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Thailand: Kanchanaburi & Sangkhlaburi, The Wild Thai West

By 01/04/2019 January 13th, 2019 No Comments

Both Kanchanaburi and Sanghklaburi were one of those lovely Thai discoveries. Barely on our radar, only because we decided to volunteer at the Thai Animal Sanctuary in Sangkhlaburi did we land in what locals describe as one of the most beautiful provinces in Thailand. Much to our surprise we were glad we made it to the wild Thai west.

While history buffs will instantly recognise the name with its WWII rich history and the infamous Death Railway Bridge, movie buffs will better know Kanchanaburi as featured in the classic The Bridge Over the River Kwai and the 2013 release The Railway Man.

Kanchanaburi was once on the rise in terms of becoming a backpacker hotspot. While some expats took advantage of its close proximity to Bangkok for getaways and border runs, locals picked this chilled river town to spend their vacation time. And the off-the-beaten-backpacker, well those lads arrived looking for just that, an authentic Thai city with shining culture, national parks and jungle feels, sprinkled with some mod and cons such as shopping centres, markets, a buzzing nightlife and a cheap and cheerful destination away from the tourist filled islands, the polluted capital and the increasingly popular north.

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Trainspotting

It is hard to describe why we enjoyed Kanchanaburi so much. In reality, it is nothing hugely special yet there is a sense of magic in the air. Maybe we had fallen in love with our two months spent a further two hours west while volunteering in Sangkhlaburi and with that came a great appreciation for the nearby city but it is a destination we would suggest people visit, especially if you want to veer off the tourist trail.

And sure if you are heading to Kanchanaburi, you might as well continue on to Sanghklaburi which is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, relaxing and fascinating villages we have ever been to. To see a wonderful combination of Thai and Burmese culture alone, plus a floating Mon village, a submerged temple and the longest man-made wooden bridge in Thailand – you cannot tell us this place isn’t quirky as hell!

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Pocahontas-ing in Sangkhlaburi

 Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

You can easily reach Kanchanburi from all major cities across Thailand, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. We ourselves travelled from Bangkok and made the mistake of departing from the Mo Chit  / Chatuchak Bus Terminal. But sure isn’t this why we do this, to make all the mistakes so you don’t have to.

If are travelling from the north or say Phuket, the bus will stop at the Mo Chit/Chatuchak Bus Terminal. The driver suggested we catch one of the minivans leaving here however it is much better to continue on to the Southern Bus Terminal and take a bus or minivan from there. There are way more bus and minivan services running that won’t charge you for your bag.

From Mo Chit Bus Terminal: According to the information desk, there is only one “large” bus per day which leaves at 6.30am. Other than that you have the minivans (anyone else not a huge fan of travelling in minivan? OK so there is air-con and it is faster but we find them cramped and more uncomfortable.

Anyway, to take a minivan from this terminal, buy your tickets at window #18 where there are selective minivans for 120BHT (€3.30).  Take note that they will charge you the price of one seat for your bags.

From Southern Bus Terminal: You have a choice of bus and minivan. The cheaper 2nd class busses take 2-3 hours and cost 100BHT (€2.70) whereas you can jump on the minivan or 1st class bus for a more speedy journey at 150BHT (€4),  while these busses cost a little more than the ones leaving  Mo Chit, you won’t be stung paying for an extra seat to for your bag.

Services from the Sai Tai Mai Southern Bus Terminal run until 10pm, with one or the other leaving every 20 minutes so we suggest arriving to the bus terminal and booking directly as opposed to booking online.

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Ride the Death Railway

Another option is to take the train and we do hear this is not only a scenically stunning journey but it also offers the chance to travel across the Bridge of the River Kwai. To roll on in on a train to see the Death Railway is far more appropriate, adventurous and as low cost as taking the bus so you could definitely look at either arriving or departing in style.

If you do choo-choo-choose this option it means starting in Bangkok’s Thonburi Train Station and aiming for one of two trains that depart each day, 7.50am and 13.55pm. It takes around 2.5hours and costs for 100BHT (€2.70).

INSERT: Transport Info Here

Accommodation in Kanchanburi

Float riverside and stay at the relaxing Sugar Cane Guesthouse for as little as 150BHT (€4) per double room. The bungalow style rooms offer private bathroom, fairly decent Wi-Fi and river views in a nice quiet area off the main hostel street.

There is a restaurant on site offering reasonable meals, including western food open from 7am-10am. The hostel itself is around a 20 minute walk from bus terminal and less than 10 minutes from the night market.

Instead of booking online, just stick the head in to bag the flat rat.

 

Things To Do In Kanchanaburi

We are history geeks, and throw ourselves at any chance to fall back in time especially when it comes to key moments in history that our school curriculum failed to include. Kanchanaburi is a dream for people like us, but even if you find history a bit of a snooze, the story behind the surrounding area is one that you will want to share over pints in a did you know kind of manner, a conversation and a history lesson that is guaranteed to perk the ear.

The Death Railway:

Free to visit, and quite popular with tourists mostly because it has been featured in Hollywood movies and old school classics, the railway itself runs over 250km from Thailand to Myanmar.

The fascinating discovery for us was that it took ¼ million people to build the entire transport system in 1942. These slave workers made up of WWII prisoners of war and poverty stricken labourers who were falsely promised a better life for them and their families – all enforced under Japanese rule who had invaded Thailand at the time.

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Stand By Me

The idea was to create a rail system so the Japanese could supply their forces in Burma (Myanmar) without attempting the risky and regularly attacked sea route.

So they enforced POW’s and locals to complete the project with no food, very limited tools and the most woeful working conditions imaginable. The workers suffered constant torture and abuse as they ploughed and chizzled their way through thick jungle and around the steepest mountains all to clear a path for the transport system.

There was no medical assistance supplies or medication, no transportation to supply the workers with the basics needed for survival, and due to the conditions, disease was rampant while families starved.

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Appreciating history

There is a recorded 180,000 deaths. Deaths caused by a project that nowadays would take at least four years to complete. However, despite the conditions these broken, tortured and mistreated labourers and prisoners managed to complete it in only 16 months. That is incredible.

Once you learn the history behind the appropriately named railway, you stand in appreciation and even the engineering, something I would have zero interest in leaps to your attention in all its glory.

Definitely put some time aside to visit, and if so try get down for 5.30pm to catch the train passing. The scene dramatically turns from selfie-taking tourists and track-walking locals to a one of commotion as the train honks with warning and tourists vanish to the sides – some even slightly panicking. We had some laugh observing it all. Obviously, stand back and be careful as it passes.

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Yep, it gets this close!

We enjoyed the 2km stroll from our hostel to the Bridge on the River Kwai i.e. Death Railway but you can easily hail the the orange or large yellow shared songthaews, or negotiate with one of motorbike taxis. Bike rental is common and at the cost of 50BHT (€1.40) you can cycle and explore Kanch for the day.

WWII War Cemetery:

A little more central, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, along the Maenamkwai Road, is the resting place of nearly 10,000 prisoners of war and labourers who lost their lives while constructing the railway. Take a stroll, pay your respects and be moved by the realities of the Kanchaburi’s history.

The WWII Museum across from the cemetery promises stories and teachings both pre and post-war but we didn’t hear good things from friends who visited. It costs 140BHT to explore the WWII museum, something we ourselves skipped based on the negative reviews but do let us know of you visit.

JEATH War Museum:

Instead, to get a better feel for the daily conditions the prisoners of war and slave labourers suffered when working on the railway, visit the JEATH museum.

It is small and not the most impressive museum but it does share an insight as to how the prisoners lived, with exhibitions of personal belongings and war remnants, there is also a short documentary.

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JEATH (Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand. Holland) Museum

What is quite interesting is that the monks from the temple directly across from the museum run the JEATH War Museum (JEATH being an acronym meaning Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand and Holland – a small list of countries involved in the war). If you dress appropriately do pop over to the temple and explore its grounds while there.

The JEATH War Museum sites along the river, only a 10 minute walk from the bus terminal and costs 40BHT (€1) to visit.

One Day Tour:

There are tour agencies advertising an “all-in-one” tour package to include the railway, the cemetery, the museum, a visit to the Hell Fire pass, the most difficult and dangerous stretch of the railway where the POWs physically hacked their way through mountain corners and where a lot of lives were lost. The tour also throws in some lunch and a trip to the Sai Yok Noi Falls.

Prices start around 800BHT – 1,200BHT (€21 – € 32) but know that it is easy to visit all the above DIY saving yourself a fortune! We just wanted to include it as an option. Always enquire at your hostel for tours as they may have even cheaper deals.

Hellfire Pass:

You don’t need to book a tour to visit the Hellfire Pass, as there are local and minivans from the bus station that leave for Sangkhlaburi. You can take the the local red bus for 100BHT (€2.70) or the minivans for 150BHT (€4), mention the Hellfire Pass to the driver or follow your route on the Maps.Me app (download it, it will be your new favourite app!). It should take around an hour to get out there.

Leave early and make the day out of it, as the self-guided tour involves a 2km hike and the museum itself opens until 4pm. There is an audio guide available for free but you will need to leave as form of I.D as a deposit so bring your passport.

The visit itself is free and you can catch the bus back to Kanchanaburi from the small bus stop opposite the Hellfire pass entrance but try catch the bus early as the last public bus passes around 4.30pm

Waterfalls:

Rent motorbike and head 7km outside of Kanchanaburi to visit the Sai Yok Noi Falls, and thanks to the lack of tourists (outside of public holidays of course) you may just have this place all to yourself. You also have the Erawan Falls found in Erawan National Park, more popular than the former suggested falls, and if willing to pay the 300BHT (€8) entry fee you can make the most out of the day by arriving early for hike followed by a swim at the 7-tiered waterfalls.

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Huns of Anarchy

Ask at your hostel or visit any of the bike rental places and be sure not to spend more than 150-200BHT per day for rental – that should also entitle you to 24 hours rental.

 Kanchanaburi to Sangkhlaburi

Take a night or two and head even more west towards the Myanmar border and visit the rural village of Sanghklaburi. We were blessed to have lived in this village for two months and we left a piece of our hearts there.

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Good morning Sangkhlaburi

For such a small village, one that closes when darkness hits and is in full swing by 5am, it prides itself in its little city centre which does have a buzzing market, some stores and decent enough transport system but veer away from the centre towards the floating Mon Village the famous Mon Bridge, the Sunken Temple and probably the best location to witness Thailand’s very touching morning ritual – the Giving of Alms.

There is a local bus and it is slightly cheaper and leaves twice from the bus terminal in Kanchanaburi at 8.40am, 10.20am and 12pm at the price of 130BHT (€3.50) and 5 hour journey time.

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From Kanch to Sangkhlaburi

Better to take the air-con minivans that leave from the office across the terminal’s bus loading bay (and where idle busses are parked) just ask a local or swing by the information desk, the guys there can speak English. Unlike the local bus, the minivans run every hour from 7am-5pm charging 180BHT (€5).

Accommodation in Sangkhlaburi

There are plenty of accommodation options available to suit all needs from the pricier and more luxurious riverside properties such as P Guesthouse or quirky little bungalows serving home-cooked food and breakfast included like the Kingfisher House.

We would like to give a little mention to Mitt from Kingfisher House who also owns a tattoo studio (attached to the guesthouse) and he is one of the best tattoo artist’s we have allowed to permanently ink us. We left extremely happy with our art, and we would highly suggest that if getting a tattoo a Thailand in on the ‘to do’ list he is your man!

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Our main man Mitt

Then you have our favourites, the more local home-stay such as J Family Homestay, who offer basic double room at 300BHT (€8) per night staying with one of the sweetest families in Sanghklaburi. But there are A LOT of sweet families in Sangkhlaburi.

Things To Do In Sangkhlaburi

Visit The Sunken Temple:

From P Guest House, you can rent a Pocahontas style canoe for 250B (full day), 150B (half day), or 60BHT (1 hour) and float just around the river bend for the best Mon bridge views and a sweat pumping row to the Sunken Temple.

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Usually, this entire construction is submerged

If you visit during rainy season the temple will be fully submerged so while you cannot explore the temple, you can still canoe through one section by entering the windows – an extremely eerie feeling but unique experience if being honest. During dry season, dock and walk around the ruins, water damaged house of worship that still features ruined Buddha shrines and faded pictures of the King.

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During rainy season, you can canoe through the window

Leave early in the morning for this as the minute the sun hits it will knock the socks out of you, even Pocahontas herself wouldn’t be in the mood to paint all the colours of the wind. Plus, you want to have the chance to squeeze in a little row under the wooden Mon Bridge which is an incredible sight from the water.

Mon Bridge:

While floating under the bridge is some sight, you cannot visit Sangkhlaburi without taking a trip over to the Mon Village via the Mon Bridge.  The longest man-made wooden bridge in Thailand, the engineering doesn’t look too sturdy and despite a few flash floods taking down the bridge over the years, the construction is impressive and extremely safe to cross.

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Dodgy or Sturdy?

A short stroll and the Thai culture vanishes behind you as you gaze over the edge at the floating stilt houses and notice the longyi-wearing men (skirt-like sheet of cloth that Burmese men wear) and white chalk-painted faces of the Mon people (ethnic group native to Myanmar) welcome you with big bright smiles.

On the Mon side you will find markets, local eateries with typical Burmese dishes as well some beautiful temples such as the Chedi Buddhakhaya temple – it is worth your time to just ramble the streets

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The Mon Chedi Buddhakhaya Temple,

Giving of Alms:

If you are tight on time and want to see as much of Sanghkhlaburi including the Mon Bridge, wake up at the crack of dawn to witness what is one of our most favourite traditions in Buddhism.

Devoted locals wake early each morning to start their day with a simple action that not only sets up their day so beautifully but also creates good karma which they hope will eventually achieve complete spiritual enlightenment, just like Lord Buddha himself.

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A beautiful life lesson

To thank the monks from their local temple, who have chosen to dedicate their lives to teach and encourage others to live a life with virtue and kindness, this truly moving tradition is all about giving, and that is something we can certainly get behind – and even get up very early for!

Also, a monk doesn’t earn. And while this could be seen a charity, it is far from it. It is gifting and when a monk is gifted with something, he is never allowed to refuse it. This is an honour for both the monk and the Buddhist.

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Morning Walk To Mon

As the sun lazily lifts its head, the sound of drums fills the air in the distance while locals bend over steaming stoves as they cook rice and prepare their offerings. The drums signify that the monks are leaving the temple, each one lining up behind the other all led by the most senior monk, all walking barefoot through the streets.

The carry their silver alms bowl, and each monk accepts what is given. We witnessed some locals hand over pot noodles, crisps and fizzy drinks, as well as sticky rice, curry, flowers, fruit and even money.

As a tourist, you can take part and give an offering. Some of the stalls will have packaged offerings prepared. For 100BHT (€2) you receive two offerings (one for each person) and have the option to wear traditional Burma dress which will be provided.

You can then pick a spot and join the long line of devotees. When the monks approach,  remove your shoes (extremely important), then put your palms together in front of your chest, and bow your head while bringing your clasped hands to your forehead. This gesture is called a wai and is a sign of utmost respect. Note a monk does not have to wai back at you.

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The Wai

If you don’t wish to get involved but want to observe, this is OK too but please show respect by staying out the way, and allowing people to worship without disturbance. You can take pictures and will see many doing so but again, don’t follow the crowd and think that the way they behave is OK, instead go above and beyond, stand back, be subtle, use your zoom and do not shove your camera in anyone’s face.

It is important as guests in a country that we behave in a matter that is appreciated and expected which means following the local customs not the actions of other tourists.

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Do Not Disturb, Observe

All in all, you want to be ready on the Mon side for around 6.45-7am. It lasts for around 45minutes depending and you then have the day to explore the Mon side or jump in a canoe to visit the Sunken Temple or even both! You should have plenty of time if you leave your hostel before 6.30am.

Finally, on the way over the Mon Bridge, some children may approach you to apply thanaka on your face. Thanaka is a white/yellow paste made from tree bark and many Burmese men, women and children wear it as sunblock. It is great for the skin and a natural cosmetic as it has anti-fungal properties and helps with skin conditions such as acne.

Pop the kids a small tip should they decorate your face with it but also feel free to decline – it is completely optional.

 

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Those welcoming smiles

Tubing and Floating Huts:

Many hold off on river tubing for Laos’ mountainous town Vang Vieng, but we did the opposite. Around 9km from Sangkhlaburi, in less than 20 min drive or a 2hour walk, you can enjoy a lazy day by the river swimming, eating and tubing.

You can rent a moped or a bike available from either P Guesthouse or J Family Guesthouse for 150-200BHT per day.

Directions:
If you search “Ban Song Karia School” on Google Maps, this will bring you close to the river turn off which is a few metres past the school. But in the meantime here is our best attempt at driving instructions.

Drive towards Sanghklaburi Town and start from the 7Eleven. From the store, drive straight to the main highway and when you reach the T Junction, turn right.

Follow the road straight for about 10 minutes until you reach a roundabout. Take the first exit left towards Kanchanaburi and stay straight until you reach the only bridge in sight.

Cross the bridge and on your right hand side is an arrow and small turn off where you will see the small huts.

The food is so tasty here, with lots of choices. Dishes won’t cost more than 35BHT (€1) and it costs 20BHT (€0.55) to rent rubber rings for the day. So pick a hut and settle in for some Thai tubing.

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Tubing, tubing, tubing down the river

So without a doubt, get your ass west to visit the Kanchanaburi province, and you won’t regret the decision. And if you have some time to spare we would highly recommend you to volunteer at the Thai Animal Sanctuary in Sangkhlaburi, they do need volunteers to stick around for minimum one week but it will be the most eye-opening and yet heart-wrenching week of your life.

It also gives you a chance to give back, help and visit Sangkhlaburi while doing so. Volunteers usually work 7 hours a day, 6 days a week and it costs 150BHT per night to stay in the volunteer house (this is just to cover bills and rent, the sanctuary does not make any profit whatsoever from this).

If you want to read more, and find out the heroic work they do, pop on over here for  a read.

Enjoy the west life guys!

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Katie Hogan

Author Katie Hogan

I’m a self-diagnosed wanderlust sufferer, a victim of the travel bug and someone who has yearned for the freedom to travel for as long as I can remember.So I decided to quit my dream job, from the "marriage and baby" queries and trade the societal life for a life on the road, wandering through the unknown, all while building websites, teaching English, writing, filming, snapping and reminding myself to stop talking once and a while.

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