On a random whim of a hosted couchsurfer, I was on a riverboat down the Chao Phraya to see what the hubbub of Chinese New Year entails in a country much more influenced by China than anywhere I had been before. From the Ratchawong riverboat pier, it was only a short walk to Yaowarat Road, the usually-congested artery through the Bangkok Chinatown neighborhood.
While Yaowarat is routinely decorated with Chinese banners and occasionally lanterns hanging over the streets, it was most certainly on full display this evening. Currents of opposing shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrians stuffed in between knick-knack sellers instead replaced the traffic that usually plagues the narrow two-lane road.
Nevertheless, a stray car occasionally forced its way through.
While the street was exceptionally busy, I was quite honestly expecting more to be going on than vendors and some decorations. I was a little underwhelmed.
And then the drums came. Three drummers behind a wheeled speaker cart dragged behind them a 100-meter or so long lighted dragon carried by dozens of people. In the process, all onlookers were shoved to the furthest edges of the road as it passed by us. Still, this huge monster lined with Christmas lights was quite a sight to watch.
Liz, the couchsurfer who had come with me had read about a must-eat soup stand that was very near where we were, as determined by a few iPhone GPS checks. The area where this soup stand was had a myriad of food vendors. This took us a while to track down what we thought was the right one. They served us a different soup than their specialty was supposed to be. So either this was the wrong stand or, as Liz suggested, they had changed things up in the 3 years since the guide she had read was written.
Toward the end of Yaowarat Road, where the Chinatown gate is located, was where most of the entertainment was going on. Here was much more than just the food and trinket vendors. Crowds gathered around dancing dragons and Chinese break-dancers in what looked to be porcelain headpieces. The most entertaining part of this routine, I thought, was the dragons “eating” the bought that people gave them after their dance routine. Since the dancers’ hands controlled the dragons’ mouths, they simply took the money and handed it to the others following them around. A large stage was also set up with two female announcers doing something I couldn’t figure out.
But as far as things I really couldn’t figure out; a large crowd was grouped around something next to the Gate monument. Liz and I worked our way in to see what the fuss was about. On the ground were a duck and a small dog. They were dressed in clothes, but not doing anything. I am completely baffled as to the attention they were getting.
Next to the stage was an intriguing Chinese temple centered around a shrine to Kuan Yin, a female deity of mercy, which seems to predate Buddhism. In an interesting instance of syncretism, she was absorbed into Buddhism as a bodhisattva, and is often associated with Avalokitesavara, the current steward of souls to Nirvana. It seems fitting that this temple then adorns a small Chinese hospital as well.
Looming over the entire area is Wat Traimit, the temple of the solid Golden Buddha. Its ornate marbel-esque tower and golden rooftop shined in the light of all the red Chinese lanterns. The crowds of the celebration were certainly thinning out here. We had the option to enter the main temple for the arbitrary ticket fee, but decided against it, instead walking a few blocks away in order to get a taxi. This proved much more difficult than expected, and we finally settled for a decent enough tuk-tuk price back to Pinklao.