Thursday, October 25, 2007

Yaowarat and King Chulalongkorn Day

Perhaps one of the strongest forces that shaped Southeast Asia’s history is the Chinese who formed (and is still forming) a big mercantile class in any country they settled in. If one checks the list of the richest people in the region, those who descended from migrants of Chinese families would definitely occupy the top positions. Among the good indications of their solid economic standing in most Southeast Asian countries is the establishment of enclaves that have a distinct Chinese character. Visit any country in the region and it is quite certain that one would find a Chinatown, which often serves as trading and economic hubs of sorts for the Chinese, giving these sections of the city a frenzied, but colourful, atmosphere. One of my favourite places to visit in Manila is the city’s Chinatown (commonly referred to as Binondo) for its chaotic narrow streets that reverberate with life.

Likewise, the Chinese has a very sturdy influence on Bangkok culture that one would see Chinese-looking altars sitting under Buddhist effigies in most shop-houses. I read somewhere as well that roughly 80 percent of Bangkokians have some Chinese heritage in them.

It would not be a surprise therefore that Bangkok has its own pulsating Chinatown, commonly called as Yaowarat, which is the main street running through the district. Last Saturday, I took a long boat ride along the surprisingly swollen Chao Phraya river to reach the pier closest to Yaowarat. I decided to make it a cursory visit as I understand that the Chinatown here is quite sprawling. I prioritized the Buddhist temples that dot the area. Along the way I saw old wooden buildings and charming shop-houses (oh my, I’m soooo obsessed with shop-houses since coming here).

As expected, the Buddhist temples I stopped at followed a predominantly Chinese architectural style. Compared with the Buddhist temples I saw in Kuala Lumpur, the ones in Yaowarat look more aged and even on their way to dilapidation, which is obviously unfortunate. I wonder why they did not step up efforts to preserve these precious structures, given the apparent importance of the temple to the wealthy Chinese in the area.

From one temple to another I squeezed my self in the crowds along the narrow sois (alleys) where spices, herbs, sea foods, dried fruits, castanas, and whatnot were sold. Too bad I did not take pictures of the dizzying array of products that line the soi (but I can always go back).

Here are some pictures of my first trip to Chinatown.

By the way, there is supposedly a Thieves Market in Yaowarat, however, I did not have enough information on how to find it in the labyrinthine landscape of the area. This gives me enough reason to go back there.

I decided to walk the seven kilometres (more or less) from Yaowarat to my building. On the way home, I stumbled upon the older sections of Bangkok. I totally admire how they were able to preserve the old shop-houses that flank the tree-lined streets of these districts. At once I felt the serenity of the neighbourhoods despite the fact that I was still in the middle of the city.

Meanwhile, last Tuesday was a holiday to celebrate King Chulalongkorn Day. Since I live very near the main statue of King Rama V (or King Chulalongkorn), I took a walk towards where the commemorations were held, which is in front of the Anandasamakhom Throne Hall. King Rama V is highly revered among the Thais. I noticed a lot of passengers in the bus, and even taxi drivers, doing the wai when passing by the statue (and they do this even on regular days). Their love for the King obviously explains the large crowd paying their respect at the grounds of the statue last Tuesday. The conventional offering is pink roses, which are supposedly the King’s favourite. Also, dozens of wreathes were propped around the area while the scent of lighted joss sticks drift in the air.

I was more dazzled however by these towering arrangements made of ribbons, leaves, and flowers. (Please don’t ask me what type of leaves and flowers they were.) Go check the pictures of these truly intricate works of art, a testament to the creativity of the Thai people and their love for their King.

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