Sampeng Lane, or Soi Wanit 1 as it has been renamed, is a narrow street running for about 1km in Bangkok’s China Town. From 9am to 6pm the street hosts a lively and diverse wholesale market which is well worth a visit for an authentic slice of Thai life and some good shopping. Getting there involves either a taxi ride, or some walking and a bit of perseverance. The nearest stop on the modern public transit system is the Hua Lamphong stop on the metro line and then a 10 minute walk. You can also get there by the Chao Praya Express boat stopping at either Ratchawongse or Memorial Bridge Piers. You can pick up the Chao Praya Express Boat from the Taksin Bridge Pier which is by the Saphan Taksin sky train station.
Sampeng Lane has a long and interesting history closely connected to the permanent Chinese community which appeared in the late 1700s. The Chinese had close trading links with Thailand at the time and some merchants settled in the City. Whilst the other city dwellers at the time favoured living on boats on the river, the Chinese started building brick houses on solid ground, with the centre of this community being Sampeng Lane. By the late 1800s Sampeng Lane had become a notorious centre for vice in the City with the street featuring numerous opium dens, gambling houses and brothels. Even today the term ‘woman of Sampeng’ is Thai slang for a prostitute of Chinese origin.
Today the opium dens and brothels have gone, and what remains is the city’s most vibrant wholesale market. If you go bear in mind you need to buy in quantities of 5 or 6 items or more. The price of many items is often fixed and marked on the products so no haggling is necessary. If you have lots of presents to buy, perhaps lots of small gifts for colleagues in the office back home, this is a good place to come and shop. If you have visited the tourist markets of Patpong and the Sukhumvit Road this will also be interesting for you as you can check out what mark ups the traders are putting on their goods, as more likely than not this is where they came to buy what they are selling.
The market is roughly divided into sections. At the very eastern end you find lots of shoe shops, then moving east you find accessories like jewellery, watches and hats etc. Towards the centre of Sampeng Lane you find stalls selling things like ceramics, lanterns and paper products. As you travel to the western end you start to move out of China Town and into Little India and the choice of products increasingly turns to fashion and fabrics. For many shoppers this textile and fabric market area, with around 1,000 shops and stalls, is the highlight of the market with great bargains on wholesale silks and cottons. Right at the far western end the street turns into an Indian bazaar.
Have fun and work your way patiently through the crowds. It can be a bit intimidating, but remember the street is regularly bisected by streets where you can duck in and out of the market to eat, drink, rest or respond to any other call of nature.