About 129 kilometres – or roughly two and a half hours’ drive by car from Bangkok – sits Thailand’s third largest province called Kanchanaburi, a land covered with timber, evergreen forests and most famous natural wonders in the country. But having said that, Kanchanaburi’s greatest yet saddest draw probably comes from its deadliest tragedy: the Death Railway, which dates back to World War II period during Japanese occupation, attracting thousands of travellers, particularly history lovers and World War buffs to visit the area.
I began my first ever journey to Kanchanaburi together with 30 travel agents from across Malaysia in a familiarisation trip organised by Tourism Authority of Thailand last May 2017, making our first stop at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, a popular touristy market on water in the neighbouring province, Ratchaburi, where travellers are promised the quintessential Thai experience that reminisces the bucolic era when canals and water transportation modes were common. Initially, the Damnoen Saduak canal was ordered to be built in 1866 by King Rama IV of the Chakri Dynasty to connect Ratchaburi and Samut Sakhon provinces, eventually creating what used to be a prosperous market for locals for years.
Today, Damnoen Saduak Market has somehow lost its authenticity due to commercialism; however, the bustle of people buying and selling remains the same. Visitors can expect to find everything from tropical fruits, local traditional snacks to artisanal crafts being sold on either wooden boats that ply the canal or on the terraced banks that flank the canal. There are two types of boats that ferry visitors along the canal – paddle boats and motorised long tail boats – but I’d strongly suggest the former one for the sake of romanticising the whole experience. For all it’s worth, the motorised boats look jarring when traversing the narrow and shallow canal, similar to bullies that interrupt the calm waters with their swooshing, sloshing and mechanical roar. Nonetheless, the best time to visit the market is between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. when the market is alive and riotous, also considered as the best chance for travellers to take their own photos (including selfies, of course) of the floating market, which is what Thailand is famous for, among others.
The next stop was the Elephant Haven Sai Yok (www.elephantpark.com), Kanchanaburi, which is a centre that not only rescues dozens of exploited elephants but also helps them recover from distressing activities like trekking and performing for entertainment. In fact, this is where you can see the elephants in their element: behaving naturally, roaming free in an appropriate habitat, bathing and swimming in the river, and grooming themselves by scratching or rubbing their bodies on trees. I have seen quite a number of elephants in my previous visits to several camps and zoos, and honestly, the ones that live here seem to look unpressured and happy. Here, visitors are more than welcome to interact with the cheeky animals within a safe distance, either by feeding them with fruits or even bathing them in the river. Packages start at THB2,500 per person.
Then, we made our way to a reconstructed ancient city called Muang Mallika (mallika124.com) that was built to reflect the period when King Rama V abolished the Siamese slavery system in all forms in 1905 – a bold decision some might say that brought profound changes to Thai society. From that day onwards, the 1st of April is known as the Day of Slave Abolition for the Thais. Having been a well-travelled man himself, the king later introduced Western approaches and modern forms of organisation under his transformation plan, gradually leading to the modern Siam/Thailand that we see today.
These transformations, along with other important facets of that era, are what visitors of Muang Mallika could expect to witness and learn by spending a few hours here. This culturally rich space comprises a small bridge designed after the bridges of Rialto Bridge in Venice and Ponte Vecchio in Italy, impressive traditional houses for noble families and commoners, a commercial district, a city hall, a main kitchen and a houseboat – all hiding behind 10-metre-tall stone walls. Interestingly, there are also almost 400 crew members working here, playing all sorts of characters – from merchants to villagers – hence, creates a more realistic experience. Visitors too can take part by dressing up and play the part for a small fee.
Speaking of fee, it’s worth noting that all transactions within the ancient city are conducted using the old currency, Satang, which visitors can purchase prior to entering. Entrance tickets for Muang Mallika are sold at THB250 per adult and THB120 per child. However, if visitors are interested in having dinner accompanied by a cultural show, they can opt for the package price at THB700 per adult and THB350 per child.
But if a cultural dinner is not your thing, then why not dine on a river ferry commonly called ‘party boat’ instead? This boat floats lazily down the River Kwai just before dusk, providing varied perspectives of the city that lies ahead. The experience, which lasts two to three hours, is ideal for a group outing, be it family, friends or even work colleagues. The typical buffet onboard provides a delightful combination of Thai dishes, and halal options are also widely available upon request. But why is it called a party boat, you ask? Wait till night approaches and see how the boat enlivens with loud music and colourful disco lights.
And after a day or two of fun activities in the province, I strongly suggest for visitors to conclude the trip here with the ride on the infamous Death Railway to the River Kwai Bridge. This railway was built to supply the Japanese forces in Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II. It began construction in October 1942 and completed on October 1943, considered quick considering the geographical challenges. It earned its nickname – the Death Railway – because constructing it claimed the lives of around 100,000 Asian labourers (rōmusha) and 13,000 POWs (prisoners of war) due to horrific working conditions and malnutrition. The highest number of deaths, sadly, came from the workers from then Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia), of which 42,000 out of 75,000 died. These fallen workers’ graves dot both sides of the tracks. By the end of the war, it was recorded that there were 10,549 graves found on or near the railway.
The railway originally stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. But today, only a small portion of it is still in use while the rest was destroyed by Allied bombers in 1945. There are various stations where visitors can board the train – we chose to start from Thamkra Sae Station where Khwae Noi River makes an S-bend away from the tracks, hence offering a scenic view of the famous Wang Po viaduct, arguably the most picturesque view of the entire train journey. The landscapes that unfold afterwards are classically Southeast Asian: green rice paddies with lush and tropical glory. Ticket for the ride costs THB100 per person. Also, come between November to December if you wish to participate in the River Kwai Bridge Festival, held every year to honour the fallen warriors.
Where to Stay in Kanchanaburi?
Sai Tarn Iyara Resort
The resort is an ideal stay amidst serenity that provides not only comfort but also physical challenges for active people and fun activities including bamboo rafting and banana boat. Rooms are decent and priced at affordable rates. On top of that, Muslim guests can be assured the peace of mind knowing that the resort serves halal meals upon request.
Gaya Travel Magazine team members extend our heartfelt gratitude to the Tourism of Authority Thailand for making our trip to Kanchanaburi such a wonderful and eye-opening experience.