BANGKOK’S Yaowarat Road seems to throb and pulsate at nights; it’s a flurry of cars zipping past makeshift street stalls, and garish neon lights suspended above rows of shops.
In a city like Bangkok, high-energy vibes are not exclusive to Chinatown, but here, there seems a comforting predictability compared to Bangkok’s more rowdy, more tourist-laden areas.
The thick of Chinatown’s action is at Yaowarat Road, a strip of bustling shops, shifting colors, and restless movement. Off the road are smaller alleys and lanes that are home to some of the area’s long-standing businesses that ultimately hold the heart and soul of the area.
Here are a few ways to make the most of your time in Chinatown, whether night or day.
Binge on streetside snacks
At nights, the pavements on Yaowarat Road are lined with makeshift stalls, motorbikes, and carts hawking tasty snacks.
It may sound odd but toast is one of the more popular offerings along the street, and attracts long queues. The bread and buns – the soft, white kind – are toasted over charcoal and filled with all kinds of sweet things like condensed milk, chocolate, jam, and coconut.
Catch a bit of theatre at Faikeaow Yaowarat, a noodle stall that draws people in by the power of their “wok hei” or “breath of the wok”. As soon as the noodles sizzle in the oil, watch the cook expertly “flame” the wok into a blazing spectacle. Try not to get too close or risk being singed.
If you catch the char of roasted chestnuts wafting in the air, don’t resist a brown bag of the warm, tender nuts cloaked in a distinct smokiness. If taking them home, swirl the nuts in a pat of warm, melted butter and you’ll never turn back.
For a post-diner snack, stop by one of the Thai dessert stalls for delicious sweet soups paired with chewy, textural accompaniments. Skip the ubiquitous mango sticky rice and go for warm ginger soup with beancurd, red bean soup with coconut cream, or sweet mung bean soup with sticky rice.
Drink coffee with Thai veterans
Thai coffee – in all its sweet and milky glory – is something of a national treasure, and there’s no better place to enjoy a glass than at Eiah-Sae, a coffee shop spanning back to 60-odd years and a history with the city’s veterans.
It’s common to see retired men sipping on cups of coffee, cigarette in one hand, a copy of the daily in the other. Sometimes they visit with their friends, and chat for hours on end.
The shop’s peeling walls, muted colors, and leisurely pace add to the charm like very few “modern” Thai cafés can, and even if you’re in Chinatown even for a few hours, this little gem is worth stopping by.
Shop for specialty foods
In the daytime, make sure to walk through the maze of narrow alleys on Trok Issaranuphap for a taste of Chinatown’s frenetic energy. Scores of local vendors peddle speciality dried foods, spices, herbs, flours, teas, and home-style crockery and teapots.
If you’re intimidated by unidentified items at the market, be assured that many of the dried items can easily be used in soups and into drinks, and often hold high nutritional value. For example, Chinese dried black mushrooms and wood ears, dried goji berries, lotus seeds, red dates and preserved beancurd can be braised in soups and broths.
A bonus: Dried items are a great way to expand your culinary repertoire. There are also shops where five spice and cinnamon are freshly ground before your eyes, and make for great gifts.
You can also try bargaining at smaller stores and vendors, where casual chit chat with business owners can result in deep price slashes. Just make sure that items you buy won’t be confiscated at immigration – trust us, you don’t want to have to surrender packets of salted duck eggs at the airport.
Splash on fresh seafood
Walking along Yaowarat Road, you won’t miss the bustling outdoor restaurants where waiters shuffle about balancing platters of steamed fish and deep-fried squid. It’s also difficult to miss whole tiger prawns and tinfoil-wrapped fish over charcoal, flipped every now and then for the perfect char.
Get in on the action at T&K Seafood, an immensely popular restaurant where you’ll probably end up sharing a table with a separate party. But never mind that when you’re chin-deep in steamed fish with lemongrass and chilli, breaking into a hot oyster omelette, or peeling sweet prawns with your fingers.
It’s easy for non-Thai-speaking tourists to get ripped off on market-price seafood so it’s best to establish prices as you place your order, as well as to make sure your prices tally with those in the menu. Anyhow, a big meal for two including a couple of cold pints will only set you back about US$35.