Pssst. You there. Spent a couple of days bang in the middle of Bangkok have you? Perusing Patpong market, dodging motorbikes, expiring in the fumes and the heat? Fun, ain’t it? But maybe by now you’re ready for a slightly quieter pace to go with your pad Thai.
I’ve got happy news – you don’t have to go far to find it. Good old Bangkok, she hides many surprises in the beguiling folds of her skirt. And one of them is the peaceful, traditional backstreets of Thonburi.
(Short history lesson alert:)
Bangkok hasn’t been the Thai capital for that long. It hasn’t even existed for that long in fact. Historically Ayutthaya was the most powerful city and trading post in the kingdom now known as Thailand. The remains of the ancient city are still there – Ayutthaya is a UNESCO world heritage site. But surrounding the ruins is such a provincial town it’s weird to think it was the Bangkok of its day.
Following a proper kicking from the Burmese in 1767, general Thaksin moved the capital from Ayutthaya and established a new one at the mouth of the Chao Phraya river. It was named Thonburi, derived from the words for wealth and fortress. Thonburi was an ideal trading post, offering easy access to ships from China and Europe and a vast network of khlongs (canals) for navigation. It flourished, attracting settlers from many different countries, chiefly China.
Thonburi’s stint as the capital ended when King Chakri took the throne and moved it across the river, establishing Bangkok as we know it in 1782. Bangkok boomed and bloomed and absorbed Thonburi, turning the old capital into a subdistrict of the new one.
Here endeth the history seminar. The reason I’m carrying on about it is the historic areas of Thonburi might just be my favourite parts of Bangkok.
Let’s walk it together
Come with me on a little walk we did there recently (lifted from Kenneth Barratt’s excellent 22 Walks in Bangkok). We did this walk in December which is the best time of year to be out walking in Bangkok. In the hot season (April to June) you’d want to be careful about attempting this as there isn’t much shade or air conditioning to be found along the train tracks.
The next section of the walk was pretty straightforward. We simply followed the train tracks. We followed them past traditional wooden houses, yards full of clucking chickens, and curious people sat out front who assume you’re lost when you pass by. Because generally farang don’t come here.
We followed them over a couple of canals resplendent with bougainvillea.
We ducked into a little side alley, just because, and discovered a lovely old temple.
It was so quiet. The only traffic being the odd motorbike or push bike.
Fit for a king
We reached the market at Talat Phlu and had lunch at Jeen Lee. King Chulalongkorn once ate there and enjoyed their signature dish – mee krob – so much he gave Jeen a garuda, signifying it was his favourite restaurant. Mee krob is crispy noodles fried with crab meat. Matt ordered it and found it to be mighty tasty.
After lunch we explored some of the nearby temples, including one with a shrine to King Thaksin. It was so quiet in the lanes around the temples that you could hear people running water in their kitchens and sweeping their yards. Then one of the schools finished and suddenly there were kids in uniforms chatting and laughing and squeezing in groups onto the back of motorbikes.
We headed for Pho Nimit BTS station, wending our way through the backstreets. We passed a tiny building with simple rows of small fish tanks lining the walls. Taking a closer look, we realised each tank had a single Siamese fighter fish within. The owner suddenly appeared in the doorway and seemed excited to have an audience, chatting away to us in Thai he swooped towards a tank and removed a slip of cardboard from down the side of it, thus revealing the fighter fish within to its neighbour. The fish, which had previously been hanging limp in the water like a couple of floating petals, were suddenly alert, sizing each other up. The owner grinned proudly at us, revealing a limited set of teeth.
This encounter left us a little disoriented, it had occurred so suddenly, and the next thing we rounded a corner only to see a completely open fronted house full of cages. And in each cage a Pomeranian dog, some puffed up and alert, some sleeping in the late afternoon heat. In a dark shady corner a young Thai man was almost asleep at a desk. Covering the walls behind him were mounted certificates and trophies, along with photos of dog shows where button-eyed Pomeranians stood with a proud trainer at their side. The last thing we’d been expecting to stumble upon on this walk was a champion Pomeranian breeder. It was a street of surprises.
Back on the air conditioned BTS we zoomed back towards the concrete jungle of Sukhumvit and the sleepy backstreets of Thonburi almost seemed like a dream.
But they’re there alright, waiting quietly for you to come and discover them.