Looking for something new, but also old and authentic, in the Thai capital? Try Thonburi, Bangkok’s “left bank.” “Even the tuk-tuks here are cheaper,” says my Thai guide, Amy.
Travel writer John Borthwick discovers the joys of Bangkok’s West Side Story.
Thonburi (pronounced “Tonbury”), on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River goes unnoticed by many visitors. Having crossed the river by ferry we start our exploration in an historic, little Thai-Portuguese enclave known as Baan Kudichin aka Kudeejeen. The name means “Chinese shrine village” but we’re here more to eat cake than to pray.
We navigate narrow “soi” lane-ways past century-old teak houses to the Thanusingha Bakery, the first foreign bakery established in Siam, where the specialty is “kanom farang” — foreigner sweet. For over 200 years this family-run shop has made a traditional snack from simple ingredients — duck eggs, sugar and flour — baked in cupcake moulds.
We sample a few of the delicious tarts and then move to a nearby riverfront landmark, the domed Santa Cruz Church, built by the Portuguese-Thai community in 1770. It’s early in the day and the church isn’t yet open so we walk on to the brilliant white stupa of Wat Prayurawongsawat.
In 2005 the abbot noticed that his temple’s celebrated, 60-metre steeple was tilting. Not wanting the ancient spire to become the leaning tower of Bangkok, engineers ingeniously braced it from within. We duck inside the hollow, brick-lined stupa, a wonderfully tranquil space that also has a little museum attached.
On the riverfront walkway we find the old Kuan An Keng Chinese temple which, like the Catholic church, also dates to the 1767—1782 reign of Siam’s warrior king, Taksin the Great. He established a new national capital at Thonburi and naturally there is a shrine here to him, a handsome bronze equestrian statue.
“Venice of the East” was an early European name for Bangkok, referring to the khlong canals that linked the neighbourhoods. We board a rua hang yao — a long-tail boat — for a canal trip that bring us to the heart of old Thonburi.
On Khlong Bang Luang we hop out at Baan Silapan, aka the Artist’s House, a traditional, teak, canal-front home that’s now a gallery-theatre-café. A good Thai lunch is our opening act before watching a performance of classic Thai puppetry where the masked, standing puppeteers operate large marionettes that depict episodes from the Ramayana epic.
Our final stop is the extraordinary Royal Barges Museum that houses the crown’s longboats (“barges” isn’t adequate for these exquisite vessels). On rare, royal occasions, a parade of these stately craft progresses up the river, rowed by chanting sailors in traditional finery.
It’s one of the world’s great processions. Meantime, catch the fleet of intricate “barges” at rest or being restored in this museum, which is open to the public.