Thonburi, a maze of markets, wooden river homes, and ancient temples, is located across the Chao Praya River from the more polished Bangkok. It was the kingdom’s capital for about 15 years in the eighteenth century, before Rama I became the ruler and founder of the current royal dynasty.
It remained independent for nearly 200 years, before being merged with Bangkok in 1971. I had read about this short span of time in Thai history during my pre-trip research, but it wasn’t until I saw the Thonburi Food and Canals Adventure advertised by our friends at Bangkok Food Tours that I added this part of town to our itinerary.
We met our guide at the BTS Skytrain Talad Phlu station and traveled a short distance by local taxi – meaning in the back of a covered pick up truck – to Thonburi center. This is a small area crammed with street food stalls and open-air restaurants. Only a few steps in and we came upon a dumpling cart showcasing an unbelievable range of delectable delights (photo above). Our guide picked a few out for us and we went on our way to the first restaurant – a glorified “meat and three,” Thai-style. It was still morning and our guide explained to us that the Thai people don’t really do breakfast – that is, they eat a meal in the morning, but they don’t have many foods that are designated as purely breakfast foods. (FYI – you’ll usually fresh find cow’s milk or bread only in hotels or restaurants that cater to Westerners.) This is why we chose a spicy a pork stir fry as our first meal of the day. We sat down and shared our stir fry, along with the dumplings we bought previously. As you can see (below), the fanciest meal option, featuring more food than anyone could possibly eat, topped out at 30 Baht (US $0.85 or UK £0.69). We chose the lightest meal, as we had a full day of eating ahead of us.
We wandered around the center for a little longer, taking in the sights and smells of food vendors along the old train platform, waiting for trains to pass with hungry passengers coming into Bangkok from the countryside for work or to deliver food and goods. What better way to start the work day than roasted chicken on a stick or a whole fried fish? We stopped again in a restaurant known for its beef shin soup. As in other parts of Asia, the slow-cooked meat and broth are the stars of the dish, though you could season it to your liking with the wide array of sauces and spices that adorned each table.
We set off again for Talad Phlu market (or Talat, variations based on region of author), which is a true local market, serving the historically Chinese population in this part of town. Here we enjoyed some lovely coconut pastries called “khanom krok” (photo of them being made below) with Thai tea (strong black tea with condensed milk), and picked up some fish food – more on that in a moment.
Next, we boarded our own long-tail boat, by which we would see the canal life hidden away to most tourists. The most efficient way to get around this part of the world is by boat and we were happy and watch monitor lizards splash into the river along the way. Fishing is not permitted near the temples along the river, so it was a great spot to stop and feed the fish, who greedily fought their way to the surface to eat every last crumb.
Our first stop was at Hua Hin Artist Village. This small community features a few restaurants, a community center, some homes, and the Baan Sillipan Artist House. (Follow the link for fantastic photos and more information.) Artists are invited from all over Thailand to stay, exhibit, and create new works while tourists like us have a look around. We were greeted by two ladies cooking sausages and what appeared to be the tips of duck wings over a charcoal fire on their food cart. Even though we had eaten so much already, we can never pass up meat on a stick. We had one of each. We took a look around the small village temple and made a donation to the monks upon leaving. We walked over to an empty, waterside café where the owner was clearly expecting us. At this point, I had stupidly decided to stop being such a tourist wanker who takes photos of everything we eat - which I regret because this woman served us the best prawn Penang curry EVER. I really wish I had a photo to remember it by. Maybe the secret is in their local river prawns? We enjoyed the curry and rice while taking in the view of the river houses and long tail boats traveling along the canal. We then walked just a few steps over to the Artist House, which featured a work/exhibition space for artists surrounded by small, riverfront shops selling anything from fruit juices to clothes to handmade soaps. There were serene spaces for artists to work, to display their art, to meditate beside their own courtyard shrine, and even a small room with benches for watching performances.
Our boat driver was waiting for us at the pier, so we journeyed out of the small canals and into the large and VERY busy Chao Praya River. Apologies for my fingers on the screen but I still can’t believe that I didn’t drop my phone into the water, it was a wild ride in a small–ish boat. That’s the Grand Palace across from us on the right, at the beginning of the video.
Our last stop of the tour was Wang Lang Market – follow the link for someone else’s great photos. This is what I envisioned when I thought about having a local tour in Thailand. This huge, crowded market is very popular with the natives and sells everything that anyone could need – meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, desserts, clothes, street food lunch boxes, juices, pet supplies, home goods - anything! We found a street food genius who was making fruity popsicles in a special contraption that would quickly freeze his creations in 90F+ heat with no electricity needed. And none of that “let’s translate everything into English for the tourists” here. The vendors are lovely and accommodating and speak some English but the permanent restaurants we found only had menus in Thai. I’m happy to point, smile, and take a chance on what gets delivered to our table – but fortunately, our guide was still with us and helped with the selections.
Below are the "to-go" lunch boxes for the local workers - fish, rice, and vegetables. And, if they aren't full after that, they can get dessert - a bag of deliciously sweet pineapple. I'm not a rocket scientist, but maybe these super affordable "real fast food" selections have something to do with why the Thai people are so slim, happy, and smiley while we in the West are, um, not...