A new generation of Chinese immigrants, entrepreneurs and tourists is creating what may eventually become Bangkok’s next Chinatown, an area specializing in inexpensive Yunnan and Sichuan cuisine plus bird’s nest masks, salmon “sperm extract” and other exotic cosmetics.
This neighborhood, in the city’s Huai Khwang district, has been evolving on narrow Pracha Rat Bamphen Road, where Chinese signs identify commercialized shophouses amid rows of drab buildings.
Some Thai media have already declared this one-mile-long enclave as “Bangkok’s new Chinatown,” though that laurel is premature.
This neighborhood lacks the frothy, bustling, gigantic sprawl and saturated neon of the capital’s frenetic, 200-year-old Chinatown on Yaowarat Road along the Chao Phraya River, five miles (eight kilometers) away.
It’s also missing Chinese architecture, such as Yaowarat’s temples, shrines, dragon latticework and antique buildings dating back to the late 1700s, when Bangkok’s earliest Chinese merchants and settlers moved into the area.
Instead, Pracha Rat Bamphen’s small, unique lures include cafe-sized restaurants offering classic dishes from China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, which are difficult to find in the city’s traditional Chinatown.
From Yunnan to Bangkok
In China, during the 1960s and ’70s, the communist regime of Chairman Mao Zedong exiled some intellectuals and other rivals south to Yunnan so they couldn’t influence Beijing’s political struggles.
These exiles joined Yunnan’s indigenous minority ethnic groups in the mountainous province bordering Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, and together influenced the creation of recipes different from elsewhere in China.
Some of those now elderly Chinese, their offspring and others recently began traveling from Yunnan to live in or visit Bangkok, and now often reside or eat along Pracha Rat Bamphen Road instead of Chinatown.
Other Chinese immigrants are moving to this road from Chengdu city and elsewhere in central Sichuan province, famous for its fiery, spiced meals.
“People who live in Bangkok’s original Chinatown are now Chinese-Thai, mixed in with Thailand’s population and have been there for generations, compared to people living along this road who are new Chinese direct from China,” says Prawit, a Thai hardware shop owner on Pracha Rat Bamphen.
“They are settling here because this area is close to the Chinese embassy. Buying or renting real estate here is also much cheaper than Chinatown, which is extremely crowded with no space to expand.”
Other Chinese and local Thais are also discovering this cramped, two-lane road, curious about its food, but not many Westerners are seen here.
Menus and restaurant signs are in Chinese, sometimes with Thai translations.
Among the Mandarin-speaking waitstaff, someone may speak Thai and a little English.
For some diners, it’s easiest to simply point at the menus’ color photographs or meals on other people’s tables while ordering.
The restaurants on Pracha Rat Bamphen Road’s curve lie at the heart of this zone.
At address 223/6, one of the older restaurants in the neighborhood is the clean, modern “China Restaurant.” Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., it displays its name only in Thai and Chinese.
Their banana flower and red chili dish is a delicious, spicy pile of banana blossoms, onions, tomatoes and garlic.
Other Yunnan and Sichuan dishes are available, along with several brands of Chinese alcohol.
“The owner is from Chiang Mai but his parents are from Yunnan. We opened 10 years ago,” a waitress tells CNN Travel.
“This road is different [from] Chinatown because there they serve mostly Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese food,” she says, describing the ethnic origins of Bangkok’s original immigrants, from China’s southeast coast.
“Our customers are mostly regulars. Not so many tourists. Mostly Chinese businessmen.”
‘Chinese tourists from China eat here’
Nearby, the Tho Tao So restaurant at 261 opened in mid-2018, offering only Yunnanese cuisine.
Inside, the newly painted yellow walls are bare except for red decorative wallpaper.
“Mostly Chinese tourists from China eat here,” a waitress nicknamed “Cream” tells CNN Travel.
“More restaurants have been opening here in the past few years because more Chinese tourists are staying in big hotels around here.”
Directly across the street at 89/20, under a Chinese sign that translates to “First Grade Spicy Hot Pot”, is one of the most authentic places for Sichuan in Bangkok.
Two red Chinese lanterns adorn the front, echoing the interior’s smaller lanterns dangling above mirrored walls.
The menu, which includes vegetarian options, is only in Chinese. Waitstaff understand little Thai and the few photographs of food don’t help much – so you’ll have to just try your luck when ordering.
Shopping for salmon sperm
Shopping here is also different from Chinatown, where old riverside warehouses burst with tons of bulk items imported from China, which avalanche into the shops.
Many customers on Pracha Rat Bamphen are Chinese tourists who want made-in-Thailand cosmetics that are difficult to get at home, or to experience a Thai massage. There’s not much else on offer.
Shops here are stacked with Thai cosmetics, herbal medicines and other beauty and health supplies such as “bird’s nest mask” – often cheaper than elsewhere in Bangkok – among ubiquitous massage parlors.
Moisturizer with snail slime and face mask with salmon egg and sperm extract are some other less common beauty products you can find here.
Shopkeepers will rub a sample of this bulbous, orange-colored salmon caviar onto your palm, plus a few drops of clear liquid salmon sperm extract.
You are invited to rub this goop into your face then decide if you need more.
The MRT subway station’s Huai Khwang exit number 1 leads to busy Ratchada Phisek Road. Walk left to the nearby corner and turn left into Pracha Rat Bamphen Road. You’ll soon see Chinese signs.
Alternatively, taxi to Ratchada Phisek Road and onto Pracha Rat Bamphen Road.