3 DAYS IN KANCHANABURI
Updated: May 28, 2020
While I'm still in love with Bangkok, its nice to get out of the city for the weekend and Kanchanaburi is just a few hours away by train. The train is basic, very inexpensive and a good way to see a bit of the countryside. The town of Kanchanaburi isn’t very big and as far as tourism goes, there are temples in the surrounding hills, Erawan National Park a little over an hour away and lots of little coffee shops, restaurants, bars and guesthouses but the biggest draw to the area is it’s history and the 'Bridge Over River Kwai'. My first morning, my driver Thang and I set out to visit Wat Tham Pu Wa, a Buddhist temple just outside of town. From the outside, the building is an intricately carved, terracotta temple that is fairly small compared to a lot of the other temples I'd already visited in and around Bangkok. The first prayer platform looked a little bland compared to the exterior but just beyond that, there was a set of stairs leading down. This is where the interior beauty of the temple outshines the exterior in a big way. The set of stairs led me into a large cave system. The temple that greeted me below was one of the most stunning places I’ve visited in Thailand so far. The first level is a cavernous, cathedral like space with stalactites dripping from the cave ceiling and natural light flooding in from an opening in the ground above. There is a quiet, peacefulness to the space. A monk softly chanting with a visiting family only added to the calm and beauty of the scene. The lower part of the cave has other various prayer and offering places and is backlit in white and blue light to highlight just how spectacular the space is.
After the temple, Thang dropped me off on the far end of the famous 'Bridge Over the River Kwai'. Admittedly, my knowledge of WWII is mainly limited to events in Europe, Pearl Harbour and the atomic bombs in Japan. History class glossed over the rest so the backstory of the bridge and the history of the war across South East Asia were a bit of a blank for me. I thought the bridge would be more of a relic and an unused section of track. I expected to see mamorials deditcated to the thousands of prisoners of war who suffered and died during the railway's construction and a more somber atmoshphere. In reality, it is still a functioning rail line, crowded with tourists taking selfies until the train rolls through and everyone crams off to the sides of the platform. The train rolls over the bridge slowly, just incase someone gets too close trying to get another picture. The tourists on the side of the tracks photograph and film the train as it passes and the tourists on the train film and photograph the tourists and river underneath. Then the train goes away and the crowds swarm the tracks again. The bidge's history is a violent one and very much a real story but over the years the Hollywood element has creeped in. The bridge, and another wooden sister bridge previously destroyed, didn't acually cross a river Kwai at all. They crossed the Mae Khlung river. 'Kwai' is also a misspelling of the Thai word 'Khwae', meaning river. When the book and original movie spurred tourism in the area and there was no 'River Kwai' to see, the name of the section of the river was changed in 1960 to Khwae Yai or 'Big river' to help the tourism industry thrive by matching the real site to its fictional name.
After leaving the bridge and the little industry popping up around it, I walked over to the much quieter Death Railway Museum. The museum isn’t very big but very informative and well laid out. Not knowing much about it, I learned the railway’s purpose was to support the Japanese army in their take-over of Asia and move supplies easily for the war effort. I was surprised to learn how many British, Australian and American soldiers were prisoners there, forced to work on the construction of the line. The museum is a must-visit if in town and very informative lesson that was left out in school. Right across the street is one of two cemetery's dedicated to the soldiers who died while working on the railway.
The second morning was another early one, this time on a bus to Erawan National Park, another hour and a half north of Kanchanaburi. The spot is popular among tourists as well as locals, especially on the weekend. The first two levels are completely open and a short walk from the park entrance. The first two levels are most popular with families and friend groups looking for a casual day out. These levels of the falls are the only part of the area that allow food and drinks to be brought in. After the second level, you can either check your food and drinks, throw them out or have your water bottle numbered and checked so just in case you leave it behind, they know where to send the fine. While I thought it was a little ridiculous to check in the grilled corn I just bought as a snack, I do appreciate the commitment to preserving the park and keeping it clean. There are so many people going through there that it would be a disaster if they didn’t. So I finished my corn then started the rest of the hike. The day before, Thang gave me a few recommendations on the trip - go early, head to the top before it gets too busy and once you are in the water, don’t stay still too long. The fish in there bite. From the first tier of the falls to the seventh took about an hour and a half to climb with only a few quick stops for photos. The total drop of falls is about 1500 metres form top to bottom and the hike gets tougher with each level. As per every other hike I’ve done in the last few months, it rained. The trail was muddy and wet but thankfully much less slippery than the hike to Materuni falls.
The trail to the top tier was the roughest but got considerably easier when I stopped caring if my shoes got wet. At a certain point, the trail and waterfall become one but Thang was right, it was worth heading to the top first. By the time I made it, I was definitely ready for a swim and it wasn't too busy yet. The seventh tier has a few different spots to swim around in but my favourite was the small cave under the smaller section of the falls. Since I am solo most of the time, I'm always setting up a tripod or trying to prop up my camera or phone to get a picture of myself to prove I was actually there. Once again, Thang was right - I was sitting on the rocks checking a stream of less than flattering photos when I felt the first bite. Not the kind of bite that actually hurts or draws blood, more of an unexpected pinch. I’ve never been to a foot spa where the little fish eat away at the dead skin on your feet but I can only assume the feeling might be similar. The difference is at the falls, the fish are larger, and by quite a bit in some cases. I came to the conclusion that fish spas are probably not for me, and am glad none of the larger fish got curious enough to come over and give me a try.
On my last morning, I went over to On’s Thai Issan restaurant for a cooking lesson. Thai cuisine is one I’ve always enjoyed but it also seemed much too daunting for my limited kitchen skills. As it turns out, its not overly difficult. It's all about the right ingredients and timing. I got to pick 4 items off the menu to learn to make - Tom Yam soup, Penang Curry (my favourite Thai dish), Pad Thai and coconut sticky rice for dessert. The whole lesson plus eating time took about two hours and hopefully I learned enough to make the Penang curry again on my own!
Tom Yam Soup
Coconut sticky rice with banana and mango
With a stomach full of more food than a normal person should eat, I rolled myself back to the train station, and settled into my food coma most of the way back to Bangkok.