Away from the Thai capital’s big-ticket attractions, a once-overlooked part of town is blossoming as never before.
Just a few years ago, the only reasons for visitors to hop across to the Thonburi side of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River were for a quick tour of Wat Arun or to check in to one of the area’s waterfront hotels. Thonburi was a simple, short-on-sights Bangkok suburb whose sleepy residential neighborhoods belied its brief 18th-century tenure as the Siamese capital. In recent years, however, the area has stepped into the spotlight with the debut of mega-mall Iconsiam and a smattering of old warehouses rejuvenated as creative hubs. And now that the months-old extension of the MRT Blue Line has put Thonburi within easy reach of popular neighborhoods like Silom and Yaowarat, there’s even more reason to cross the water and discover its charms, both old and new.
What to See
When Thonburi became the capital in 1767, a small riverside enclave called Kudichin was set aside for Portuguese settlers relocating from the former royal city of Ayutthaya. Fast-forward to today, and this tangle of alleys huddled around the pastel-colored Santa Cruz Church is home to a tight-knit Catholic community. The area’s history is celebrated at the Baan Kudichin Museum, a 20-minute walk from the Itsaraphap MRT Station. From there, follow the narrow winding alleys past Virgin Mary shrines and colorful Portuguese tiles to the family-run Thanusingha Bakery House, whose famed Sino-Portuguese khanom farang (sponge cakes topped with raisins and dried melon) are made from a 200-year-old recipe.
Stop by the 19th-century Buddhist complex of Wat Prayoon, just a quick stroll from Santa Cruz Church, for its unique “turtle mountain temple.” Within an impressive pond, a representation of the cosmic Mount Meru is dotted with miniature shrines, bonsai trees, and sacred turtles, creating a welcome refuge from the roaring traffic just outside its gates. The dazzling white Great Chedi beside it makes for a delightful change from the ornate golden temples you find elsewhere in the city.
A short tuk-tuk ride to the east in Khlong San district, Lhong 1919 is emblematic of a wider riverside renaissance taking place in Bangkok. Here, indie boutiques and smart Thai restaurants have taken over a beautifully restored Sino-Siamese wharf, whose godowns and offices date back to the 1850s. Seek out homegrown lifestyle brand Karmakamet for candles in scents like Siamese lemongrass and ylang-ylang, or stop by Yuyuan for pan-Asian antiques and ever-changing exhibitions by local artists. At the heart of the community mall, shrouded in sweet wafts of incense and surrounded by dangling red lanterns, the Mazu shrine is still in use as a place of worship.
Where to sat
A 15-minute walk south from Tha Phra MRT Station, Talad Plu is a charming residential neighborhood seemingly lost in time. Straddling the railway leading to Thailand’s famous train market in Maekhlong, the area is known among locals as one of the best street-food hot spots in the city, and people flock here for the succulent barbecued pork rice at Sunee Khao Moo Daeng (Soi Toed Thai 25), a stall located right along the railroad tracks. Queues also snake from Khanom Wan Talad Plu, where the vendors dish out Thai-style sweet treats such as khanom chan, a layered cake of pandan and rice flour, or foi thong, syrupy golden threads of egg yolk.
Back in Khlong San, The Jam Factory is a creative compound converted from a cluster of old riverside warehouses. The table to book here is The Never Ending Summer for its authentic Thai fare in a smart, industrial-chic setting. Recipes come from owner (and star architect) Duangrit Bunnag’s family cookbook and include specialties like soft-shell crab in yellow curry and durian massaman.
Where to get your caffeine fix
As a whole, Thonburi may not be the place to seek out nightlife or avant-garde cocktails, but the area does have its share of cozy, independently run cafés. Occupying a century-old wooden house next to the Guan Yu Shrine in Khlong San, My Grandparents’ House is a nostalgic setting in which to while away an hour or two. From its living room, complete with creaking polished teakwood floors and fading family portraits, the owners’ grandchildren serve up coffee and Thai treats. Don’t let the old-school appearance fool you, because the place does a mean (and on-trend) yuzu soda, and orders are placed via a high-tech buzzer system. The bar seats here look straight out onto the turbid waters of the Chao Phraya.
A newer addition to Khlong San is Walden Home Café, whose owners have transformed an unassuming shophouse into a Parisian-style café with peeling walls and snug velvet couches. Its second floor is home to a living room–like study and small library stocked with the owners’ art books. On the menu, you’ll find the usual lattes and espressos alongside more creative concoctions such as the creme brûlée crumble latte and an espresso spiked with orange soda. Peckish? Order one of the cheese-topped toasts or a waffle with ice cream and blueberries.
Thonburi can be reached by MRT, BTS (Krungthonburi station) or via one of the many ferries crossing the Chao Phraya at multiple points along its banks. Departing every 30 minutes from Sathorn Pier, the northbound Hop On Hop Off vessels run by local operator Chao Phraya Tourist Boat regularly make a stop at Lhong 1919.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“West Side Story”).