weirdest of products) and eat what the locals eat (again, probably something you never thought of).
According to the World Meteorological Organization, Bangkok is the world's hottest city, so never underestimate the heat. In fact, you will quickly notice that the heat in Yaowarat and Pahurat is even worse than elsewhere in the city: no air-conditioned shopping malls to cool you down, just large trafficked motorways, elevated smog levels and endless tiny alleys that really start heating up in the early afternoon. Buy and drink enough fluids, but don't carry huge bottles of water in your backpack, as there are plenty of markets and convenience stores selling cooled beverages. As you will be walking most of the time, wear light and comfortable shoes and dress for the climate. Don't go overboard though, pants and shirts must have long sleeves as you will visit sacred temples and shrines.
Start out early if you can, as this tour will probably take the whole day. The route starts at Si Phraya Pier, proceeds to Yaowarat, then ventures through Pahurat and in the later evening you will go back to Yaowarat to see its blazing neon lights at work. Do not trust maps — the map that perfectly shows every little alley of Yaowarat still has to be created. Be sure to print this article and the corresponding map, so you have a general overview of the area while walking. You will get lost — but as long as you have the map, you will somehow find your way back on track. You may want to print the Yaowarat and Pahurat district article for alternative listings.
Another piece of advice is that the route is not fixed. Skip any attractions that you find uninteresting, have no time for, or is too far off. As said before, there are no must-sees here, so you won't miss anything remarkably special.
First take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Si Phraya Pier (N3). While walking out through the small alley, you can see a canal boat used as fish tank to the left. When you see the main road, walk left to the shopping center River City. In mornings and afternoons, the mall might feel quite empty, but it's actually the best place in the city for expensive antiques and other cultural objects. Note that real antiques and any religious images will require export licenses, the shops can arrange this for you (for a fee). Downstairs is a small art gallery, and it might also be a good idea to go visit the restroom at one of the upper floors.
When leaving the mall, you might see the sign "Gateway to Chinatown" and a map of a guided tour through the area. That tour is different from the one shown here, though some places are visited in both tours. From River City, take a left into a small market street on Wanit 2. Here you can get some snacks from a cart and take a seat before the big hike. You can also get some water around here if you wish. From the market you can see the Holy Rosary Church, often called Kalawar Church by locals. It is a Catholic church built in 1897 in neo-gothic style architecture. Seeing it from the front side is complicated, as a school yard takes up all the space. When you leave the church, take a left and try to find the riverside Siam Commercial Bank Building, the first commercial bank set up by Thais. It was built in 1906 in art-deco style, a style that was popular at that time. It is hard to find though, but is easily seen from the Chao Phraya Express Boat service.
Take another left and continue the path. Then take an unnamed walkway to the right into Noi Market, a local market with Chinese products. Most tourists don't know about this place, so it's a nice way to see how the locals live. You might even walk through some living rooms. Walk back to the main road and take a right. You'll be walking through the Sieng Kong Zone, a small area with larger-than-human-sized piles of oily car parts. Most locals here have a job in the car part industry and you will see plenty of Chinese workers getting their hands dirty. Walk further on Wanit 2 and you will stumble across Wat Pathum Khongkha, often called Wat Sampeng. It was built in the Ayutthaya period, and has recently been restored to its current state.
Now take a right onto Tri Mit Road, and head for the King's Birthday Celebration Arch at the Odeon Circle. This typical Chinese arch really makes you feel like you're in Chinatown. It is built by Chinese-Thais and has been unveiled on December 5th, 1999 to show their loyalty to the Thai royal family. The big four Chinese characters on the monument mean 'Long Live The King' and are in the handwriting of Princess Sirindhorn (who is fluent in Chinese). When standing under it, it feels like a giant monument, but it's easier to take a picture of it by crossing the road. Now continue in the same direction and take a left for Wat Traimit. The golden-white building cannot be entered, but looks nice for photographs. The real feature of this temple is the Phra Sukhothai Traimit, the largest solid gold Buddha image in the world. In the end of the Ayutthaya period, the image was covered with plaster to hide its value from enemies invading Thailand. It was hidden for centuries until the image was being moved to a new vihara in 1954. The plaster was accidentally broken, revealing its inside being solid gold. It led to a gold-craze of Buddha images all over the country.
Walk back to the King's Celebration Arch and take a right into Yaowarat Road. At the left, you will see the Thien Fa Foundation, a local medical treatment center which uses modern as well as traditional Chinese practices. Interesting is the Kuan Yin Shrine, a Buddhist temple from the Mahayana school, which is quite different from the Theravada school practiced by Thais. Plenty of Chinese locals light a candle here to get a blessing.
Look at the neon sign chaos in front of you! Now it really starts to feel like Hong Kong. If only it was nighttime with all the neons shining... don't worry, that will come later. First take a right at the crossing with Trok Issaranuphap, which is sometimes called Soi 16. You now enter the New Market, a packed dark alleyway and a typical Chinese food market with ginseng roots, fish heads, chocolate cookies and other delicious foodstuffs. Don't run through here — enjoy the market, just casually walk around and browse through what the merchants have to offer. Who knows what you might end up with. You might be getting hungry, and this market is excellent for getting some cheap meals. Just take a seat at one of the numerous street restaurants or food carts. Hong Kong Noodles is a good choice for cheap noodles in the middle of the market. It won't cost you more than 30 baht.
At the right is the Leng Buai Ia Shrine, the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand. This claim is based on the plaque inside with a Chinese inscription that states that the shrine was built in 1658. That year corresponds to the Ayutthaya period, far before Bangkok became the capital of the country. It is housed in a traditionally Chinese architectural style-building. Inside there is a shrine dedicated to Leng Buai Ia and his wife in the center, a shrine dedicated to the deity Going-Wu on the left and a shrine dedicated to the Queen of Heaven on the right.
When you get to Charoen Krung Road, take a left into it, and then a quick right into Wat Mangkon Kamalawat. This is a very lively temple with many (Chinese) locals leaving offerings at the altars. Right after the second gateway is the most interesting part, with four statues of sages holding respectively a parasol, a pagoda, a snake's head and a mandolin, symbolic objects in Mahayana Buddhism.
If you're up for more temples, you could walk back and continue your way into Trok Issaranuphap north, but it is best to skip this paragraph if it's getting late. This northern part of Trok Issaranuphap is actually the best, as few tourists visit it. When the market is over, you'll see Wat Kanikaphon, though can be hard to find as there are plenty of other temples in the area. It is mostly known for the fact that the madame who founded it used to own a brothel. You could walk southeast into Plap Pla Chai Road, and after a while, you will see the Li Thi Miew Temple with several shrines on the right. The roof shows two dragons playing with a pearl, as is common in Chinese temples. In the compound next to the main temple building, you will encounter a large shrine dedicated to the goddess Guan Yin.
Now you have to backtrack all the way down through Trok Issaranuphap, till you reach Yaowarat Road again. You can also take another route if you wish, but they are less compelling and you might get lost. At the crossing, continue your way south in Trok Issaranuphap and pass the Leng Buai Ia Shrine. In the morning, the Old Market is up and running here, and old it is — it has been up and running since the late 18th century. But as it's probably afternoon already, the market changes its emphasis from a food market into a more mainstream one.
Continue south and take a right into Sampeng Lane, sometimes called Soi Wanit 1. This lane is the oldest part of Chinatown, and it used to be a shady place with gambling houses, opium dens and brothels. Now it is, what else, a market, mostly with tacky goods for tourists. It's still good for picking up cheap toys, ceramics, jewelry and accessories. Plenty of so-called mini "department stores" fill the lane, though usually they are just a small collection of grouped stores (not more than two floors). At the crossing with Mangkon Road, you will stumble across Tang To Kang Gold Shop. This gold shop is 130 years old and houses a private museum about the art of gold smithing. Opposite the gold shop is the somewhat similar Bangkok Bank Building, which exterior is another example of classic early Rattanakosin-style with clear European influences. Just take some snapshots and continue the route. When you pass the crossing with Rachawong Road, the market changes its emphasis to clothes and fabrics sold by Indian merchants.
If you're really a temple-nut, you could take a left into Maha Chak Road, and then take a right into a small alley for Wat Chakrawat (if not, just skip this paragraph). The temple is not that memorable, but some visitors like to come here for its remarkable atmosphere. There is a crocodile swimming in the pond, as well as monkeys, dogs and birds in cages. Locals do not seem to care one bit about the occasional traveler passing by. If you are really excited or just have a lot of time, you could even go to Wat Ga Buang Kim. Take a walk into Anawong Road and then a left into the first street. There is no sign for the temple, as it is in a small courtyard. It's usually empty with just one caretaker around, so you might feel a bit strange. Few visitors make it out here and locals will be surprised at first — but they are glad to explain more about their religion to interested travelers. The Vegetarian Hall is the main sight, a one-room shrine with gold-painted miniatures arranged as if in a sequence. Take the small alley out and take a left on Rachawongse Road. Then take a left at Sampeng Lane and we're back on track.
If you just wanted to see Chinatown by day, or you're short on energy, you can walk through Rachawong Road to the river and take the Chao Phraya Express Boat home. It's better to keep on walking though, as there is still a lot left to do. When you reach the end of Sampeng Lane, the ethnic make-up slightly changes from Chinese to Indian. Take a left onto Chakphet Road and you will quickly find India Emporium at the other side of the road. It's a modern mall with many fabric stores. When looking in the sky, you might see the huge Guru Tawan Sikh Temple with the golden dome, the second-largest Sikh temple outside of India. It can be visited, but locals do not seem to welcome it, and you must take off your shoes and cover your head with an orange cloth.
For a more authentic experience, try to find the Pahurat Textile Market. Yes, try, as it can be a drag to find it. It is behind India Emporium and you have to walk through some other stores to get inside. You know when you've found it though, as it is a labyrinth of narrow lanes filled with cheap fabrics sellers. It feels cramped, and you might bump into someone, but that's just part of the experience. The Pahurat area has plenty of other small markets as well. Browsing is not as rewarding here as in Chinatown, unless you're interested in Bollywood movies or Punjab sweets, but if you are looking for fabrics, this is definitely the place.
If you got some time left you can walk up north to the Old Siam Plaza, a European colonial-style shopping mall selling diverse products like branded and second-hand clothes, gadgets, electronics, handicrafts and gold futures (if interested). You might want to buy some of the excellent local sweets and desserts from the first floor.
If you have some time left, you might want to visit some of the smaller markets in the area, like the Khlong Ong Ang Market (for toys), Khlong Tom Market (for low-cost electronics) or the Thieves' Market (many stolen goods used to be sold here, now it's a mix of machinery, imitation antiques, old furniture and brassware). But it's probably already getting dark... time for dinner!
As promised before, you might want to see Yaowarat's neon lights in action, as well as getting your stomach filled with some delicious Chinese delicacies. For this, head north from India Emporium on Chakphet Road and then head east into Yaowarat Road. What you saw before was only a sleeping giant. At night the atmosphere has completely changed with gigantic neon signs in action! This is the closest Bangkok gets to Hong Kong — although the skyscrapers are missing. You'll probably want to make some nightly pictures of the signs (if you have a good camera that is). Yaowarat at night is a vibrant place with restaurants, carts and markets that never seem to close.
Walk on till you reach the intersection with Soi Phadung Dao (Soi Texas). This area has the city's best selection of Chinese restaurants, many of which specialize in expensive delicacies like shark fin soup, bird's nest or fresh sea food (often still swimming in tanks near the entrance). T&K Seafood is hailed as as the best barbecued seafood restaurant in Bangkok, and masses of people generally stand out in front of the entrance waiting to be seated. It looks very cheap and basic by Western standards, but its great local atmosphere and delicious barbecued prawns make more than up for it. You can also take one of the air-conditioned seats upstairs as you're probably tired of today's long hike. If you're looking for shark fin soup or bird's nest, you might want to visit China Town Scala instead. Eating at these restaurants doesn't have to cost you more than 300 baht. If you're on a tight budget, just take a seat in one of the numerous street restaurants for no more than 50 baht.
An obvious alternative to Chinese food is having some of Bangkok's best Indian cuisine in Pahurat. From India Emporium, cross the road and walk south on Chakphet Road. After about 200 meters, you will see the Royal India Restaurant sign. This restaurant is your best bet for quality Indian food, as its curries have won many awards. Expect to pay around 250 baht for a meal. The only downside is that other tourists seem to know this place as well.
We're not done yet though! Flag a metered taxi down and head for Pak Khlong Talat (or you could walk, but the abandoned streets feel quite shady and boring at night). This should not cost you more than 50 baht and the ride takes only 5 minutes. Pak Khlong Talat is a wholesale flower market, but also caters for local visitors that want to surprise their loved one (and the occasional tourist). There are gazillions of flower sellers here, and they sell for budgets as low as 50 baht. So buy your partner something pretty! The chaotic atmosphere, as well as its vast size, make the market well worth the stroll. Lights illuminate the area and the flowers make it a colorful sight at night. The Memorial Bridge Night Market opens between 8PM and midnight, and is, as the name indicates, right under the Memorial Bridge. Products for sale are mostly cute-like accessories for teenager girls, but it's still fun to walk through it. The stores use colorful lights to shine the place up.
As Yaowarat and Pahurat are remarkably off the traditional tourist track, there is less to worry about than elsewhere in the city. The gem scam, 20 baht tuk-tuk rides and "lucky Buddha day", it is exception rather than rule if you encounter these typical Bangkokian annoyances. The general rules apply here though, so avoid tuk-tuks, and insist on the meter when taking a taxi (else leave the car and take another one). Yaowarat is filled with gold and gem stores, but even here its probably wiser to buy these products at home. And again, the extreme heat of Bangkok is not to be underestimated, so dress for the weather and always keep drinking. Another safety issue is the roads with heavy traffic: be very careful when crossing them, and use the overhead pedestrian bridges where available — they are there for a reason!