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Kanchanaburi, Thailand: History & nature bridged
by Anuj Bang, India
My first trip to Thailand few years ago was 10 days in Bangkok, Phuket & Pattaya. I then believed to have seen Thailand completely. I was proven wrong when at the last moment; I joined my dad on a short trip to Kanchanaburi. It was like going into the unknown, as I had no clue what this place was all about.
Kanchanaburi is frequented by tourists, attracted by its long history and WWII memories and also for its natural charisma with tropical forests, mountains, caves and waterfalls.
Bangkok is the gateway city to Kanchanaburi, just 130 kms. away. Bangkok has good connections to Kanchanaburi via road. As soon as we landed at the sprawling Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, we took a bus from Bangkok Southern Bus Terminals to Kanchanaburi town, taking about 2 hours 30 minutes for the journey. First class, second class and non A/c buses run every 20 minutes between the two cities. If you don't mind spending a fortune, you can hire a negotiated cab directly at the airport.
We had booked the Pung-Waan Resort & Spa for our 2-night stay in Kanchanaburi. It is a beautiful property located on the banks of river Kwai just 7 kms from town and about 3 kms from the famous bridge on the river Kwai. The word Spa in the hotel name is very important, as another hotel belonging to the same group, named Pung-Waan Resort is located 60 kms away from town. It is very easy to land up in the wrong properties.
We had 1 full day and 2 half days to explore the land. We started off with a trip to bridge on the river Kwai. This railway bridge was built during WWII, by the British prisoners of war, under the control of the Japanese. The allied forces later bombed the original bridge, as it was the main rail link for the Japanese between Rangoon in Burma & Bangkok. The bridge was rebuilt to its current structure and was opened for passenger traffic in 1976. It is a great feeling to walk over the bridge with such historical importance. From the bridge, I could witness loads of floating restaurants, stay cottages and not to forget a floating disco. After a brief stroll around the bridge, I just had the energy for a quick sip of coffee in one of the rail themed café before calling it a day.
There are various ways one could utilize a full day in Kanchanaburi. WWII buffs can spend hours together in Jeath war museum, Kanchanaburi war cemetery, Thailand - Burma railway center and many other museums, depicting the harsh lives of the POWs in Japanese camps and memories of innumerable deaths caused during the construction of the railway. We were more interested in its natural wonders than in its heart touching history. We hired an A/c cab for Baht 1,800 (at time of writing 1 THB = 0.03 USD) for a trip to Erawan National Park and Tiger temple.
Erawan National Park is 65 kms. from Kanchanaburi town. The entry fee to the park is Baht 200 per person. The national park is home to the Erawan Falls, a waterfall named after the three-headed white elephant of Hindu mythology. The seven-tiered falls are said to resemble the Erawan. It is nature at its best. Pure crystal water cascading into fresh blue ponds amidst raw tropical forests. It was an awe-inspiring trek from level 1 falls at 750 mtrs. to level 7 falls at 2,200 mtrs. above sea level. The first 4 levels of falls are an easy climb, with proper pathways and steps. The latter 3 are through forest trails, steep rocks and narrow openings. No wonder as you progress through the levels, the tourists start disappearing. For all young at heart, it is recommended to experience all the 7 levels of the falls. If you do not start early, the blue water ponds are taken over by swimming and bathing tourists, which takes away a bit of charm and photo opportunities from this amazing place.
Just 4 kms. from the park is Srinagarindra Dam. It is the largest rockfill dam with clay core in Thailand. Visitors are allowed to drive on the dam crest and enjoy panoramic views of the backwaters and the surrounding mountains. A well-maintained garden up there is a good place for picnic or short rest.
As per plans our next stop was the Tiger Temple. It is a Buddhist temple on route the Sai Yok National Park. It takes about an hour to reach there from the Erawan National Park. The temple is house to 17 rescued tigers and 5 cubs. As the tigers are brought up within the temple under the care of the monks, they are human friendly. Entry fee is Baht 500 per person. They take the fees under the name of donations for upkeep of tigers and for funding the 'Home for Tiger' project. Visitors are allowed to pet the tigers and take as many photos as they want. Extra Baht 1000 donation is required, if you want the tigers to sleep on your lap. We ended up paying the sum, for it was once in a lifetime experience. Apart from the monks, there are many international volunteers, who have devoted their full time in handling and maintaining the tigers. We did not witness any, but there are tiger shows at different time intervals for some extra donations. We had time in hand to do one or two museums (most of them are open till 6 pm), but we decided to head back to the hotel for a much deserved rest.
It would have been foolish of us to return home without taking a ride on the Death Railway. It is a special tourist train running between Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok. Only this route of the original Thai - Burma rail track is currently functional. The train makes this journey 3 times a day. We decided to take a bus from Kanchanaburi to Sai Yok Noi waterfalls (bus every 30 mins.), just 2 kms. from the Nam Tok station and board the 12.50 pm train for our return journey to Kanchanaburi. This enabled us to spend good 2 hours at the falls and also the 2-hour scenic journey on the Death Railway.
Sai Yok Noi waterfalls, is one of several picturesque waterfalls in the province, with verdant natural surroundings. At the base of the falls, there are many locals, preparing traditional banana and sweet potato delicacies. It was interesting to watch them in action. A steam locomotive from WWII era is displayed within the area as a memorial to the construction of the Death Railway. The Death Railway is a reminder of the cruel war and its painstaking construction by the Allied POWs. It runs through a scenic landscape, especially the area of Tham Krasae, where it skirts the cliff overlooking the River Kwai. The bridge on the river Kwai is also a part of this journey. It is very much recommended to be a part of this historic journey, taking us all back in time while enjoying the beauty of the countryside.
It was time to rush to the bus station and catch the next bus to Bangkok and fly out, leaving behind a true blend of history & nature.
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