Bangkok's Chinatown district is as old as the city itself. When King Rama I decided to build his new capital at the village of Bang Kok in the late eighteenth century, the land was then occupied by Chinese traders, who agreed to move their homes and businesses outside of the newly declared royal precincts. The new site chosen is today's Chinatown, which stretches along Yaowarat Road and the numerous narrow alley ways off it.
Base map image © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC BY-SA
There are several ways to explore Chinatown. I prefer this route because it relies heavily on public transportation and can be easily extended to a couple of other interesting sights if you have the time and energy.
Start on the river. If you're staying at one of the riverside hotels, you're already way ahead of the game. If you're staying away from the river, catch the Skytrain to the Taksin Bridge station. The station is right at the riverfront where there happens to be a pier for the Chaophraya River Express boat service. The River Express is a sort of bus service on the river. They can be a bit crowded, so try to avoid peak hours on week days. Catch a boat up-river to the Memorial Bridge pier (Tha Saphan Poot). The fare from Taksin Bridge (Tha Sathorn) is just 15 Baht (0.39 USD). There is an attendant at the Taksin Bridge pier who can sell you a ticket and answer questions about your trip. You can also purchase a ticket on board the boat.
Flowers for sale in the Pak Klong market.
From the Memorial Bridge pier, make your way through the buses on the road below the bridge and veer left. Follow the road around to meet up with the traffic coming off the bridge. To your left runs Chakraphet Road, Bangkok's biggest flower market. The market is most active in the wee hours of the morning, but you can see flowers on sale throughout the day. The flower market is actually the outer edge of Bangkok's biggest wet market, Talat Pak Klong. Its worth walking up the road a few blocks and then return to the bridge.
Returning to the bridge, you'll note that the bridge exit forms a "U" shape around a monument to the first king of the current dynasty, Phra Budha Yodfa. Turn left from the market to head up Triphet road. On your left is the long, curving facade of a school. On the right is the Wat Ratburana temple.
The first major intersection you will come to is Phahurat Road. On one corner is a small shopping center called "The Old Siam." This is a good spot to take a rest if you're trying to pace yourself. Inside the center are many restaurants as well as a food court. The center itself has something of a covered market feel to it and is worth poking around in. Otherwise, turn right and head down Phahurat Road. Across Phahurat Road from The Old Siam is the Phahurat Market, more or less the heart of Little India.
Here you'll find many fabric shops as well as clothing stores and Indian snack shops. Keep an eye out for the many shops selling wedding keepsakes. In Thailand, when guests arrive for the wedding reception, they register their names, hand over their gift or red envelope of money and then it is customary for them to receive some small memento of the occasion. These may be something along the lines of a refrigerator magnet, salt shaker or ceramic bell. They are almost always primarily ceramic and may be personalized with the couple's names. Along Phahurat Road you'll find shops sell them by the dozens in hundreds of varieties.
At the next intersection, you meet up with Chakraphet Road again. Down the road to your right is the Sri Gurusingh Sabha Temple, where local Sikhs come to worship. Directly across Chakraphet Road from Phahurat Road is the entrance to Sampang Lane. Don't let the small size fool you. This tiny entrance will take you into a labyrinth of small alleys and passages, some just wide enough to walk down. Don't hesitate, just dive in!
The lane is full of stalls and shops selling just about everything, but with a big emphasis on cheap clothing and household goods. The lane is long and narrow, rarely wide enough for a single car. While you'll see many side-lanes leading off Sampang, its best to stay on the lane or come back to it if you see something on a side-alley of interest. The lane is occasionally crossed by larger roads with traffic. Cross these and continue on the lane until you come to the Tang To Kang gold shop, an interesting example of a colonial style building, as well an interesting gold shop in itself.
Turn left off Sampang lane at the Tang To Kang gold shop and head towards Yaowarat Road. You're now in the very heart of Chinatown. Turn right and head down the road. The street is lined with gold shops, Chinese herbalists, shops selling snacks of every variety, paper items for funerals, incense and just about everything else. Its said you can find almost anything in Chinatown, if you know where to look! Of course, most of the signs are in Chinese.
From this point, you have some options: If you've had enough, you can backtrack along Yaowarat Road to Ratchawong Road, turn left back towards the river. You'll cross Sampang Lane again and then come to Ratchawong Pier (Tha Ratchawong) where you can catch the River Express boat back to where you started.
Another option is to continue on down Yaowarat until you reach the Odeon traffic circle with its huge Chinese gate. On the left will be Traimit Road. A very short distance up this road is Wat Traimit, home of the large solid gold Buddha. From here, you're a short walk from Hualamphong railroad station, which is now home to many fast food outlets as well as the city's main rail station and a subway station. You'll also find it easy to hire a tuk-tuk from the temple to the River City shopping complex, where you can get catch the River Express or a free shuttle boat back to most riverside hotels.
Yet another option is to head further away from the river up Soi 16 towards Charoen Krung Road. The Soi is lined with many food stalls selling sometimes exotic dishes. Feel free to give one a try! Upon reaching Charoen Krung Road, turn left and a short way up the road, on the opposite side, is Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, center of the annual vegetarian festival.