Dig into the oldest part of Bangkok
Published/Last edited or updated: 6th September, 2017
Many visitors feel like they’ve “done” Bangkok after hitting the big-name attractions in the historic district, perusing the malls, taking a ferry up the Chao Phraya River and maybe munching on some street food. Few of them know about the more modest but equally intriguing slice of the city that exists on the west side of the river in the oldest part of town: Thonburi.
With a name thought to derive from “Bang Makok” (bang means village and makok is a type of tropical nut), the original Bangkok was probably located at what is today part of Bangkok Noi district in Thonburi. Prior to the 18th century, it was little more than a stop-off point for sailors travelling north up the Chao Phraya to the old Siamese capital at Ayutthaya.
Before a canal was dug in the 1500s that redirected the river to its current path, the Chao Phraya flowed much further west in a horseshoe-shaped loop along a waterway that is now the Bangkok Yai and Bangkok Noi canals. The villages nestled along these and other canals did not become known as Thonburi, meaning “Fortified City,” until King Narai commissioned Vichai Prasit Fort in the 1660s. Parts of the fort’s thick white walls still stand beside the river.
After the fall of Ayutthaya and a successful series of counter attacks that repelled the Burmese in the 1770s, the leading Siamese general, Taksin, became king and built a new palace close to Vichai Prasit Fort, briefly making Thonburi capital of Siam. In the process he made Wat Arun a royal temple now famous for its towering spires, a signature Bangkok landmark. Nowadays, this wat is the only part of Thonburi that most travellers ever set foot on.
Although Taksin’s dynasty lasted barely more than a decade, Thonburi remained an independent province all the way until the late 20th century when Bangkok officially enveloped it. Many locals still harbour a notable reverence for King Taksin while retaining a more traditional lifestyle, which is disappearing among the malls and office towers of central Bangkok.
Patchwork of religions
King Taksin’s plan for developing Thonburi as the capital included allocating riverside land to groups of foreigners who assisted in the defence of Siam. Portuguese Catholics built Santa Cruz Church; a Muslim community established Ton Son Mosque; and the Chinese set up Guan Yu Shrine while also contributing to Thai temples like Wat Kalayanamit and Wat Prayoon.
While the various ethnic minority groups have since assimilated under the Thai cultural umbrella, all of these historic religious buildings can be visited on a walk between Wat Arun and Memorial Bridge. If you only have one day to hang around Thonburi, this is a fine way to spend it.
Life on the canals
Dozens of canals, or khlong, splinter from the wider waterways and thread through the area, giving Thonburi a claim to the old nickname—“Venice of the East”—once used to describe all of Bangkok. Grannies and cats lounge on canal-side stoops as kids dive in and postal workers deliver mail by boat.
As the khlongs east of the river were cleared of all but large ferries and dredging barges, Thonburi’s canals still support a culture of small boats that’s roughly as old as Thai civilisation itself. Vendors chug along selling noodle soup, fresh vegetables and coconut ice cream direct from their sampans, and the floating markets at Khlong Lat Mayom and Thaling Chan thrust an ancient Thai tradition into the modern era.
Thonburi’s most popular tourist activity, by far, is taking a longtail boat ride along the canals with a stop at Wat Arun and maybe the Royal Barges Museum. You can arrange private boats at the busiest river ferry piers, including Sathorn, Tha Tien and Phra Arthit, for around 1,500 baht per hour. Alternately you could go for a full-day canal tour to some of the more offbeat spots. Accessible without a boat, the Artist House at Khlong Bang Luang is our go-to place to soak up the canal-side atmosphere while also enjoying a traditional puppetry show, held on most days at 14:00.
For those who aren’t up for the boat rides, one of our favourite ways to explore Thonburi is to pick an obscure attraction and try to find our way there on foot. More often than not, the walk through some little-known neighbourhood turns out to be the most intriguing part. Some parts of the area are also conducive to cycling, and Cafe Velodome over in Rattanakosin arranges affordable bicycle tours of Bangkok Noi.
If following our lead, expect to pass century-old houses and even the odd rickshaw on the way to the candied bael fruit village at Soi Mathum; the flute village of Baan Lao; and the Baan Bu bronze village, which is a stone’s throw from some of Bangkok’s most exquisite 19th century murals at Wat Suwannaram. You’ll also pass through a picturesque Chinese-Thai hood on the way to Princess Mother Memorial Park and Guan Yu Shrine, which bags you river views framed by Chinese lanterns.
Further west, it’s a worthwhile walk to the giant canal-side Buddha images and breathtaking emerald glass chedi at Wat Khun Chan and Wat Pak Nam, one of the largest temples in Thonburi. Khlong Bang Luang is worth mentioning again in this context; wander beyond the Artist House to find generations-old noodle shops and one of the more haunting temples in Bangkok: Wat Kamphaeng. Even the street running behind Wat Arun packs an unexpected punch of culture.
Markets a plenty
Thonburi also delivers on the food front by way of multiple markets and local-style eateries. A great place to start is Wang Lang Market, which is easy to reach by river ferry and puts you close to some offbeat attractions like Siriraj Medical Museum and Wat Rakang. Walk a kilometre west from Wang Lang to find a pair of authentic neighbourhood wet markets: Phran Nok and Bangkok Noi. The latter stretches across the road from the tiny Thonburi Railway Station, servicing a couple of daily trains to Kanchanaburi.
Across the Chao Phraya from Chinatown and accessible by cross-river ferry, a clutch of food stalls and shops fronting Tha Din Daeng Pier are also worth your while. Further south down the river, Khlong San Night Market is a compact cluster of clothing and food stalls with some low-key bars that are ideal for an early evening beer by the river. From there you could stroll south to the art and design hub, The Jam Factory, or take the skytrain west for loads of street food with a Chinese-Thai flare at Talad Phlu.
Another major street food hub revolves around the equestrian statue of King Taksin at Wongwian Yai, the “Big Traffic Circle” at the heart of Thonburi. If you want to go deeper into old-style Central Thai life to the west of Bangkok, stroll over to Wongwian Yai Railway Station to catch a train on the Mahachai Line, an obscure set of track offering an great day trip down to a major fishing centre along the Gulf coast.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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