There’s so much to see and do in Bangkok that most tourists don’t even make it across the Chao Phraya river. It’s a shame since the west bank, known as Thonburi, is considered Bangkok’s historical and cultural quarter. If you’ve had your fill of endless sois of cheap food, sights, shopping, and nightlife, come discover more things to do in Bangkok’s laid-back Thonburi district.
Thonburi Si Mahasamut, or “City of Treasures Gracing the Ocean”, was in fact the capital of Siam as ruled by King Taksin the Great after the invasion of the Burmese and fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Back then, the settlements along Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai canals grew into a bustling trading post that eventually became part of the modern-day capital. Nowadays, you’ll find dim little shops that open onto water, art studios basking in sun-drenched alleys, and the aroma of street food tempting you around every corner.
In order to eat khlong food you must first enter the khlongs. Khlong is Thai for “canal”, and Bangkok’s old city was once nicknamed “Venice of the East” for its labyrinthine system of locks and waterways transporting people, goods, and even garbage. These days, it’s the best way to avoid the gridlock on the roads and get to places a tourist could never find on foot.
The best way to find cheap and delicious khlong food is to get on a longboat tour – you can’t go wrong asking the local boatman/guide to show you his favorites. My guide from the Anantara Riverside Bangkok conjured up an assortment of kuay teow reua (boat noodles), miang kham (one-bite wrap), and khao tom (sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf), which I polished off in delight.
Learn meditation at Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen
Wat Paknam is home to Maharatchamongkol Great Pagoda, which contains all manner of Buddhist relics and has the most psychedelic interior I’ve ever seen. Seriously:
The late abbot of Wat Paknam, Phra Mongkhonthepmuni, dedicated his life to teaching Dhammakaya meditation and till today the temple is renowned for its meditation lessons, so much so that junior monks serve as interpreters for the teachers, allowing foreigners to join in.
Even if meditation isn’t your thing, the pagoda and temple, with their grand architecture and priceless treasures, are worth a visit.
Open 8am-6pm daily; pagoda elevator operates only on weekends.
Visit Baan Silapin at Khlong Bang Luang
Baan Silapin, which means “Artist’s House”, is probably the hippest attraction in Thonburi. This collective art studio-slash-gallery is where artists paint, craftspeople embroider silk, and puppet-masters lovingly create their wooden children.
Each day at 2pm (except Wednesdays) the sun-drenched courtyard and performance area welcomes visitors to watch a traditional Thai puppet show reenacting the Ramakien, a national epic derived from the myths and legends of the Hindu Ramayana. You can also get hands-on and try making your own Thai handicrafts, or head to the second floor of the 200-year-old wooden house to admire the works exhibited here.
Open 9am-6pm daily.
Find an Undisturbed Reclining Buddha at Wat Ratcha Orot
Also known as Wat Ratcha Orasaram, this secluded temple is in fact a first class royal monastery that has existed since the Ayutthaya period. Intriguingly, you won’t find any nagas or garudas here; instead, the temple roofs and interiors feature Thai-Chinese motifs as preferred by Rama III when he renovated the temple in the 17th century.
The temple also houses a reclining Buddha like the one at Wat Pho, but you can admire this one at your leisure since tourists here are few and far between.
Open 8am-5pm daily.
Shopping Withdrawal? Head to Wang Lang Market
With aisles upon crammed aisles of street food, Wang Lang market is a favorite among local students and the perfect place to fill up on a dime during a long day of exploring Thonburi. There’s also a section called Talad Naew Naew where you’ll find cheap togs and hipster-chic trinket stores.
If you have to check off the popular attractions, make sure to make time for Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), ideally at dawn or dusk when the temple basks in glowing light (Open 8.30am-5.30pm daily). There’s also the Royal Barges Museum where you can get a glimpse of the exquisitely carved and painted barges used in rare royal barge processions.
Unlike the cacophony of central Bangkok’s mapped roads, Thonburi’s streets will lose you in the pleasant hum of local life. But don’t worry and take your time – there are plenty of tuk-tuks and taxis here to take you wherever you want to go.
When to Go
October to March. April-July are the hottest months!
Getting to Thonburi District
From the city center, take the BTS (Silom Line) to Krung Thon Buri station, or alight at Saphan Taksin station and cross the Chao Phraya on an express boat. Even better, stay at one of the lovely riverside hotels here.
Disclosure: I was hosted in Bangkok for another story. My trip was sponsored by Anantara Riverside Bangkok and Tourism Authority of Thailand.