By Cedric Arnold
Apr 26, 2021
ON THE EDGE OF CHINATOWN and running along the Chao Phraya River, Talad Noi is arguably the trendiest neighborhood in Bangkok at the moment. It’s likely the most Instagrammed. And with new cafes opening in beautiful old Chinese mansions and local shophouses at a dizzying pace, its popularity will only grow. In the evening however, the small alleys become mostly the territory of the resident cats, unless it’s an auspicious date on the lunar calendar. Then, you can expect some scenes straight out of films to unfold before your eyes.
And living in the heart of Talad Noi for a number of years now, I never miss the opportunity to go for a photo walk on those special nights.
The riverside area was first home to Portuguese settlers shortly before Bangkok became the new capital of Siam in 1782. Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer transplants soon followed, arriving via Bangkok’s first port, which was then the center of activity in Talad Noi. This diverse history has created fascinating crossovers of traditions, which become most apparent on those auspicious occasions.
Each year, to mark Macha Puja, Wat Upai Ratchabumrung, a local temple founded by Vietnamese monks, holds a two-day event, culminating in a candlelit parade around the neighborhood. Celebrated on the full-moon day of the third lunar month (mid-February to early-March), the event commemorates the Buddha’s gathering with 1,250 of his first disciples.
This is of course celebrated all over Thailand (though in most places just for one night), but Talad Noi takes things to another level. That same week, you’ll find several Chinese opera troupes performing in their makeshift theaters set up at the backs of temples or in alleys close to local shrines. The distinctive Chinese opera, known locally as Niou, is not the only part worth experiencing. Elaborate rituals with spinning dances are also performed, and if you arrive early enough, you’ll also get to see the performers in their long process of applying intricate makeup backstage.
As you continue on your way weaving through the alleys, you might be forgiven for thinking that the percussive music accompaniment to the opera performances is still ringing in your ears. It’s quite possible that you might in fact be right around the corner from something entirely different.
This week as well, street cinema projections, funded by local Chinese associations and shrines, can usually be found in a couple of streets in Talad Noi. Until very recently the movies were still shown via aging 35mm film projectors. But even with more modern equipment, rest assured those back-alley movie nights still feature the same over-the-top Chinese and western action movies dubbed into Thai, with terrible lip-synching and ear-shattering sound levels.
The opera performances happen several more times in the year including at the time of Visakha Puja (this year on May 26), which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
The ceremonies are for this occasion observed at Wat Traimit, when devotees light candles and incense and the resident monks and worshipers walk around the temple’s chapel three times to pay their respects.
Monks and local devotees in prayer during the Visakha Puja ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok’s Chinatown Wat Traimit
But if you want to combine these experiences with food, look no further than the yearly Vegetarian festival. While the nine-day long event is observed all over Chinatown, its heart and soul truly is Talad Noi. The entrance to the riverside Saan Jao Joe Sue Gong Temple and all the tiny alleys leading to it are lined with vegan treats; as you enter the temple, giant incense sticks and candles burn filling the air with smoke. Behind, right along the river, a Chinese opera stage is set up for daily performances.
The festival culminates on a full moon, with a parade around the neighborhood organized again by Wat Upai Ratchabumrung, the Vietnamese temple (just five minutes’ walk away from all the food vendors and the riverside temple). This time, the party peaks with spectacular firecracker explosions and dragon dances.
A celebration of life during the vegetarian festival
- Macha Puja day is on the full moon in each year between mid-Feb and early-March. It will be on Feb 16, 2022
- Visakha Puja this year is on May 26
- The Vegetarian Festival is in October each year with the dragon dance and parade held on the last day of the festival, also on a full moon. This year’s occurs October 16 to 25