Bangkok off-the-beaten track
Off-the-beaten track is not the first word coming to mind when you think about Bangkok. However there is a part of the city full of cultural landmarks that most travelers skip. Thonburi is the lesser known part of Bangkok. A quick crossing of the Chao Phraya river brought us to discover local markets and scores of Buddhist, taoist and catholic temples. All that with no tourists around!
Reaching Thonburi by boat
In some cities, it requires extra effort to reach the neighborhoods where you can observe and feel the authentic life of locals.
Surprisingly, it just took us to embark on a small commuter ferry at the Ta Chang pier next to the Royal Grand Palace. In less than 5 minutes, we crossed the mighty Chao Phraya river and disembarked in Thonburi.
Usually, most tourists stay on the eastern side of the river with the obvious landmarks to visit: the Royal Place, the Flower market, China-Town and the temple of the reclining Buddha. These are totally worth visiting too but you might want to see another side of the capital city.
On the western side of the river, we were the only farangs (foreigners in Thai) and felt truly immersed in the life of locals.
Historically, this bank of the river broadly corresponds to Thonburi, the first location of the new capital city built by King Taksin. After Burmese troops invaded and burned down Ayutthaya in the north of present Thailand in 1767, this King decided to build a new capital south of the Kingdom.
Just walking out of the pier, we started wandering in the narrow streets.
We sat in a modest restaurant proposing a single but succulent dish: a spicy soup with slices of beef and herbs. In Thailand (and Asia overall), I believe that the best eateries are not to be found in fancy modern restaurants.
Going back on the street full of Thai flags hanging over our heads, we completed our lunch with a chicken skewer mixed with pieces of pineapple and green peppers from a street grill. In Thailand it is recommended not to fill yourself too much in the restaurant because street foods will tempt you at every corner.
Then, we entered in the narrow streets forming the Wang Lang open air market where we were the only foreigners. We could observe locals doing their business while sipping a water-melon shake.
Wat Rakhang temple
We then made a stop at the Wat Rakhang temple next to the pier where we arrived.
King Taksin built his residence close to this temple when he set up a new capital city after the fall of Ayutthaya in the mid 18th century. Soon after, he decided to renovate this temple, which is actually listed as a secondary “royal temple”.
This royal character is marked by the presence of a tall white prang, these fine spiring tower inspired by Khmers.
Looking inside the main hall, we could observe dozen of monks in their orange dress praying together in the main hall. It look like they were reciting loud sutras, the holy Buddhist texts.
Locals would sit outside the entrance and do the same.
Again, I could not help but notice that we were the only travelers around.
The atmosphere was very different from other famous temples where there are a lot of tourist crowds and no monks. Here, it felt very authentic!
Wat Arun: the famous temple of Dawn
We then took a tuk-tuk taxi to head a bit south along the river and visit one of the most famous Wat (temple compound in Thai), the Wat Arun. The name literally means the “Temple of Dawn”.
Usually, it is the only landmark for which most tourists cross the river.
The Wat Arun was named in honor of Aruna, the Indian God of dawn and is recognizable by its central prang measuring 82 meters. As said earlier, prangs are Thai adaptations of the spire towers of the Khmer empire that you can see in Angkor temples (Cambodia).
This central prang symbolizes Mount Meru, the center of the world in the Buddhist cosmology.
The whole temple is covered with fragments of Chinese porcelains and shells offered by residents of the district.
Actually, this Wat is even more impressive if you see if from the opposite bank of the river at dusk. Then it is enlightened and start glittering in gold. We could not experience it unfortunately.
Taoist Chinese shrine of Kuan Yin
Just south of the Wat Arun following the river shore, you will find the Taoist shrine of Kuan Yin. It will bring you instantly back to ancient China!
The teak wood-work of the building is outstanding and well-preserved. The presence of a Chinese temple is not illogical since the Chinatown district is located on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya river.
Santa Cruz Catholic Church
Walking a few minutes more along the river shore towards the south, we arrived at the Santa Cruz Catholic Church with its reddish dome. This is one or the only Christian monument that we saw during our stay in Thailand.
You might wonder why a Catholic church was built there? It is a legacy of the good relations between Siam, the former name of Thailand, and Portugal starting back in the 16th century.
As a major trading power in Asia, the Portuguese were the first Western people to establish exchanges with what was then the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1511.
After King Taksin moved his capital to the present location of Bangkok, he rewarded Portuguese missionaries and traders with this piece of land.
Wat Kalayanamist temple
Finally, we ended our day with the Wat Kalayanamit Buddhist temple and its giant golden Buddha.
This temple was awarded by the Thai King to the Chinese community of Bangkok in the 19th century. China was an important trade partner and a counter-weight to European growing influence in South East Asia at that time.
The architecture is mainly Thai but with chinese influence in the compound of the temple.
Our highlight was to sit in front of the giant golden Buddha in the main praying hall. Really impressive!
Again there were mostly locals coming to pray and no tourists around despite being at the start of high season in December!
Overall, we found Thonburi district very authentic and diverse. It offers a good alternative to the other most well known side. It is definitely worth giving it at least half a day of your stay!