At sunset, Bangkok’s Huai Khwang district comes alive with Chinese-speaking pedestrians bustling to their favorite hot pot restaurants among the many lining Pracharat Bamphen Road.
The hungry parade is just one indication of how an influx of Chinese residents is transforming the 15-square-kilometer (5.8-square-mile) neighborhood in the city’s eastern reaches, with new arrivals restoring the pre-pandemic inflow.
With the Chinese Embassy in nearby Din Daeng exerting a magnet-like force for Huai Khwang, local Thais now call the area "New Chinatown." Some refer to it as a special administration region of China, akin to Hong Kong or Macao, dubbing it the "Taiguo."
And although Thailand celebrates the new year, or Songkran, on April 13, Huai Khwang district officials held a Lunar New Year celebration on January 19 this year to recognize the changing demographics.
The changes are coming with challenges, analysts say. Rising rents and prices for residential and commercial properties reflect the arrival of Chinese emigrants who are willing, and able, to pay more than local Thais, many of whom now face a housing affordability crunch.
Patcharee Pabua, a 42-year-old employee of a nonprofit organization, has lived and worked in Huai Khwang for more than seven years. She has seen the neighborhood change in real time — before, during and after the pandemic — as the area transformed from a Thai neighborhood to a Chinese enclave.
"When COVID-19 initially hit, many Chinese individuals returned to China, and Chinese-owned businesses closed down,” she said. “However, they returned once the COVID situation improved. Now, it's difficult to spot Thai restaurants along Pracharat Bamphen street. It's predominantly Chinese restaurants.”
The arrival of so many Chinese businesses, almost every one of them with a Thai partner to meet restrictions on foreign ownership, has driven up land rental prices.
Unable to compete with deep-pocketed Chinese expats, many Thai business owners who can't afford the higher rents go out of business. Only local Thais who operate food stalls that don't require rented land are surviving, according to longtime Huai Khwang residents.
Pabua said that the rising prices are centered on condominium costs. Lower-tier apartments are still relatively affordable for Thais, with monthly rents ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 baht, she said, or about $82 to $273.
This price range suits many Thais, whose average monthly income is around $382, according to the Department of Employment's statistics. Those prices also attract Chinese nationals, who make up roughly 50% of the residents in her apartment complex, Pabua estimated.
Bangkok condo rents, which decreased during the pandemic, have now surged to new highs. Data from The List, a real estate site, from February 2020, show a median monthly rent in Huai Khwang of $409. As of May 1, 2023, the rental prices for all condominiums in Huai Khwang averaged around $622, according to property aggregator Dotproperty.
Former real estate agent Chitipat Inna, who specializes in representing properties in Huai Khwang and nearby areas, said that most of his rental clients are Chinese, often seeking short-term leases of three to six months.
Chinese buyers appear undeterred by the rising prices.
Pabua, whose apartment in Huai Kwang costs $136 per month, said, "It's no surprise that most condo renters are Chinese, as they often have a larger accommodation budget. Many Thais simply can't afford such rents."