Editor’s note: I always look forward to Sam’s articles. Normally about places I haven’t seen yet – I’ve barely scratched the surface of Thailand on a cruise – he expertly describes the experiences he has had and the emotions evoked by them. For more of his writing, click here. Also, to help support what we do here at The Royal Tour, please support us via our Patreon page.
When I was 27 years old, I found myself suddenly single, with a steady income, and ready to backpack somewhere exotic. Like many in my age group, I yearned to go to the place considered to be the backpacker’s Mecca: Thailand, the land of smiles. While the incredible beaches and the intense party lifestyle have made Thailand the top bucket list destination for young people worldwide, my obsession with Thailand began as a child. In 2001, the local news story of the year in my city was the birth of Hansa, the Thai Asian elephant. There was a naming competition with the winner getting tickets to Thailand, and the Thai tourism board captured on the hype with commercials on local television encouraging Seattleites to visit their country. Enamored, I ate at Thai restaurants regularly, bought myself a book on tape to teach myself Thai, and checked out numerous books on Thailand. Finally, my chance to visit the destination arrived sixteen years later.
Kanchanaburi, Thailand. This was my hotel.
Thailand was everything I had hoped for; however, the hordes of young, drunk, and obnoxious tourists were not. Be it Bangkok, the southern beaches and islands, or the backpacker town of Chiang Mai, everywhere in Thailand seemed to be overrun by rowdy tourists and locals catering to their lack of inhibitions by selling sex shows. However, there was one city in Thailand that I went to that captured everything that 7th grade Sam had dreamed of: Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi is a city of approximately 30,000 inhabitants, a welcome change if you need to get away from Bangkok and its more than 10 million residents. Buses depart from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal every fifteen minutes for the two-hour journey north to Kanchanaburi. What you will find upon arrival is a dusty town that at first seems unimpressive, but is surrounded by incredible natural beauty and somber history, both of which you will encounter if you stay on one of Kanchanaburi’s affordable floating houseboat hotels. As you sit on your porch in one of the most peaceful surroundings you will encounter, with the waves of a passing ship occasionally rocking you gently as the lily pads surrounding your room bob up and down, it is hard to miss a prominent railroad bridge. This bridge and river are the ones from the 1957 film The Bridge Over the River Kwai. A giant peaceful statue of the Buddha is just beyond the bridge, and without having seen the film or read the book, one would not know of the sorrowful past that this town is infamous for: the tens of thousands of European, Asian and Australian POW’s who were forced to build the Death Railway to Burma during World War II by the Japanese Imperial Army. Some 16,000 POW’s and 90,000 enslaved Asians worked here, often until their torturous deaths, as is evident from the cemetery in the middle of town containing the graves of some 7,000 POW’s. There are tours and museums in the Kanchanaburi area for World War II buffs who seek to learn more about this tragic, often unknown, part of the war.
The bridge over the River Kwai
Kanchanaburi is also a short bus ride away from Erawan National Park and its famous seven-tier waterfalls, which are largely considered to be Thailand’s most beautiful waterfalls. On the couple hour strenuous, but manageable, hike, you will pass multiple levels of interconnected waterfalls and at times walk through streams as you continue your journey upwards. Be sure to wear a swimsuit as you can swim in the bright turquoise pools and underneath the cascading water. Within the pools there is another surprise that some find delightful and others are not a fan of: hundreds of fish that eat dead skin and will lightly nibble at your feet, exfoliating weary hikers. At the very top of the hike is a beautiful waterfall and pool, but also mischievous macaque monkeys eager to steal hikers’ backpacks as soon as you set them down. If you try to get your pack back, you will encounter an angry, aggressive monkey, so be careful!
Waterfalls in Erawan
Kanchanaburi is also relatively close to the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya and also floating markets if you want to arrange daytrips, but a must do while in Kanchanaburi is a visit to Elephants World. It is likely that in Thailand you will want to visit an elephant sanctuary, but be careful of which sanctuary you visit. Many of these “sanctuaries” offer elephant rides that actually can hurt the elephants. Elephants World, however, has the motto that they work for the elephants, not the other way around, and have dozens of elephants who were orphaned or rescued from abuse present to live out their days peacefully. At Elephants World, visitors will be able to spend an entire day feeding elephants entire melons, which they will gleefully take with their trunks and pop into their mouths, popping them like grapes, and also putting together mush balls filled with medications and vitamins to ensure the elephants’ health. Additionally, guests will watch educational videos learning about the organization, elephants, and their plight within Thailand. However, the highlight of the day is getting to go into the river with the elephants and give them baths. With giant brushes, you’ll scratch behind their ears and gently pet them as these sensitive, giant creatures bask in what can only be described as pure joy.
At the end of your long days in Kanchanaburi, eat at one of the local authentic restaurants, perhaps one that overlooks the River Kwai. While in town, go to the aptly named Ten Baht Bar for the cheapest beer of your life (10 baht is equivalent to about 40 cents American). No matter where you are in Thailand, make sure you end your day with one of the best and most affordable massages of your life. If you want to experience the best of Thailand without having to deal with obnoxious, drunken idiots, who give tourists a bad name, head to Kanchanaburi for everything a vacation and cultural experience should be.
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