After the destruction of Ayutthaya and before the founding of Bangkok, the city of Thonburi functioned for a short time as the Siamese capital. Today, Thonburi is merely a suburb of its younger brother. After getting absorbed by Bangkok’s relentless urban sprawl, ‘Thonburi’ now vaguely refers to the general area west of the Chao Phraya river. Walking through Thonburi’s streets today, there are still reminders all over the place that this was once, and to some degree still is, its own distinct city.
Looking for something different during my most recent visit to Bangkok, I decided to make Thonburi my base for a couple of days. I was enticed by the images of old wooden houses and scenic canals, though I had no idea how much of Thonburi actually looked like that. And of course, there’s also Wat Arun, one of the most stunning temples in all of Thailand. But most tourists see that temple, only to immediately return to the other side of the river again. During my weekend in Thonburi, I was determined to discover some overlooked gems in a district where few tourists ever venture.
The first part of this itinerary can be carried out on foot in several hours. As Thonburi is a huge district, you’ll want to take some kind of motorized transport to reach the Bang Luang canal.
Day 1: Taksin & the Thonburi Temple Trail
Let’s begin at the King Taksin memorial, right in the center of a large roundabout. This is a good way to become acquainted with the former ruler who remains such a large part of the local identity. Oddly, his large memorial appears nearly impossible to access due to the absence of any crosswalks or stoplights on the road surrounding it. At least you can still get some decent views from the overhead walkways nearby. The reason this is a good place to start is because it’s nearby some interesting temples and also the BTS Station Wongwian Yai, should you choose to come to the area from the other side of the river.
Who was Taksin?
Born in 1734, King Taksin will forever be linked with the city of Thonburi. After the fall of Ayutthaya at the hands of the Burmese, Taksin, then just a general, is credited with uniting Siam to stage an uprising against their invaders.
Taksin not only succeeded, but Siam became stronger than ever before. They absorbed their longtime rivals the Lanna kingdom (Chiang Mai) into their territory, while also taking lands as far south as Nakhon Si Thammarat. As the former capital of Ayutthaya was damaged beyond repair, Taksin made Thonburi the new capital of the resurgent Siam.
Taksin was so good at conquering territory that he started to think of himself as a god, and demanded to be worshipped as such. The conservative Buddhist society of Siam did not take kindly to Taksin’s antics, and eventually decided to execute him. His successor was Chaophraya Chakri, who renamed himself Rama I and founded the Chakri Dynasty which rules Thailand to this day. Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to the vacant land across the river, establishing the city we now know as Bangkok.
Though he only ruled for around 10 years, and went so crazy that he had to be killed by his own people, Taksin is still regarded quite fondly by the Thais. And nowhere as much as in Thonburi. Local residents still pause and bow when they pass by statues of the former king and the liberator of Siam.
Wat Phitchaya Yatikaram
Continue heading up north toward the Chao Phraya river, but turn right at the little canal along Somdet Chao Phraya Rd. You’ll soon find yourself at Wat Phitchaya Yatikaram. If you enjoy roaming around beautiful and unique temple complexes with no other tourists around, then this temple is for you.
Wat Phitchaya Yatikaram was abandoned for years before King Rama III decided to restore it in 1841. Despite being a Theravada Buddhist temple, as is the norm in Thailand, you may notice various signs of Chinese influence. The Chinese used Thonburi as a trading port since the time of Taksin, and trade with China continued to flourish throughout the 1800’s. Many of the materials used in the temple’s reconstruction efforts were actually sourced from China, giving this temple a unique hybrid feel.
Depending on your interest level in temples, you could either rush through Wat Phitchaya Yatikaram in 20 minutes, or spend up to an hour exploring and admiring the details. At the very least, climb up the central prang, or chedi. Not only is there a mesmerizing trio of golden Buddha’s in the interior, but you’ll also get a panoramic view of the wider temple complex and even some of Thonburi’s skyline in the distance.
Next you’ll want to backtrack and then continue heading in a northwest direction with the river on your right.
Wat Prayurawongsawat Waraviharn
This is yet another temple built during Rama III’s reign. While a fairly typical Theravada Buddhist temple with a large white chedi, this temple has an even more pronounced Chinese influence than Wat Anongharam. The main attraction here is a Chinese-style garden complete with turtle pond. This is the perfect place to stop for awhile and rest your legs, as we still have a lot of walking to do. Admission to Wat Prayurawongsawat Waraviharn is free.
Church of Santa Cruz
Continuing northwest for a few minutes, you’ll eventually spot the Church of Santa Cruz, built by the Portuguese. Among the Western settlements in the former Siamese capital of Ayutthaya, the Portuguese one was actually the largest, with a few thousand of their citizens living there at a time. The Portuguese assisted Siam in their resistance against Burma, and in exchange for their efforts, King Taksin granted them with this plot of land in his new capital of Thonburi. The original church was built in 1770, but after a large fire, it had to be rebuilt again in the 1830’s.
Along the Chao Phraya
After the church, head toward the river and you’ll find a nice riverside pedestrian walkway. In the distance, you’ll notice the gigantic central prang of Wat Arun – our final destination for the day. But as you’ll learn shortly, this walkway doesn’t quite go all the way there. Anyway, you still want to be heading in that direction for now.
During your walk, you’ll pass the small Kuan Yin Shrine on your left. We’ve just seen a couple of Chinese-influenced Theravada temples, but Kuan Yin is a full on Chinese Taoist shrine. The relationship between the Chinese and Thonburi goes way back, largely because King Taksin himself was half Chinese and spoke the language fluently. And as Taksin was gathering his troops to fight off Burma, the Chinese were also invading Burma from the other side. The Chinese, then, were more than happy to supply Siam with weapons and supplies to fight off their common enemy.
After Taksin’s victory, Chinese traders were more than welcome in the new Siamese capital. The Kuan Yin Shrine (also called Kuan An Keng) was built just after the establishment of Thonburi, but was later neglected for years. Fortunately, the old shrine is being taken care of now and is worth a look for its nice mural paintings.
Continue heading down the same riverside walkway until you reach the much larger Wat Kalayanamitr.
Wat Kalayanamitr is yet another Thonburi temple constructed during the reign of King Rama III in the 1800’s. And again, the Chinese influence here is obvious. You may be wondering why so many of Rama III’s temple were so inspired by Chinese architecture and design. Basically, Rama III was a major Sinophile, and thanks to prior relations with Taksin, trade with China continued to boom throughout the 19th century.
Inside the temple you’ll find a massive seated golden Buddha, which is more typical of a Thai temple than the Chinese exterior. Despite being so close to Wat Arun, this temple receives few visitors, so it’s another good opportunity to rest your legs before the next part of the journey.
Onward to Wat Arun
One would think that, when walking down a path with the area’s most famous landmark visible just up ahead, that same walkway would eventually take you there. But no. The riverside walkway we’ve been enjoying up until now simply ends at the Bangkok Yai canal!
During my visit, I looked at the map and just tried to find my way to the nearest major bridge. But I couldn’t even do that. After walking through a construction site, I’d reached a dead end. Finally, I saw a sign for Wat Arun, indicating I needed to walk over the concrete thing pictured to the right. I did that, only to end up in some monks’ living quarters. It was an otherwise unremarkable temple called ‘Wat Moli Lokayaram Ratcha Worawihan.’
I asked some of the monks, who were obviously curious as to what a random foreigner was doing outside their dormitory, how to get to Wat Arun. They pointed me in the right direction, but I still had to walk through a number of narrow back alleys, nearly getting lost again. Somehow, I finally made it to a main road from where it was clear I needed to turn right to find Wat Arun.
The city planning of many Thai cities, Bangkok especially, reflects the Thais’ deep aversion to getting anywhere on foot. The concept of walking for pleasure just doesn’t exist here. And sometimes if you dare try, the city will do its best to punish you.
Honestly, you may just want to visit Wat Arun another day. You could come by taxi, or by river boat after visiting the Grand Palace on the other side. Or, if you want a true Bangkok/Thonburi experience like the one I described, do your best to follow my footsteps. Wat Arun, at least, is spectacular enough to reward your efforts.
I’ve already covered Wat Arun in depth here. But here’s a basic rundown: There was a minor temple on the spot even before Thonburi became the Siamese capital. But Taksin took a liking to it while cruising down the river at dawn, hence it’s ‘Temple of the Dawn’ moniker. Taksin made it the most prominent temple of the city and even placed the revered Emerald Buddha image here after capturing it from Vientiane.
Architecturally, the five prangs – one tall one surrounded by 4 smaller ones – is a representation of the mythical Mt. Meru, home of the gods. But the temple didn’t look quite as spectacular during Taksin’s day as it does now. The prangs were expanded by none other than King Rama III. Though referred to as the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun is especially popular in the late afternoons and evenings. The temple closes at 17:30 and costs 100 baht to enter.
The Khlong Bang luang Artists House
After Wat Arun, the Khlong Bang Luang Artist House is the other essential site to see in Thonburi. It’s in a completely separate area from the riverside temples covered above, so you’ll definitely want to go on a separate day. Coming from within Thonburi, it’s best to take a taxi or Uber. The house is now a popular spot on many Bangkok canal tours, but be sure to ask ahead if you decide to reach it via boat tour.
The Artist House (or Baan Silapin) was established fairly recently, in 2010. If it seems older, that’s because the house it’s in dates back to over 200 years ago. Judging by the other wooden houses along the khlong (canal), the whole neighborhood is likely about the same age. As many of Thonburi and Bangkok’s canals have been filled in and paved over to make way for new development projects, Khlong Bang Luang is one of the few areas left which maintain the area’s traditional charm.
This particular canal now gets a lot of visitors from both within Thailand and abroad, and local entrepreneurs have taken advantage by setting up cafes and gift shops along the old wooden boardwalk. The Baan Silapin, especially, attracts visitors who come for the taste of history combined with the quirky contemporary art sculptures. But the house also features a coffee shop. Sit back, relax and look out at the water for a rare moment of peace in one of Asia’s most hectic metropolises.
If you can make it, get here for the daily 14:00 puppet show rendition of the Ramakien, or the Thai Ramayana. The performance takes place in front of an ancient chedi dated back to the days when Ayutthaya was still the Siamese capital.
After the show, have a walk around the rest of the canal and grab some lunch at one of the area’s numerous food stalls. On the way back to the main road, you may want to stop by a small rustic temple called Wat Kamphaeng.
You’re likely to find yourself all alone at this charming Ayutthaya-era temple. Well, except for a local community of cats. While perhaps not in the best condition, it’s a nice change from some of the more gaudy and refined temples of central Bangkok. There are a number of different structures to pop your head into, one of which is notable for housing about a dozen duplicates of the famed Phra Bang statue – the palladium of Laos which once stood in Wat Arun.
Is Thonburi Worth Staying in?
While Wat Arun and the canal houses are absolutely worth visiting even if it’s your first time in Bangkok, actually staying in Thonburi is better suited for those coming to Bangkok for their second or third trip. Put simply, it’s inconvenient and time consuming to get from Thonburi to the more noteworthy sites on the other side of the river, and then back again. You should really only stay in Thonburi if you want to be focusing on the sites listed above during your trip.
I left Thonburi with mixed feelings. Obviously, I enjoyed all the temples and canals mentioned above, and Wat Arun is one of my favorite temples in all of Thailand. But the rest of my experience was not all that enjoyable. I’d come to Thonburi expecting a large part of the district to look like Khlong Bang Luang, but I was disappointed to find out it was just limited to that one small area.
Out of curiosity, I’d walk in the direction of other canals I saw on Google Maps, hoping to find some charming old houses. Instead, I’d only find dirty brown water that was being used as a communal garbage dump. Needless to say, most of these smaller canals reeked horribly.
As for the parts of Thonburi not along the Chao Phraya River or the Bang Luang canal, well, it’s pretty much your typical overcrowded, hot and dusty Bangkok suburb. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m not a big fan of Bangkok in general. That’s one of the reasons I like to try out new areas when I happen to pass through, hoping to find somewhere that can change my opinion. While Thonburi was certainly a unique experience compared with staying in a typical touristy district, I didn’t find the locals very welcoming or happy to see a farang in their neighborhood. On the bright side, Thonburi at least has some incredibly cheap accommodation.
The area of Thonburi itself is huge, and its borders are not even clearly defined. As mentioned above, ‘Thonburi’ nowadays pretty much means the whole area west of the Chao Phraya. Overall, Thonburi is a very working class area so if you’re looking for luxury or convenience, it may not be for you.
Thonburi does at least, have a few BTS stations and convenient bus lines. Look for a place near one of the station or as close to the river as possible. That way you’ll be able to take advantage of Bangkok’s express boat system.
Bangkok is incredibly well-connected to other major cities and airports around the world. The city has two airports: Suvarnabhumi, the main international airport, and Don Muang, which mostly services smaller budget airlines.
Coming from anywhere within Thailand is even easier, as most places around the country have direct bus and train lines to the city. Domestic flights through airlines like Nok Air or Air Asia are very affordable as well. If you book far enough in advance, you can reach Bangkok from places like Chiang Mai for as little as $30 USD one-way.