Chinese New Year took us down, all the way to Chinatown

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Lanterns hang above a side street in Chinatown to celebrate the Chinese New Year on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photos by Bjorn Karlman)

I love me some potentially lethal pyrotechnics. Growing up, I bolted out the door to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July from my front porch. Later, my co-workers and I would climb onto the roof of our building to watch them. My favorite fiery memory, though, was when my family and I spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the Philippines. Crazy amounts of fireworks were lit; so many that the night lit up with the brightness of day. Neighbors came out of their houses to set them off in the streets, many lighting them by hand and then throwing them. I remember my cousin came close to blowing off his hand that way. Good times.

So I was more than a little excited when I realized we would be in Thailand during the Chinese New Year. In Asia, during a special occasion? Those fireworks were sure to be spectacularly hazardous. A friend told us  the celebration would be Sunday, but on Saturday I happened to open up Google’s website. Lo and behold, an Asianesque snake game was featured as the Google doodle, and it linked to information on the Chinese New Year. Trusting all things Google, I thought Chinese New Year was Saturday, and we made our way to Chinatown that night.

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A crowd gathered to watch this kid eat ice cream in Chinatown on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Bangkok, Thailand. No, seriously.

Thailand’s Chinatown is a sprawling, alley-riddled, temple-dotted, crammed-with-stalls  slice of Bangkok. It’s common to see 4-foot-wide sidewalks with two opposing rows of stalls AND two streams of foot traffic between them. Thailand’s Chinatown feels larger than the other Chinatowns I’ve visited (Los Angeles, Manhattan, San Francisco), but maybe that’s because it’s  full of so much stuff. Carts, stalls and stores of food, clothing, tchotchkes, and surprisingly, coffins, line the main roads of Thanon Charoen Krung and Thanon Yaowarat. Side streets and alleys overhung by tarps and rusty tin sheets branch off main roads in confused abandon, and getting lost in this murkily-lit wonderland is more a guarantee than an option. Temples appear unexpectedly, tucked away in courtyards hidden within the alleys.

At night, food carts and their patrons spill from sidewalks onto the street. It’s an eaters’ paradise. The variety of noodles alone is staggering. They are wide, thin, fried; with vegetables, meat and/or fish. Flat and chewy, clear and slippery, in soups brown, clear and pink (!). I’m pretty sure Sam-I-Am could even find his beloved green eggs and ham (hur hur hur).

But something Bjorn and I did not find that Saturday night in Chinatown: fireworks.

So we decided to trundle out to Chinatown again on Sunday.
6:30 p.m.: We arrive. It’s dusk,  a perfect time to situate ourselves before seeing fireworks light up the night. People in gold and red throng the streets, a promising sign that celebrations will soon start. We hit the jackpot when we see scores of people lining a street in the expectant manner of those waiting for a parade. Securing a spot close to the tape barrier, we settle in and wait for the hoopla of banging drums, lion dances and fireworks (of course, fireworks!) to begin.

7:30 p.m.: We are still waiting. “How long does it take to put on a lion costume?” I wonder, and mutter that this better be the best parade I’ve ever seen.

8 p.m.: People have crowded in behind us and the already warm night is now downright clammy with the humidity of hot breath from hundreds of humans packed tightly together. My feet  hurt from standing and I am ravenous. But I refuse to leave.  I am going to see things blow up, daggumbbit!

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Military personnel line a street in Chinatown ahead of the appearance of the Thai Princess on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. Pictures of the Princess were not permitted. To see a photo, click here.

8:30 p.m.: Promising flurries of activity start. Scores of military personnel stream down the street. Pretty impressive security for a parade, I think. The princess is coming! I hear people say. But this is no high school beauty queen, like I expect. It is Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the King of Thailand’s daughter. My mouth drops open. She is dressed in a simple red polo shirt, not in the overwhelming couture and fancy hats I have come to associate with most heads of state. She passes by in a tram not more than 10 feet away. People all around me are bowing and yelling out a Thai phrase I can’t quite catch (but starts with “S” I think). Not knowing what else to do, I yell “Hi!” and wave wildly. Maybe she hears me.

With such an incredible beginning, what must the rest of parade look like? Eagerly I scan behind her tram, hoping to catch a glimpse of the upcoming festivities. But already, people are leaving. I stand in shock for a few moments. Where are the the people in costume and playing music? Where is the hoopla and spectacle? Most importantly, where are the fireworks?? Surely that wasn’t it, was it?

But it was.

Bjorn cheers me up with a sage observation: In terms of specialness and rarity, what we’ve just seen ranks very high. Besides, we’ve both experienced bouts of fantastic fireworks in Asia already anyway.

(But if anyone knows of an upcoming pyrotechnics extravaganza in my neck of the woods/jungle, let me know.)

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8 thoughts on “Chinese New Year took us down, all the way to Chinatown

  1. Oh what fun! I can savor memories on your blog and Bjorn’s, too! I had some fun times in Chinatown, and still have some baht chains I bought there. Gosh, I looked at the photo of the princess. She is quite a bit older than when I lived there. (Of course, I am, too!) She was so beloved in her country (much more so than her brother–oh dear, a lot of stories there). I hope she is still enjoying the appreciation of the people there. She deserved it.

    • That’s awesome that you lived in Thailand! What were your favorite places here? The princess is still very much a heroine to the Thai people. Whenever she is mentioned, it is usually as “the beloved princess.” Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Yeah, I would feel jipped too. haha where are the fireworks? Love the royals, even King Bjorn, but they don’t replace loud noises and fiery bursts of fire. haha Hope you catch a fireworks display in the near future or have access to buying the good stuff (loud and coloroful fireworks) and creating your own fireworks show at home.

    • Right??

      And we’re in an apartment right now, so a home show is probably a no-go, unless I set them off from the balcony. Waitaminnit, now THERE’S an idea… >:)

  3. Wow looks very happening. I also went there around 7-10 Feb 2013. But did not manage to go to china town. I realise that Thai People dont really celebrate chinese new year. Despite the other place that i visit did not really show the celebration. 🙂

    • Yeah, the celebration was definitely centered in Chinatown. Everywhere else—you wouldn’t even know that Chinese New Year was happening (except for the odd mall decoration) :T

      Thanks for the comment!

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