This two-day overnight trip to Kanchanaburi offers the perfect introduction to a rich and varied land, to an agricultural frontier bordering Burma, to an enchanted region sculpted geographically by rugged mountains and culturally by its ethnically diverse population...
Not my own words unfortunately, but the gist of all we learnt on the two hour bus journey from Bangkok, courtesy of our gleefully upbeat guide, Boon. What we didn't need to be told was that nature in this province - an area that spans the size of ten Bangkoks - survives untamed. This we saw for ourselves. Beyond downtown Kanchanaburi's unobtrusive low-rise houses and shops, flora was sprouting in every shade of green, from every available inch of hill and mountain, in every available direction...
- Ayutthaya Ancient Capital Tour with River Cruise
- Banyan Tree's Apsara Dinner Cruise
- Bridge on the River Kwai & Historic Railway Tour
- Thonburi Klongs & Grand Palace Morning Excursion
- Floating Markets Cycling & Boat Tour
- Private Grand Palace, Emerald Buddha & Reclining Buddha Morning Tour
- Siam Niramit Dinner Show
- Calypso Bangkok Cabaret Show
- Safari World & Marine Park Full-Day Tour With Buffet Lunch
- Muay Thai Live Performance
Kanchanaburi's Sober Attraction: War History
Our trip wasn't meant to begin with bucolic sights however. This honour was reserved for Kanchanaburi's most sobering attraction: its World War II history. At the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum, we learnt why and how the marauding Japanese army forced hundreds of thousands of Allied POW's and Southeast Asian conscripts to construct a 415km long railway line from Thailand to Burma.
Their rigidly enforced schedule of grueling labour, temporarily transformed this lush tropical Eden into a portal to hell. The museum's galleries, installations and archive footage showed us just how hellish things got: how workers that didn't perish through exhaustion or lack of food, mostly succumbed to the brutality of their captors or tropical diseases.
Upstairs, collections of artifacts gave the chilling statistics - namely that 100,000 people died here - a humanising poignancy: work tools, alongside personal effects like sketches, cutlery and badges. This was only heightened at the landscaped Kanchanaburi War Cemetery opposite, where thousands of well tended tombstones - each with its own tropical plant and epitaph to stir the heart - hinted at the story behind each statistic. Like the one told by an Australian man in our tour party, who came to pay respect to his fallen British grandfather and, afterwards, was clearly touched to have done so.
Journey across the River Kwai
Next up was the Bridge on the River Kwai, a famous symbol of 20th century man's ingenuity and inhumanity. It's easily the most popular segment of track, largely thanks to the 1957 Oscar-winning film of the same title. On passing beneath its discoloured arches we saw a swollen throng of tourists, students and day-tripping locals pushing back and forth along it.
For a bridge whose history is so entwined with cruelty, and lacking safety barriers, it was reassuring to find etiquette: as people past one another, one courteously stepped toward a perilous drop into the water below to let the other through.
Our Retreat to the River Kwai Resotel
After a high-speed boat ride past undulating scenery, locals paddling bamboo rafts and a cascading waterfall, we arrived at our accommodation, the River Kwai Resotel. Impressed by the lofty cliff setting and the organically shaped resort sprawling over the sloping river bank above us, we walked up a winding path, past wild foliage and an inviting swimming pool.
The only sounds audible were birds singing in a jungle so thick they could not be seen, and the soft groaning of bamboo trees turning in the cool river breeze. Approaching the reception-cum-restaurant area - a huge teak construction filled with solid local furniture and quaint ethnic curios - we noticed the strange chatter of the staff. Throughout lunch we tried to place it. Thai? Burmese?
With its exotic charm and comforts like air-con and hot water, our room - one of 93 thatched bamboo chalets dotted around the resort - was equally unexpected, far surpassing expectations. And a few minutes nearby revealed even more charms, only living ones: tiny salamanders, rare orchids, strange black and yellow grasshoppers, vividly coloured butterflies the size of my hand.
After freshening up, we spent the afternoon browsing the landscape, exploring the eerie formations of Sai Yok National Park's lawa caves (400 baht adults, 200 baht children) and visiting a Mon tribe village above the nearby Jungle Raft Resort (this charming accommodation floats on a straight of river nearby and is also available on this trip, see tour options for details).
Riverside Meet and Greets
The first inhabitant we met was one of the village's three elephants, employed both for logging and to give rides to tourists braver than us. Crossing a bamboo bridge, we found him all but submerged in the river's muddy waters, an inscrutable but graceful creature. The Mon were equally mysterious.
Once one of the dominant tribes in Southeast Asia, they're today - largely due to oppression and economic hardship in Burma and the assimilating nature of Thai society - reduced to a vanishing minority that fluctuate uneasily across the porous border.
This basic village however showed them zealously cling onto their unique customs and language: ladies in traditional garb, faces daubed in white 'tanaka' powder, and Mon-style huts shacks. Those from the village's 25 families not out working at the resort were friendly while maintaining a distance. No one tried to sell us anything.
That night we had more of their company after a lovely buffet dinner, when a troupe of coyly smiling girls in bright silk gowns took to a stage, commencing a graceful, synchronized Mon dance to hypnotic primal drums and atonal music. Joined by acrobatic young boys dressed like mystical Kings and Gods, it was a show touched with humour, romance, even farce. Rounds of applauses marked the end of the show, and the time when, after a long day, we were anticipating sleep.
Day 2: Hell Comes to Pass
Day two began with breakfast then an exhilarating ride downstream, to the area known as Konyu Cutting. A notorious railway excavation site through deep mountain rock, here POWs were, as the Japanese strove to meet deadlines, kept working long into night by the flickering light of bamboo flames and torches. Thus the nickname Hellfire Pass - hell and fire is literally what transpired here.
On the remaining rocks, you can make out where men, in the absence of heavy machinery, painstakingly tapped picks to create drill holes for explosive charges. A glorious sweeping vista from the terrace of the adjoining museum provided a welcome glimmer of natural and metaphoric light, explaining wordlessly why prisoners sought mental refuge in the beauty of the countryside around them.
A Life Affirming Death Railway
Fittingly, our trip closed with a ride on the Death Railway itself: the 13:00 from Namtok back to Kanchanaburi town. On this last functioning stretch, we boarded a retro carriage alongside locals, vendors and saffron-robed monks. Nature greeted us with all the force of the breeze pummeling those who stuck their head out of the carriage windows to admire the view.
Kanchanaburi sped into a panoramic blur of soaring green mountains, murky meandering rivers and sweeping blue skies. It was a stimulating rewind of all that had gone before, a great photo opportunity. As we rumbled across an original wooden viaduct erected by POWs, Kanchanaburi's nature, history, culture merged into one indelible experience. As stealthily, but as surely as the River Kwai itself the stress of Bangkok had long since drifted away.