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Directly west of the Chao Phraya, away from the glitzy shopping malls and tourist hotspots of Bangkok proper, comparatively low-key Thonburi is an entirely different shade of Bangkok.
On this side of the river, friendly vendors sell noodles from old wooden paddle-boats that cruise the area's elaborate web of khlongs (canals), locals ride bicycles through leafy alleyways, and historic but little known temples tower above old teak wood homes where grandmothers laze on porches built by their grandfathers. You could say it's a great place to experience the more traditional or old school side of Bangkok, but we prefer to think of Thonburi as Bangkok with its guard down.
Technically speaking, Thonburi is a fairly small, specific district of Bangkok province, but the Thonburi area is more generally considered to include everything west of the Chao Phraya from Nonthaburi province in the north all the way down to Phra Phradaeng in the south.
Arun Ammarin, Bangkok Noi, Bangkok Yai and Khlong San are a few of the better-known neighbourhoods within this area. The BTS sky train only reaches into the southern Khlong San area, so most of the transport within Thonburi comes in the form of taxis, tuk tuks and boats, although unlike in much of Bangkok, Thonburi is still conducive to bicycles.
Way back in the days when the area of modern Bangkok was little more than thick, untamed jungle, Thonburi was an important riverside garrison where merchants and warriors came to stock up on produce, seafood, rice and spices. The original village of Bang Kok (meaning "village of plums") was located in what's now a part of Thonburi before a canal was dug in the 1500s to shorten the voyage for boats navigating the Chao Phraya, which at that time ran in a horseshoe shape through what's now Thonburi.
Over time, the river entirely changed course to encompass this canal, leaving only Thonburi's Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai canals to occupy the Chao Phraya's original path. Thonburi's extensive canals continue to be used as thoroughfares today, and the postal addresses of many homes are still on khlongs rather than roads. Exploring the charming villages that still thrive along these waterways by hired longtail boat is one of the area's most popular tourist activities.
Thonburi had a short-lived stint as the capital of the Siamese empire when King Thaksin chose it as the site of his new palace in 1767 after re-claiming the area from the Burmese. Thaksin lasted only a decade as monarch before being replaced by another general, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I), who moved the capital across the river to where it remains today in modern Bangkok. Evidenced by a monument dedicated to him at the bustling Wongwian Yai roundabout, "King Thaksin the great" is still widely revered in Thonburi.
Aside from its star attraction of Wat Arun, Thonburi boasts a handful of worthwhile art galleries and museums, many outstanding local restaurants, funky cafes and colourful markets -- both on land and floating -- and a generous supply of historic temples peppered amid sleepy old neighbourhoods that include one of our favourite places in all of Bangkok: Khlong Bang Luang artist village.
Above all else, perhaps, Thonburi is a rewarding place to get lost in flower-lined alleys and canals while soaking up the laid-back atmosphere and photogenic scenery of one of Thailand's most underrated destinations.