So Kanchanaburi was one of those off-the-beaten-track places I found in my guidebook that caught my eye. It’s a couple hours away from Bangkok and Ayutthaya, but is unfortunately not on the main train route to Chiang Mai. But after reading about the city’s little gems and history, I was determined to go! Luckily for us, our guest house from Ayutthaya was offering a 9 a.m. minivan ride to Kanchanaburi, which would arrive by noon and give us a good day and a half to explore.
For those of you who enjoy World War II history, Kanchanaburi is famous for its part of the “Death Railway” or “Burma Railway,” a 415km railway between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) built by Allied POWs and local conscripts under the harsh hands of the Japanese. The Japanese nearly starved the workers and forced them to work all day long in unsanitary conditions with regular beatings, and more than 100,000 men died in the process. Specifically, Kanchanaburi is famous for its Kwai River Bridge, part of the Death Railway and also the basis of the 1957 Oscar-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that tells the story of the bridge’s construction. (I still need to see it).
As interesting as all that was, the real draw to Kanchanaburi for me was its Tiger Temple, a temple a little ways outside the city that lets visitors get up close to and pet tigers. The “temple” (I didn’t actually see any Buddhas anywhere) claims to be a sanctuary for orphaned or displaced tigers and now also breeds its own cubs from birth. Others, however, say they are operating an illegal breeding program and say the tigers are abused.
While the tigers seemed to be treated well enough while I was there, it was quite an expensive outing for Thailand and the temple seems to be milking its attraction for every cent its worth. For 600baht, about $20, you go into the grounds individually with a guide (the temple is actually run by a mixture of monks and international volunteers) who walks you to about 20 different tigers, tells you where to pet it and takes your picture with your camera. The tigers are all “napping” at this point, and most don’t seem to notice you (and dozens of other tourists) are touching them. Most of them are also chained to a pole in the ground. The temple claims tigers naturally sleep during the afternoon, though others think they’re sedated, who knows…
I’ve got to say, it was pretty cool. Even though the grounds were full of volunteers/tourists and the tigers were chained up and “sleeping,” there’s definitely an adrenaline rush being that close to a wild animal that could potentially rip you to pieces. At one point, there were two tigers lying on a rock and one of them had just woken up. The guide kept telling me to grab their tails to take a picture, but I swear to you, the awake tiger looked back at me with this “touch it and see what happens” look. Let’s just say I moved on quickly :). What was more interesting than the little photo session was that you could actually go and visit the younger tigers and spend more time with them actually petting them, awake! The ones I found were chained up, and though they were only about six months old, were already the size of a large dog! And sadly, I found out later that if you get to the temple early enough in the afternoon, you can pay to hold, feed and play with baby cubs for 45 minutes! When I found out I missed the opportunity I was completely crushed, that would have been my dream! My only condolence was I got to pay to watch the evening exercises for the adult tigers where they put you in this fenced in area where you get to watch the volunteers play with the tigers as if they were big cats. It was kind of fun, but I would have preferred the babies :(.
The next day, Josh and I joined one of those packaged tours that would allow us to see lots of different parts of Kanchanaburi in one day. Many of the packages offered elephant rides or bamboo rafting, but since we were planning on doing that later in Chiang Mai, we opted to visit the seven-tiered Erawan waterfalls, which also happened to include a visit to the Hellfire Pass or Konyu Cutting, a particularly sad point in the history of the Death Railway. Honestly, I had no interested in seeing this Hellfire Pass and just wanted to play in the waterfalls, but in an interesting twist, the Hellfire Pass ended up being one of the most memorable parts of my visit to the city.
The day started with a morning trip to the falls, which I will admit, were quite stunning. There are seven main, large waterfalls throughout the grounds, and you have to hike a ways to get to each one of them. Each one has its own unique design and each was full of clear, light green water. Unfortunately for me, the pools were also full of something else: fish, and lots of them. For those of you that know me pretty well, I am extremely grossed out by fish and will not go into water if I see them around. So while Josh and most of the other tourists were splashing around, playing in all the pools, I was sitting on the rocks admiring the scenery and cursing those nasty little things who had the nerve to infringe upon my vacation. Hmpf!
I actually found the second part of the day much more interesting. After the waterfalls, our guide took us to the Hellfire Pass, a part of the Death Railway through solid mountain that has a particularly brutal history. Before viewing the Pass, you go to this little museum full of information on the Death Railway, and it was fascinating! It talks all about the lead up to World War II, the details of the conditions of the POWs, the process of making the railway, the importance of the link to Burma and why it was so hard to make the railway because of the rough terrain. I could have spent an hour or more reading everything, and tried to, but our guide said we were pressed for time so I didn’t get to finish the story :(.
Anyway, viewing the actual Hellfire Pass is quite breathtaking, especially after reading the history. To start, you’re in the mountains, surrounded by bamboo trees and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. But then you look up and see this solid wall of rock that has been cleared away to make room for this railway (which has since been dismantled) and you realize all the backbreaking labor that went into it. The men had to work 18 hours a day with rudimentary tools and clear through a 17 by 110 meter section of solid rock. It is called the Hellfire Pass because, at one point, the Japanese rushed the project’s deadline and forced the men to work through the night, with only the light of torch fires to guide them, suggesting a scene from Hell. Today, the Pass is remembered through several memorials and parts of the railway that have been left to preserve history. Of everything I saw in Kanchanaburi, I think that afternoon might be the thing that sticks with me most. In the end, I was definitely glad we took our detour!