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Riding the ghost town

Photos: Kajondej Thongmee

Like every year, the recent Songkran holidays saw a quiet Bangkok. With a large part of the capital's population having left for their hometowns, most shops and restaurants outside of shopping malls were closed. Roads were not congested, sometimes even traffic free. It's a great time for cyclists to enjoy a fun ride in the city.

For this year's Songkran, my buddies and I chose to explore the backstreets and alleys of Chinatown.

Bangkok's Chinatown dates back two centuries to the early days of the city as the capital of the Kingdom. It covers not just both sides of Yaowarat Road which international tourists are familiar with but extends to the north beyond Charoen Krung that runs in parallel with Yaowarat and to the south to the Chao Phraya River. With one afternoon to spend, we limited our target to the south side of Chinatown, which includes areas such as Talat Noi, Xiang Gong, Song Wat and Sampheng.

Starting from the parking lot of Wat Maha Phruttharam near Si Phraya, we crossed Phadung Krung Kasem canal via the nearby Chong Sawaddee bridge. Nowadays, it is just an uninteresting flat concrete bridge. But Bangkokians of older generations still remember that the original bridge, which was replaced by the current one in 1978, was one of the city's steepest and most dreaded among drivers who were not good at changing gear on the upslope. Search the internet for pictures of the old bridge and you'll understand why.

From the bridge, we biked along its namesake lane and shortly emerged on Charoen Krung. We crossed the road and continued westward into Charoen Krung 22 which connects to Soi Wanit 2 (Talat Noi) where we soon took an alley that goes in the direction of the river. Hidden down the narrow lane is So Heng Tai Mansion, one of Chinatown's oldest residential compounds. The two-and-a-half-century-old Chinese mansion behind the heavy red-painted wooden doors is still used as a home of the descendants of the original owner.

On the way back to Soi Wanit 2, but via a different alley, we were attracted by a vintage car, probably a Fiat 500, left to rot next to the weathered brick wall of an old building. In the warm light of late afternoon, it looks almost like graffiti done in a realistic style.

After taking several photos of, and with, the "fake graffiti", we rode past Xiang Gong, the area where old machines are traded, and onward to Song Wat, a road added on the Chinatown map by King Rama V himself, hence the name (wat means draw and song is a word put in front of a verb to indicate that the doer is a royalty).

Song Wat was, and still is, one of the most important business roads in Chinatown. Trade was brisker in the old days though. Back then, fruits, spices and numerous other goods were delivered by boat from this area to the east and the south as well as overseas. Lining both sides of the road are beautiful old buildings which serve as offices and warehouses from over a century ago until the present day. Many big companies, including Charoen Pokphand Group (CP), originated from this area.

While riding along the road, we ran into a couple of pieces of huge graffiti that occupy the side of taller buildings. A group of extremely polite Songkran revellers refreshed us with a gentle pour of water onto our backs and shoulders after asking for permission. To be frank, I had never thought such a cordial practice actually existed.

Veering off Song Wat, we completed a mission that would simply be impossible if it wasn't Songkran -- biking in Sampheng.

A famous wholesale market for all kinds of accessories, Sampheng, or Soi Wanit 1, is usually busy both day and night. Walking through the crowds there is normally not easy, riding a bike is therefore out of the question.

But Sampheng was virtually a deserted lane the day we visited. Most shops were closed from April 12-16 so that the workers could go back to their provinces and celebrate Thai New Year with families. After a quick tour of Sampheng, we headed to Ong-Ang canal to check out what it is like after the legendary Saphan Lek Market, which used to occupy space over and on both sides of the waterway, was removed. The area looks so tidy that at first glance we didn't recognise it.

By 6pm, we were already out of Chinatown and entering Phahurat, Bangkok's Little India. There was not enough sunlight for taking decent photos. But a sumptuous Indian meal in an alley there was a fantastic way to end the day.

One thing to be noted is that, surprisingly, throughout our ride we found not a single stray dog, which was very good.

Well, see you here again next Thursday. Until then, if you have questions, news or biking insights you wish to share, please feel free to send an email to pongpetm@bangkokpost.co.th or go to Freewheel Bangkok community page on Facebook.

Pongpet Mekloy is the Bangkok Post's travel editor and a mountain bike freak.

Photos: Annop Kanchanapanich


Chinatown (the south side), Bangkok

GPS co-ordinates (So Heng Tai Mansion): 13°44'01.08" N 100°30'43.19" E

Trail condition: Roads and alleys.

Distance: Up to you.

Getting there: Chinatown is a popular part of the Bangkok. If you can't find your way there, you had better stay home.

Parking: Most Buddhist temples have parking lots. There are several temples in Chinatown and surrounding areas. Choose the one that's convenient for you.

Food & drinks: Except during the Songkran holidays, Chinatown boasts a perpetual plethora of street food.

What your family can enjoy while waiting: They can either bike with you or explore the area on foot.

Accommodation: In case you wish to spend a night in Chinatown, a number of hotels are available on the main roads as well as in alleys close to or right by the river.

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