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Beyond Kanchanaburi: Thailand’s understated wild west
Leaving the bridge on the River Kwai behind, travelers will find a string of rugged landscapes, archaeological sights and hot springs
Every tourist has heard of the town of Kanchanaburi, with its famous “Bridge on the River Kwai” and a few war museums for those with an interest in the town's role in World War II. But strangely, few travelers bother to make it any further than the nearby Erawan falls, a major tourist trap that attracts hundreds of visitors daily.
Beyond the historical town is Thailand’s beautiful ‘wild west,’ which offers an unforgettable excursion away from the tourist hordes and traffic, a region filled with hot springs, resort towns, lakes and archaeological sights.
Thong Pha Phum
The tiny town of Thong Pha Phum is slotted between rugged karst hills that rise abruptly from the area’s narrow Kwai river plain. The waterway cuts through the scenery, providing colorful views while various walking paths branch from the town amid the trees. The air at night is refreshingly clean and cool, the perfect break from Bangkok’s stuffy blanket.
There are several places to stay in Thong Pha Phum, ranging from the normal motel-cum-brothels for 200 baht a night to sedate bungalows spreading up the hills on the other side of the river.
The town has many excellent wooden restaurants with pleasant lighting and the traditional decorative wagon wheels. If you have your own transport you can choose from a greater range of accommodation as the entry road is lined with country parks and upmarket resorts that cater to Bangkok’s weekend visitors.
Hin Dat hot springs
Around 20km before you reach Thong Pha Phum is a ridiculously pleasant set of hot springs. Free to visit, the Hin Dat springs are great for a gentle soak, along with a quick dip in the relatively chilly adjacent river.
The “do not diving” sign is rather unnecessary and the main peril is that the water can get a little hot after about 10 minutes. There’s even a discreet pool reserved for the region’s many monks, while massage beds are laid out above the river and shacks serve simple dishes.
Reaching Thong Pha Phum with public transport takes almost five hours from Bangkok, follwoing a speedy minibus ride to Kanchanaburi town caught from opposite the Khao San Road on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. After that, catch the hourly Sangkhlaburi minibus that leaves the grindingly slow public bus in the dust along the hilly 323 road.
Right on the Burmese border is the delightful Sangkhlaburi with its large Mon and Karen quarters. The area would be heavily developed if the Burmese junta was deposed and the road between Bangkok and Yangon was opened to become a major tourist trail and trade route. But with the border closed, the area has become a very long dead end.
The large Mon settlement across the river is reached by the most hilariously eccentric bridge, built from what can only be described as kindling, that looks about as stable as a one-wheeled rickshaw. Though foreign travelers of any stature are thin on the ground in Sangkhlaburi, do not cross if a group of volumetrically enhanced tourists are also making their way along the vast contraption.
Wang Kha, the largely wooden Mon town, has numerous charming features, including colored art nouveau windows and delicate wooden latticework. The commanding Wat Wang Wiwekaram is the spiritual home of the Mon people and was modeled on the main temple at Bodhgaya in northern India and is well worth the 30-minute walk from town.
The pick of Sangkhlaburi’s accommodation is the popular P Guest House. It is a large house made from wood and stone with pretty chalets for 900 baht per night. There are also simple bedrooms without a bathroom for 300 baht, meaning it attracts the bulk of visitors to the town. Steps lead down to the lake where bathers can swim through the smooth water to a bamboo sunbathing raft.
Sangkhlaburi has several other pretty boathouses and a good range of hotels, many of which run rafting trips and rent canoes to explore the reservoir and the hillocks that rise out of the water.
One trip that could be missed is a ride up to the closed border at the Three Pagodas Pass: I have seen bigger sandcastles. Otherwise, every road out of Sangkhlaburi penetrates gorgeous scenery and the Burmese exiles in the area can give fascinating insights into life in the troubled tyranny. Meanwhile, tales of border incursions by the Burmese military to snatch dissidents and operations by Thai special forces to repulse them will keep the eternal boy scout interested.
Prasat Meuang Singh Historical Park
The route back to Bangkok is lined with intriguing excursions, not least the Prasat Meuang Singh Historical Park which marks the western border of the ancient Angkor kingdom. At the center of the shaded compound is the impressive main shrine where trees sprout from the 13th-century structure.
For more on Thailand's Kanchanaburi province, including hotels and transport options, check out Kanchanaburi-info.com.