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Meet the Mythical Beast

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Start the Year of the Horse with a fabulous ride while celebrating Chinese New Year 2014 in Bangkok.

by Dave Stamboulis.

chinese-new-year-2014-5January 2014 will not only spell the beginning of a new year on the Western calendar. It will also welcome the start of Chinese New Year, as January 31 kicks off the Year of the Horse. Bangkok, with its strong ethnic Chinese ties dating back hundreds of years, is always a great place to be during this time, and Yaowarat Road in Chinatown is the epicenter of all the celebrations. For those who have never been here, it is well worth the journey over to experience one of the Kingdom’s most enjoyable celebrations.

Dragon dancers, fireworks, and plenty of red lanterns hung throughout Chinatown will be featured on the occasion, with the center of the action taking place at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, the area’s main temple over on Charoen Krung, just off its intersection with Soi Mangkon. Inside the temple, visitors will burn joss sticks, float candles in lotus ponds, and line up to walk through the inner shrine, where monks will give blessings for the coming year. Parents will give their children red paper envelopes with money, known as ang pao, which are meant to ward off evil spirits. And all those loud firecrackers you will hear going off won’t just be for celebration’s sake, but are also meant to drive away a mythical beast known as Nian, a creature who comes out only on Chinese New Year to attack people and is said to fear noise and red color.

chinese-new-year-2014-1In addition to the colorful dragon dancers, the Tourism Authority of Thailand 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 of the concert, royal Thai Princess Sirindhorn marches down the parade route to signify the start of the New Year.

One of the main reasons to be in Chinatown at this time of year is for the sheer amount of delectable food stalls offering all sorts of treats, 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 (02 223 4519) and Lek & Rut (081 637 5039) restaurants, two streetside seafood eateries that sit 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, while diners are seated at communal-style tables, making it easy to make new friends and enjoy the party.

If you need a break from all the crowds, it’s worth slipping around the corner to Eiah Sae (101-103 Yaowarat-Padsai Road, 02 221 0549), which is one of the oldest coffee shops in Bangkok. For more than 60 years, Eiah Sae has been churning out the owner’s great-grandparents’ coffee recipe to an endless array of chain smoking regulars, ranging from elderly Chinese men to hip young couples looking for an excellent cup of java. With the Art Deco styled yellow walls and THB 25 café Boran (old style coffee), you can’t go wrong here.

chinese-new-year-2014-3Also to look out for during Chinese New Year are the traditional Chinese opera performances that take place around the various temples. In the street behind Wat Mangkon there is usually one performance, 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 generations 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 the fabulous photo opportunities that 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.

The crowds can be daunting at this time of year, especially on Yaowarat, but if this puts you off, there are a few other spots around town where you can at least get a fun sample of the highlights. Central World and Siam Paragon usually put on big events celebrating the New Year, and they often feature acts that even surpass some of the goings on in Chinatown. Past years have seen acrobat troupes from mainland China showing off their talents, and well-rehearsed dragon dances are pretty much the norm these days. Check their websites for events and programs during the New Year.