Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
Updated on 5th March, 2013. First published 3rd March, 2013
It's been called 'Bangkok's Brooklyn' -- an area west of the Chao Phraya River where artsy youth hang loose with grannies and grampas in century-old houses. Unlike swiftly transforming central Bangkok, most of the neighbourhoods perched along Thonburi's canals and alleyways haven't changed much over the past century. Foreign tourists are still a novelty, but those willing to stray from Bangkok's comfort zones are rightly rewarded.
Although it's not known exactly where the name came from (some say it derives from Bang Ko, or 'village of plums'), the original 'Bangkok" village was situated in what's now the Bangkok Yai and Bangkok Noi parts of Thonburi, making these the city's first areas to be settled. In those days, the Chao Phraya River flowed in a horseshoe shaped path to the west before cutting north towards Ayutthaya.
Heading into a typical Thonburi neighbourhood.
In the 1500s, a south-to-north running canal was dug to shorten the journey by boat from the Gulf of Thailand up to Ayutthaya. Over time, the strength of the current overtook this canal, effectively altering the Chao Phraya's path. The river's original horseshoe is now known as Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai khlongs, or canals. Temples and villages along these watery avenues, many of which still stand today, continued to serve as 'Bangkok" for another 200 years. Only when King Narai ordered the Vichaiprasit Fort to be built along the Chao Phraya's western bank in 1665 did the area become known as Thonburi, or 'Fortified City'. Parts of the old fort still stand today.
Bangkok Yai Canal -- ancestor of the Chao Phraya.
After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, the warrior-turned-king Taksin established his new palace and capital close to Vichaiprasit Fort, and for a brief stint Thonburi served as the capital of the Siamese Empire. Though the grounds of his palace and the fort are now home to Thai naval headquarters, a monument to Taksin stands imposingly today at Wongwian Yai roundabout in the heart of Thonburi. One of Bangkok's busiest bridges, Saphan Taksin, was also named after the former king (not a certain former prime minister in exile).
Wat Arun became Taksin's royal palace, and today its soaring ceramic spires remain Thonburi's only large-scale tourist attraction. It's the only slice of Thonburi ever seen by most visitors to Bangkok, but some great food, a unique coffee shop/art studio and the west side's laid back atmosphere can all be experienced in the neighbourhood behind Wat Arun.
Chillin' behind Wat Arun.
A half kilometre south from Wat Arun brings you to Wat Kalayanamit, a bustling, ornate temple with considerable influence from the many Chinese immigrants who settled here. A short walk further south leads you past Ton Son Mosque -- one of the city's oldest -- and then on to Santa Cruz Church, a relic of Thailand's first European settlers. While at Santa Cruz, don't miss a distinctive Portuguese-Chinese-Thai snack that reflects the area's distinct cultural makeup.
Hundreds of years ago, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism (not to mention Taoism, Confuciunism and to some degree, Hinduism) were all practised in this single square kilometre of Thonburi. Apart from a few tourists, tuk tuks and modern buildings, little has changed today. If temples are your thing, Thonburi has plenty more, and most are historic but rarely visited by foreigners. Wat Pak Nam and Wat Kampaeng are two very different examples, each particularly special in its own way.
Friendly khao thom vendor in Wang Lang Market.
If you have the time to explore deeper into Thonburi, a good way to start is to take the Chao Phraya express boat to Wang Lang Market, one of the finest places in Bangkok to sample street food. While here, you might also go vintage clothes shopping, or head due west to pungent and colourful Bangkok Noi and Phran Nok wet markets.
On any day, head west and/or south from Wang Lang Market to check out a range of out-of-the-way cultural sites. Within striking distance is the Royal Barges Museum, worth a passing glance en route to sampling adorable Thai sweets at Baan Luk Chup. Cross back over Bangkok Noi Canal and you're not far from the bronze-smiths of Baan Bu. After watching traditional bronze bowls torched and polished by hand, stop by Bangkok Noi Museum to learn about Thonburi's past.
Boiling the bael fruit at Soi Mathum.
Further west, get your creative juices flowing at Khlong Bang Luang artist village, so called due to it sitting along a stretch of Bangkok Yai canal that was once home to nobles (khlong bang luang translates literally to 'royal village canal'). Enjoy a traditional Thai shadow puppet performance, paint a mask or kick back with a coffee in a 100+ year-old teak wood house, and taste some fabulous noodles -- all in an 'art collective" neighbourhood that manages to capture both Thonburi's funky and traditional sides.
Just rowing along...
You might finish up with an evening at 1001 Nights Gallery to get a feel for Bangkok's underground poetry scene. For dinner, an excellent northern Vietnamese restaurant is nearby, or you could head to Talaat Phlu to get your fill of street food, including some of the city's best (and stinkiest) sticky rice with durian. If that's not enough to satisfy your inner foodie, Khlong San should do the trick.
Keep in mind that even if you're armed with a GPS and all of the directions provided in the posts linked to here, the best way to approach Thonburi is to allow plenty of time to wander and see how the locals live. Although a few main roads are quite busy, traffic is generally not as heavy and Thonburi offers a bit more breathing room than in central Bangkok, though tuk tuks and taxis are readily available if you need them.
A handful of companies offer walking and boat tours of Thonburi, but if the Portuguese could find their way around almost 500 years ago, what's stopping you today?
Related reading10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
Thailand's Mae Khlong market
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (5)
- Burma (4)
- Cambodia (19)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (14)
- All stories
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (6)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (60)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (30)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (19)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (14)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (15)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.