The second leg of my trip was a visit to the western reaches of Thailand, a region called Kanchanaburi. This area borders Myanmar and therefore sees some influx of Burmese people who cross the loose jungle border seeking work. This area is sparsely populated and displays a rich tableau of forests and rolling hills. There is probably a lot more to Kanchanaburi than that, but this is not a geography lesson.
As I was planning my trip, I wanted to be sure to see some areas that were not just big cities filled with other tourists like myself. I wanted to see some forest, some jungle, and hopefully some wildlife. In Thailand, there are many, many options for this type of activity.
Around Thailand there are numerous wildlife parks, national parks, and nature preserves. As a first time visitor, I was again overwhelmed by the choices. My neurotic concern is always to try and select the best places to visit, and avoid the disappointment of knowing I picked the wrong spots. This thinking can be problematic and fill you with wasted anxiety. In the end, you pick a place, you go, and you learn from it. This is what I did.
To get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok you basically have three options: a bus, hired small minivan of some kind, or the train. The bus is quicker but does not offer much in the way of scenery. The train is slower, but offers ample opportunity to gaze out the open window with the beautiful scenery rolling by. On the train you also cross over the River Kwai, a famous WWII landmark where 100K Asian and 12k Allied POWs died in enslaved labor building a bridge over the river. (See the famous book and film adaptations of “The Bridge Over The River Kwai”). At this section of the journey more tourists will appear, getting on and off the train around the River Kwai area.
This was my first opportunity to see Thailand outside of the chaos of Bangkok. A breath of fresh air, and a relaxed atmosphere await you outside the big cities! After five days in Bangkok, it was time.
In the months prior during my research, I had discovered several resorts along the Kwai River that looked beautiful. Some had small cabanas directly on the river itself offering lush and cozy boutique accommodations. Perfect for a couple. I had still not made any reservations even during my stay in Bangkok as I was searching for a clear economic deal, and I was unable to decide what to do. There are some resort hotels which have accommodations for $50-100/night depending on the season, but there are also informally rented rooms scattered around for just a few bucks. The challenge is that you are not there, and once you get there there is no way to get around, so making decisions is difficult. I am not a fan of just showing up somewhere as loose as a remote area of Thailand with no idea where I’d lay my head.
I opted for the River Kwai Resotel Resort. It is located beyond the last stop on the train, the village of Nam Tok. From there you hire a driver to shuttle you to your resort for an exorbitant cost, but this is pretty much your only option. Many of the resorts are situated directly on the river and only accessible by boat. In Bangkok I had been trying to meet a nice girl who might be free and interested in joining me for company, but that didn’t really work out. So I remained solo heading to a romantic and secluded resort.
The five hour train journey was uncomfortable, yes, but I was so filled with wonder that I did not mind gazing at the countryside, reading my book, and listening to music as I anticipated what was to come. Arrival to anywhere such as this is an experience filled with anticipation. I often compare my journeys to other adventurous tales I have heard here and there, and while this does not compare to a multi-week journey into the farthest mountain regions of say, Nepal for example, it was still exciting enough.
There were many people who disembarked at the station, however I was the only traveler going to the Resotel. My anticipation was palpable, I had no idea what would be awaiting my arrival. The only way to reach my resort was by boat, so the driver took me to a dock where you are ferried via a long, narrow boat up the river to the resort. This was pretty exciting!
Arriving at the resort, you walk up a pathway to the pool area, and continue your climb upwards to the main lodge. At the pool, there was no one there. Empty. Walking up to the main lodge, still no one around. It was a little weird, and I began to wonder if I had made some terrible mistake. I checked in, and unpacked.
Walking around, I noticed the distinctly unmistakeable lack of…People.
There was no one there. I went for a swim. There was one other young couple, probably honeymooning.
The main lodge looks over the pool and contains the restaurant. Decor was darkly stained woods, historical memorabilia, black and white photography. It had the warm and cozy vibe of a safari lodge. In the evening I went to “dinner” (a stir fry and a beer).
There was no one there.
Except for one or two other small groups that came and went, I was alone at this enormous resort. Dozens of tables over looking the pool, and… Me. I quickly determine the importance of the seasonal nature of tourism to Thailand. Being mid June, this was the low season which sees drastically fewer numbers. Here I was fretting about reservations and bookings, and except for the youth hostels, every place I went was nearly empty.
One of the highlights of my visit to this area was to see the popular waterfalls at the Erawan National Park. As a captive of this isolated resort, my only transport option to Erawan was one of their outrageously priced excursion packages. it was a 45 minute drive to the falls, and round trip transport with a stay of a few hours would cost me about $80. So, in Thailand, the opportunity to find an extremely budget friendly experience is there, but they also gouge you in the places that are heavily frequented by tourists. You have to be able to recognize the difference.
The first couple days at the resort I just hung around. Any excursion would be expensive so I had to be a bit selective. I rented a mountain bike. How cool is that? Cruise around the back roads and mountainous paths of the area? Dream come true. Or not. The bikes were poorly maintained, rusted pieces of junk. A mile down the road my chain seized up and I had to coast back for a different bike. There were no mountainous paths to explore, and they had no maps. Just one paved road, and a few dirt roads that kind of went off to nowhere.
The Lawa Cave is directly across the road from the resort, and is highlighted in all the literature as a must see. It sucked. An outrageous $9 entrance fee into a damp, poorly lit cave with a walk of several hundred feet where you mainly slide around on bat shit and try to avoid twisting an ankle. Maybe I’m just not a “cave” type of guy.
The only interesting part of the Lawa Cave was at the first “room” where existed a small but dense population of bats hanging from the ceiling, under which you had to pass. And just a reminder, bats are not like birds. I actually really like bats, but they do make an eery chirping sound that I was not aware of. And when you are in a damp, dark cave, they give off a slightly menacing presence. So this would be a new and strange experience.
Another day I lounged by the pool, read, and worked on my laptop.
After two or three days of pure solitude, I was really ready to move on. My last full day I went to Erawan. The driver was some guy who didn’t speak any English, so with me being the only passenger, we had a silent 45 minute drive. Once we arrived he pointed at his watch to tell me when to be back – two hours. Seriously? How about two and a half hours? “No! No! No!” For $80, which is like a million dollars anywhere else. Normally I would avoid this kind of ripoff altogether, but Erawan was the primary reason I came out this way so I might as well just eat it.
Erawan National Park covers a very large area, and I would only be seeing a very small slice of it where the waterfalls were located. There is certainly tremendous beauty to behold, and opportunity for wildlife viewing, but I saw almost none of that. There are a limited number of trails and no maps handed out. I’m not even sure hiking is a good idea around here, because what I saw of the jungle area – hiking along the path with the waterfalls – is a thick and buggy jungle canopy with limited views and very little wildlife that I could discern. I’m sure there are better organized excursion that will show you what Erawan has to offer, but it is not exactly straightforward or easy to pursue this here.
Along the main path there are pools where you can swim, wade, lunch, etc. As it was overcast and warmish muggy I can’t say it was exactly inviting to jump in, but it was a unique place. The pools contain fish that snack on your dead skin, so when you remain still you begin to feel the fish nibbling on your legs which is unsettling in a cute sort of way. The water is also an opaque turquoise, which is alluring and unique.
As I reached the end of the trail at the top, a torrential downpour began. I was wondering at what point I would feel the urge to jump in the water, but that urge never came. There was a group of three loud, college age American guys. I tried to keep my spirits up as I stood there in the downpour.
“Should I swim? No on else is swimming. It’s cloudy and rainy, and I don’t exactly feel like swimming. But I came here to swim in this paradise!”
On my way down I came back to one of the larger pools where there were a lot of people, so this gave me the motivation to join in. This pool had a large waterfall you could dip under, and you could touch the floor of the pool as well.
To walk the path up and back and a brief stop to swim took about two hours. I was rather annoyed that I would not have more time to lounge and relax, but I had to get back to the car.
I saw no wildlife during my stay. I almost saw no other guests either. The only human interaction I had during my stay was with the staff. One of the staff was a very nice guy named Na Na, he was Burmese. He told men all about where he comes from, his family his town. We looked at it on the map. On my last morning he offered to take me up to a shrine where we could meditate together. I very much wanted to do this, but I had no more time. This was a memorable experience however, meeting Na Na. We are now friends on Facebook.
My plan for getting up to Chiang Mai, the next leg of my trip, was to take an overnight bus directly from Kanchanaburi. This ostensibly seemed like the most logical choice. There are buses that make that trip. However, I learned more detail about this during my stay as I spoke to the staff at the resort.
The bus would be at least a twelve hour journey from Kanchanburi bus station. The timetables are not published online, and no one seemed to have any exact information on how to get to the town of Kanchanburi. There was no reliable information, and how reliable any information was was uncertain.
I was advised to instead return to Bangkok and fly cup to Chiang Mai. Initially I was not interested in returning to Bangkok. But the more I considered the options, it did turn out to be the best way. The bus would be grueling and uncomfortable. I would not arrive until the next morning. I don’t even know how to get from here to Kanchanaburi city, because at the dock there are no taxis. It would be costly to hire someone privately.
So I searched for flights from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai. I found one on Nok Air, a Thai budget airline. The experience of booking the flight was surreal, as most of their website was written in Thai. I wasn’t even sure it was legitimate, a real booking.
For the return to Bangkok, I was not impressed with the information on the buses, and I was too exhausted to continue any research, so I decided to just take the same train back. it left at 1pm, and arriving at 5pm, I would have about two and a half hours to get to the airport. I assumed this was a good plan. In hindsight the bus would have been much quicker at two hours.
Arriving back at the train station in Bangkok, I now had to find a way to the airport. There were several men loitering around offering the ride for a flat fee of around 500 baht. This sounded outrageous of course, and I remembered the advice to find a taxi using the meter. As a tourist however, most will not be willing to do that because they want to rip you off.
At the station was a market, and several travelers like myself were loitering back and forth waiting for their rides, getting taxis, etc. I had to figure this out, and quick.
One guy offered to take me to the metro station, where I could grab a train. I had no interest in navigating a multi leg transport and not being sure who to believe, which station he was taking me too, and how to figure things out beyond that when the next set of problems appeared.
I finally hailed a taxi who agreed to take me not the meter. He was reluctant at first, but then smiled and said “ok.”
This journey took FOREVER. The infamous Bangkok traffic had us stuck in bumper to bumper gridlock pretty much the whole way. I started to become extremely anxious that I would not make my flight. I was freaking out in my head, contemplating all the consequences and hassle of missing this flight.
Eventually we made it with only about 40 minutes to departure. Fortunately the airport was not busy, and I breezed through security and check in. The holiday was highly stressful and exhausting though. There is adrenaline which keeps you going in these periods. You are so hyped up on your goal of getting where you need to go, you don’t have time to shut down and relax. I was biting my fingernails in that taxi freaking out as we spent nearly two hours in traffic. Terrible. But I made it.
Once I was sitting at the gate waiting to board in mere moment, I relaxed. The towering infrastructure and 30 minute flight time was reassuring and comforting.
Not Air is a cute little airline. The flight attendants are all adorably gorgeous young Thai women wearing bright yellow uniforms. Sexism is apparently not an issue in Thailand. I fell in love about ten times during that flight.
The flight went smoothly, and I took a taxi to my hostel in Chiang Mai, the new city I would now figure out.