Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Walking Tour: Talat Noi, Sampeng and Pahurat

walking tour ChinatownThere are infinite routes through Chinatown, and this is only one of them - I'll probably do more Chinatown walking guides, but this one is as good a starting point as any, and goes through places that even people used to Sampeng Lane and Yaowarat may find new and fascinating. It takes you through some very old and diverse communities, many of them dating back to the earliest days of Bangkok. Go in the morning to miss the worst of the heat, and for the morning-bustle and street breakfasts.

Start at Tha Si Phaya (a short express-boat ride from Sapan Taksin), and head upriver past River City and into a little market lane, where there are plenty of tempting breakfast options. Carry on going straight into Talat Noi, an old quarter with a real mix of ethnicities and architectures, where the oil and grease from heaped used car parts mingle with the scents steaming from food-vendors' carts. The mechanics' and car-parts shops are an evolution of the blacksmiths that originally plied their trade here. Go down soi Duang Tawan to see labyrinthine piles of motors in store-rooms behind mossy brick walls, vast trees bound in coloured ribbons, tiny alleys down to the bright river, birdsong from old-fashioned cages that hang from every roof-tip. In a car repair yard is the entrance to the Jao Sien Khong shrine, full of wonderful 3D mosaics of dragons and tigers. This area is an absolute must during the Vegetarian Festival in late October, when it becomes a thronging market of meat-free treats and sweets, and the Chinese shrines crowd with people and offerings and incense and entertainments.

Carry on to soi Phanu Rangsi, then turn right and then left onto Songwat road. On your left is Wat Prathum Khongkha, which dates back to the Ayutthaya period, and where the stone on which royal executions were once performed (by beating the person to death with a sandalwood club in a velvet sack) is still preserved. The rest of Songwat is a pleasant walk lined with a jumble of old and new facades, spice shops, rice warehouses. At the corner with Rachawong are some of the oldest remaining houses in Chinatown, with beautiful wooden walls and windows. Turn right and then left onto Sampeng Lane, the narrow shopping street that sells everything you never knew you needed. The lane is covered and some of the open shops blast air-con into it, so it's a nice place to walk if you don't mind small crowded spaces. Vendors come through, sometimes taking up the whole width of the lane with their carts of fruit or juice or steamed peanuts. Sampeng cuts across several roads, each interesting in their own right. Turn left on Chakrawat road to find Wat Chakrawat, where the architecture is a mix of Thai and Khmer, collections of Buddhas and assorted spirits and deities cluster in shady rockeries, and a fenced-off pond hosts crocodiles - supposedly; I saw none when I was there.

Across Chakrawat road and down Soi Bhopit Phimuk past the spice shops and ice shops, you'll reach a canal that marks a loose border to the Indian quarter. Little shops selling sweets line the canal, and tucked in dark air-con-freezy rooms are Indian restaurants. It may be around lunchtime when you reach this spot, so stop at the Royal India (I recommend the vegetarian thali). Then, across and right on Chakraphet raod is Pahurat cloth market, which as well as fabric sells dancing costumes, temple goods and offerings.

From Pahurat it's a short walk down to the river and Saphan Phut pier, where you can get the express boat back downtown. Or if you're not walked out, there's plenty more in the area to check out. The Old Siam mall and Sala Chalermkrung theatre are on the block next to Pahurat, and there are charming canals and temples to explore nearby, as mentioned in my post on the theatre. Or down by the Saphan Phut is Pak Klong Talat, the 24-hour flower market (though I think all these things are best explored in the evenings).

The walk in map form:

View Chinatown walk 1 in a larger map

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