Taking the advice of the owner of the Baan Are Gong Homestay, I headed to Kanchanaburi after several lovely days in Ayutthaya. I opted to take the mini-bus there, which cost considerably more than the local bus, but it got us all there (other travelers included) in a fraction of the time. By “considerably more” I mean it cost $12, which is only about $8 more than what the local bus would have cost, so really it was a teeny investment to save potentially an entire day of being on the road.
Along the way I couldn’t help but see so many similarities in the terrain that reminded me of Florida. Were it not for passing the occasional Wat (Temple) here and there, and of course stores with names written in Thai, I would have seriously thought I was back in the Sunshine State.
After about 3 hours (with a 10 minute break half-way) we arrived in Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi (among other things) is home to the Bridge on the River Kwai (part of the “Death Railway”), a war museum, and several war cemeteries. Most people have heard of The Bridge on the River Kwai because of the novel “The Bridge over the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle published over 60 years ago now. Though I have read the book a LONG time ago, the significance and history never really hit me until I was standing on the ground where it all happened. You read in school about the World Wars and all the countries involved, but it just doesn’t make quite the same impact on paper.
The Railway (which the bridge is part of) runs from Bangkok to Burma (now Myanmar) and was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 using slaves for its construction. Slaves consisted of civilian Asians and Prisoners of War (POWs) from the Netherlands, England, Australia, America, New Zealand and Canada. Over 100,000 slaves, just shy of 50% of the original population working on the railway, died during the project, hence it came to be known as “The Death Railway”.
Today the railway still exists and it even still runs. Additions to Kanchanaburi due to the railway construction includes a War Cemetery dedicated to the almost 7,000 Allied prisoners who lost their lives during the project and a separate monument erected by the Japanese Army in February 1944 in honor of those who died. Once a year in March, voluntary members of the Japanese community in Thailand assemble there for a memorial ceremony to honor those who perished. So many lives lost again in cruel and unnecessary ways for the advancement and power of others.
There are two “main” roads in Kanchanaburi, one runs right through the center of the city providing easy in and out access and is lined with every possible business imaginable. The second meets with the first, but veers off toward the River and runs parallel to it. It’s the second road that dead ends at the Bridge and along this long road is where the majority of hostels, bars, Thai massage shops, and restaurants can be found. Or in other words, it’s the main tourist strip. Bars are a dime a dozen with several hanging signs that boast they will get you drunk for only 10 baht (about $.30). Though I was actually smart and DIDN’T wander in myself to see if that claim was legit, I have heard from several others that yes, yes the advertisement is NOT false, lol!!
I stayed in a little hostel called the Green View Hostel right in the center of tourist-ville, but it was tucked back just enough off the road to drown out all the street noise. For 200 baht a night I got a very large and clean private room with a private bathroom (SCORE!!!) surrounded by lush beautiful foliage. I was practically the only one staying there during the 4 nights I was there and honestly it’s beyond me as to why because the place was absolutely lovely!! I wouldn’t recommed any other place unless one was looking to spend at least twice what I paid so they could be on the River.
In general the feeling I got from Kanchanaburi is that it’s a “good ol’ boy’s” place. There were so many older men from Australia or England staying year round because of their various Thai girlfriends. I found it to be such a cliché really. Mostly they stayed steadily drunk all day and shared personal stories about their lives and their girlfriends that I really never cared to hear about. Unfortunately they were also somewhat unavoidable because every time I’d go to eat somewhere one or two would inevitably come to chat… whatever sign I had on my forehead that made them think I somehow cared to hear about their sob stories, I promise I tried multiple times to scrub OFF!
Luckily there were several others around who were pleasant (not from England or Australia interestingly enough) to be around and chat with. But I will come back to that in a second…
I lingered in Kanchanaburi for 5 days, and honestly the only reason I stayed so long was because I just couldn’t decide what my next move/place to visit would actually be. I had heard of the Erawan National Park where the famous 7 tier waterfall is and really wanted to go there, but I didn’t want to do a day trip because the earliest bus would get there at 10am and then we would have to leave again at 4pm. It was possible to camp out there but reserving a spot was harder than doing my taxes!
The woman at Baan Are Gong recommended going to Sangkhlaburi to see the famous Mon bridge, but it was over 200 kilometers from where I was near the border with Myanmar (Burma) and the only way to get back to other places in Thailand like Chiang Mai would be to go back through Kanchanaburi (since the Myanmar border is closed currently) and that just seemed like a waste of time to me.
I just couldn’t decide. I debated literally in my sleep and would wake nightly to conjur a new plan of where to go/what to do. The logistics of it was killing me. The only way to get to the Erawan National Park was from Kanchanaburi. The only way to get to Sangkhlaburi was also from Kanchanaburi, even though the National Park is ON THE WAY TO Sangkhlaburi…. Grrr….. I was close to just saying “screw it”, I’ll skip going all the way up to Sangkhlaburi and will just show up at the Park and hope there is a place to camp available…
Then at lunch, the day before I planned to leave I met a lovely man from Germany. We got to chatting and he told me he had just gotten back from Sangkhlaburi. Excellent! I can ask him if it’s worth it! I posed the question and out came his IPad. For the next 20 minutes he showed me picture after picture and mini-movie after, well, you get the idea. Ok, ok. I have to go there. New plan (number 192): make the long haul to Sangkhlaburi first, then go to the Park (via another stop in Kanchanaburi).
For some reason, even though all the other plans just didn’t feel right, suddenly this one did. And now I know why…