If you’ve ever planned a trip to Bangkok, you’ve likely heard of Nahm, a fixture on the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list. You may have also read about Eat Me, Le Du, or Bo.lan—each beloved by locals and tourists alike. While all these places are recognized as having some of the best food in the city, they’re not the only great places to eat. Our suggestion for the intrepid food lover? Head to Yaowarat, Bangkok’s bustling Chinatown.
According to the 2012 census, Thailand is home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world. In fact, Chinese people make up almost 14 percent of Thailand’s population (even the current royal family is part Chinese). The reason behind the surprising numbers dates as far back as the late 18th century, when King Taksin the Great of Siam (now Thailand), himself half-Chinese, actively encouraged Chinese immigration to Thailand. Many settled on the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya River in Rattanakosin, where they operated a maritime junk trade between China and Thailand.
In 1782, King Rama I shifted the capital of Thailand from Thonburi to Rattanakosin, forcing the Chinese community to make room for a new royal palace. Most moved south to Yaowarat, marking the beginning of what is now Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the corruption of the Qing dynasty forced many Chinese families to leave for Thailand in search of work, eventually landing in Yaowarat. Since then, the community has gone through periods of resistance and massive assimilation, especially during the Red Scare, but ultimately retained its authenticity. And today, businesses on Yaowarat and Charoen Krung roads still feature bilingual signs, and a number of Chinese words have found their way into the Thai language, particularly when it comes to food.
Busy and frenetic, Chinatown features a dizzying network of market areas, roads, alleys, and small streets. Getting lost is half the fun, but make sure you get the most out of the street food scene. Here are the stops with dishes featuring a mix of Chinese flavors and Thai ingredients, making for a uniquely delicious experience.
1. Thai Roong Rueang for yen ta fo
Run by Mr. Tii for more than 15 years, this noodle stall is known for pink noodle soup, made with fermented red bean curd. The dish is garnished with a variety of hand-made fish balls, earning it a spot among the top five yen ta fo in Bangkok.
2. Kan Kee Nam Tao Tong for nam kom
A 115-year-old teashop, Kan Kee Nam Tao serves nam kom, an herbal drink that Thai-Chinese people drink to cure sore throats, fevers, canker sores, and more. Be forewarned, the bitter taste is not for the faint of heart.
3. Nai Mong Hoy Tod for orsuan
Family owned and operated for two generations, this 40-year-old restaurant is beloved for its savory oyster omelets. While the dish is Chinese in origin, it’s served here with sweet chili sauce to satisfy the Thai taste for spice.
4. Lek & Rut Seafood
The first seafood restaurant in Bangkok, L&R is famous for its impressive selection of fresh fish, black crab, giant prawns, and more. Across the street sits competing restaurant T&K Seafood, which is popular with tourists but considered less authentic by many locals. Just look for L&R’s red shirts and you’ll be in the right.
5. Kuay Jab Nai Huan for kuay jab
This stall, over 30 years old, is a Yaowarat favorite, serving what’s widely considered the neighborhood’s signature dish—rolled noodles and crispy pork belly in a clear, very peppery broth. If you’re feeling adventurous, sub the pork for intestines.
6. Hua Seng Hong for salapao
This popular Chinese restaurant serves traditional dishes like roast duck, salted fish, shark-fin soup, and stir-fried noodles with crab. It’s the sweet buns you really want, however—especially the version filled with salty egg-yolk custard.
7. Tipparos Ice Cream
Open since 1969, this well-known stand serves Thai ice cream, a sorbet-style treat that’s less creamy and sweet than the American version. Flavors range from coconut-basil to iced tea and durian, while toppings include peanuts and candied pumpkin.
8. Texas Suki Restaurant for bua loy nam king
Visit this brightly lit restaurant on Soi Texas for bua loy nam king, a traditional Chinese dessert featuring black sesame-stuffed rice dumplings in hot ginger tea. It’s considered good for digestion, which you’ll need after all that eating.
If navigating Chinatown alone seems too overwhelming, turn to Bangkok Food Tours, which operates walking tours of Yaowarat’s street food scene. Tours run in the evening when the neighborhood really comes alive, giving you a true taste of Thai-Chinese culture.
© 2016 AFAR Media