A while ago I had four days off and was in need of a change of scenery. I wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of noisy Bangkok and find some cleaner air and more relaxing surroundings. I decided to revisit Kanchanaburi, a small town some 130 kilometres west of the capital and mostly known for its historic landmark, the Bridge on the River Kwai.
Although frequent buses depart from Bangkok's southern bus terminal and trains run twice daily from the Bangkok Noi train station, I opted for a passenger van originating at Victory Monument. The fairly spacious van took me and ten others for 130 baht to the centre of Kanchanaburi. Apart from an obnoxious mobile phone user sitting next to me spouting rubbish at high volume for the first 30 minutes, the journey was pleasant, quick and uneventful.
After about two hours, the driver let out most people at the Kanchanaburi bus station and asked me where I was planning to go. 'Near the river,' I told him, as that's where most of the tourist accommodation is situated. 'Okay, River Kwae,' he said, 'no ploblem'. As you may have noticed, the correct pronunciation of Kwai is 'kwae', so don't be surprised if locals are dumbfounded when you ask for the River Kwai (‘kwai’ means buffalo in Thai). After another two minutes, he dropped me off in front of the River Kwai Hotel, a medium-range hotel in the city centre, quite far from the actual river.
I didn't argue and got out, sensing that he might not comprehend why a wealthy foreigner would want to stay in budget accommodation overlooking a river. I hailed a motorbike taxi which took me for another 20 bath to the tourist street running parallel with the river. 'Pai nai?', asked the motorbike driver and I blurted out 'Jolly Frog', as that was the only one of the ubiquitous guesthouses I could remember from my previous visits three and six years earlier.
Jolly Frog's Backpacker's was still around and going stronger than ever. Although I hadn't really planned to stay there, I had a meal in their restaurant and checked out the rooms anyway. The guesthouse had a nice, big garden with well-kept grass, palm trees, deck chairs, some hammocks and access to the river. Although it is a typical backpackers' haunt, I thought it would be hard to find better price/quality.
Prices at the guesthouse were low, ridiculously low even. In fact, I regained some of my travelling enthusiasm I had lost on overpriced Ko Chang a few months earlier. It appeared that not everywhere in Thailand tourists are being squeezed like lemons. Jolly rooms started at 70 baht (no typo, about 2 dollars) which got you a single room with fan and shared bathroom. Raft rooms on the river went for 150 baht (shared bathroom); in the main building, doubles with private bathroom cost 200 baht (fan) or 290 baht (A/C). As it wasn't too hot, I settled for a fan room.
If these prices seem incredible, food at the Jolly restaurant was equally cheap, with meals starting at 25 baht. Just outside the guesthouse, 'Jolly Good Massages' offered Thai torture for as little as 130 baht per hour. Renting a bicycle cost 50 baht for 24 hours. Motorbikes were on offer as well for lazy buggers with a death wish or a local sweetheart.
Now what is there to see and do in Kanchanaburi apart from lazing in a hammock or sipping cold ones on a pontoon in the river? There is of course the famous bridge on the River Kwai, known around the world thanks to the war movie bearing the same name. The bridge was successfully bombed by the allied forces at the end of World War II, but was quickly thereafter restored. It is still used by the State Railway of Thailand which operates several trains daily on what is known as the Death Railway. This railway was designed by the Japanese and constructed by their prisoners of war linking Thailand with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. It is said that one prisoner died for every sleeper on the railway.
Nowadays, the line only runs as far as Nam Tok, some sixty kilometres west of Kanchanaburi. Tickets on the tourist train originating in Kanchanaburi cost 300 baht for foreigners (100 baht for Thais) and include - apart from a seat in the special carriage on the train No. 257 - a soft drink (tea or coffee - sic), a snack (cookies), a certificate of pride (?) and a 200,000 baht insurance. You can either buy tickets at the train station yourself or join one of the several tours offered by local guesthouses and travel agencies. If you don't like trains, just walk across the bridge to soak up some of the atmosphere. There is even a shuttle train for tourists unable to walk the 200 metres across the bridge, which is ideal for the disabled and Thai sightseers.
Various day trips or half-day tours are sold everywhere in town and usually include more than just a trip on the Death Railway and a stop at the Hellfire Pass Memorial. Other diversions are visits to local waterfalls, hot springs or caves; bamboo rafting, elephant treks, elephant bathing and so on. Some agencies even offer overnight trips to hill tribe villages and the Three Pagodas Pass, located on the border with Myanmar, some 240 kilometres from Kanchanaburi. If you haven't seen a lot of Thailand yet, most of these tours are convenient and offer fairly good value for money (most one day tours cost 550 to 850 baht; entry fees and are food included).
None of the travel agencies include the Tiger Temple in their tours, but do offer transportation to this increasingly popular but controversial tourist attraction. I had heard quite a bit about this temple where tigers supposedly roam free and wanted to check out myself what the fuss was all about. Let me start by giving you a brief history about this temple, based on the temple's own leaflet.
The Tiger Temple is actually called Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno. You can understand why it is commonly known as the Tiger Temple. It opened in 1994 and has gained a reputation as a wildlife sanctuary. Apparently, it all started with an injured jungle fowl given to the monks by villagers, followed by peacocks, wild boars, unwanted pets, deer, buffalo, cows, horses and wild goats.
The first tiger cub arrived in 1999 but died soon thereafter. However, since poaching is a lucrative business in Asia, cubs are often left to fend for themselves after their mother is killed. Some of these were brought to the temple. As the years went by, the cubs grew up and 'to the abbot's delight and surprise started to reproduce'.
Now hold on a minute. Surprise? The abbot might have guessed what would happen if you put male and female tigers together. Delight? Definitely, since the temple charges a 300 baht entry fee. As a result, 'the abbot conceived an ambitious plan to create a large open air enclosure where each tiger would be given one rai (1600 m2) of land'.
I thought this all sounded good at the start: rescuing tiger cubs from the hands of greedy poachers and building a sanctuary. The truth however is that although the tigers are still alive and given ample food and decent-sized enclosures, they are still locked up. No tigers roam free at the Tiger Temple. Nor is there any initiative to reintroduce them back into the wild, or so it seems.
When entering the grounds and following the crowds, the photo opportunity with tiger cubs is what you'll probably see first. A monk sits and plays with a number of young cubs which have been taken away from their mothers and hand-reared in order to domesticate them and suppress their natural instincts. Tourists can sit with the monk and cubs and have their picture taken. Allegedly, none of the tigers are ever fed raw meat in order to prevent them from having the occasional tourist for lunch. This might be working as I haven't heard of any maulings lately.
The adult tigers are taken daily from their enclosures to the Tiger Canyon, walked there by the monks assisted by a horde of volunteers working at the temple. In the canyon, the tigers are chained to the ground and visitors can have their photo taken squatting behind some of these fearsome beasts. The photos are taken with the tourists' own cameras by the volunteer workers and are free of charge. This lasts under a minute as on busy days hundreds of would-be Tarzans line up to be immortalised with a species that might soon feature on CITES EW-list (extinct in the wild).
Special pictures can be obtained for an extra 1,000 baht. For this hefty fee, you can spend more time with the tigers and have your picture taken with one of the biggest but tamest tiger’s head on your lap. This might be the time to remember that in order to get access to the temple, you have to sign a waiver, agreeing not to hold the temple responsible for any injuries or damage that you or your personal belongings may sustain.
Should a visit to the temple be on your itinerary when visiting the region? I think everyone should decide for themselves. There is a lot of controversy surrounding this temple on the Internet (cf. The Thorn Tree, Lonely Planet's online forum) and there are as many friends as foes of the temple. Friends describe their visits as an unforgettable experience, foes point out that this is no more than an ordinary zoo, where tigers are occasionally mistreated.
I didn’t witness any cruel treatment myself, but if what the monks do is conservationism, then it's definitely Asian-style. It is clear that the temple has become a well-oiled commercial operation with hundreds of daily visitors. I suppose it’s running a healthy profit, although a substantial part of this must be used to feed the tigers and build their enclosures. The temple seems to have no plans whatsoever to release any tigers back into the wild. This would actually be impossible as they have become domesticated and probably wouldn't be able to survive in the jungle. On the other hand, tigers in the wild are facing a grim future, and the temple is one of the only places where one can see these beautiful creatures close-up, albeit in chains. So to go or not to go? Without intending to influence readers, I didn't think it was worth it.
If you don't like seeing animals in captivity or want to avoid being mauled, you could visit some of Kanchanaburi's museums or war cemeteries instead. No danger there of being eaten alive. Like the Bridge on the River Kwai, all cemeteries and museums are conveniently located within cycling distance of the riverside accommodation. I thought the somewhat dilapidated and slightly bizarre World War II museum next to the bridge was the most interesting one, followed by the brand new, air-conditioned Death Railway Museum next to the centrally located Don Rak War Cemetery.
For food, drink and entertainment, there are a string of pubs and restaurants along the River Kwai Road in the vicinity of the guesthouses. Although their food and drink might have been good, they all suffered in February from the lack of tourists. The Jolly Frog restaurant, however, was always quite full, unlike the 15-odd roadside establishments that vied for the remaining twenty tourists roaming free.
My return to the capital on the fourth day was uneventful. I had booked a ticket for one of the vans that made the trip every hour to Sanam Luang, the park located near Kao San Road, and it picked me up right outside the guesthouse. Although I stayed 4 days/3 nights, Kanchanaburi can be visited in just a day or two if time is scarce. It's definitely worth it if you're in dire need of some low-cost rest and relaxation in unspoilt green surroundings.