Lena is back with a new post detailing her solo journey across Asia. This time, we join her in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. You can look forward to more stories from Lena’s unique perspective as her trip progresses. You can also check out her blog at tinybackpacker.com.
Kanchanaburi is as cheap as tourist destinations get in the vicinity of Bangkok. A two-hour drive from the capital (a mini-bus from Khao San will set you back 220 baht, or about US$7), the little town is known mostly – if at all – for the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. (The Japanese army paved an important railway connection on the backs of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war and local laborers, the said bridge becoming the apotheosis of the impossible construction).
The bridge – nothing special but for the story – is the culmination of the town’s main street. Some 3 kilometres long, it hosts bars (e.g. “Get Drunk for 10 baht”), restaurants (Pad Thai starts at 20 baht), laundry services (15-20 baht/kilo) and massage parlors (100-150 baht/hour). Most of the better guest houses are located on the opposite end of the street from the bridge, many cheap entertainment venues away. Which kinda makes me wonder: how many people never actually make it to the bridge?
However, Kanchanaburi province is not made up of the bridge alone. Hot springs and waterfalls (Erawan Waterfalls are supposed to be among the most beautiful in Thailand), floating markets and tiger temples – all are reachable on mercilessly promoted day trips. (Judging by the number of poorly designed leaflets, Kanachanaburi travel agents are personally responsible for the extinction of at least one small rainforest).
I decide to check the bridge off my list soon after arrival. By the time I make it across town, the sun is setting, rendering the whole setup almost romantic. The river – wide and mildly picturesque, fringed with palm trees, floating restaurants and guest houses – is basking in the rays the color of Penang curry. It takes a few moments for me to process it though, for the bridge is swarming with people. As I learn later from the numerous eco-unfriendly brochures, “Bridge over the River Kwai” is the mandatory conclusion of each and every day tour – a couple billion of them at a glance. So, though at its prettiest (and what’s even more significant, least hot), the bridge’s tourist flow is beyond sane around 5 p.m.
The next day I sign up for a 15 km kayaking trip in the afternoon and explore the area on a rental bicycle (30 baht/half day) in the morning. Being a registered hater of tourist entertainment that involves captured animals, I skip all day trips with elephant treks or tiger temple visits on the menu – which means all of them. Nevertheless, a bike/kayak combo allows me to cover more than 40 km of the local landscape with a side benefit of a multi-hour full-body workout.
Detailed printed maps of Kanchanaburi region (at the time of writing) do not exist, but a friendly lady at Yanee bicycle rental provides me with an A4 sheet, photocopied many times over. The sheet contains the kind of hand-drawn plan that all Ukrainian schoolchildren were obliged to produce in 5th grade geography class: punctured lines for rivers, caricature trees and screwed up scale. Naturally, I make a couple of wrong turns before I realize that not all crossings are portrayed accurately on this marvel of topography, but eventually I learn to cross-reference the data from the map with passionate gesticulations of the locals and get where I need to go.
I visit the pretty, if slightly cuckoo, Krasae Cave (home to tiny bats, narrow limestone corridors and Buddha images of questionable artistic value) as well as a beautiful, well-maintained War Cemetery (the last refuge of many of the POW’s who took part in the construction of the Death Railway). On my way back, I make a large loop around the town and am rewarded with serene rural scenes: buffalo grazing in the meadows, giant ferns springing along the road, teak village houses and barefoot children giggling in the wake of my bicycle. It would have been idyllic really, if not for the local dogs. Numerous ill-looking mutts have me and my bicycle at the top of their “To Kill Before Lunch” list.
Kayaking proves to be both dog-free and lots of fun. The banks are low, lush and inviting, dotted with wooden fishermen’s huts and stylish resorts. The current softly urges us (a guy from Bangkok, a girl from Singapore and yours truly) towards our eventual destination: a Chinese temple down the river. Wet, happy and in mild need of Thai massage, our trio disembarks as the sun is setting yet again: it’s time to check out the 10 baht drinks!