The sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s Chinatown are an assault to the senses, so visitors should be prepared. But for anyone with a sense of adventure, a day lost among the many market alleys and street food vendors in Chinatown can be the most memorable of any spent in Bangkok. 

    There’s no better time to check out this fascinating and unmistakable area of Bangkok than around the time of a traditional Chinese festival, the biggest of them all being Chinese New Year. Celebrated according to the Lunar Calendar, the date of Chinese New Year changes slightly but it’s usually in the first 2 weeks of February. If you’re heading to Chinatown, here are some of the unique things to do and see.

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    Burn money from 'The Bank of Hell'

    If you visit Chinatown around Chinese New Year you might see people burning clothes, boats, cars, mobile phones and pretty much any other trapping of our modern world – especially money! But don’t worry, these offerings to their ancestors are bright, kitsch replicas made of paper. You can find them all over Chinatown but there’s an enclave of these shops lining the route to Leng Noi Yee Temple off Charoen Krung Road.

    The practice dates back thousands of years and is still actively done around the Lunar New Year by Chinese-Thai families throughout Thailand. Even so, the iPhones and gadgets are a rather more modern addition. The burning of paper gifts is usually done at home with the family, not at a temple – but why not buy your own replica banknotes and treat some of your dearly departed?

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    photo by Museon Museum Den Haag (CC BY 3.0) modified

    2

    Visit the crocs at Wat Chakrawat

    A very unusual sight for those who thought they’d seen everything. Inside the temple complex at Wat Chakrawat, behind the beautifully curved stupa, there's a murky pond housing 3 giant crocodiles. They lie, half-submerged in the water, waiting for their next meal.

    Legend has it that the crocodiles kept eating young monks so they were trapped and housed here.

    Location: Wat Chakrawatrachawat Woramahawihan, 225/3 Chakkrawat, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10100, Thailand

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    photo by Globe-trotter (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    3

    Watch a movie for just 60 baht

    The Chinatown Rama is a tiny old cinema dating back to the '70s halfway along Yaowarat Road. It’s probably one of the last privately owned movie theatres in Bangkok. It’s really hard to spot as the entrance also serves as storage and a restaurant.

    To buy the 60-baht-or-so ticket, knock on the ticket booth glass if the staff is asleep. It's an experience in itself as there are very few cinemas with most of their original fixtures and if it doesn't play racy movies, you might be approached by 'someone' if you come alone.

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    4

    Empower your Yang with Chinese medicine

    Long before vitamin supplements and superfoods were making headlines, Chinese herbal doctors were prescribing seahorses to empower the Yang and ginseng to restore vitality. If you have any ailments that western medicine just can’t help, make sure you visit one of the numerous pharmacies lining Yaowarat Road.

    Although not as plentiful as gold shops, you’ll never be more than a stroll from a pharmacy, which is easy to recognise thanks to the tall shelves lining the stores with row upon row of mysterious medicines, dried herbs and animals in jars. We wouldn’t recommend using herbal medicine in place of prescribed medication, but it's certainly kinder to the body to try a natural cure. Most pharmacists speak English well and sell a varying mixture of their remedies.

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    5

    Eat some crunchy bugs by the roadside

    If you keep your eyes open, you’ll spot a cart selling delicacies a little more interesting than the usual pomegranate or chestnuts. This guy displays a large selection of fun fried insects and all of them are obviously edible: it's just that our education and natural instinct that taught us that they're 'bad'. 

    Think about it, how different is a shrimp from a grasshopper? So give it a try – it’s fun! Note that if you only plan to take a photo, a 20 baht note will usually make the vendor happy – they often get harassed by tourists wanting photos all day, so many insist on a small fee for doing so.

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    6

    Get a panoramic view of Chinatown from Grand China’s revolving restaurant

    Sky View 360° restaurant offers a surprising panoramic view of Chinatown and all the way to the Chao Phraya River with a reasonably priced meal. It takes about 2 hours for the restaurant to complete a full revolution and you barely notice any movement.

    The restaurant serves Thai, European, Japanese and Chinese food with old-fashioned waiters and waitresses and live piano background music. This viewpoint is not very well known and is a great place to take an air-conditioned break past 5pm after a tiring exploration of busy Chinatown.

    Location: Grand China Hotel Bangkok, 215 Yaowarat Rd, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10100, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 6 pm to 1 am

    Phone: +66 (0)2 224 9977

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    7

    Eat food you can’t pronounce at The Old Siam Plaza

    Old Siam Plaza is housed in an attractive Art Deco complex at the western edge of Chinatown. It’s a fun place to explore, with different areas devoted to vastly different items. Inside one of the main atriums, you’ll find a host of stalls selling traditional Thai-Chinese sweets that are some of the tastiest you can find in the whole city.

    Some favourites include kanom sai sai (sweet coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves and steamed) and sala pao (soft steamed buns with a range of fillings). Upstairs in Old Siam, you’ll find a range of shops specialising in Thai silk and wedding accessories, while on the far side of the building there's a group of shops selling knives, hunting rifles and handguns (which require a license).

    Location: Phahurat Rd, Wang Burapha Phirom, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 8 pm

    Phone: +66 (0)2 226 0156

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    photo by mohigan (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    8

    Buy gold on Yaowarat

    Chinatown has more gold shops per square metre than anywhere else in Bangkok, so if you’re even remotely tempted to buy some jewellery then the best value can be found in one of the hundreds of shops lining Yaowarat Road. Thai people travel by boat, train and tuk tuk to come and trade gold 7 days a week, so there’s always a commotion going on in whichever shops have the best rates that day.

    Some people buy gold to wear, others as an investment and still more as an extravagant present with some real status power. Around Chinese New Year, more gold is traded than at any other time, so this is the best month to see the bustling gold shops, sometimes with queues of people waiting – just like in a club – to buy some gold. Some shops display their daily gold prices scrawled in white paint on their windows so you can compare the different prices being offered.

    Location: The entire length of Yaowarat Road

    Open: 09:00 – 17:00

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    Catch a cultural show at the first real theatre in Thailand

    Built in 1933 under Royal Patronage, Sala Chalermkrung is a charming theatre that is immaculately maintained with period fittings that whisk you back in time 80 years. Everything looks as fresh as it did when Chalerm Krung opened its doors as the first cinema with audio and air-conditioning in Thailand.

    Nowadays, the theatre is home to Khon, a Thai masked dance that's tasked with maintaining Thailand’s traditional performance art and dance. The show is a mixture of exquisite costumes, traditional dance and a historical epic about a double-crossing demon.

    Location: 66 Chalermkrung Road, Sala Chalermkrung, Bangkok 10200, Thailand

    Open: Showtimes every Thursday and Friday from 7.30 pm

    Phone: +66 (0)2 222 0434

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    photo by Supanut Arunoprayote (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    As any seasoned traveller could tell you, tourist attractions go to great lengths to proclaim theirs as the biggest, longest, tallest or even strangest. But the revered statue, seated on an altar and surrounded by traditional Thai golden arches, is breathtaking and is a regular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and inquisitive tourists.

    The view from the top of the Wat Traimit offers a sight of the ornate Chinatown Gate nearby and receives a refreshing breeze which blows through the open doors of the temple, meaning visitors can enjoy marvelling at the dimensions of the Buddha statue without perspiring from the heat.

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    Location: Wat Traimitr Witayaram Worawihan, 661 Charoen Krung Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10100, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 8 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +66 (0)89 002 2700

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    photo by Karl Baron (CC BY 2.0) modified

    Paul Smith | Compulsive Traveller

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