From caves to dragons to elephants in Thailand.

There’s always a danger when you visit a country like Thailand that you end up getting ‘templed-out’! If you’ve visited more than three temples in a day then you’ll know what I mean. This temple though is just a shortish trip out of Kanchanaburi and it’s well worth a visit. It’s called Wat Ban Tham or The Dragonhead Temple because there’s a long staircase that leads up the hill into a dragon’s head and through its body! You then walk into a cave, up a few steep staircases and eventually you arrive at the top. And what a view! We hit the gong just for the hell of it (three times according to Buudhist tradition) as we felt we’d achieved something.  Would you believe there was no one else around although someone had lit some incense sticks earlier.

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Another interesting thing is that as we drove along the quiet road to the temple we noticed a huge Chinese cemetery. These large marble family graves each built into a grassy mound are like miniature mausoleums often decorated with mosaics and pictures of the deceased.  We stopped and walked around for a while amazed by the opulence of it all. The design of each grave is exactly the same so when there are hundreds in one area with nothing else around it seemed a little strange …

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Elephants! Several years ago we spent three wonderful days at an elephant sanctuary in Chang Mai. It was an unforgettable experience as elephants are our favourite animals. Riding on an elephant and I mean sitting on its back, not on a seat and feeling it’s lovely soft ears flapping around your ankles is just a very special experience. Contrary to what you’d think, elephants’ backs are not that strong so whenever I see tourists sat on one of those heavy wooden seats on top of an elephant it makes me shudder. I hate to think of the pain that’s causing the elephant and all for the enjoyment of the tourists.

Since that first camp in Chang Mai we’ve been to the Elephants World  in Kanchanaburi three times. Each time we have had a great time although on our last visit we felt there were too many tourists in each group so it didn’t feel quite so special as before. A relatively new sanctuary has opened up also near Kanchanaburi, Elephants’ Haven and appears to offer a similar experience. The best thing we found was to check with the hotel owners; they are pretty knowledgeable about the organisations and have up to date news on them too.

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After breakfast it’s off to the river to bathe.

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Stand back, he’s on his way to the river.

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Great fun cutting up food and then boiling it. Once it’s cooled you make them into balls and feed them to the older elephants who haven’t got quite as many teeth as they started with.

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Wallowing in the mud is great fun.

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Time to get into the river, grab a brush and a bowl and an elephant and have fun.  They love their back being scratched!

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Time for their final meal of the day before heading off in the jungle for the night.

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Just before we left Kanchanaburi we visited one more temple. Wat Tham Phu Wa is known not just for being a meditation retreat but for the amazing temple which is actually a cave. The stalactites hanging down are really impressive and round each corner you’d see another statue of Buddha all carefully lit. If they’d lit the statues too much if would have taken away the ethereal feel of the cave. There was no chance here of getting in without leaving an offering (as if we would …) as once you’d taken off your sandals to walk down there were women collecting money. Compared to the Dragonhead Temple this one was much more touristy.

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Now we’re on our way to our next stop in Thailand, Ayutthaya.

The Hellfire Pass Memorial

We took a taxi from Oriental Kwai, where we were staying, to The Hell Fire Pass Memorial.

It’s known locally as the Museum of Chong Khao Kad and is the area where POW’s and labourers during WWII were forced to carve through a mountain of rock to enable a train to pass. The Japanese needed a more secure route to maintain their armies in Burma so a decision was made to construct a railway 415 kilometres long through dense jungle and mountain from BanPong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat. (This information is taken from the booklet provided by the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs). Of the 60,000 Allied POW’s who worked on the railway 20% died between October 1942 and August 1945 with an estimate of 90,000 civilian labourers having perished during that time also.

Admission is free to both the Memorial museum and the walking trail taking you along part of the the Death Railway. The Museum is excellent but tough viewing with graphic stories, memorabilia, first-hand accounts and pictures of the terrible conditions suffered by the POW’s and labourers. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived …

Many of the tourists arrive at the Museum by coach and don’t have time to walk the 4km from the Museum to the end of the walking trail. Most people therefore walk as far as the monument at the end of  notorious Hell Fire Pass and walk up to the look-out which gives you a view looking down on the Pass. We carried on through to the end of the trail which is just 4km. All that time we only saw a handful of people and quite a lot of evidence of the tools used and some of the original tracks. Not one sound of a bird singing. All along where once the railway lines ran was eerily quiet.

Our taxi driver was waiting for us when we arrived at the end of the trail and took us to Namtock railway station to catch the train back to Kanchanaburi. It’s an interesting   journey especially going over the wooden viaduct that overlooks the River Kwai. I sat on the outside steps by the door to take a picture of the viaduct, couldn’t do this on GWR!

The visit had been a very emotional one but we were so glad we went.

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The first part of the walk has several flags and crosses of remembrance lined each side of the cutting.

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The notorious Hell Fire Pass. The tree has become almost a monument to the thousands who died cutting through the rock.

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The Memorial to the POW’s and labourers who suffered extreme hardship with thousands losing their lives. The smaller  pictures were taken along the walking trail.

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Evidence in the rocks where the explosives were placed also metal taps, sledgehammers and other tools used to break down the earth and rock. Not sure what the bamboo canes were used for in the r.h. middle picture.

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Railway sleepers still marking the Burma-Thailand death railway.

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This must have been a tantalising view for the POW’s as they worked. The mountains in the distance are in Burma.

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More evidence of the railway line.

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Thie is the end of the walking trail just past Compressor Cutting. Our driver is waiting for us, you can just make him out. We were grateful for the bottles of ice-cold water he had ready for us.

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On the right is the wooden viaduct we’ve just come over on the train.

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The War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi. All the POWs who died were reinterred here by the Commonwealth Graves Commission apart from the American POWs whose remains were returned to the U.S.

 

Oriental Kwai Resort by the River Kwai.

The train journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi takes about three hours and like most train journeys in this part of the world there’s never a dull moment. There’s always someone coming along with hot and cold drinks, fruit, unimaginable things in plastic bags and complete meals in foil containers. The vendors hop on and off the train as it saunters into the station (this is not a fast train) so the variety of food and sellers  changes all the time. You can go by bus which we’ve done a couple of times or hire a taxi but the 7.50 train from  Thonburi station in Bangkok is definitely our first choice. Oriental Kwai is just a short ride away in a Songthaew.

We’ve stayed at Oriental Kwai four times and yes … we love it there! Djo and Evelien are so welcoming and the cottages are superb. There’s only twelve of them and they’re tucked away in a stunning tropical garden, each cottage well-spaced from the next. There’s lot to do in the area including visiting Hellfire Pass which you can get to by train and taxi. I’ll write about this in my next Blog and include some of the pictures I took. It’s a very atmospheric walk with no bird song.

There are two Elephant Sanctuaries close by, Elephants World and Elephants Haven.  Yes there’s another Blog coming up with pictures of our visit with the elephants.

Erawan National park & waterfalls is another great place to visit You can spend hours walking and swimming in the beautiful green jungle with its stepped waterfalls. There are caves and temples to visit, fantastic landscapes, stunning views, walks, cycle rides and of course going into town by boat on the River Kwai is a must. The boat stops just by the (in)famous bridge which is always full of tourists walking across it.

Here is a selection of pictures taken at Oriental Kwai. It really is perfection and so peaceful, we can’t wait to go back!

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Staff at Oriental Kwai Thailand

 

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A beautiful sunset to round off the day, followed by a few beers and another excellent meal. What more could you ask for?

First stop …Bangkok

A trip along the canal in a revamped boat used previously for collecting rubbish probably wouldn’t be near the top of the ‘must-do’ list for visitors but it’s a great free way to see the city. Yes there’s no charge and it’s good fun. We discovered it the first time we stayed at Baan Manusarn, an inexpensive family run B & B in a quiet part of Bangkok  down from Thewet Pier on the Chao Phraya river. There’s an interesting Thai market opposite the B & B(they are always worth a wander through) and a good cafe down the road  serving cold lager with entertainment from a very friendly cockatoo.

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The Chao Phraya river flows through the middle of Bangkok, it’s a river that never seems to sleep. Apart from the ferries which are cheap, full of locals and a good way to get around, there are numerous tourists boats, river taxis and longtail boats criss-crossing the river, like a constant armada. It’s the huge commercial barges that I find the most fascinating. These boats seem to  go on for ever and when full float silently along this huge river dragged by a tug boat. Mostly I think they are carrying sand or rice and once unloaded they seem to bounce back up river behind their little towboats.

Early evening is when the tourist cruise boats start. You can’t miss them with their garish lights and loud music. I shouldn’t knock them as I know friends who enjoyed their two-hour trip and the ‘international cuisine’, but it’s not for us. We’d rather go down to the pier, chat with the locals, share an offering to the fish and watch the sun go down.

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The nearest Buddhist temple (Wat Devaraj Kunchorn Warawihan) is quite near to our B & B and is a beautiful building, hidden down a narrow side street. On our second evening walking past we were drawn inside by the chanting of the monks. I love the sound but I’m always amazed at how the monks can sit that long without changing their position. Needless to say we eventually had to leave as we were both getting cramp!

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There are of course lots of places to visit in Bangkok. Most tourists go to The Grand Palace and Wat Arun   also called The temple of Dawn. A word of warning about visiting The Grand Palace – check out the dress code, the guards are very strict. If you show up improperly dressed there is a booth near the entrance where for a deposit you are issued with a wrap round long skirt. No problem like that at Wat Arun, our only problem was that we were suffering from jet lag and the heat as we’d only arrived a few hours earlier. We found it hard to drag ourselves around.

These people in the picture below at Wat Arun  have hired their costumes. You see groups like this dressed in national costume at all the main tourist places. Turns out they may not even be Thai! I have more pics like this which you’ll see in further Blogs. You’ll probably notice too that no-one takes the trouble to wear the ‘right’ shoes!

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Whether The Grand Palace is always crowded with tourists I don’t know. Looking at the number of coaches parked outside I think it’s pretty impossible to go there without having to jostle with everyone. I gave up trying to get some clear shots of the amazing architecture and instead did the same as everyone else, sharpened my elbows and darted in front of anyone with a camera who was taller than me!

We quickly worked out that The Grand Palace is divided into two main areas; the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Royal residence. The place is still used for hosting royal ceremonies and welcoming the king’s guests and other foreign dignitaries.

The elegant statues of Buddha are beautiful but there are so many features here it’s no wonder everyone is clicking away in every direction. It was a bit of a bun-fight and after a couple of days in Bangkok we were looking forward to escaping to the country.

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Reading this back it sounds as though we didn’t enjoy Bangkok but we did. We’ve been there a number of times now and have generally avoided the centre as we prefer just wandering around the streets to see what we come across. China town is fun though, you can buy lunch for a ridiculously cheap price. Travelling up and down the river on the ferries is what we enjoy doing and going into the Wat’s (Buddhist temples) which are everywhere. Bangkok is a buzzing, lively city and a real attack on the senses and apparently has more visitors than any other city. It’s not difficult to see why.