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Thailand: Bangkok, Erawan National Park Kanchanaburi, Tiger Temple
Kanchanaburi, Thailand: Roaring cascades
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
130 kms from Bangkok is the land of waterfalls and home to some majestic tigers. Not to forget the Bridge on the River Kwae Yai - theme of the movie by a similar sounding name. In the famous film, the river has been spelt differently and has distorted some other facts too. Anyway, that doesn't quite take us away from the beautiful place that is Kanchanaburi.
On this trip, my son Anuj was with me. For sake of brevity, let's call him Sherpa Anuj. The young lad took it on him to carry my camera kit as we climbed up to discover the various waterfalls. From Bangkok International airport we took a taxi and headed straight to Southern Bus Terminal. It was a 60 kms trip and cost us Thailand Baht 500. At the time of writing US$ 1 fetched THB 34. The other option to taking the taxi was a bus. That would have added about 60 minutes more for the trip. To us, at that moment, time was of essence. Of course, we could have taken the taxi all the way up to Kanchanaburi but that would have cost us about THB 3000, as against THB 77 (THB 144 for 2 passengers). At that moment, money was of essence! Buses were quite comfortable. The journey from Bangkok Bus Terminal to Kanchanaburi Bus Terminal was just over 2 hours. Be careful to opt for a bus that takes the new road. That saves about 30 minutes of traveling time.
We reached Kanchanburi at about 3:30 in the afternoon. We had our reservations at the Pung Waan Resort & Spa. The sprawling property is about 7 kms from town. Taxis, as we are used to seeing them, are rarely seen on Kanchanburi roads. Modified versions of taxis are available all around in plenty. Pick-ups have been converted into a popular public transportation vehicle. And because these taxis have no meters, bargaining is a way of life. I paid THB 200 for my trip to the hotel. Kanchanaburi has hundreds of hotels and inns to suit every budget. I would recommend opting for a place that's right on the banks of River Kwae Yai. Pung Waan Resort & Spa was. Good rooms. Good view. Good food.
After a quick shower, we were ready to explore around. We headed for the famous bridge which was only 2 kms from the hotel. What we saw in the movies and what we actually saw were two different animals. The original bridge, built with the labour of the allied forces, was of wood. After the original bridge was destroyed in the war, steel arches were used. They are still intact albeit only at the two ends of the bridge. The middle portion is new.
It's customary to walk the bridge to the other end. And since you would be walking on the railway tracks, it's a good idea to lookout for the approaching train. Of course, only about 6 trains cross the bridge in a day. If at all, you are the same time as that of the train, don't worry. The train slows down for the tourists to make way! We spent a couple of hours near the bridge. The neighbourhood is busy with restaurants and souvenir shops. We headed back to the hotel, had a light meal and crashed for the evening.
Our plans for the next day were set. To explore the Erawan Waterfalls and a visit to the Tiger Temple. Erawan Waterfalls are located in the Erawan National Park about 70 kms from Kanchanaburi. Erawan is the mythological 7 headed elephant. One of the waterfalls resembles the head and therefore the name. Since I was keen to spend time at my leisure at the waterfalls, I opted to hire a private cab for the trip rather than joining a day tour. It's also quite popular to rent a car or a motorcycle. This would make sense if you plan to stay over for longer periods to explore the many waterfalls and some safaris in the Kanchanaburi Province. We thought we had a bargain with the cab for THB 1800.
We set out at 7:30 after a hearty breakfast. In about 70 minutes, we were at the Erawan National Park. However, instead of going straight in, we drove up a further 4 kms to the crest of the Srinagarindra Dam. The view from the dam wall and the park adjoining was outstanding. After spending about an hour up there, we drove back to enter the park. Foreigners pay THB 200 to enter all national parks in Thailand. Entry is free to Thai nationals.
There are 7 waterfalls to be negotiated in all. Quite aptly, each waterfall is known as a level. The 7th level waterfall is a climb of about 2 kms. Allow at least 3 hours for the return journey. Add more hours if you wish to swim in the aqua blue waters of the falls. It's quite safe to swim out there. In fact, it's a recommendation. The park opens at 8 AM. Levels 3 to 7 close at 4 PM. Levels 1 & 2 are open till 5 - which are a local favourite for picnics, especially on holidays and weekends. While you may want to remember the waterfalls by their levels, each one of them has a name.
The next 3 hours we were in a different world all together. The trek ran besides the water and the thick forest made sure that the sun above was bearable. Do carry plenty of water as you are likely to get dehydrated pretty fast. After every few hundred meters, we faced a new level of waterfall. While few of them were tiered cascades, a few had a big drop. Nothing was common between them, save for the awesome feeling. I will allow the pictures to do the talking.
At the base of the mountain are a few restaurants and souvenir shops. We were there at 1 PM. Energizing ourselves with an ice cream we headed for the Tiger Temple which was about 50 kms from the Erawan National Park. We turned right about mid way on our road to Kanchanaburi. Tiger Temple is a tiger restoration program. Buddhist monks over the years adopted orphaned tiger cubs and since then they have come a long way. 17 full grown tigers and 5 cubs have made temple their home.
There's an entry fee (let's call it a donation) of THB 500 per person to enter the temple. Visitors must avoid wearing bright clothes and strong perfume. Females must have their shoulders and legs covered appropriately. As we enter the temple, deer, wild boars and buffaloes are see grazing. They too are temple's pets. In the area marked Tiger Canyon, we were delighted to see the tigers in the middle of their afternoon siesta. There were numerous volunteers ensuring that the tourists were at a safe distance. Overseeing the proceedings, sitting on a small rock was a monk whom I immediately recognized as the one who often features on the Discovery Channel.
The tigers are chained. Visitors are allowed to take pictures but only from a distance. Those with zoom lenses will have an advantage. By paying a fee of THB 1000 (let's call it donation), up to 5 tourists are allowed up close to the tigers. One of the group members has the privilege of resting the tiger on the lap. In our case Anuj did the honours. Anuj was dwarfed by the 400 pound tiger, his head as big as Anuj's lap! One by one, members of the group are led near to the tigers. Pictures are shot only by the volunteers - rest assured your cameras are handled well by them.
From the tiger's canyon, we moved up to caves that were home to young tigers. There were 5 tigers each accompanied by a monk. There were no much restrictions. Visitors were free to go near the tigers, pet them and take as many pictures. That was real fun time. Further up, in a big enclosure was a cheetah. We just got a glimpse as the animal was resting up on a branch. Nearby, was a pond that was home to many wild buffaloes. And that was that. By the time we reached the hotel, it was 4 PM. We decided to chill out in the pool and spend rest of the evening walking on the banks of the river, watching the setting sun.
We checked out at 8 the next morning. Kept our bags with the hotel's concierge and headed to the Kanchanaburi Bus Terminal. We took a bus to take us to Sai Yok Noi, about 60 kms away. The location has an excellent waterfall. Thankfully, there was not much walking or climbing to be done. Adjacent to the highway, was this majestic waterfall around which was built an excellent park. Shops around the waterfall sell excellent home made chips & curls made from bananas, potatoes & sweet potatoes. By all means taste a few before buying what you like. After having spent an hour out there, we took the so called taxi to Nam Tok railway station, just 2 kms away.
Nam Tok is the last stop of the Death Railway route. It's so named because hundreds of thousands of POWs lost their lives whilst building the route. For THB 100 per person, the train would take us to Kanchanaburi. The about 3 hour journey snakes its way through forests, along the river Kwae, over the wooden duct and finally over the bridge on the River Kwae. The trip was quite nostalgic. For foreigners, there's an option to pay THB 300 for a ride in a special carriage. Don't fall for the advertising. It's a similar carriage but what they give in addition are a few cookies, coffee and a certificate of travel. For visitors with just a day on hand, can join a tour to do the Erawan Waterfalls, Tiger Temple, Sai Nok Waterfall and ride the Death Railway from Nam Tok to Tham Krasae - just a few stations away - a stretch that covers the famous wooden duct.
We reached Kanchanaburi at 3 PM. Just in time to head back to the hotel, take our bags and catch a bus back to Bangkok. The return journey took a little longer. Thanks to the old route that our bus took, and, the Bangkok traffic.
That's another story.
Kanchanaburi, Erawan National Park, Nam Tok,
Sai Yok National Park Image Gallery
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