Kanchanaburi and Erawan
Kanchanaburi: A weekend getaway on the River Kwai
Hot on the heels of our trip to Ho Chi Minh City, up stepped Kanchanaburi.
One thing we’ve learnt about living in Bangkok is that, while there are literally hundreds of amazing places to visit in Thailand, many of them require a pretty concerted effort to get to. Chiang Mai: flight or overnight train. Krabi: flight. Phuket: flight. Most islands: flight, bus, ferry. With only a few days to spare and with a lot of airport time already logged for work, we were looking for something a bit more straightforward.
Located about 150km west of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is best known outside Thailand as the setting for the Bridge on the River Kwai, and as one of the most brutal sites of the Thai-Burma Death Railway constructed by Allied prisoners and local workers during WWII.
None of which particularly screams relaxing mini break, but there’s plenty more than grim historical significance to be said for Kanchanaburi, as we shall now explore.
First of all, getting there is fun in its own right. The best way of getting to Kanchanaburi is by train, from Bangkok’s Thonburi station, across the river from Rattanakosin island. This is a little-used station with about 10 departures a day in total, and you’ll need a taxi or the Chao Praya tourist boat to get there. Outside the station is a big market where you can pick up some fresh fruit for the journey. Sellers with all kinds of fresh food also walk up and down the train, so you won’t go hungry.
Two trains leave per day for Kanachanaburi (and our destination, Nam Tok, at the end of the line) at 07.50 and 13.55, and a ticket to any destination costs 100 baht (£2.50). The trains are a throwback to a bygone age – clunking, wooden monsters that rattle and creak all the way along the line.
Obviously there is no air con, but the windows (and most of the train it seems) are open to the outside so breeze is plentiful. Taking the morning train is advisable to keep the heat down.
The journey itself is fun. It takes about 2 hours of heaving up the line past tiny stops in the middle of nowhere to reach Kanchanaburi. Bangkok’s built up bustle quickly subsides to sleepy, green countryside with rice fields, banana trees and exotic birds all around. Prepare to get a little dusty if you’re travelling in the dry season like us!
The train actually uses the line of the Death Railway from Nong Pladuk onwards, so in Kanchanaburi you get to cross the actual bridge over the river Kwai. Fun fact about the bridge – it used to be the bridge over the river Mae Klong. The Author of Bridge on the River Kwai got his rivers wrong, having never actually been there, and the book/film became so famous that Thailand changed the name of the river to take advantage of the fame. So now we have the Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai and everyone is happy.
Most people hop off in Kanchanaburi to look at the sights and the war cemetery. We, however, were in search of more tranquility and wilderness, so we stayed on board for 2 more hours as the train chugged upriver to Nam Tok, with ever more impressive scenery.
It’s a long journey, but reaching Nam Tok (literally, Waterfall) it became immediately worthwhile. Nestled on the fringes of two national parks (Erawan and Sai Yok), the village is home to plenty of floating raft houses surrounded by forest, one of which was our home for the coming days – Boutique Raft Resort.
With individual little houses literally in the river, it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the surroundings, and in a classic example of Thai value for money, it cost 6,000 baht (£150) for 3 nights (inc. brekkie) for two people. It’s also got a good restaurant with a wide range of food at reasonable prices (get the big fried rice to share!). Highly recommended.
We could have happily spent the time lazing by the river, having massages, sighing loudly and drinking brightly coloured things with umbrellas in, and we did for a day or so.
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Then we chose to head for Hellfire Pass, which although less romantic than the above was certainly very worthwhile. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Nam Tok and your hotel will likely organise transport. You won’t need a guide as the free audio guide is exemplary. Paid for by the Australian Government and entirely free, there is a small museum which details the horrors of the Death Railway – it’s very sobering but a necessary visit. You then walk along the site of the railway line itself which has been left almost as it was in 1945.
You can – but don’t have to – walk about 3km each way through the various passes, cuttings and bridge locations dug by prisoners and locals who had barely any food, water, medical provision, clothing or even shoes, working 18 hours a day for 6 months straight and under regular torture. It’s mind-boggling and emotional to look at the cuttings through hundreds of meters of hard rock, passes through thick, remote jungle and realise they were done by hand. The site is a fitting memorial and a must visit if you’re in the area.
After almost a full day at Hellfire Pass, the next day we opted for the rather more cheery surrounds of Erawan National Park, and the Erawan Waterfall.
About an hour from Nam Tok through rolling hills and forest, the Erawan Waterfall was a very pleasant surprise. It comprises seven different levels in one conjoined waterfall, and you hike from the very bottom to the very top (or as far as you fancy!). As you get higher the falls get more and more impressive – crystal clear water surrounded by lush greenery make for a very tranquil experience.
You can also swim in each of the levels which is wonderful. We recommend getting there early (we left at 9am) and heading straight for the top level to avoid the crowds that develop through the day. The top level is the best for swimming and we spent a good hour up there just basking in the warm water. You also get a free pedicure from some fairly hefty fish who love to nibble at your feet – it’s an odd sensation but don’t panic!
At the top, be sure to climb up the fall to the right hand side for a beautiful bonus pool, watching the falls cascade down from hundreds of meters above.
It takes around 1.5 hours to hike to the top, stopping at each level to marvel, and an hour down, stopping to take pictures of baby monkeys.
At the bottom there is a good range of places to eat and relax a bit after your exertions – we particularly liked the restaurant with grilled chicken (sort of in the middle) which does a good som tam, perfect for the hot weather.
Be sure to take plenty of water, towels, wear swimming gear, and buy bananas and the incredibly moreish Thai sweet rice cakes from the shops at the bottom to keep you going.
With that, our adventure to Kanchanaburi province was at an end.
A great long weekend away with history, relaxation and natural wonders – a world away from Bangkok but only a couple of hours by train.
And if that doesn’t tempt you, remember there are baby monkeys.