When I left for Asia, backpack and boyfriend in tow, I was determined to see more of Thailand than the well-travelled routes. I would visit them too of course, I didn’t want to miss any of the attractions that had made these places so popular in the first place. But more than anything, I wanted an authentic travelling experience, without the crowds of drunk, party-seeking tourists.
So when I felt I’d exhausted the sights (and bars) of chaotic Bangkok and overcome the worst of the jet lag, both of which took me far less time than I had anticipated, I hit the beaten track, hard. A few weeks later, having partied on Phuket’s beaches, completed my PADI on the islands and even ventured north to the night markets of Chiang Mai, I headed in a different, far less travelled direction. I set off in search of Thailand’s wild west, towards the Burmese border, and found myself in Kanchanaburi.
The untouched town
Just three hours from Bangkok, it’s surprising that more people don’t take the time to add Kanchanaburi to their itinerary. I’m sure this will change in the future but at that moment it suited me just fine that they didn’t. We gratefully left the bright lights of Khao San Road and jumped in a cab to Thonburi, Bangkok’s smaller, local train station, much to the confusion of our driver. Just 30 baht later and with a flimsy paper ticket firmly grasped in my grubby hand, I hopped aboard what I could only assume was the right train, burrowed in among the locals and settled down next to the window to watch Bangkok’s outskirts glide away. On this particular day, it turned out that a rail replacement bus system, reminiscent of our own, was in place so about halfway into the trip I swapped instead to a rickety old van with long bench seats in the back for the remainder of the bumpy journey.
The famous bridge
Kanchanaburi is calm, a blessing after Bangkok, and nestled along the banks of the River Kwai. That sounds familiar, right? The famous Bridge on the River Kwai, built by PoW’s during WWII, is less than a mile upstream. We rented the sturdiest-looking moped we could find and set off to cross the imposing, iron bridge. People wander freely across it, selfie sticks in hand, which came as a surprise considering it is still a functioning railway and you don’t usually find yourself in situations where you’re dodging trains. It was, nonetheless, a beautiful morning. The early bird chorus trilled through the trees across the far bank and only a small boat passing underneath broke the reflection of the bridge in the glassy waters of the river.
The iconic waterfalls
With the satisfaction that we could tick ‘see historic sights’ off our lists, moped helmets were donned as we scooted our way through the river valley to the Erawan National Park. Thailand boasts some of the most beautiful natural waterfalls in Indochina, but the Erawan Falls are the crowning glory. The seven stages of jungle-clad waterfall that unfurled in front of us were nothing short of spectacular. We spent the day hiking up ever-decreasingly sturdy, winding jungle paths to follow the river to its source, passing seven definitive phases of waterfalls crashing into sky-blue inviting pools. They were calling out to us to stop and take a refreshing dip, which was much-needed after the climb; even the coolest character will work up a sweat in the muggy heat.
Winding branches intertwined with vines and gnarled roots stretched over rocky boulders to reach the fresh water, seeming to be almost as eager as we were to jump in. The fourth stage was enticingly crowd free, so I quickly stripped off my socks and shoes to plunge my feet into the water. Seconds later I jumped back onto the rocks, ‘Something just bit me!’ Some of the pools, it turns out, are home to a vivacious community of cleaner fish, who have developed a taste for old skin. They crowd around your feet, pedicure-style, and nibble disconcertingly – which as a ticklish person I found utterly unbearable. Thankfully, they bother you less as you move to deeper waters and didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the caves lurking behind curtains of falling water, or sliding ungracefully down the smooth rocks beneath the waterfall.
The gentle giants
But there was another reason that I had insisted upon visiting Kanchanaburi, or had in fact heard of it at all; elephants. Not far from the quaint region lies a sanctuary for elephants rescued from a life of logging, or working in the tourist industry. An early start and a potholed journey left me rewarded with one of the most memorable days of my life.
I crossed more off my bucket list that day than I ever expected. We learned a little of the life stories of the elephants and gleaned glimpses into each one’s personality before feeding them the first meal of the day. We saw up close how their incredibly strong trunks were also amazingly dexterous, as one female broke apart a bunch of yellow bananas to delicately eat them one by one. Two utterly adorable babies played in the mud nearby before bathing in the river, taking it in turns to try and push the other under the water.
We were allowed to offer sugar cane to a pregnant female who, at 19 months (elephants have a two year gestation period) was even more humungous than usual. The mahut gestured towards her bulging belly and put my hands on it. The feeling of the calf moving under my outstretched fingertips was indescribable, surreal almost, and something I will never forget.
Later that day, we followed the elephants as they tramped around the centre’s grounds. Simply walking among them, occasionally being buffeted out of the way by a stray trunk, was magical. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would one day saunter peacefully through fields accompanied by an elephant friend. The elephants you see in the larger tourist resorts, with heaving, back-breaking bamboo seats strapped to their bodies are not how I would ever want to see one. I am eternally thankful I chose to visit a sanctuary to spend time with these magnificent creatures, and even more grateful that it took me further off the beaten path.