We had a long weekend due to the Visakha Bucha holiday on Friday, 20 May so we decided to do a weekend getaway a bit closer to home. We had heard a lot of good things about Kanchanburi, from the fascinating and sobering history of Hell Fire Pass, the bridge over the River Kwai and the beauty of the Erawan Falls within the Erawan National Park all seemed like idea options for the weekend.
We decided to go to Hell Fire Pass in the morning before checking in to our hotel. It was a three hour drive from Bangkok, but it took us a bit longer (closer to four) with all of the stops we made, including a stop for lunch at a place on the way, highway 323 (Thanon Sangchuto). It was very busy, very clean and the food was very delicious and very reasonably priced. For a whole fried fish with garlic, huge plate of veg fried rice, vegetables and french fries it was about 695 Baht (around $20 USD) and we were all stuffed!
The Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum is about one hour out of Kanchanaburi and was set up (1998) and is maintained by the Australian government. Although they do welcome donations, it is free of charge. We went to the museum first and were greeted by the staff who provided us with a map and started us out with a short film providing an overview of the history of the Thai-Burma railway. The museum itself was really more about prepping us for the actual walk we were about to embark on through Hell Fire Pass and along the trail. Admittedly, I did not know a lot about the history of Hell Fire Pass. I did know that it was built by POWs living in horrible conditions during WW2; however, I did not know how extensive the railway was. Something I did learn, which surprised me, was that there were an estimated 200,000 Asian laborers (romusha) who worked under the same conditions. Needless to say, it was a very sobering walk we took. The whole trail is about 4K and to walk to the end and back takes an estimated three hours. We would have liked to have hiked the whole way, but there were huge rain clouds looming and we foolishly forgot our water bottles so we only went halfway to the “three tiered bridge” on the map (or at least the site where it was as there is no bridge there now). Now I don’t know if it was my new-found knowledge of the history or the time of day, but we all had this strange somber feeling as we walked along the trail and saw various items evidencing the struggles and hardships the POWs and romusha had endured – the sleepers, man-made holes in the rocks, etc. Also, Anzac Day was a month ago and there were still wreathes, crosses and such placed about the trail which gave you the feeling of absolute reverence.
The trail is with its surrounding nature is beautiful and fairly easy to maneuver as it is clearly marked. I would suggest wearing walking shoes and carrying a water bottle if you plan on doing the whole trail and back. Note that the museum offers free umbrellas and walkie-talkies to loan, but they must be returned before they close at 16:00. Also, they have headsets offering audio tours, you would just need to have your passport or local driver’s license for them to hold and it costs 200 baht (roughly $5.60 USD). We were glad to have only gone halfway as it began to rain when we got back into our car and headed to our hotel in Kachanaburi.
I had booked a family a/c bungalow at the Thai Garden Inn for two nights for $120 USD (the whole stay). While Thai Garden Inn is nowhere near a fancy schmancy resort, it is clean, the staff are friendly and speak English, and it is within walking distance from an assortment of restaurants, bars as well as the night market, Kwai bridge and railway museum. The bungalow was large enough for two single beds and one double bed. There was a fridge and closet with drawer space. As I said, nothing fancy and very clean.
After checking in we decided to go for a walk and grab dinner. It was about a 10 minute walk over a bridge to Maenamkwai Road where there are loads of shops, restaurants and guest houses. Our kids chose the restaurant for dinner that night and chose Bell’s Pizza. As I have said before, we have to adjust our expectations when it comes to ordering food not indigenous (can I use that in this case?) to the area we visit and I always warn my kids, “It’s not going to be like the pizza you ate in NYC.” Fortunately, the pizza was decent. The pizza was thin crispy crust and wasn’t soggy. Our youngest really enjoyed her plain cheese pizza, but unfortunately our eldest who decided to go for the plain spaghetti with tomato sauce didn’t realize they add chili peppers to the sauce until it was too late. Lesson learned, always ask if the sauce has pepper in it or is spicy (the Thai word for spicy is pronounced “pet” and if you want to say no spice “my pet” which literally means “no spice” may work). For three pizzas, a pasta and beverages (no alcohol sold as it was a Buddhist holiday), it was 840 Baht (roughly $24 USD).
We then headed back to our hotel and put the kids to bed. We were thinking of sitting on the small porch in front of our bungalow, but there were loads of mosquitoes and it was a bit small. Ah well, I guess you can’t have it all. The breakfast that came with our stay was very, very basic with toast, one choice of fruit, an egg station, rice porridge and three hot breakfast items which could vary from baked beans, stir fried vegetables, to breakfast meats. Once again, nothing fancy, but they kept the buffet organized and clean and the staff were very friendly and helpful.
We made our way to Erawan National Park where we wanted to cool off at the Erawan Falls, which was about one hour from our hotel. We read that there are “Seven Levels” of waterfalls and that you cannot bring any food past the second level. Also, if you bring in any disposable bottles, you have to pay a deposit which you will get back once you return and show your bottles – they don’t want you littering, which is understandable. For foreigners it is 300 Baht for adults (roughly $8 USD) and 200 Baht (roughly $5.60 USD) for your foreign offspring and 30 Baht for your car (roughly $0.80 USD). Yes, it’s the dual pricing again.
We left our hotel around 08:30 and arrived around 09:30. As it was a holiday weekend it was really busy, which is what we expected. What we didn’t expect was how “modernized” the trail was. The “trail” up to Level 5 was a concrete path with the odd rock hopping, there were stairs and rails for support so not quite hard core hiking, but be prepared to maneuver through crowds. As you go higher, the concrete walkway disappears and you will have to do some real hiking (which we enjoyed). We decided to go straight to Level 7 in the hopes that not a lot of people would be willing to go that far and we would possibly have it to ourselves. It was a very crowded trail and the lower levels were really packed with people in inner tubes and other floating devices. When we did arrive at Level 7 there were still a number of people; however, it wasn’t too crazy. As the rainy season had only begun, the falls were there, but it wasn’t this massive downpour of water. It was very pretty and full of fish who like to nibble on you – like those “fish pedicure” tanks. If the whole fish thing makes you squeamish, don’t do it because they are everywhere.
About 45 minutes into hanging out at Level 7 large crowds set in, being both local and European men with speedos. We decided to leave and head back down. It was between Level 7 and Level 6 we spied a quiet little area which eventually led to drop-off you could slide down. This time we all went in! Be it noted my husband and I always ensured at least one of us were close to our belongings. Take the least amount of “things” you can as there are no lockers there. We spent about an hour there before we decided to head back down (for realz this time).
My husband had noted a trail on the map and we were all feeling adventurous. Shortly after Level 6 we spied what we thought was the trail leading up and so we went. It was certainly the road less traveled as it weaved through a forest of bamboo where you could only hear the bamboo creaking and birds chirping. At one point we thought we lost the trail, but found it again snaking up a mountain and thought “Is this truly the trail? How far up will it go? Oh right, Thailand has cobras!” Being a bit unsure as the trail seemed to disappear again, we back tracked to the main trail and chocked it up to a fine side-adventure. We reached the bottom and headed to the parking lot, which conveniently had loads of places to buy food, drink and floating devices. We celebrated with ice creams and I purchased my favorite flavored Styrofoam.
We were back at the hotel around 17:00 and decided to clean up and head to the night market. While it was within a 20-30 minute walking distance, my family was in no mood to hike again so we opted to drive there. It only took us about 10 minutes and we managed to park on the road. Another option could be to take a tuk-tuk as most hotels can arrange this for you. While this certainly wasn’t the largest night market, we still enjoyed it as it had a variety or clothes, shoes, sunglasses, knickknacks and food glorious food all at great prices! My oldest daughter managed to get a nice bag/backpack for 199 Baht (roughly $5.50 USD), my youngest got a 60 Baht ($1.70 USD) cactus and I got a fine shirt advertising Jack Daniels for 100 baht (roughly $2.80 USD), because I am classy like that. The numerous snack items we bought (fried delights, Takoh – coconut cream jelly, Taung Muan Sot – sweet sesame pancake, etc.) ranged from 10 baht to 30 baht per serving. By the way, I LOVE THAI DESSERTS (Khanom Wan Thai)! It was actually an issue when we first moved to Thailand as I could not go past a street vendor without buying something and immediately scarfing it down.
After the night market we headed to On’s Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant. Funnily enough it is across the street from Bell’s restaurant. It is a small place and it felt a bit strange as when we went in there were a few people and it was very, very quiet (no music, no tv), but it was clean and the staff were friendly enough. It always does feel weird to me when I go to a restaurant and it is dead quiet. Especially when I get my food and I can hear my cutlery tapping on the plate. Also, I think the family sitting across from us were having a disagreement as they were arguing in hushed tones with strained smiles which added to the uneasy atmosphere. We ordered the banana flower salad, pad see ew, pineapple fried rice, Massaman curry, mango shake, Thai iced tea and mint shake. Although the service was a bit slow, the food tasted amazing! That banana flower salad rocked my world and with that pineapple fried rice…aw yeah! I would like to add that they asked us how spicy we would like our dishes, which was nice as my eldest wanted no spice in her pad see ew. You could actually see the chef cooking our meal outside, which was pretty cool. It was like eating good ol’ Thai street food, but not in the street. I think considering we had stuffed our bellies earlier with snacks we did a mighty fine job clearing our plates. The bill came to a grand total of 420 Baht (roughly $12 USD) and we were stuffed and it tasted sooo good! I wish I had that restaurant around the corner from us. I would eat there at least 2-3 times a week if I could.
We went back to our hotel and watched “Ratatouille” on TV or rather my kids did while I drank wine, read and surfed the net. Unfortunately the book I brought was about the fall of the Comanche nation and that coupled with our recent trip to Hell Fire Pass was really too intense for a holiday weekend. I vowed that for our next getaway we are definitely getting two rooms or at least a bungalow with a better porch…
As Sunday was the day to head back, we took it easy and checked-out around 09:30. We headed to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. I’d like to note that my husband’s biological grandfather was a British POW in Burma/Myanmar, which is why he had a special interest in this trip. This would also explain his extreme disgust at the people taking sexy and whimsical selfies at the cemetery. I actually felt disgusted by it too and I am an Asian whose family took pictures everywhere – from shopping malls to the playground, eating a meal out or sitting in our car, my parents were always yelling “picture! Picture!” But a POW cemetery? Seriously folks?
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery was very haunting, especially you see that the average ages of the soldiers were early to mid-20s. Also, there were so many of them. We then walked to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre next door. It was 140 Baht ($4 USD) for adults and 60 Baht ($1.70 USD). It was well-set up, informative and had A/C and clean toilets. We spent a good 2 hours reading the stories, watching the short film of interviews with actual survivors and looking at the memorabilia. In addition to what the POWs went through, another thing that haunts me is the fact that out of the estimated 200,000 undocumented romusha, 60% died while working in those terrible conditions. Indeed war is kind. We ended with a coffee and some Pocky sticks at the café. Although the coffee is instant, they seemed to have a good variety or things to snack on (fruit cakes, cookies, Pocky) – I guess not necessarily healthy though. After the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre we went to the Bridge on the River Kwai, well actually where it used to be because the original was bombed. After learning about the history, we all felt a certain reverence walking on the bridge knowing what had happened in that very spot so many years ago. So it still felt weird to be surrounded by people taking various sexy selfies – one lady laid herself down on the tracks spread eagle to take a sexy selfie (I’m so baffled). It is a very busy bridge and you’ll find a number of vendors to by souvenirs from and there are a number of restaurants by the river.
So Bangkok bound we were! Homeward bound.