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Laidback locals laze on the porches of old teak houses sliding by as our boat chugs through another of Thonburi‘s khlongs (canals); children throw food to the fish before jumping in to swim with them; elderly vendors, their faces weathered from years in the sun, cruise past on small wooden boats filled with vegetables and noodles to be sold to canal-side homes. Just across the river from Bangkok, the khlongs of Thonburi offer a glimpse into a slower pace of life.
Unlike on the east side of the river in Bangkok proper, where most of the khlongs were filled in to form roads during the 20th century, Thonburi’s canals continue to serve as important thoroughfares. Many homes have postal addresses on canals rather than roads, and the engine powered banana-boat mailman speeds through his route every weekday morning.
Though many large, noisy, diesel-fume-exerting longtail boats are now found clamouring through the larger canals, there’s still plenty of room for the old wooden row-boats of yesteryear.
Boat rides through the khlongs have become a popular tourist activity, and most end up hiring large — and noise and air polluting — longtails, paying around 1,000 baht for an hour of speeding through the canals without stopping or receiving any explanations of what’s being seen. Seeking an alternative, we discovered Pandan Tour, which offers full-day khlong tours on a smaller and far quieter teak wood boat powered by a significantly cleaner natural gas engine. The tour costs around 2,000 baht per person for adults (kids are half price) including lunch and an excellent English-speaking guide — solid value when compared to the other options.
In the old days, neighbourhood temples would have acted not only as places for monks and lay folk to meditate and pay homage to the Buddha, but also as schools and community centres. Countless temples, large and small, still loom over Thonburi’s canals.
One of our first stops was to see the relatively large Wat Sai, which features a centuries-old teak wood home believed to have been lived in by the early 18th century tyrant king, Luang Sorasak, aka the “Tiger King”.
Although hearing about the Tiger King’s pastime of beating his subjects to death in bare knuckle muay Thai fights was an interesting, if not disturbing titbit of history, I especially appreciated the second temple stop — Wat Pa Chearn Lane. Set in a more rural area further to the west, this forest meditation tradition temple is rimmed by canals, streams and lotus ponds. Its simple, open-air buildings that allow for a connection with the natural world are a pleasant break from the elaborate and wats of Bangkok.
Other stops throughout the day included Khlong Lat Mayom floating market (although it’s only in action on weekends), a pretty orchid farm and Khlong Bang Luang artist house.
Although we found each of the above to be enjoyable stops well away from the package tours, our favourite part of exploring Thonburi’s canals was simply soaking up the scenery. Pandan’s boat moved slowly enough to decipher what types of fruits were growing in the trees along the khlongs, to glimpse the colourful spirit houses perched in front of each home, and to catch the proud expression of a local boatman gliding past.
Although we wouldn’t hesitate to suggest Pandan Tour as a great way to not only see the canals but also slow down to the pace of life around them, other tours and private boats can be hired on the spot at Sathorn pier, Tha Chang pier or Tha Tien pier along the Chao Phraya Express Boat line. Otherwise, most Bangkok tour companies can prearrange a khlong tour.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 13th February, 2014.