Kanchanaburi: Tigers and Pigs and Monkeys (Oh My!)

Kanchanaburi is the third largest province in Thailand and is located approximately 130 kilometers west-northwest of Khrungthep.  Myanmar (Burma) borders it on the west.  In north and west Kanchanaburi the terrain is mostly high plains and mountains with the Thanon Thongchai Range forming the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar.


It is from this range that the Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai rivers form. As a result, several of Thailand’s largest waterfalls are found in this area.


We stayed in the eponymous provincial capital at the charming Pong-Phen Guesthouse.  Situated where the Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai rivers merge to become the Mae Klong, this is where the famous Bridge over the River Kwai is situated, immortalized in the movie starring Alec Guinness.


Arriving in Kanchanaburi about ten in the morning, we stopped by the Tourism Authority office to get a local map, guidebook, and a list of accommodations.  Pong-Phen (left) was the first guesthouse we checked out and satisfied with its cleanliness and reasonable rates (500 baht a night – approximately US$13.50) we checked in and unloaded our bags.


 


One of the attractions of the area is the natural beauty, so we drove up to Erawan Waterfall, located 65 km north in the Amphoe (district) of Sri Sawat.  Situated in the 550 square km Erawan National Park, the waterfall is composed of seven distinct tiers, or stages.  Right: At the first stage of the waterfall, Brad climbed out on a fallen tree.


The highest stage of the waterfall is just over 2 km away from the trailhead.  Several of the stages feature clear blue pools that are well-suited for swimming, complete with fish to nibble at your toes!


One of the observations I made while visiting the waterfall was the difference between Thai and farang visitors’ dress: Thais who chose to swim or play in the water were always much more modestly attired than the farang, usually wearing t-shirts and shorts even for swimming.


At the fourth stage we found a relatively quiet pool with one high waterfall and two local boys who were swimming around and splashing about, a Thai Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.  A group of monks who were visiting the park arrived and took a dip in the pool, their robes wrapped to still cover from their upper belly to their ankles.  One monk didn’t swim and instead walked along a rock ledge above a smaller waterfall, contemplating the scenery and talking with the boys.  Above: Can you spot Huck?



By early afternoon we were waterfalled out so returned to the car, driving back down the mountain to Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery – the “Tiger Temple.”  Racing to get there before the gates closed at 5:00, I managed to overshoot it by 20 km because the sign didn’t face the direction I was driving from!  We arrived with thirty minutes to spare, just ahead of some threatening clouds.


The Tiger Temple was established by Abbot Pra Acharn Phoosit several years ago when a nearly-dead tiger cub whose parents had been shot by poachers, was brought to the monastery by local villagers.  The Abbot welcomed the orphaned tiger out of compassion and nursed him back to health. 


Over time, other tiger cubs were found and brought to the monastery.  A facility was built to properly care for these tigers, who didn’t have enough instinct to survive in the wild as hunters.  The facility was expanded to include other wildlife and a master plan is in place to build a world-class “New Home for Tigers” that will allow for the next generation to be raised with minimal human contact in the hopes that they can be returned to the wild.


The project is fascinating and ambitious – more information at www.tigertemple.org.


One of my classmates at ULS had volunteered for a week at the Tiger Temple and had told me that it was very much worth a visit, especially in the late afternoon.  Carlos said that most visitors had already left but that this was the time when the tigers were brought to the canyon area to exercise and that visitors could join the Abbot and the workers when the tigers were walked back up to their cages.


So we arrived late and were rushing down to the canyon, where we found a group of about thirty tourists, fifteen employees, the Abbot, and about ten tigers. 


Everyone was waiting to get pictures with the tigers when the storm finally arrived in the tropical manner: sudden and intense. 


The tourists started to open large shade umbrellas but the employees stopped them, explaining that the tigers are spooked by umbrellas.


We stood in the pouring rain as the employees chained the tigers to restrain them and then we were allowed to open the umbrellas.  We stood in the rain for about thirty minutes, waiting. 


I took some photos and video and subsequently discovered that my camera no longer functions properly; some buttons including the zoom no longer work in the picture-taking mode.  Strangely, though, they work in the photo-reviewing mode.


As the rain subsided, the Abbot instructed the employees to prepare the tigers to be walked back to the cages.  We were told that we could follow along well behind the final tiger and that if we wanted to take a picture with the tiger, an employee would take us up alongside the tiger.  The procedure was pretty strict, understandably:


The employee holds your hand and you jog to catch up to the tiger, who is walking with the Abbot and two handlers.  You then place your hand on the tiger’s side, so she knows you are a friend.  Then one of the employees jogs ahead and takes some pictures of you.


Brad and Silvia (and just about all the other people) didn’t want to take the picture, although I’m not sure why.  I figured that if I had come all this way and endured the rain – especially after having taken pictures with elephants the day before – I might as well add another animal to my list!


Nor surprisingly, the tiger felt like a big, wet cat.  A big, wet cat with very powerful haunches and an incredibly graceful stride!


Afterwards, we spent a few minutes watching as the employees fed all the other animals, first spreading small food pellets for the smaller critters and then smashing large squash for the larger animals.  The collection of animals ranged from water buffalo, regular cows, wild boars, and deer to birds of all sorts, all of which roamed free and seemed quite used to having humans around. 


While none seemed “tame,” they wandered up to you to get food, quite unconcerned about your presence.  The monk on the right was playing with the wild boar’s bristles, which were very thick and spaced widely apart along his spine.  The monk was standing them straight up, making a sort of mohawk effect which he thought was pretty funny. 


The boar, eating the food pellets, didn’t seem to mind at all.


Our feet were mud-caked by the time we made it to the car, the last visitors to leave.  A quick rinse in the washrooms and we were on our way back to Kanchanaburi. 


That evening we indulged in 90-minute massages and then a much-delayed Indian meal.  Forty minutes after ordering nothing had arrived in this ten-seat restaurant.  Finally, I asked the waitress (in Thai) why it was taking so long.  At first I thought I had misunderstood her answer: “The cook has gone home.”


When the food finally arrived, another lady explained in more detail that the cook, who is Malaysian, had returned to her hometown for a visit and that in her absence it was taking longer than usual to prepare the food.


Right: View from the guesthouse terrace as the sun sets over the river Kwai.


 


One of the nice things about Kanchanaburi is that its more mountainous elevation results in cooler nighttime weather.  A gentle breeze and temperatures around 25 C made for a very nice evening.


 


Friday – The Bridge Over the River Kwai


The next morning we did the in- and near-town attractions: a visit to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, a small world-class museum that provides detailed insight into the history of the construction of the railway during World War II. 


This 415-km railway was constructed by around 240,000 conscripted Asian labourers (mostly from Malaya, Burma, and Java) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war.  Of these, more than 13,000 POWs and an untold number, estimated at around 100,000 Asians, perished in the harsh, disease-infested working conditions.


From there we drove the short distance to the famous Bridge over the River Kwai.  The original bridge was of course damaged by Allied bombing near the end of the war, but the bridge was rebuild and portions of the railway are still used occasionally.  We walked out part way across the bridge, which was the point where I discovered that my camera was no longer functioning normally.  At the same time the memory card on Brad and Silvia’s camera had a malfunction. 


So after a 90-minute diversion into town to locate a photo shop and get some help, their pictures had been recovered and burned onto a CD and a new memory card had been purchased.  A big THANK YOU to the staff at Studio Photo Express who went out of their way to help us.  If you’re ever in Kanchanaburi and need prints made, want to purchase photo supplies, or want to take wedding portraits, please give them a call at 03-462-0061.  They’re located on the main street (route 232) near the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.


Pushing noon, we drove to our last stop: the Monkey School.  This hopelessly kitschy tourist trap was actually a lot of fun.  Located at the end of a dirt and gravel track, the school actually trains monkeys to help farmers pick coconuts.  As an added source of income, they conduct shows for tourists to demonstrate the monkeys’ skills.


   


There are several infant monkeys that are very friendly and like playing with strangers.  Of course, they are wild animals, but these particular ones are even-tempered.  We had a fun time with them, especially Brad, who had a sandal, his hat, and his sunglasses stolen by one monkey, who then proceeded to search through his pockets and grabbed Brad’s MP3 player!  Thief!


We hit the road home later than expected and as a result arrived near Khrungthep in time to hit the Friday afternoon rush hour.  Thankfully, we made it back by 6:00 so Brad and Silvia had an hour to rest before taking the taxi to the airport, on their way to Chiang Mai.


 


So there you have it!  My coverage of Brad and Silvia’s visit will be limited for the next two weeks as they’ll be traveling on their own.  I’ll post any updates I receive, though, and if anyone needs to get hold of them they are carrying one of my phones, so contact me and I’ll pass along the message.


 

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