How I Accidentally Spent Chinese New Year in Bangkok

Ok, first of all, an admission. I didn’t realise I would be spending Chinese New Year in Bangkok. To be honest, I didn’t even think about it when booking my flights. A few friends planned a trip to Thailand and, in a particularly spontaneous moment, I booked a ticket. It helped that the price was good and that I really don’t like February in London (it’s usually cold. Very cold). So even when my friends pulled out of the trip, I had no hesitation about still going to one of my favourite countries! That I got a chance to experience some of the Chinese New Year celebrations ended up a really cool bonus.

I noticed the mini red lanterns as soon as I stepped on the plane. They were hanging from the cabin ceiling alongside cute monkeys (2016 is the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese Calendar) and flight attendants wished everyone a Happy New Year. The in-flight entertainment played the same message, wishing people happiness and prosperity or something along those lines, over and over again. And then again. By the end of the flight, I must have seen it at least a 100 times!

Chinese New Year in Bangkok
The plane was decorated with toys and lanterns

The first day of the Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is the official beginning of the year and is celebrated on the first day of the first Lunar month (the new moon) which means the date changes from year to year!

During our stopover in Guangzhou, China, souvenir shops were full of themed souvenirs, like plush toys and red clothes and bags. Red symbolizes good luck in China and is the predominant colour of the New Year celebrations!

Cute pandas at one of the souvenir shops
Guangzhou Airport souvenir shop

After a short layover, we took off and witnessed the most incredible sight. All around us, as far as the eye could see, fireworks lit up the night sky. I have never seen that many at the same time, and as the plane rose higher, we were treated to a technicolour show unlike any other. Unfortunately my camera phone simply couldn’t do it justice!

The blue dots are the fireworks! Wish I could have taken better photos!
The blue dots are the fireworks! Wish I could have taken better photos!

The next morning, after a much deserved rest, I headed to Bangkok’s Chinatown. The 2nd day of the Chinese New Year is traditionally reserved for visiting relatives and making offerings to Buddha.

After a short walk from the Hua Lamphong Station, I emerged from a quiet street into the bustling Mittaphap Thai-China Rd. It was a familiar Bangkok scene. Cars honked, bikes weaved in and out of traffic and tuk-tuks rattled by. I crossed the road and made for the entrance of Wat Traimit or the Temple of the Golden Buddha.

The building housing the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit complex
The building housing the Golden Buddha at the Wat Traimit complex

The place was teaming with worshippers, groups of schoolchildren and tourists. The compound was adorned with giant candles, images of the Royal family and national flags. I made way to the ticket office and paid the entrance fee to see the Golden Buddha itself.

Giant candles in the Wat TRaimit complex
Giant candles in the Wat Traimit complex

The story of the Golden Buddha statue is fascinating. Thought to originate from around the 13th-14th centuries because of its style, the statue was being moved to a new home within the temple complex in the 1950s when it fell from a crane. The exterior plaster cracked revealing the solid gold statue underneath! Historians think that it was likely part of a temple in the city of Ayutthaya and was covered in plaster sometime in the 18th century to disguise its identity from invaders.

The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit
The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit

The 3 metre, 5.5 tonne statue is now housed in its own building which is also home to an exhibition about the Golden Buddha as well as the Chinatown Heritage Centre. It costs 40 baht (£0.90/$1.15) to just see the statue or 140 baht (£3.10/$4) for the combo ticket.

I climbed the steps to the top floor and took my shoes off as is customary before entering Buddhist temples. I walked in and stopped in my tracks. The Golden Buddha towered above crowds of worshippers, its smooth, gleaming surface reflecting the light streaking in from outside . It was a lot bigger than I thought and it was just so… shiny! Flowers adorned the room and so-called “money trees” were covered with small banknotes. This is one of the ways Buddhists make merit and make donations to the temple.

The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit
The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit

I carefully made way around the praying masses and headed back out into the street. I walked past the imposing China Gate which marked the entrance to Chinatown and strolled onto Yaowarat Road, the heart of the area.

China Gate at the start of Yaowarat Road
China Gate at the start of Yaowarat Road

Normally, it’s a busy main street but on Chinese New Year it’s cordoned off for large-scale celebrations. Red Lanterns and banners hung above the street and colourful masks lined the pavement in preparation for traditional Lion Dance performances.

Elaborate Lion Dance headgear
Elaborate Lion Dance headgear
Lanterns above Yaowarat Road
Lanterns above Yaowarat Road

Even though some traffic was being allowed through today, it was still possible to walk along the multitude of stalls flanking the sides of the road. I ambled from stand to stand, checking out the mouth-watering street food, fresh produce and Chinese New Year-themed gifts and souvenirs.

Red
Red decorations

I ate my way through the street, starting off with some delicious satay sticks before moving on to fried fish, fluffy bao and sweet taro-filled cakes. Next came the banana leaf rice parcels, quail eggs and Vietnamese-style translucent spring rolls. I washed it all down with fresh pomegranate juice, sugar cane juice, rice berry cider and even some Chinese liquor. I literally didn’t stop eating for about an hour.

Chinese New Year in Bangkok
Satay sticks being prepared at a street food stall
On of the food stalls
One of the food stalls
Delicious bao dumplings
Delicious bao dumplings
Chinese New Year in Bangkok
So much food!
Mmm, sugarcane juice. My favourite!
Mmm, sugarcane juice. My favourite!

I ducked into the many alleyways off Yaowarat Road and wandered along rows of local shops in Talat Mai market selling cooking herbs and roots, whole barbecued ducks and incense sticks. I enjoyed getting lost in the narrow side streets, their low-hanging awnings preventing the light from getting through. A mix of items that I’ve never seen before and exotic smells made for a unique experience.

Chinese New Year in Bangkok
One of the local shops in the area
I passed on these ducks...
I passed on these ducks…
Chinese New Year in Bangkok
Talat Mai market is full of random stuff

I stumbled upon a shrine in the middle of the maze, adorned with colourful murals and dragon columns. The Leng Buai Ia is apparently the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand, built in 1658. It’s been used for centuries by merchants praying for prosperity of their businesses. I watched as people lit up incense sticks and prayed for good luck. Just like the rest of the area, the shrine was adorned with lanterns and colourful decorations.

img_5108
Leng Buai Ia shrine
Worshippers at Leng Buai Ia shrine
Worshippers at Leng Buai Ia shrine

I took a break from walking and had a sour plum iced tea (an acquired taste) and a taro bun in a cool, air-conditioned café before wandering through Sampeng Lane and its rows of wholesale shops selling hair products, household items and loads of random stuff.

Chinese New Year in Bangkok
Not sure I was a fun of the sour plum ice tea

I battled through alleyways which were getting increasingly more crowded and decided to head towards the river and out of Chinatown. I walked past a small money tree outside a tiny street chapel. I smiled and pulled out a banknote which I stuck on one of the branches. I wanted my good fortune to continue. After all, I’ve been pretty lucky to spend a part of Chinese New Year in Bangkok.

Yeah, I have no idea either...
Yeah, I have no idea either…

The Trip

What: Chinese New Year usually falls between January 21st and February 20th. Chinatown is one of the best places to catch the celebrations.

Where: Bangkok is the capital of Thailand. Flights from major UK cities cost from £380. I flew with China Southern (http://global.csair.com/) with a short stopover in Guangzhou. Read my Guangzhou International Boarding Area review here.

Getting There: It’s pretty easy to get to Chinatown. From Hua Lamphong station it’s an 8 minute walk to Wat Traimit and 10 minutes to the China Gate by Yaowarat Road. Alternatively catch a boat and get off at the Ratchawong stop and head up Ratchawong Road.

Also Try: A guided food tour of the area – These guys offer tours of Bangkok and other parts of the country – their Yaowarat Road Street Food Tour is very popular.   http://bangkokfoodtours.com/chinatown/

 

16 thoughts on “How I Accidentally Spent Chinese New Year in Bangkok

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Lisa! I somehow managed to not visit Chinatown until this visit (my 5th) and this was a perfect way to do so! I’m thinking of doing it again sometime!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      That’s so cool! What kind of calendar do they use? What’s the story behind it? Looking forward to reading it!

  1. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    A Chinese New Year is on my bucket list so I read this post with great interest! I will be in Thailand for Songran and had to google when new year is in 2017 (it’s 28 January) hmmm, may see what I can do 🙂 I love the colourful photos, storytelling behind the Golden Buddha and the food!!! I have pinned to my Thailand board for the future 🙂

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Angie, you should totally try and get there early! Either way you’ll have an amazing time – I’m also tempted to go for Songkran! Definitely spend some time in Chinatown when you’re there!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      It was amazing and totally unexpected! You’ll have an incredible time regardless and I might even bump into you if I decide to head over!

  2. Jenn says:

    I can only imagine how fun this must have been! We caought Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s China Town last year and it was great, but I’m sure that pales in comparison to how cool this must have been! What a great immersion experience!!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      That sounds really cool, Jenn! Definitely try and spend it in Asia sometime! It’s a great and very colourful experience. I’ll try and keep an eye out on festivals like this better in the future!

  3. Barry says:

    I love Chinese new year and always try to plan my trips to Asia around it. I know what you mean though, I’ve totally forgotten about many special events while travelling. I even struggle to remember the day of the week sometimes!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Barry, I’ll probably miss Christmas one day! You do lose the track of time with these things sometimes! Do you have any recommendations for where best to spend it in Asia?

  4. Davd says:

    Ok, watching fireworks from a plane is super cool! I think visiting places during festival is a super great experience, even better when it’s unexpected. When I last visited, it was around the King’s birthday and the city came alive. Looks like you had a great time mate.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      David, I wish I could capture the fireworks better! It was a stunning sight! It was a great way to set up the rest of the trip!

  5. Garth says:

    Sounds like a great spontaneous trip Alexei! I was lucky enough to witness fireworks from a plane once, it’s an amazing viewpoint, my photos weren’t great either! I’ve been to Chinese New Year in London, but your trip must have been good fun in the warmth of Thailand. The colour of all the celebrations just look amazing, and all that delicious food!! I’m pretty sure I recognise Wat Traimit too, i think we went there.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Love how colourful and eclectic these celebrations are in Asia. It was a privilege to witness it there and I have some amazing memories! The food was out of this world! Thanks Garth!

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