For fifteen years between the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 and the founding of Bangkok in 1782, the west-bank town of Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya from modern-day Bangkok, stood in as the Thai capital, under the rule of General Phraya Taksin. Its time in the spotlight was too brief for the building of the fine monuments and temples that graced earlier capitals at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, but some of its centuries-old canals, which once transported everyone and everything, have endured; it is these and the ways of life that depend on them that constitute Thonburi’s main attractions. In some quarters, life on this side of the river still revolves around these khlongs: vendors of food and household goods paddle their boats along the canals that crisscross the residential areas, and canalside factories use them to ferry their wares to the Chao Phraya River artery. Venture onto the backroads just three or four kilometres west of the river and you find yourself surrounded by market gardens and rural homes, with no hint of the throbbing metropolis across on the other bank. The most popular way to explore these old neighbourhoods is by boat, but joining a bicycle tour of the older neighbourhoods is also very rewarding (see Express boats). Most boat trips also encompass Thonburi’s imposing riverside Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun, and often the Royal Barge Museum as well, though both are easily visited by yourself, as are the small but historic temple of Wat Rakhang and the surprisingly intriguing, and child-friendly, cemetery at Wat Prayoon.
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The canals of Thonburi
The canals of Thonburi
The most popular way to explore the sights of Thonburi is by boat, taking in Wat Arun and the Royal Barge Museum, then continuing along Thonburi’s network of small canals. The easiest option is to take a fixed-price trip from one of the piers on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phraya, most conveniently from Tha Chang near Wat Pho or the River City pier off Thanon Charoen Krung. You can also charter your own longtail from these piers and others such as Tha Phra Arthit in Banglamphu and Tha Sathorn, and from many five-star riverside hotels, but bear the prices listed below in mind when negotiating and be specific about your itinerary.
Many tours include visits to one of Thonburi’s two main floating markets, both of which are heavily touristed and rather contrived. Wat Sai floating market is very small, very commercialized and worth avoiding; Taling Chan floating market is also fairly manufactured but more fun, though it only operates on Saturdays and Sundays. Taling Chan market is held on Khlong Chak Phra, in front of Taling Chan District Office, a couple of kilometres west of Thonburi train station, and can also be reached by taking bus #79 from Banglamphu. For a more authentic floating-market experience, consider heading out of Bangkok to Amphawa, in Samut Songkhram province.
Arguably more photogenic, and certainly a lot more genuine, are the individual floating vendors who continue to paddle from house to house in Thonburi, touting anything from hot food to plastic buckets. You’ve a good chance of seeing some of them in action on almost any longtail boat tour on any day of the week, particularly in the morning.