It was a Thursday preceding a plan-free weekend when I made the spontaneous decision to disappear into the jungles of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Using the mantra "treat yo’ self!" as my inspiration, I set out to accomplish 2 goals: stay at a nice resort on the River Kwai and see the Erawan Waterfalls. That night I packed a bag to bring to the office on Friday, which would ensure a quick exit from the city straight after work.
If you’re traveling to Kanchanaburi via Bangkok, you can take a minivan from Victory Monument or Khao San Road (do note that if you start from Victory, it will still go to Khao San and chances are you've just sat in traffic for an hour to get there.) Price? 120 baht. Don't know where to go? Just run around yelling "Kanchanaburi" to the various ticket booth attendants and someone will point you in the right direction (seriously.) Depending on traffic, the ride should take you about 2 1/2 hours. There are buses and trains available as well, though they take a bit longer. Travelfish has a great page that covers each of these options in more detail.
If you plan to leave late on a Friday and have limited time like I did, it's a good idea to grab a hotel in the main city near the bus station and continue on the next morning. Amara Morning Home was the perfect budget friendly option. When I arrived, I was greeted by what I can only assume was a mother/daughter duo. I handed the daughter my reservation, and in broken English she asked, “you stay alone?” I confirmed this fact, and her eyes expressed the all-too-familiar look of surprise before saying “excellent!” in a way that gave the impression that she’d just learned this exciting new word. Anyways- for $18 USD a night you get super friendly staff, clean rooms with basic necessities, and you're only a 5-minute walk from the bus station. There are about a million food stalls near the bus station as well, which are open late (soups, rice dishes, fruit, roti, etc.) Perfect for a cheap dinner.
Now I'll be the first to admit that I didn’t put much thought into planning this trip; it was last minute, after all. My itinerary was far from economical in many respects, but it was well worth it. Saturday morning I headed for the bus station, fully intent on taking a 2-hour public bus up to Sai Yok- the district in which my hotel was located. I would then hire a taxi to take me the rest of the way to the pier where I would catch a longtail boat. Because my resort, the River Kwai Resotel, was only accessible by boat from the pier, it wasn't particularly straightforward to get to via public transportation. On the way to the bus station, the taxi drivers spotted my lazy Western bum coming from a mile away and offered to take me straight to the pier. It didn't take much convincing before I hopped into the back of this man's truck. Once off the main road that shot straight up to Sai Yok, we maneuvered down some bumpy dirt roads, seemingly into the middle of nowhere, and as luck would have it, the skies opened up just as we arrived at the pier. Once I got on the boat, with the rain and the wind combined, I experienced a rare feeling while in Thailand- I was actually cold.
A quick ride down the river and I was dropped at a dock. I followed the leafy path and signs for reception into a huge open air building and checked in to what looked like a beautiful jungle ghost town. There was hardly anyone around. The woman at the desk was extremely friendly and helpful, albeit a bit judgmental. "You stay alone?" Here we go again. “Yes.” She then looked up at me with concerned eyes (or was it pity?) followed by an uncomfortable laugh. She handed me my key, and I proceeded to my adorable bungalow...alone. Because it was pouring and I was cold, I lost the battle with sleepiness and took an afternoon siesta. When I woke up, the sun was shining and I was ready to eat. I headed down to the restaurant (also in the huge open air building) and sat overlooking the beautiful pool area. After some hot tea and a sandwich, I inquired about the nearby Lawa Cave I'd heard about. It was 3:45 PM by this point and it closed at 4:30- so I headed out immediately. A peaceful walk through the resort grounds took me past a village school and all sorts of flora and fauna. I'm not one to gush about birds and butterflies and such, but my goodness there were some beautiful ones flitting around. One butterfly was black, white, and hot pink. Another was black and shimmery blue. Of course, the only sucker that stayed still long enough for me to snap a photo was brown (see below.) So apologies, but you'll just have to take my word for it about the pretty ones.
When I arrived at the cave entrance, there was one lone guard collecting the 300 baht ($9) entrance fee. He warned me of the "low cave door" and when I asked if there were many people ahead of me, he laughed and shook his head. I trekked up a hill of many, many stairs until I came to the mouth of the cave. I minded my head as instructed and entered into a beautiful cavern of Buddha statues- a colorful rug laid out before them for prayer. I was completely alone, and alone I remained for quite some time. I passed two families on their way out, and then the cave was all mine. Well, with one exception. In the second cavern, if that’s what you’d call it, I was confronted with a less than desirable scene. A room FULL of bats. We’re talking hundreds of bats. And not all that far away from my head, either. Supposedly they’re “the world’s smallest and friendliest bats” but I find that irrelevant, because there they were- hanging upside down and presumably sleeping, making creepy noises that echoed off the walls and making me wonder if at any moment they'd all decide to wake up and ambush my face. Luckily, I tiptoed past and carried on without any disturbances. The cave was truly impressive- it was well-lit and spacious with sparkling stalagmites and stalactites throughout. Again, what made it the most enjoyable was the absence of other visitors. I took my sweet time, and yet still failed to take any noteworthy photos of its interior (see my best attempt below.) When I emerged, it was a half hour past closing time, but that was of no consequence. No one came looking for me and the guard was long gone when I reached the bottom. Only in Thailand.
When I returned to the resort, I went to finalize the reservation for my trip to Erawan Falls the following day. Turned out I was the only one signed up for a tour, and was able to arrange a pick up at the pier, transport to the park, and 3.5 hours of unguided wandering (my preference.) When finished, I would be driven to Nam Tok Train Station, where the one and only train back to Bangkok would depart at 12:50. After sorting out the details, I opted for a royal Thai massage. This type of massage focuses on pressure points using acupressure techniques, opposed to the traditional Thai massage, which contorts your body in ways even pretzels would despise. There was also a foot massage, and lastly, herbal therapy, which the Thais call “luk pra kob.“ Designed to relieve pain and inflammation, a mixture of herbs including prai, ginger, turmeric and lemongrass are wrapped in a compress and steamed. The compress is then applied directly to your skin. While this was both aromatic and lovely, it didn't come without a price. My entire body- anywhere the compress had touched- was dyed yellow. So, relaxed and with a jaundice-colored complexion, I headed to dinner. When the waiter took my order, I was rather impressed that he knew my room number. "You guys are good!" I said. "We remember because you stay alone!" he said. Cool. So after some Massaman curry and live music, I headed to bed. With breakfast at 6 and a boat departure at 6:45, an early night was much needed.
'My 5:30 AM alarm was met with very little enthusiasm, but I packed up my things, put on my bathing suit and hiking attire, and headed down for a buffet breakfast. It was drizzling and cloudy, which made me worry about my day at the falls. I hopped back on the longtail to get to the pier- but not before being publicly humiliated. I was in for it yet again. “Excuse me, excuse me” called a voice from behind me. The boat driver whispered something to this woman in Thai, and she looked at me and asked, “where is your group?” I think I failed to hide my annoyance this time. In front of this entire boat full of passengers, I addressed traveling alone once more: “Yeah, nope. Just me. I know y’all think it's weird. Thank you.”
When I arrived at the pier, I searched for a car with the license plate number I’d been given. I was greeted by a pleasant man (and presumably his wife and daughter) who had come to pick me up in a songthaew (means "two rows" and is basically a truck with a covered bed and benched seating on each side.) The three of them rode in the main cab, and I sat on my bench in the back for the next hour. It was all good, though- the mist and fog around the mountains were quite picturesque at that time of morning and made for a scenic ride.
Once we made it to the falls, I handed my 300 baht entrance fee through the metal bars of my encagement to the two uniformed men in the ticketing booth. It was just about 8 AM, the opening time for the falls, and I soon discovered that this was the perfect time to arrive. After giving a few instructions and tips, my driver sent me on my merry way. I set off along the path into the jungle and was entirely alone for quite some time (seeing a theme here?) For the first two hours, I encountered very few people. My photos of the waterfalls were perfect. I didn’t have to wait for people to get out of my way, and the scenes were beautifully unobstructed, just as nature intended. I never expected that I would get so lucky. There were 7 levels of waterfalls to explore, each a little bit more difficult to reach than the last, as the trail started to incline higher and higher. The weather was merciful and held out for me- it was warm, there was sunshine, and I was happy. When I reached the top level I went for a much needed swim in the cool waters, and because I was literally the only foreigner around, made sure to keep my tank top on so as not to offend anyone (yeah, that's a thing- and there's even signs at the entrance illustrating bikinis as a no-no.)
The water was refreshing, but I’ll tell you what wasn’t- the fish constantly attacking my feet. Have you ever heard of the fish spas they have in this part of the world? You dip your feet in what is essentially a giant fish tank and they go to town on the dead skin. It certainly isn’t for everyone and my goodness does it tickle. These fish were substantially larger than the spa fish and I had to keep alternating feet, jumping, kicking and swimming around to keep it from being unbearable. After my swim and foot cleansing, it was time to start making my descent. I’d been befriended by a university student whilst swimming and dodging fish (“where you come from?”) and he happened to be heading out at the same time. He told me that he was studying tourism and hospitality, and he was eager to practice his English. This made for entertaining conversation on the way down. A mixture of my really poor Thai, his decent English, and charades somehow worked quite well and allowed us to learn a bit about each other. The only Thai word I think I came out of that conversation remembering was the word for “food” (ah-han.) That shouldn’t surprise anyone.
When I got to the bottom (right on time, I may add) I located my driver and we headed off to Nom Tok, a 45-minute ride back towards where I’d come from earlier that morning. Halfway there it started to POUR. We're talking about a serious deluge from the sky. This sweet man got out of the truck and put down plastic shields so that I wouldn’t get wet. Needless to say he got drenched in the process. Luckily we weren't far from the station, and we arrived to find that the train was running late. Fortunately, this little delay gave me enough time to grab a bite at a nearby restaurant. After I'd eaten, I bought my 100 baht ticket ($3 US) and waited for the train to arrive. When it did, I boarded with about a million other people to make the 5-hour journey back to Bangkok. The seats were wooden and highly uncomfortable, but the views were absolutely worth it. Elevated and rolling through the countryside, there were fields, mountains, golden Buddha statues and sights to take in at every stop. The line runs on the famous Death Railway, built by Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. They used forced labor and it is said that approximately 90,000 people died in the process. I absolutely loved the train as an alternative to the mini-buses and vans and would highly recommend taking it either to or from Kanchanaburi.
So there you have it- a rundown of my weekend adventure. Despite the flack from the locals, I really enjoyed taking this trip by myself. I figured things out, and genuinely enjoyed my own company and the lack of tourists. There's something to be said for visiting Thailand during the rainy season, that's for sure. If you have any questions or additional recommendations for the area, please feel free to comment below! Until next time...