Thailand’s road less travelled
Why tourists are increasingly flocking to Thailand’s north-west.
In a gentle curve of the Kwae Yai in north-western Thailand, it’s not just people who are drawn to the cool waters of the river. The sounds of elephants bathing – punctuated by snorts, rumbles and trumpeting – drown out the squeals of teenagers hurling themselves into the water from a rope.
The elephants wade in until just the top of their backs, and ears, eyes and trunks, are visible, a good position for lazily observing the shady rainforested banks. Rescued from life as working animals, a swim in the Kwae Yai at the Elephants World sanctuary in Kanchanaburi is about as good as life gets, even if you’re not an elephant.
The Kwae Yai flows from the mountains on the Thailand-Myanmar border to merge with the Kwae Noi, becoming the Mae Klong and twisting through the spectacular countryside of Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi and Samut Songkhram to the Gulf of Thailand.
From mountains and rainforests to waterfalls and caves, the rivers are the heart of these regions, and their bustling towns, floating markets, riverside hotels and national parks easily challenge Thailand’s islands and beaches for the natural beauty crown.
Slideshow images: Longtail boat towing a raft on the Kwae Yai; a bathing elephant; at Elephants World sanctuary.
Reluctantly leaving the elephants behind, half an hour’s drive upriver from Kanchanaburi, we’re deep into winding rainforest roads on our way to Mida, a resort with mountain views on the banks of Kwae Yai. It’s as far from the beach parties and nightclubs of Phuket or Pattaya as you can get.
It’s quiet, but there’s plenty to do: exploring nearby Erawan National Park and spectacular Erawan Falls – rafting on the river, riding bikes through the forest and along the banks, or swimming under frangipani blossoms in the infinity pool.
At night, lanterns light a path to the river, where a Thai feast is served to a soundtrack of frogs, burbling water and the ancient creak of the forest. Far from city light pollution, there’s nothing to dim the magnificently starlit sky.
Nearby is the historical village of Mallika R.E. 124. Designed by the Chair of Architecture at Silapkorn University, Associate Professor Chatri Prakitnonthakan, Mallika is an exquisite life-size replica of a typical town from 1905, when slavery was abolished in Thailand and western products and culture were beginning to make an impact.
Malika has market and flower gardens, outdoor kitchens, a marketplace with shops and trades, and a mix of grand and modest homes to explore. Shop in the market using village currency, try winnowing rice, or wander through the gardens. It never feels like play-acting and the attention to detail is extraordinary.
500-year-old Amphawa Floating Market.
Haew Narok Waterfall.
Outside the major towns, life in western Thailand has a gentle pace. At the small community of Baan Bang Plub near the Mae Klong, local farmers, producers and families open their homes and studios to visitors to showcase their eco-farming philosophy. Riding rickety bicycles through the back streets and laneways of the village, our small group stops to wander through a coconut orchard, learning about the fruit and how it’s grown. We meet an elderly kite maker, whose paper creations are too delicate to survive the journey home in my suitcase, and get a class in making sticky coconut candies from local women.
Close to Bangkok, and on the last night of our journey, we’ve finally ventured on to the Mae Klong. The site of the 500-year-old Amphawa Floating Market – a popular day trip from Bangkok – is quiet. The tourists have gone home, locals are eating with their families by the canal, backpackers settle in at a homestay, and the lights in the old shophouses glow.
A few hundred metres away from the market our guide turns off the boat engine and lets it glide closer to the river bank. It’s the last moment of dusk and any moment now, little points of light will punctuate the bushes. One of the best places in Thailand to see fireflies, the gentle flickering is muted, but like the river system these insects make their home, it’s magical.
Justine Costigan was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Releasing sky lanterns at Wat Jongklang temple.
Bangkok at sunset.
While you’re there... Thailand’s World War II history
Kanchanaburi province is home to memorials, museums, cemeteries and significant sites related to the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, built in 1943 by the Imperial Japanese Army to create an efficient overland route for the transport of supplies to its forces in Burma (Myanmar).
More than 200,000 romusha (labourers) were recruited and conscripted to work on the project, as well as more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, including 13,000 Australians. The conditions and treatment of these workers was so harsh, the project was soon dubbed ‘The Death Railway’. It’s estimated 90,000 labourers and 12,000 prisoners of war died during its construction.
The town of Kanchanaburi has several museums relating to the railway and two Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. Here you can search the archives for names and gravesite locations or simply wander the cemeteries and take in the epitaphs paying tribute to those who lost their lives here. There are other war sites close to the town and you can take the train on the only stretch of the railway still in use.
An hour’s drive from Kanchanaburi is Hellfire Pass, a remote section of the railway carved from rock and jungle. Named for the hellish conditions endured by those who cut the pass, it’s home to a memorial museum and interpretive walk. Use the personal audio guide – the words of the prisoners describing their experiences bring these stories to life.
Hellfire Pass is unexpectedly beautiful. The jungle-filtered light, simple stone memorial and peaceful atmosphere invite reflection. Allow a few hours to take it all in, and bring water and mosquito repellent.
The only remaining stretch of the ‘Death Railway’ near Kanchanaburi.
Bridge on the River Kwai over Mae Nam Khwae Noi, Kanchanaburi.