Thai Tour: Day 10
Non-stop sensory overload
Chinatown, Bangkok. Nowhere demonstrates the city’s tendency towards non-stop sensory overload more than this 1km stretch of culinary delight along Yaowarat Road.
Running from the Chinese Arch at Odeon Circle to the Ong Ang Canal in the west, Bangkok’s Chinatown is everything you would expect from the meeting of one of the world’s most varied culinary traditions and one of Asia’s most vibrant cities. By day a sweltering blur of temples, tuk-tuks, markets and mayhem, come night time, the area becomes a neon-lit voyage of street food discovery.
I’d arrived in Bangkok after a rain-soaked few days on Koh Chang only a couple of hours earlier, and despite a journey of almost seven hours from coast to capital, I was excited to be back amongst the craziness and ready for an evening of adventure.
Since before the city became the nation’s capital under Rama I, there has been a Chinese community in Bangkok. Originally located in what is now Phra Nakhon District, just north of the current location, the construction of the Grand Palace saw the community resettled in the late 18th century. For the next 150 years the neighbourhood grew steadily to encompass the entire Samphanthawong district, centred originally on Sampheng Lane and later, Yaowarat Road.
Street food heaven
These days, the area around Yaowarat Road has become a tourist attraction in itself. While other parts of the city have had their identity buried beneath shopping malls and skyscrapers, Chinatown has managed to maintain much of the melting pot atmosphere that makes it such a fascinating place to explore – the alleys still overflow with market stalls and people, the medicine stores and temples still cater for local tastes, and every evening the smell of street food is set loose throughout the streets.
Immediately upon stepping out of the taxi I was submerged in the noise of honking taxis and the buzzing of tuk-tuks racing by. It was 19:30, peak hour for the crowds of dinnertime diners making their way towards the epicentre of the Bangkok street food experience. Everywhere I looked there were stalls and restaurants filling up with expectant diners.
Outside the famous T & K Seafood restaurant, the pavement was packed with people on plastic stools tucking-in at tables full of steaming, freshly-served dishes. Those arriving were collecting tickets and waiting their turn for a table, looking on in an envious huddle as waiters dashed past with plates of fish, shrimp and seafood soup prepared to order on a strip of pavement just next door.
On that same side-street, a suckling pig was being roasted over a charcoal fire outside a Guangdong restaurant, the young guy turning the spit looking like a barbecue bandit, towel wrapped round his face, shirt sleeves rolled up. Elsewhere, a street food Super Mario, dressed in an apron and a floppy white hat, was ladling soup into plastic bags to go with the pork noodles being ordered from the orderly queue lining up next to the stall.
One after another the noodles were boiled, the pork was chopped, and the soup was bagged and rubber banded before the whole process was repeated again for the next in line. It was enough to convince me that to leave without sampling would have been an insult to five hundred years of culinary tradition. Two minutes later I was sitting on one stool with my plate on another, wolfing down my bean sprout-topped noodles as if were paying by the second.
No plan is best plan
There are so many options in Bangkok’s Chinatown that it is hard to decide where to begin. There is Thai and Chinese food. There are restaurants or street food stalls. As well as the usual noodle and barbecue joints (and as many variations on the theme as you can imagine), all manner of dessert and fruit stalls can be found, while the old delicacies of shark fin and bird’s nest soup are still very much on the menu.
Maybe the best Chinatown plan is to have no plan at all, just turn up, cruise the stalls, and be surprised with what you find. After my three minute noodles I was led amongst stalls along Yaowarat Road by the promise of further delights, which in turn led to a beer and steamed fish dinner at Fikeaw Yaowarat Restaurant and a close encounter with the flames from the streetside woks.
But such is the thrill of a night in Chinatown. With so many different food stalls and such an array of things to try, there will always be something new to discover, always something you missed the first time. All of which means the next time you set foot into the Yaowarat chaos, the Great Chinatown Street Food Adventure can begin all over again.
Five Bangkok Chinatown Favourites
1) T & K Seafood
One of the most well-known restaurants in Chinatown, T & K Seafood can be found on the corner of Yaowarat and Phadung Dao Road. Packed to overflowing every single night, the restaurant is rightly famous for its charcoal-grilled menu and its street corner setting. Plus, with its small army of green t-shirt-wearing staff on hand to serve it all up, you can guarantee that once you are finally seated, you won’t stay hungry for long.
2) Fikeaw Yaowarat Restaurant
You might need a fire extinguisher handy here, but if you manage to survive being set on fire from the flames from the pyromaniac head chef’s wok, you’re in for a treat. Seafood and classic Thai dishes are what’s on offer. Take a left off Yaowarat Road down Yaowarat 23 to check it out.
3) Kuay Jab Nai Huan
Serving only one dish, but doing it perfectly, Kuay Jab Nai Huan operates from a small stall at the junction of Yaowarat Road and Yaowa Phanit. Rice noodles with crispy pork belly is what they all come for, and if the night-long crowds are anything to go by, you’re missing out if you miss it.
4) Lek & Rut Seafood
Located just a car’s width across from T & K Seafood on the opposite corner of Phadung Dao Road, Lek & Rut Seafood is another frenzy of cluttered pavements, passing traffic, and fantastic streetside seafood. Wearing red t-shirts this time, as opposed to T & K’s green, Lek & Rut follows the same basic premise of providing great food at decent prices. If you can do all this within the chaotic confines of a Bangkok street corner, then all the better.
5) Tang Jai Yoo
It’s not seafood that they’re coming for this time, but Tang Jai Yoo’s famous roast suckling pig. Undoubtedly the place for the most authentic Chinese food on this short list, Tang Jai Yoo has the rowdiness of a Hong Kong Cooked Food Centre and the food to match. Anthony Bourdain visited here during his Bangkok episode of No Reservations, digging in to all manner of delicious things, but if you’re not Bourdain and you still want a seat to eat, maybe Yes Reservations would be better.
Related Posts: For more street food posts, click tag: street food.