After visiting the enticing Floating Markets of Damnoen Saduak in Ratchaburi, I jumped on one of the local buses passing me by on the roadside to head towards my next destination of Kanchanaburi – a small town about 150 km north and capital to its very own Province. The town is located on the borders where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers converge into the Mae Klong River – a crossing where the Bridge on the River Kwai can be found forming part of the infamous Burma Death Railway – a project that was built by Asian Prisoners of War under the occupation of the Japanese in 1942.As I’d started the day at 5am, I fell asleep on the bus within a matter of minutes. After what seemed a brief spell, I was then suddenly woken up by the ticket inspector shouting at me to get off the bus. I thought I’d arrived in Kanchanaburi, when in fact I’d gone back on myself and ended up in the middle of a bus depot in Ratchaburi – about an hour and a half back towards Bangkok. After wandering around the bus station, I finally managed to find the right bus and swiftly got back on my way in the right direction.
After another 2 and a half hours, I finally arrived in Kanchanaburi after watching the beautiful green countryside pass me by. I jumped straight into a tuk-tuk and headed into the centre of town, dropping my bags off at the quaint Sugar Cane Guesthouse which was home to a number of shacked bungalows serenely perched at the sides of the Khwae Yai River – or what’s better known as the River Kwai.
As it was only around 3pm, I took a quick wander around the town, which didn’t take too long as it was actually quite a small village. There were also very few people around which set the perfect scene for a much needed relaxing couple of days ahead of me.
Kanchanaburi is a town unfortunately tied to a dark and torrid history. In 1942, during the Burmese conflict of World War II, the Japanese seized control of a British Colony in Burma and initiated the construction of a railway network between Bangkok and Rangoon to support its forces. The railway ran roughly 415 miles to the West and was built using forced labour – around 180,000 were Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War. The working conditions were horrific, with many of the labourers put to work in some of the most treacherous conditions on some of the most lethal terrains. The brutality, torture, starvation, sickness and death led to the Burma Railway come to be known as the Death Railway, for around half of the Asian Labourers and a quarter of the POW died during its construction. This meant that much of the surrounding area of Kanchanaburi was dedicated to those who died in its construction, with two huge cemeteries at its border – the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi which contains 6,982 personnel and the Chungkai War Cemetery on the outskirts with a further 1,750 graves.
The Bridge on The River Kwai, also located in Kanchanaburi, was made famous mainly due to the 1957 film by David Lean which depicts the perils of the construction of the Burma Railway, and what you can see today is the steel bridge that was reconstructed after the Allied Bombing in 1944.
Most of my time spent in Kanchanaburi was in relaxation, reading and listening to music whilst tucking into a few Lassies – a tasty fruit milkshake that originated from Punjab, India. Otherwise, I had a chance to experience the not so relaxing Thai massage, which was a mix of euphoria when the masseurs went to work on my back, to excruciating pain when they started to pull the bones out of my sockets!
On another of the days, I headed out to the beautiful setting of the Erawan National Park in the nearby Tenasserim Hills. Its Thailand’s twelfth National Park that covers an area of 550 square kilometres and is home to a stunning 7-tier waterfall – one of the most perfect examples of natural beauty in Thailand. The falls sit in a deciduous forest that covers about 80 % of the park with some stunning tree species that create a perfect sanctuary for all kinds of wildlife. There was an abundance of birds and lizards, with the beautiful turquoise pools home to spectacular colourful fish. As I was determined to get to see the majority of the falls on all seven levels and experience the tranquillity of the Park, I bolted my way to the top as quick as I could to try and avoid the tourists that were arriving in their droves behind me. At the top, a beautiful waterfall cascaded down a huge bright orange rock face into a crystal clear pool beneath it. I had managed to get to the top in about half an hour, about 20 minutes ahead of the next person, so I jumped straight in the pool to relax whilst listening to the falls and wildlife around me.
This is when I discovered that some of the fish in the pools were of the Garra-rufa species – the species now famous for Feet Pedicures all around the world. As I sat there relaxing, the fish then formed all around me taking shots at biting at the skin on my feet and back, with one mole on my back getting a particular mauling.
After about an hour at the top, I then headed back down towards the bottom, stopping by for a quick dip in the many falls en-route.
There were also heaps of Macaque Monkeys jumping round the trees, but many of them congregated around the tourists on Level 3, scampering around for any bits of food or ice cream. I just swam around the pools beside them, watching them play and lure their prey into giving up the tasty snacks.
After a delicious lunch of Cow Pat Gai (Chicken Fried Rice), I then headed to an Elephant sanctuary for a quick ride around the jungle. It was the first time I’d ever had an Elephant ride, and to be honest, if I had another chance again, I would probably turn it down! I was teamed up with a young mischievous elephant which added a bit of an edge to the whole experience, but the ride was just so uncomfortably bumpy. As the sitting position is poised high on the back of the Elephant, every time the Elephant took a step, you’d feel like you were constantly going over speed bumps as its leg joints would move up and down like a set of slow engine pistons. I had the chance to sit on the Elephants neck which didn’t help the situation, its coarse hair scratching at my legs with every move. The Elephant kept on defying its keeper, running off in the opposite direction in search for some fresh greenery to eat, with me clambering on for dear life in protest!
In the evening, with the town quiet, I sat around the Sugar Cane bungalows with a couple of other guests who were staying there. One was an interesting Iranian guy who after a few beers started to talk about the political situation in his country. He became very animated in what he had to say, but what was interesting was how he confirmed proudly about how Iran was amidst a massive weapons expansive program to protect itself from the conflicts of the region – but, he was quick to advise that any nuclear activity was solely for industry and not for war. As we discussed the possibility of construction of nuclear weapons, he became much more aggressive in his manner, maybe as I probed him for the finer details. I let him be at around midnight, and slipped off to sleep listening the the Geckos that protected me from the mosquitos buzzing around the bungalow.
The next day before heading back to Bangkok to meet Matt (the guy I met off my flight from Kolkatta) and head to Koh Phangan, I hired a scooter to go for a quick whizz around the local area. The area was quite flat with miles and miles of farming leading off into the distance where the higher mountains sat.After checking out the Chungkai Cemetary, I headed onto the Khao Poon Caves next to Wat Tham Khao Poon. These are a fascinating set of underground caves carved out of limestone where monks used to take regular worship. The caves are constructed out of a labyrinth of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, with nine chambers interconnected together.
Each were named based on their apparent features or functions – for instance, the Phra Buddha Saiyas Room is home to a huge Reclining Buddha, the Mai Dern Room represented a Walking Stick, the Soi Yoi Room a Weeping Fig Tree and the Jorrakae Room a Crocodile.
As I wandered through the caves, I realised I was the only person there. The place was eerily quiet. As I went further and further in, the caves got danker and colder, with echoes of wind coming from the distance. Drops of water could be heard in the distance, with the flutter of bat wings high above. I squeezed my way through some tight passages as I moved onwards through the maze, and I couldn’t help but build up a pent up fear inside me. I was all alone. The cold air that passed through me unnerved me. The heavy silence almost deafened me. I just hoped that no one appeared out the corner of my eye. As I quickened my step, the fear built inside me like a ten year old child fleeing something petrifying. But I loved it. Fear is one of the greatest feelings that actually make you feel more alive. After venturing through a couple more chambers, I finally saw a tiny light shine through a gap in the distance, and after another five minute fast-paced walk, resurfaced.
Quickly jumping on my scooter whilst glimpsing over my shoulder to ensure I hadn’t disturbed anyone’s grave, I raced off into the farmlands around me. I managed to go round the back of the caves to find myself on the Death Railway again, the tracks splitting the hills in two around me. I headed down the tracks for about ten minutes before coming across a small village sat by the Kwai Noi River.As I wandered through the village, I could feel a sense that I wasn’t the most welcome here. There were only a few people around, but I could feel their piercing eyes upon me. A toothless dog even came out to warn me off proceeding further, but was quickly called back by her owner. As I walked on, I then got myself into a spot of bother. Round the back of the village sat a huge mansion, similar to a plantation house, with expensive 4×4 cars parked up outside. With an increasing unease building up inside me, as I turned around to head back through the village to my scooter, my heart sank as I turned to see a dozen dogs behind me. They were a mix of all shapes and sizes but all had their teeth bared with saliva dribbling out their jaws and an evil growl in tow. I’ve always been told to hold my ground to dogs and show them who’s boss, but twelve against one was completely outnumbered. I started to slowly walk backwards and out of nowhere, the smallest of the dogs charged at me, leading to a surge from the rest. In blind panic, I turned on my heels and ran as quick as I could, grappling my camera in the hope I wouldn’t drop it. As I rounded the corner kicking the dust up behind me, I managed to find a couple of big branches to pick up to try and defend myself. But, as I took position for a pre-empted strike, the dogs didn’t appear. They had stopped outside the mansion. It was like they were trained to defend vampires from any intruders whilst they slept. With adrenaline pumping in my veins and the two branches in my hand, I slowly crept past the pack whilst keeping eye contact with its leader. With no sudden movements from the hounds, I then darted off through the village as quick as I could.
Back at the scooter, I whizzed off down some country lanes en-route back to town. I managed to luckily stumble across some corn farmers who in complete contrast to the previous village, greeted me in with open arms and offered me some juice whilst we tried to chat. They also showed me how they worked the harvest briefly – mainly of how they stripped the crops for packing.After an hour or so, I then called it a day and headed back to the Sugar Cane on the scooter, dropping it off in time for sunset and a much needed beer after an eventful day.
Further Reading on Kanchanaburi
Bridge on the River Kwai
The Burma-Death Railway
More Photography :
“The Thailand Collection” by Antematters