Kanchanaburi might only be two hours or so from the heart of buzzing Bangkok but it's a world apart from the big metropolis. An enthralling, sobering past of WWII POW camps and railway building have made it infamous across the globe. Lively night markets and energetic music bars make its evenings a real treat. And then there are the jungle-dressed peaks of the mountains that encase it, hiding waterfalls and rustic hamlets and unforgettable vistas aplenty. What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for?
Kanchanaburi By Evening
There's a glow of red-yellow sun dying behind the Tenasserim Hills on the horizon. There's the soft babble of the water as it rushes past my feet. There's the ethereal touch of palm shadows dancing across the deck. There's the humid touch of the evening air and the distant rattle of tuk-tuks passing over a potholed road. There's the faint hum of a night market, the sizzle of noodles in a pan, the happy drawls of smiling locals as they toss their chillies in oil.
I'm akimbo and uber-chilled. I'm looking out over the green peaks of the mountains that encase sleepy little Kanchan (that's what we've come to call much-loved Kanchanaburi for short). It's the sort of evening I've grown used to: Long, lazy, thoughtful. Good vibes flow with each Singha beer that's cracked. They flow with every new ray of sunlight that breaks the plumes of cloud as the evening dwindles, lighting up this verdant arena of jungle and river like it's real paradise, just for a moment or two.
I'll say it once and I'll say it again: You'll never tire of the sunsets in Kanchanaburi. I mean, that's probably true of plenty of places in the Land of Smiles (Koh Lanta and empty Koh Jum island, I'm looking at you!). But Kanchanaburi's rendition of dusk seems to trump all others as I gaze out from my perch on the edge of the Kwai; as I gaze out dreamily across this perplexing landscape of wooded hills and fluorescent topography.
Once the sky's turned to coal black and the stars have begun to pepper the dome above us, we turn our eyes from the horizon and march into town. It's not far. Kanchanaburi's hardly a big place. It's all strung out along the same bends of the river that made it infamous – more on that one later. There's the whole shebang there though: 10-baht rum bars and beer joints; lively little night bazaars where pad Thai noodles swirl in the air; stray dogs darting through the shadows; clusters of backpackers chatting tales of their escapades from Full Moons to Tubing in the Vang Vieng.
But the evenings are not the real reason I came to Kanchan…
Kanchanaburi By Day
I came for the days. I came to wander a town that's steeped in history. I came to see if I could discover the fabled waterfalls of Erawan and ride with the ghosts of WWII on rattling death trains through the forests.
That's the curious thing about this tiny river town. Sat just two hours or so west of Bangkok, you might think it'd be brimming with day-trippers and folk looking to check off some of Thailand's most accessible sights.
That's true but only to a certain extent. There's also still a palpable calm that prevails here. You only need to strut out of the hostel and listen to the chirping of quails and peafowls along the Kwai each morning to feel it. You only need a few long, languishing sessions on the waterside decks, sipping beers and swimming between clusters of lily pads.
Moreover, there's a distinct fusion of life and history in this place. The first comes with the aforementioned night markets, the Thai 'same-same-but-different' bars, forever echoing with Bob Marley redux. The latter comes with the striking and sobering world war story of the surrounding region.
Brought into the limelight by the 1957 hit epic The Bridge on the River Kwai, it's hardly the sort of holiday enjoyment you'd expect in the Land of Smiles…
Kanchanaburi's WWII Past
One morning I wander down the dusty road that cuts through the heart of Kanchan town. The crooked food stalls of last night's bazaar are still there – evidence of a particularly enthralling market that I missed. There are a few faces whizzing up and down the drag on tuk-tuks and bikes. Others are negotiating taxi rates back to Bangkok.
I head for perhaps the most iconic reminder of Kanchanaburi's dark 20th- century past: The arched Bridge over the River Kwai itself. It's not hard to get to, spreading its black-hued steel girders over the wide water right next to one of the day markets. It's hard to miss, actually, silhouetted in the morning light against the green hills. It's even harder to believe that it has a history so harrowing, signifying a stretch of the bloody Death Railway that was raised by POWs in forced labour camps run by the Japanese.
I decide that I want to unravel a little more of the striking tale of this small town. A tuk-tuk takes me to the nearby Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. It spreads its wings through a series of green fields on the outskirts. It looks like an oversized microchip, with each little transistor representing the grave of one of the 7,000 people buried here; people who perished during the construction of the tracks during the 1940s.
Then I make for Hellfire Pass. If the cemetery is the memorial to the destruction wrought by the war on Kanchan, this is the starkest reminder. It literally carves through the mountains some one hour's drive west of the centre, a huge cleft blasted into the rock of the Tenasserim Hills by war prisoners at the behest of the Japanese.
It's impossible to imagine the hardship endured by those people in the heat and mosquito-filled tropical airs as I wander the chiselled manmade canyon, passing through the thickets of wild jungle that now encase it. It's impossible to imagine how any railway could ever pierce these overgrown hills and fells. And why someone would ever want one to.
I return to my deck and riverside spot for a suitable session of mulling things over after a day of delving into Kanchan's darker side. The sun glows, blood red and daffodil yellow, on the horizon. Right on cue.
Kanchanaburi's Wilder Side
It's hard to pull myself away from the prospect of another day of hammock lazing and beer sipping as the Kwai drifts on by. I manage it though. I manage it because the promise of gushing waterfalls and splash pools hidden in the mountains is even harder to resist.
I remember being told before I arrive that the great cataracts of Erawan were surely some of the best in all of Asia. They were, simply, a MUST if you happen to head to this corner of the Land of Smiles.
So, here I am, dutifully weathering the winding turns of the Thai roads as they shoot into the Tenasserim Hills. We whoosh past villages and woods. It's a montage of bamboo huts and rice paddies, of little lakes dispelling their morning mists and pockets of forests, each more primeval than the last.
Then I'm trotting along a mud-spattered path, dodging gnarled tree roots that crumple the ground like used brown paper, duking below vines that look like petrified snakes dangling from the ancient trees above. I'm actually in one of Thailand's most accessible national parks: The Erawan National Park – the home of the waterfalls.
It's not long before I see the first splash pools, glowing turquoise blue and glistening with the few flecks of sunlight that pierce the canopy. It really is eye-wateringly wonderful, spilling over a series of ridges and sparkling like a river drawn in an anime cartoon. There are monkeys – macaques, crab-eating ones, to be precise – running left to right along the branches, too.
My guide says there are seven tiers to this special cataract. I'm only at the first. I start to push on and discover a second level where tree-wrought bridges lean over the channels to offer an eco-path through the jungle, further, deeper into the jungle and the falls. Forever the sound of plunging water and ripples echoes around. There's the familiar noise of people jumping bombs into the pools somewhere.
I pass a level with a long, ribbon-like strand of a waterfall. It's time to swim and I'm soon showering in a natural jet stream of mountain aqua. It's chilly but soothing – the shade doesn't stop the jungles of Tenasserim from heating up as the Thai sun arches overhead. I also get my first nibbling experience courtesy of the waterfall's resident fish. They dine on the dead skin of the people who swim here. It's a sort of natural exfoliation, only without the bill at the end.
Back To Kanchan
A day in the falls finishes off all the things I had on my must-do list for Kanchan. I wiggle back through the woods on the minibus, skin feeling smoother and more alive than ever. I alight at the bus stop and hop a tuk-tuk back to my hostel. Beers begin to flow from behind the little bar and I dig into a plate of peanut-topped Thai noodles.
Then the twilight colors inform me it's time for the sunset. I head down to the hostel deck that spills out onto the water's edge and crack a cold one. Right when it's supposed to, the horizon begins to change hues. First comes that purple-blue. Then that deep maroon. Then a sort of emerald and pink. And finally, the Rothko-esque palette of rich red and yellow, the chromatography of the Thai sky that never fails to move me.
That's the last hurrah of another long day lazing on edge of the River Kwai. Hopefully there'll be many more to come, I think, as I sip that icy Singha and the stars start twinkling overhead.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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