Nightbus from Vientiane to Bangkok, 12 hours, a land border, sleepy taxi ride to guesthouse at 6:00am, chill out until room is ready and sleep until it’s after the midday heat. Emily and I really have our Asian night bus routine down to a tee. A one night stay in Bangkok, enjoying the capital of street food (where you can get 3 amazing curries and rice to share for less than £4) and we were back in a minibus heading the short (3 hour) distance to our next destination in Thailand – Kanchanaburi!
We dropped off our bags, wolfed down some delicious noodle soup (sitting in a van really works up an appetite) and hopped on a bus ready to give our best Alec Guinness impression. No, not Ben Kenobi, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson of course. We visited the Bridge on the River Kwai. Luckily I made Emily watch the classic film before coming so she could get some context, because seeing the impressive railway bridge was all the better for it.
The famous bridge
One of the more notoriously difficult sections of the railway to complete, the heavy cost of human life make the fact worse than the jingoistic fiction of film. Lives were lost in the worst conditions imaginable. While being starved to death British POWs somehow managed to build this impressive engineering feat. Allied attempts to destroy the bridge were finally successful in June 1945, where bombing raids damaged the bridge enough to put the entire railway out of commission. This was repaired (largely rebuilt) by Japan as part of their postwar reparations, meaning that it is still functioning today. Sobering tragedy preserved, hopefully forever. Perhaps there is some solace to be found in the fact that the railway has had far more peacetime use than anything else.
Still in use today!
Another night market (conveniently close to our guesthouse) and a delicious selection of fried chicken and river mussels later, we turned in early for the night as we were up early the next day. Erawan Falls were calling – some of the most iconic waterfalls in all of Thailand, a country that has more than its fair share of natural beauty already! Located in Erawan National Park, you can get the bus from Kanchanaburi to the falls, negating the need for a tour guide. Entry was 300THB, around £8. Worth every penny, considering you are paying to visit not one, but 7 separate cascades with natural pools for swimming in.
More stunning waterfalls, it’s never a dull day in Thailand!
If you visit, be prepared with water as you will need to walk a 4km round trip to visit everything this stunning part of the National Park has to offer. In 30 degree heat with lots of humidity that’s a reasonably tall order, but at least you can swim as often as you want to cool down! Our top tip would be to hike all the way up to tier 7 first, for two reasons: Firstly, you won’t be rushed for time, being able to come back down at your own leisure – the later levels are closed off earlier, so if you head out too late you’re out of luck! Secondly, if you’re lucky everyone else will get drawn to the earlier pools for a swim. This will allow you to break away from the larger crowds and have some relative peace and quiet at the higher cascades. Bliss! Our favourite pool was tier 3, but all 7 kept us going for 5 hours. Not bad!
Me getting drenched by the cascade at Level 3
The following day we did our other main excursion from Kanchanaburi: Hellfire Pass. This infamous cutting on the Death Railway cost the lives of countless Australian POWs and is kept in pristine condition today as a museum, interpretive walk and memorial. Emily and I were amazed at the attention to detail given to the museum. You wander around in oppressive dark lighting listening to the tales of survivors, gearing yourself mentally to complete the same walk along railway bed these men would have made 75 years before.
Deemed fit and healthy to work…
You then trudge the path, listening to more first hand accounts along the way, going deeper into the jungle and harsh conditions. Mosquitos buzz and bite. The sun beats down on you. Then Hellfire Pass looms in. An impossible cutting through the mountain. A scar in the rock. Chipped away by hand at the most extraordinary cost of life. A truly moving experience, showing what mankind is capable of in the right (wrong) conditions.
The Konyu Cutting (Hellfire Pass) itself
On our return journey we headed to Sai Yok Noi waterfall, the less famous of the Kanchanaburi falls, but no less beautiful. Superbly underrated, it is free to visit and has a cascade that is one of the best we have seen in South East Asia so far. Sure it doesn’t compare to otherworldly beauty of Kuang Si, or the overall scale of Erawan’s 7 tiers stretching over a kilometre. But, if it was a cascade in Erawan, it would have been our favourite. The “sticky rocks” (grippy due to mineral deposits) make climbing right up to the cascade super easy. An added bonus!
Wet or not, those rocks are easy climbing thanks to mineral deposits giving extra grip
Sai Yok Noi is conveniently close to Nam Tok railway station where, for the small fee off 100 Baht, you can hop on the train back to Kanchanaburi. Exciting right? Well it is. Not only do you roll through pristine Thai countryside in a way you aren’t able to on a bus or in a tuk tuk, songthaew or taxi, but you are riding along the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. The same history that Kanchanaburi is famous for. You even cross the River Kwai Bridge before arrival back. It’s rare to find a place where history is so linked to daily life. I loved it.
Actually crossing the River Kwai Bridge! Landmark moment for me as a history buff
After a busy couple of days we spent our final morning mopping up our World War 2 tour of the region by sticking in the city and visiting firstly the Commonwealth War Graves at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Kept in beautiful condition, the remains of near 7000 POWs are memorialised forever so that nobody can forget their ultimate sacrifice.
The Commonwealth Cemetery and rows of the dead
Our final stop before heading back and hopping on the bus to Bangkok was the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, a museum filled with all the information and artefacts to give the entire engineering feat it’s full and terrible context. Over 100,000 people died to build it. What starts as an inconceivable number is made scarily clear when you see, as just one example, the metal box-cart 28 men would be locked in for 4 days and nights with no rations in unbearable heat. Only to reach their destination and continue being worked to death. We both left quiet and a little unable to process just how awful life must have been for these poor souls.
Imagine sharing that box with 27 other people for 4 days and nights, no food and locked in…
Back in Bangkok we barely had time to shove some food in, cram in checking out the Giant Swing (not a swing at all but part of a temple complex) and put our heads on the pillow before leaving again. Next stop: Cambodia. Bye Thailand!
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The Giant Swing, one of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks