Bangkok. Phuket. Pattaya. The beaches of Krabi and Samui. The highland haven of Chiang Mai. Most visitors to Thailand would tick these destinations off their itineraries. Yet, there’s so much more to discover about the Land of a Thousand Smiles. From historic trails and monuments to intriguing temples and monasteries, blissed-out beaches, exciting nightlife, vineyards and nature reserves, malls and entertainment options, and a cornucopia of delectable Thai cuisine.
In short, a thousand more reasons to smile.
The province of Kanchanaburi, with its refreshing verdant countryside and abundant rice fields, fruit orchards, cassava and rubber plantations, is a favourite weekend haunt of Bangkok’s city folk. About two and a half hours west of the capital, this ‘Land of Gold’ (its name has roots in Sanskrit) is blessed with a magnificent landscape that ranges from low rolling plains and marshland to riverside retreats and hills cloaked in forest and bamboo.
Kanchanaburi is connected to the capital by impeccable highways stippled with fuel stations and rest stops with restaurants, coffee shops and snack stalls. Double-decker tour buses with onboard WiFi and in-seat massagers can be seen ferrying happily dozing tourists through this remarkable countryside.
The silence is solemn in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. (Photo: Bijoy Venugopal)
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Kanchanaburi’s past is rooted in pain. During World War II, Thailand was shanghaied into supporting the Japanese Imperial Army in its assault on Allied forces in Southeast Asia. Japan made several landings in Thailand and coerced a reluctant Thai government into allowing it to build a railway to Burma (modern-day Myanmar) through the hills and rivers of Siam (modern-day Thailand). Relics and memorials of this dark period dot the province.
In the heart of the town lies Don Rak, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. A granite plaque informs the visitor that here are preserved the remains of 6,982 Allied prisoners of war who perished during the construction of the infamous Death Railway. Between 1942 and 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army forced POWs constructed a railway that aimed to link Burma with Thailand. Overwork, cruelty and unhygienic living conditions claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and civilians. In the cemetery there are zones demarcated for British, Dutch and Australian soldiers. The largest of three cemeteries along the Burma-Siam Railway, it is a serene, sobering place. Designed by Colin St Clair Oakes, it is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which looks into the upkeep of war graves in about 150 countries that were affected by the two World Wars.
The historic railway bridge over the Khwae-Noi River. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
The Bridge on the River Kwai
If you have seen the famous David Lean film (based on the French novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle) starring William Holden and Sir Alec Guinness, the whistling tune of the march ‘Colonel Bogey’ will unspool instantly in your mind as you reach the historic Bridge on the River Kwai. Though Kwai is a name that finds popular currency, Thais know the river as Khwae (rhymes with air). There are, in fact, two rivers of that name that curl through Kanchanaburi – Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai. The bridge stands on Khwae Noi, the shorter tributary. At Kanchanaburi, the two rivers merge into the Mae Klong River.
There were two railway bridges – one a wooden trestle bridge and the other made of concrete and steel. Allied POWs – mostly English, Dutch, Americans and Australian soldiers – toiled night and day enduring disease, starvation and barbaric treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors. The Allies bombed and destroyed the bridge to cripple Japanese supply lines, but after the war the historic bridge was reconstructed and finds use as a railway bridge and a memorial.
The 2013 Hollywood film The Railway Man starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman casts Firth as Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who is tortured as a POW in a Japanese labour camp. Both movies were set in Kanchanaburi although most of the David Lean film was shot on location in Sri Lanka.
On a cool breezy evening, you can walk on the bridge over the dark waters of the Khwae-Noi, along which long-tailed boats and barges ply. From the railway station here, it is possible to travel until the end of the line to soak in the overwhelming history of the route and the enduring beauty of the scenery.
The Hellfire Pass memorial and museum in Kanchanaburi. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
Further along the railway line is the Hellfire Pass Memorial, another historic site steeped in the memories of war. Its intriguing name was given by Allied POWs conscripted by the Japanese military to build the infamous Siam-Burma Railway, in haunting memory of the flickering light of naked torches as they cut away at the intractable rock with picks, shovels and bare hands.
In 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Malaya, Japanese troops were skirmishing bitterly with the British in Burma. Japan wanted to avoid the risky sea route through the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea, which were patrolled by Allied warships, and find an alternative route to enter India via Burma. Coercing the military government of Siam to support them, the Japanese embarked on an ambitious project to build a 415-kilometer railway from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma using POWs as laborers. Work on the line began simultaneously in southern Burma and Thailand and the lines were joined in 1943.
Of the 60,000 Allied troops who labored on the railway, 12,399 died. Adding to the casualties were nearly 90,000 civilian laborers of Asian descent including Indian, Burmese and Thai.
A museum established and supported by the Australian government preserves these memories along with artifacts and exhibits. From the museum a moderately demanding walking trail leads to old railway relics at Konyu Cutting – also known as Hellfire Pass, the deepest and most dramatic of the several cuttings along the Siam-Burma railway – and a memorial to the victims of war.
The stunning waterfall is the cynosure of Erawan National Park.(Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
Erawan National Park
About 40 minutes from Kanchanaburi town, the highway curves through picturesque woodland. An upriver drive along the road ascending to the Tenasserim Mountains offers panoramic views of the Khao Laem reservoir and reveals the aspect of the mountain, like a hulking elephant crowned with rainclouds.
Hindu mythology resonates in harmony with Buddhist traditions in Thailand and Erawan is the Thai name for Airavata, the celestial mount of Indra, lord of heaven. Depicted variously as a three-headed or 33-headed elephant with six tusks, Erawan is also believed to be the custodian of the clouds.
Birdsong melds with the babble of running water inside the 550-square-kilometer national park where the most favored trail is one that leads up to the seven-tiered Erawan Waterfall. It is a paradisiacal setting: Lianas twist around ancient forest trees with gigantic buttress roots. Strangler figs wrap around great gnarled Ficuses. A turquoise stream, rising from the waterfall, drops in gentle cataracts formed by matted tree roots. All around are mysterious pathways leading to limestone caves with stalagmites, stalactites and other calcite formations. There are bamboo walkways and ramps to admire the river up close, and pools where you can splash in the spray of the waterfall, watched over by eagle-eyed lifeguards.
Confront your fears at the Tiger Temple in Thailand. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
Wat Pa Luangta Bua Mahasampanno is a unique monastery in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province where Theravada Buddhist monks have hand-reared orphaned tigers in captivity since 1999, making them tame and rather benign. A 600-baht entrance fee allows visitors access to watch monks interact with both full-grown tigers and cubs. For additional fees, visitors can walk with tigers, have photographs taken, and join volunteers in washing and feeding cubs. Other animals, such as water buffalo, wild boar and deer, also inhabit the grounds. There are also aviaries of rare birds such as hornbills.
No trip is complete without a visit to the local markets. Enjoy the wealth of fresh fruit native to the region but totally exotic to the tourist. Tuck into everything from mangos and oranges to rambutan, longan, dragon fruit, mangosteen and the redoubtable if fetid durian.
There’s more to explore in Kanchanaburi if you can make the time. But if you’re bound by a tight itinerary, head south and hit the beach at Hua Hin.
Attractions compete at Venezia mall in Hua Hin, Thailand. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
The seaside resort of Hua Hin is known for the Klai Kangwon Palace, residence of His Royal Highness Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand. Pleasant climate and a beautiful beach (which easily rivals the popular ones at Pattaya) make Hua Hin a sought-after attraction. There are souvenir shops, massage parlors, bustling nightlife precincts, seafood restaurants and bars. The five-star Dusit Thani Hua Hin, a sprawling seaside resort in an idyllic beach setting, is one of the best places to stay. And if you’re craving to let your inner mall rat out, make no secret of it. Venezia, styled after the Italian city, is an entertaining albeit slightly tacky Thai take on experiences European. Even if you give the gondola ride a miss, peek into the 3D art museum for some surprises.
The heritage railway station in Hua Hin is brightly lit at night. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
Hua Hin Railway Station
Hua Hin is proud of its railway station, arguably the prettiest functioning one of its kind anywhere in the world. The arrival of the railways in the 1920s linked Hua Hin to the world and improved its prosperity. The heritage railway station, one of the oldest in Thailand, was built during the reign of King Rama VI. Painted in ivory, gold and red, it is ornate and majestic. Among the attractions at the station, which is illuminated grandly at night, are a vintage steam locomotive and a special royal waiting room built in the style of the king’s palace.
Postcard-perfect vineyards in Hua Hin Hills, Thailand. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
Monsoon Valley Vineyard
The hills of Hua Hin, an hour’s drive from the city, offer more than the headiness of fine wine. Sample the white shiraz and rosé from these vineyards and you will find them remarkably competitive with the best in the market. Besides sampling wine, visitors can ride an elephant or a jeep through the scenic vineyard, paint bottles or relax at the café enjoying tapas and gazing at clouds playing tag with the green hills.
The colorful Night Market in Hua Hin, Thailand. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
If street food floats your boat, you should make time for an evening out at the night market. Open past midnight, the night markets are ideal for working class people who spend long hours on the job. They also attract tourists who want to take a break from beach activities and spend a night on the town. From street food and trinkets to clothing, footwear and toys, all at unbelievable bargains, you’ll find reason enough to go back with your hands full.
The mangrove boardwalk inside Pranburi Forest Park. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)
Pranburi Forest Park
The tiny forest at the mouth of the Pranburi River shelters a variety of birds and creatures like lobsters and crabs. These mangrove forests are a part of the Khlong Kao-Khlong Kob National Reserve Forest. When rapid encroachment threatened the ecology of the area, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit declared the mangroves a protected area in 1982 and the forest has since regenerated. A wooden boardwalk through the heart of the mangroves offers nature-lovers the rare pleasure of walking through these low-lying coastal forests, which are usually inaccessible due to tidal flooding and their sharp, closely packed roots. The nearby beach offers accommodations, restaurants and activities.
To explore Kanchanaburi and Hua Hin doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Thailand has to offer, but it’s a bold and exciting start. For the intrepid traveler, there are secret beaches, hiking trails and off-the-map temples to be discovered. All you need to do is step away from the tempting bustle of Bangkok. And remember to keep counting the smiles.
Yahoo India Travel editor Bijoy Venugopal was invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to experience Thailand in July 2014. Follow his posts from the road at Yahoo India’s Travel Tumblr and follow him on Twitter (@bijoyv) for more travel updates