Very quickly, Bangkok can overwhelm the senses. Most people land in the city and it’s their first foray into Thailand – far removed from the turquoise beaches in the south or jungle environments up north.
Chinatown is no exception. Hawkers barely make the sidewalks passable, so you have to weave in an out of every sight, small and sound imaginable. Your ears pound with honking traffic that never seems to stop, while every couple feet small at first delicious, then really rank and unrecognizable. Sure, you can see Bangkok as chaos. Or, you can see the balance in seductive and smelly; fascinating and overwhelming; sugary sweet and unbearably spicy.
Planning your trip to Thailand? Here’s a great guide to help you organize before you go.
Shanghai Mansion: Old School Cool
There’s really only one perfect option when staying in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Tucked in-between squished buildings with a little bit of crumble is the completely revamped Shanghai Mansion – an oasis in the beating heart of this neighborhood.
The entrance opens to the street with frequent live jazz bands that lure passerby into a cocktail or two. Deeper in is a swanky bar and full dining menu, featuring the beat of Chinese classics with a Thai twist. Once you make it past the koi pond and sleek lobby, you’ll feel completely transported back in time to 1920s China.
This sophisticated feeling only continues through the grand staircase and water installations throughout the hotel. Rooms are beyond spacious for such a crowded city, adorned with lounging daybeds and ornate decorations on the walls. Have a soak in the open-air bathtub and feel like your being pampered back in time – I sure did!
They do a wonderful job making sure your stay is immersed in Chinese culture, as booking include your choice of a 3-course dinner, old-school cabaret show, massage service or a morning walking tour through Chinatown. You could almost have your entire upscale experience of Chinatown while simple just staying at Shanghai Mansion. But obviously, you’ll want to venture out into the urban wilds too.
A Chef’s Tour in Bangkok
Once you’ve conquered the must-sees in Bangkok, such as the Grand Palace and Khaosan Road, it’s time to really get acclimated with your surroundings. This can easily be done through the stomach! If eating street food blindly makes you uneasy, taking a tour from a local pro is the best way to go. When you have something like 3 days in Bangkok or more, you’ll definitely want to know where to eat – and WHAT to eat.
Enter A Chef’s Tour. This is a brand-new initiative to Thailand that helps support local foodie professionals when they’re not in the kitchen. Top chefs lead you through the narrow alleyways of Bangkok to find those hidden marketplaces and explain how ingredients are used in classic Thai dishes.
We met Chef Nutth by the mall and wondered where the adventure would start. He brought us to his favorite haunt first – traditional noodle spot he’s been going to with his family since he was little. While Nutth nattered away the complex spices of the noddle and beef dish, others wandered off and were greeted by big smiles from the owner pouring cold glasses of tea.
From there, we took the boat taxi down a small canal to reach the Nang Loeng Market. It’s not where many tourists roam – in fact we didn’t see any at all. This is the spot to find fish curries wrapped in banana leaves, sticky pandan layer cakes, and old-school grilled Thai sausage. The chef said they don’t make that sausage anywhere else in the city anymore besides the Nang Loeng.
Unless you speak Thai, it’s a whirlwind. We were thrilled to have Chef Nutth to guide us through each stall, offer anecdotes and choose the best food to try. Make sure you don’t eat a thing before the tour – we made the mistake of having breakfast and had to say no to a few things that look absolutely delicious.
Chinatown’s Nighttime Street Food
We loved the Old Market tour on our trip. But A Chef’s Tour also offers a nighttime experience through Bangkok Chinatown. On the walk back, Chef Nutth was kind enough to shower us with quick tips on the way back to Shanghai Mansion.
Food heats up once the sun goes down in Chinatown. He pointed out the best vendors to buy pancakes stuffed with Chinese green chives covered in nam jim sauce. Then, he excitedly showed us who sells the best in-season fruit, like my favorite rambutans. If we hadn’t had the stellar chef with us, we’d be lost to know what was good and what could be passed – all just steps outside our hotel. Also nearby is the Wat Mangkol Kamalawat – an important and large Buddhist temple with both Chinese and Thai influence. It leans more toward a Chinese tradition, so it’s worth seeing in contrast to many Thai ones surrounding it in the city.
A Chef’s Tour offers food experiences throughout Thailand – in the south (Krabi and Phuket) or in the north (Chiang Mai). If you’re feeling particularly brave after your meal, you could check out their immersive Sak Yant traditional tattoo tour. Maybe next time we’ll give it a shot!
Whether you have a full week or just 3 days in Bangkok, it’s well worth spending some time in Chinatown. It’s an amazing introduction to this buzzing metropolis. Then, expand out beyond into the other fascinating neighborhoods of the city for a memorable introduction to Thailand’s wonderful vibe.
Where’s your favorite Chinatown in the world? Have you been to Bangkok? Are you an adventurous eater or a little more cautious?