Despite another overcast sky on Saturday morning, we left the apartment (A on map below), walked about 1 kilometer down the street, got on the subway (B), and three stops later we were at the edge of Bangkok’s Chinatown (C).
While we probably could have easily taken a taxi to Chinatown, you never know about the traffic in Bangkok even on a Saturday morning. Plus, I had not yet ridden the subway, so I wanted to check it out. The MRT — Mass Rapid Transit –was opened in 2004 and the stations and subway cars are very nice — clean and air-conditioned without even a hint of graffiti.
The Chinese have been in Thailand for centuries. As far back as the 14th century, Ayutthaya (the capital from 1350-1767) was a major trading center with India, Persia, Japan, China, and Indonesia. Portuguese traders arrived in Ayutthaya in the early 1500s, followed by the Spanish later in the century, and the Dutch, British, and French in the 1600s. The Chinese, however, due to their relative proximity and their large junks had the most regular and frequent trade with Ayutthaya.
The Chinese immigrants came primarily from the southern provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Hokkien. Their trip to Thailand was relatively short — a southerly journey that took about one month first on the South China Sea around Vietnam and then north in the Gulf of Thailand to the Chao Phraya River. Many of the Chinese settlers in Thailand were economic migrants who fled poverty and famine in China to come to the fertile lands of Thailand.
The Chinese were noted for their endurance, diligence, and work ethic. The Thais welcomed the Chinese to the country to help build the new capital in Bangkok, to construct roads and canals, and to promote the junk trade, an endeavor that provided most of the revenue for the government. Most of the Chinese migrants were men and many of them married Thai women so they readily assimilated into Siam. Indeed, King Taksin the Great (the king who immediately preceded King Rama I) was the son of a Chinese migrant and a Thai woman. The Thai government has been very receptive to Chinese immigrants and it has encourage Chinese to become Thai citizens. In 1913, the government granted citizenship to anyone who was born in the kingdom, anyone who had a Thai father regardless of place of birth, and anyone who married a Thai. Today, many Thai’s refer to themselves as Thais of Chinese descent to acknowledge their Thai citizenship as well as their Chinese heritage.
The Chinese settled in Bangkok and nearby Thonburi well before Bangkok became the capital. When King Rama I moved the capital to Bangkok from Ayutthaya (a move of about 50 miles south on the Chao Phraya), he ordered that the Grand Palace be built on land that was then occupied by the Chinese. The Chinese community was relocated about 2 miles further down the Chao Phraya to Sampheng, the site of Chinatown today.
Chinatown is southeast of the Grand Palace and it covers about 1.5 square kilometers of land (about 0.5 square miles.) There are two major streets that go through this part of the city — Charoen Krung Road and Yaowarat Road. Thanon Charoen Krung dates back to 1861 and it is the oldest road in Bangkok. Thanon Yaowarat, begun in 1892 and completed in 1900, is truly the main street in Chinatown.
Wat Traimit Wittayaram sits at the start of Yaowarat Road and the entrance to Chinatown. The key reason to visit this temple is to see the 700 year-old Golden Buddha. The Golden Buddha is huge — it is nearly 16 feet tall, over 12 feet in diameter, and weighs 5.5 tons. With the price of gold at over $1,600 an ounce, the intrinsic value of the gold alone is over $280 million. (Quick aside — while this number is huge, the U.S. government will spend this much money in about 40 minutes and will add this amount to the U.S. national debt in just under 2 hours. Keep up the good work Barry!)
The Golden Buddha is believed to have been cast in the 13th century but there are no written documents of its origin. The design is referred to as being in the Sukhothai-style — the flame on the top of the head, the elongated ear lobes, the wide shoulders and the wrinkles in the neck. The statue could have been cast in Sukhothai, which was the capital before Ayutthaya, or in Ayutthaya. In any event, at some point, the statue was covered in plaster, lacquer, and gold leaf to conceal its true value. The plaster coating could have been done either in the 15th century by the citizens of Sukhothai to hide the value from the invaders from Ayutthaya or in the 18th century by the citizens of Ayutthaya to hide the value from invaders from Burma. The plaster-covered statue was ultimately brought to Bangkok.
In 1955, the statue was being moved to a newly built viharn at Wat Traimit Wittayaram in Chinatown. Monks and novices placed the statue on rounded timbers and physically hauled it to its new location. They then attempted to lift it using ropes, hooks, and pulleys. The ropes snapped under the weight of the statue and it crashed to the ground. Because of heavy rains and thunder, work was halted and the statue was left on the ground overnight. The next morning, the monks noticed chips in the plaster and a layer of lacquer underneath the plaster. As the monks scraped away the lacquer, they found the solid gold Buddha statue that had been hidden beneath the plaster.
After visiting the temple and seeing the statue, we walked to Odeon Circle where six or seven roads converge. At this circle, there is a huge ceremonial gate that marks the entrance to Chinatown. Just a short distance up Yaowarat Road from Odeon Circle is a small charitable hospital for Chinese medicine that was founded in 1902. The clinic is run by the Thian Fah Charitable Foundation and provides free medical care to the indigent in the community. In the courtyard of the clinic is a large chapel dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, Kuan Eim. The buildings that you can see on the left and right sides of the shrine in the picture below are the hospital facilities.
After visiting the shrine to Kuan Eim, we began our journey down Yaowarat Road and through a number of the adjoining streets. Vendors filled selling all types of foods filled Yaowarat Road. The Kin Jay Vegetarian Festival is currently going on here in Bangkok. This festival runs for nine days in the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Many people (not me) only eat vegetarian food during this period as a way to purify their body and soul and to promote good health. Along the street, the food vendors who offer only vegetarian fare (often deep-fried!) are designated with yellow banners over their stalls.
Over 100 gold shops with an amazing array of chains, rings, bracelets, and necklaces are along Yaowarat Road. Thai gold is 96.5% pure (23 karat) and is sold by weight — the local measure is one baht that is equal to 15.2 grams or just over 1/2 an ounce. The gold shops will both buy and sell gold with the spread typically just 1%.
There seems to be nothing that you cannot buy in Chinatown. As we walked down one of the side streets, we saw shops filled with used auto parts — engines, leaf springs, rotors, blocks, etc. Workmen were repairing and refurbishing these pieces. There are stores selling Chinese herbal medicines. Others with exotic (to me) foodstuffs from dried mushrooms to seahorses to smoked pig heads. We even saw one table where the vendor was selling handguns (Glocks, etc.) — made us feel like we were back in Texas.
We have been told that we need to return to Chinatown in the evening when the street is aglow with neon lighting and the restaurants are serving dinner at street-side tables.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.