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!
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!
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/