Not only does January spell the beginning of a new year on the western calendar, but also January of 2014 will welcome in the start of Chinese New Year, as January 31 is the kickoff of the Year of the Horse. Bangkok, with its strong ethnic Chinese ties, is always a great place to be during this time, and Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown is the epicenter of the action. For those who have never been here, it is well worth the journey over to experience one of the area’s most enjoyable celebrations.
Dragon dancers, fireworks and plenty of red lanterns are throughout Chinatown during this occasion, with the heart of the celebration taking place at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, the area’s main temple over on Charoen Krung just off of its intersection with Soi Mangkon. Dragon dancer in Chinatown — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Inside the temple, visitors burn joss sticks, float candles in lotus ponds and line up to walk through the inner shrine, where monks give blessings for the coming year. Parents give their children red paper envelopes with money (known as ang pao), which are meant for warding off evil spirits. All those loud firecrackers you hear going off are not just for celebration’s sake, but meant to drive away a mythical beast known as Nian, a creature who comes out only at Chinese New Year and attacks people. Nian is said to fear noise and the color red, hence there is a reason for all the lanterns and explosions. Red lanterns in Bangkok's Chinatown — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
In addition to the colorful dragon dancers, Thai Tourism usually organizes a giant open-air music concert, which takes place at the end of Yaowarat Road, at its intersection with Charoen Krung at the Chinatown Arch. The same evening that the concert kicks off, the royal Thai Princess Sirindhorn marches down the parade route to signify the start of the New Year.
One item to be on the lookout for during Chinese New Year is the traditional Chinese opera performances that take place around the various temples. In the street behind Wat Mangkon, there is usually one performance going, but often the troupes set up next to very small shrines in back alleys. The small Leng Noi Yi temple on Charoen Krung is also a good spot to find shows.
With the advent of video and DVD, along with a fast-paced younger generation who can’t understand the language, Chinese opera has dwindled in popularity over the years, but it is still wildly colorful, and a great way to experience traditional culture. Not to mention, some fabulous photo opportunities are available. The performers often spend hours putting on makeup and transforming themselves into elaborate characters, and Chinese New Year is one of the few times of the year that one is guaranteed to be able to find a show in Chinatown. Chinese opera in Bangkok — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
One of the main reasons to be in Chinatown at this time of year is for the sheer amount of delectable food stalls that get set up, offering all sorts of treats - everything from steamed dumplings to roast duck and plenty more.
As the party tends to be at its best out on the street, it is worth joining the crowds to eat at the long-running T & K Seafood or its rival Lek and Rut. These are two street-side seafood eateries that sit right opposite each other on Soi Padungdao and Yaowarat. Giant prawns, fresh crab, squid, sea bass and piping hot bowls of tom yum get ferried out of a small kitchen half a block away, and diners are seated at communal-style tables, so it’s pretty easy to make new friends and enjoy the party.