California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Thai Town (ไทยทาวน์)

California Fool's Gold

 Thai Town
Both apsonsi and LADOT signs mark the entrances to Thai Town

This entry is about the Los Angeles neighborhood of Thai Town.

Map of Thai Town
Pendersleigh & Sons’ Official Map of Thai Town (with no attempts made at scale)
Siam Square

Siam Square

Thai Town is roughly bounded by Hollywood Blvd on the north, Normandie on the east, Western on the west, and Sunset (or Fountain by some accounts — although there’s nothing Thai south of Sunset) on the south. The neighborhood is home to about 46 Thai business, including markets, clothing shops, massage parlors, bookstores and a seemingly ever-growing number of delicious restaurants. Hollywood Boulevard is the main commercial and cultural center of the neighborhood although there are businesses of note on Sunset as well.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's Map of Hollywood
Pendersleigh & Sons’ Official Map of Hollywood

To the northwest is Franklin Village, to the north is the neighborhood of Los Feliz, to the west, east and south is Little Armenia.

Thailand Plaza

Thailand Plaza
The mighty Thailand Plaza

In 1965, the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act made it easier for Asians to move to the US. Many Thai came initially to study but ended up staying, often opening businesses in the area that became Thai Town as well as another, unnamed Thai enclave along Melrose. Pramorte Tilakamonkul opened Los Angeles’s first Thai market, Bangkok Market, in 1971 or 72 along Melrose and it still forms the nexus of a Thai enclave represented by the market and a handful of Thai restaurants located nearby.

Meanwhile, over in Thai Town, one of the fist businesses was, Hollywood Hair Design, which is still there and still run by the same owner, Tony — who’s something of a Thai Town historian. During the Asian financial crises of the 1980s, many Thai came to the US to look for work and California became the number one destination. In 1992, a group of Thai business owners and city council member Michael Woo led efforts to establish an official Thai Town. At the same time, the neon-lit, sun-faded, pigeon-defiled Thailand Plaza was constructed. Within its walls (and grimy parking lot) operate a surprising number and variety of businesses.

Freed Thai Garment Workers
Forced laborers upon being freed
Thai Celebrities
Thai celebrities

In April 1994, the Thai Community Development Center was established, which led to the creation of the Thai Town Formation Committee. The following August, the Thai CDC played a key role in the liberation of 72 Thai slaves in El Monte. By the late ’90s, Los Angeles (with roughly 80,000 Thais and Thai Chinese) was home to the largest Thai population outside of Thailand. In October 1999 the first Thai Town in the US was established, sometimes referred to as Thailand’s 77th province.

Thai Town Express
Thai Town Express (in what, I suspect, was formerly a hot dog stand)
Original Thai BBQ
Original Thai BBQ (in a location built to be a Taco Bell)

Although Thai Town is a decidedly small neighborhood, it somehow continues to support more and more Thai businesses. In Thai Town, the transfer of ownership isn’t usually accompanied by fanfare or the addition of Thai architectural elements. Usually a banner is just thrown up and sometimes the results are pretty comical, as with the Thai Town Express, located in a former hot dog stand, Red’s. An enormous hot dog with relish fading from green to gray remains.The old store, Armenia, was replaced by Nuch Royal Thai Spa. It’s always heartening to see a chain replaced by a superior restaurant. A Taco Bell became part of a smaller chain, Original Thai BBQ. Recently, an uncommonly bad Sizzler (grainy apples, biscuits like hockey pucks) finally went out of business — most likely to make way for, fingers crossed, another Thai joint.

Thai Town Marketplace
Future site of the Thai Town Marketplace

The businesses above the subway station (currently Out of the Closet and a bank) are scheduled to transform into the Thai Town Marketplace. All these new Thai restaurants join a crowded field that includes Hi Thai, Thai Town Noodle, Pa Ord, Rodded, Sanamluang, Thai Patio, Jitlada, Ruen Pair, Ganda, Vim, Ocha, Bhan Kanom, Yai, Red Corner, Sapp, Torung and others.

Wat Thai
Wat Thai (in Sun Valley, not Thai Town)

On the first Sunday in April, Thai Town celebrates Songkran, the Thai New Year. A lot of the Songkran festivities take place at Wat Thai, in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sun Valley. Whereas Thai Town is the unquestionably the commercial and cultural center of Thai-American life, Thai Angelenos more often make their homes in the San Fernando Valley communities of Sun Valley and neighboring Panorama City and Van Nuys.

People posing for pictures in Thai Town

Not surprisingly, Thai (and Thai-Chinese) restaurants have opened in those Valley neighborhoods too (often outposts of small, local chains established in Thai Town) including: Baan Thai, Bangkok Express, Cha Cha 8, Chai Thung Thai Restaurant, Fortune House, In-Chan Thai Cuisine, Khun Khao Thai Restaurant, Kinnara Thai Restaurant, Knockout Thai Noodles & Rice, Little Siam Thai Cuisine, Ocha Classic Restaurant, The Original Khun Dang Thai Restaurant, Ras Noodle, Royal Orchid, Satang Thai Restaurant, Siam House Thai Restaurant, Streets of Thailand, Tangy 1 Thai & Chinese Food, Tanon Thai Restaurant, Thai BBQ, Thai Pepper, Thai Thai Cafe, Tor Thai Food, and Vim Thai Restaurant.

Singha Beer Garden
Singha Beer Garden

In Thai Town, a less reverent celebration takes place, usually featuring parades, a 5k run, a curry festival, muay thai fights, a Sing Ha beer garden and numerous food and business stands set up in the middle of the street.

Kruang Tedd and Jumbo's Clown Room
Kruang Tedd and Jumbo’s Clown Room
Thai Town Shrine
A Buddhist Shrine in the Heart of Thai Town

When people come to LA, many are surprised at how sleepy it gets at an early hour. Thai Town is one of the few parts of the city that regularly parties till four in the morning. Kruang Tedd is a popular destination with karaoke and live music. There’s also the Relax Pub, technically located just outside of Thai Town, but only by half a block.

Thai Town Beauty Pageant

Lady Boys
Ladies of Thai Town

There’s also The Stone, which has karaoke, open mic nights, blues night and kathoey shows. Interestingly, kathoey (or ladyboys) were an (understandable) obsession of Alan Partridge, a character played by Steve Coogan, who briefly dated Hole‘s Courtney Love (less understandable), a former stripper, at famed nearby Thai Town strip joint Jumbo’s Clown Room.

A variety of music can be heard in many of Thai Town’s numerous restaurants. For years, the biggest name in Thai Town was Kavee “Kevin” Thongprecha, better known as “Thai Elvis.” For years he performed at Palms Thai, helping (along with delicious food and wonderful staff) make it the best known restaurant in the neighborhood. Many came for the kitsch and novelty at first but eventually came to genuinely appreciate the sincerity and quality of his performance. In fact, at one point he even ventured to Silver Lake‘s famed live music venue, Spaceland, where he memorably performed with a live band. Over the years, he’s even spawned imitators, but none has threatened the reign of the king. A few years ago, Palms relocated to a bigger space outside Thai Town. Kevin still performs most nights, as do many others.

At Amoeba, there used to be a Tony Jaa section in Martial Arts but at some point a decision was made to get rid of it. We also have a small selection of Thai music and movies. I don’t know much about Thai music, but I was once told that my attempts to sing Michael Jackson‘s “Human Nature” sounded more like the singing of Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre.

The parking lot DVD section at Dokya

It’s a different story at Dokya USA, which is packed with books, music, DVDs and VCDs of Thai and Thai-dubbed products. I couldn’t find any movies that were filmed in Thai Town… unless you count the many youtube videos filmed there, such as the largely uneventful Thai Town Walking. Thai Town has shown up a couple of times in TV episodes, including Anthony Bourdain‘s No Reservations, where he’s accompanied by the Noodle Whore.

There was also an episode of Huell Howser‘s show where, with chef Jet Tila, he explores several establishments in his imitable manner.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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