Traveling with Gary and William to Kanchanaburi

Even though Tawn and I had a chance to visit with them in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago, it was a pleasant coincidence that Gary and William had scheduled a trip to Bangkok for the end of June.  We were able to see them several times during their visit, and they invited me to travel to Kanchanaburi Province with them to visit the Tiger Temple.

First stop was the town of Kanchanaburi itself, about two hours northwest of Bangkok.  This town, located on Maenam Kwai (“River Kwai” – pronounced “kwae”), is the site of the bridge made famous in the 1957 David Lean film, Bridge Over the River Kwai.  We made a quick stop at the very good Thai-Burma Railway Centre, the better of two museums in the city about the building of the bridge.

Next, after a delay of about 45 minutes, we jumped on a train pulled by a 40+ year old GE diesel engine for a trip across the bridge and about an hour towards the Burmese border. 

Riding in a nearly antique (but still considered standard, third-class quality by the State Railways of Thailand) car, our interest quickly faded as the passing scenery blurred into a hazy green.

William, leaning out the window, takes a few shots of the countryside.  Fear not, we were actually stopped at a small country station when he did this.  Otherwise, he would have been whacked in the back of his head by overgrown bushes alongside the tracks.

A lone motorcyclist travels a country road as we pass a pair of houses.

Young rice grows a vibrant green in rich, volcanic soil.

Can you identify these crops?  Our tour guide disappeared for most of the train ride, but I was eventually able to learn that these are cassava plants, from which tapioca starch is obtained.

After much too long on the train, we disembarked at a dusty whistle stop and boarded our van, which had been chasing after us.  About twenty minutes later we arrived at the Tiger Temple.  The temple itself started out as a forest monastery in the mid-1990s.  Over time, the monks came to care for insured birds, an injured boar, and other animals they either encountered or were given to them.  The large grounds of the monastery developed into something of a wildlife sanctuary.

In February 1999, the first tiger cub was brought to the temple.  The cub had been orphaned by poachers and then had been sold to someone who was going to have it stuffed.  The cub survived the botched procedure to euthanize it and was brought to the temple.  Over the next few years, other orphaned cubs were brought to the temple and the head monk cared for them in following the principles of compassion for all living beings.

My last visit there was five years ago and the temple has developed quite a bit.  It remains a very popular tourist destination and the visitors’ fees go to support projects to protect the tigers.  The temple has also come in for some criticism from animal rights activists, which I won’t go into here other than to say that I did not witness any signs of ill treatment of the animals.

Okay, not a tiger, but a very large fire ant.  I was impressed with the macro focus on my camera!

The tigers, much like all cats, were napping in the warm afternoon.  There were about three or four staff members and volunteers for each cat and we were instructed about how to approach the cats and then the staff would take pictures. 

There were also plenty of other animals roaming about the large temple grounds, including this very friendly deer named Ta Waan – Sweet Eyes – who knows our tour guide because he always brings a bag of dried corn with him to the temple.

After feeding her, Ta Waan became our new best friend, following us around the temple.

Many of the tiger cubs are handled by various monks.  They play with them and keep them out of trouble.  This one made a lunge for Ta Waan, who bounded away, and the monk literally had to grab the tiger by the tail to keep him from running after the deer.

Since my last visit, the temple has introduced several programs that allow more interactivity with the cats, all for an extra price.  One of the programs was being able to feed and play with the cubs.  Gary and William opted for this and ended up with some wonderful pictures and great memories.  You’ll have to stay tuned to Gary’s site for those pictures.

Another program was being able to exercise the big cats.  Visitors are escorted by staff members into the exercise enclosure (Daniel in the lion’s den?) and get to play with them much in the same way you play with your cat at home: by holding something at the end of a stick that they will want to pounce on.  The enclosure has good vantage points from which you can see the big cats enjoying themselves.


As for the danger level, these are definitely wild cats and I observed that a lot of work is done by staff and volunteers to ensure that visitors don’t do anything that would startle the cats or cause their natural instincts to kick in, causing harm.  I suppose that also keeping them fed (boiled chicken) and happy do a lot to minimize some of the risks.

While I was standing there filming from the wall (standing about where the man in the white shirt is taking a picture in the photo above), I suddenly sensed that there was something just over my right shoulder.  Sure enough, the tiger cub (pictured with the monk several photos above) was walking along the top of the wall and had stopped because I was in his way.

This picture, one of three that turned out very nice, wasn’t taken with any zoom lens!  I was about two feet away from his whiskers.  Beautiful animal but a bit unnerving to be caught unawares.

I’ll leave you with this video compilation, about three minutes of footage of the tigers playing in the water.

All in all, I think Gary and William had a fantastic time and I’d include a visit to the Tiger Temple on the itinerary for other guests.  It is certainly an experience you won’t have at home.

Eating at the Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

It isn’t enough to just go and see the fruits and vegetables being grown in the Chia Tai demonstration gardens.  You have to eat them, too!

It turns out that they weren’t too happy when I attempted to pull a carrot out of the ground and see how it tasted.  Instead, security suggested I head over to the food tents to satisfy any hunger pangs.

Sure enough, amidst the rows and rows of processed foods manufactured and sold by parent company CP Foods (they audaciously sell their label of frozen entrees called CP Fresh Mart, which you could select from a freezer case then they would microwave them for you on the spot – not a hundred steps away from acres and acres of fresh produce!), there was actually a few stalls selling freshly-prepared food items.

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I counted three items for sale made from (presumably) local produce: steamed pumpkin buns, pumpkin donuts, and steamed corn on the cob.


The pumpkin buns, made from a yeast dough in a process described in the video below, were light and tasty and I could have easily eaten a dozen of them.  The pumpkin donuts, below, were even more amazing.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a lighter, less oily donut.  Krispy Kreme take note!


Here’s a two-minute video that will tell you all about it.

Hope you enjoy.

Trip to Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

Thailand_Kanchanaburi Last Saturday Tawn and I made a trip up to Kanchanaburi province to attend an agricultural fair.  Kanchanaburi is about 150 km northwest of Khrungthep – roughly a two and a half hour drive if you include a stop to stretch your legs.

Kanchanaburi is one of the largest provinces in the kingdom.  Nestled along the border with Myanmar, the province is mountainous and is home to the famous “bridge over the River Kwai“, part of a 400 km railway built by the Japanese Empire during World War II using POWs and conscripted Asian laborers at the cost of more than a hundred thousand of lives.

Two interesting notes about the bridge over the River Kwai:

First, the movie starring Alec Guinness was an awful bastardization of history.  A much more accurate telling of the story and glimpse of the person played by Guinness can be had by reading Peter Davies’ 1991 book The Man Behind The Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai.  

Second, the Anglicization of the name of the river (“Kwai”) is terrible, too.  The Thai name rhymes with “way” not “why”.  Make note of that next time you’re talking with friends about this topic.  You’ll be certain to come across as a know-it-all.

Trivial tidbits aside, we arrived at the Chia Tai test gardens just outside Kanchanaburi town in marvelous time, among the first few hundred people to carve parking spaces out of the dirt shoulders of the two lane highway 323.


Sponsored by Chia Tai, the largest producer of seeds in Thailand and a part of the CP Foods conglomerate, the fair is a biennial opportunity to open the test gardens’ gates and let the public explore many of the four hundred different types of fruits, vegetables and flowers that Chia Tai sells seeds for. 


P1130555 With the still cool (relatively) winter weather, some twenty thousand visitors come each weekend day to explore the vast gardens, pavilions and greenhouses, taking pictures, admiring many unfamiliar varieties, seeing demonstrations, signing up for “harvest your own” tours of the gardens, and buying seeds and fresh produce for their own consumption.

There were plenty of families enjoying the fair and a good number of students running around with workbooks, completing homework assignments.  These two boys (left) were charged with writing down as many different types of fruits and vegetables as they could find. 

By the time we found them, they looked to have already found more than two dozen different varieties, all of which seemed to have grown to gargantuan size.  Maybe this was just a matter of the rich volcanic soil of the province, maybe they had been allowed to grow past the normal point of maturity, or maybe there was just a lot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the soil – who knows?  But the gardens will certainly lush.

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Above, Tawn tries his hat on one of the head-sized hanging gourds.  Above that, an homage to the River Kwai railroad, replete with a cargo of fresh vegetables.

P1130616 A row of greenhouses was open for inspection.  Unlike most greenhouses I’m familiar with, which are designed to keep temperatures warmer, these had the opposite purpose: to cool the vegetables.  A huge radiator was built into one end of the buildings with water circulating down corrugated metal fins.  At the other end of the greenhouses were large fans, sucking air from the north side of the building, through the radiator and then out the south side.

Needless to say, the greenhouses were quite popular with the crowd as even though it was winter, standing out in the midday sun was still pretty warm.  Left, two children pose with some of the “wart” covered gourds.

The greenhouses were each dedicated to a different type of vegetable or fruit: melons in one, gourds in a another, pumpkins in a third.  The pumpkin greenhouse had an interesting range of colors and shapes.

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In the watermelon greenhouse, there was a large display educating visitors about the development cycle of watermelons.  In addition to a half-dozen different varieties of watermelon, we were told in no uncertain terms:


“Please read this… read then have understanding.  We do not use GMO [genetically modified organisms].  We do not have anything dangerous.”

They read my mind.  I’m inherently suspicious of food conglomerates (and pretty much any other sort of conglomerate) as I think their mission is more about profits, efficiency and productivity over biodiversity and food safety.  But who can argue with such a frank statement as the one printed above?


In one of the educational halls, though, I found this exhibit about the different types of fertilizers Chia Tai sells.  It seemed to confirm my fears: grow monocultures on your farms and slowly deplete the natural health of your soil, ensuring you grow dependent on the use of our fertilizers.

The general public, home gardeners, were not the target audience for the agricultural fair.  We saw busloads and busloads of people arriving from around the Kingdom: farmers, agricultural cooperatives, students studying land management and agriculture from various technical schools and universities, and development organizations such as the Population and Community Development Association, for which Tawn’s father has worked for many years.


The buses are worth mentioning.  They are decked out in all sorts of wild paint schemes, blaring with music, lacking proper air conditioning – karaoke parlors on wheels.  And they arrived, one after the other, from all corners of the country.

It is easy to be skeptical about Chia Tai’s intentions.  But as I looked around the test gardens, I saw many varieties of vegetables and fruits that are not normally available at the corner market.  Certainly, no heirloom tomatoes to be found, but enough varieties of other fruits and vegetables to encourage farmers to expand the diversity of what they grow, to develop new markets and pique the Thai consumers’ interest in new and different fresh foods.


This being Thailand, there was plenty of fun to be had.  Not only nonstop blaring announcements and music, but raffles, games of skills and chance, picture taking opportunities, heart-shaped watermelons (grown in a box) and vegetable carving galore.

Vegetable carving is actually a traditional Thai craft.  Here it was taken in some unusual directions.  Funny note about the penguin playing football, below.  A mother brought her toddler over to see the carvings and said, in Thai, “Look, a football.”  The toddler then promptly kicked the “ball” and it rolled away.  The shocked mother promptly scolded her child, “No, no, it isn’t a real football!”  Poor child – probably wishes mum would make up her mind.

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And, since this is Thailand, of course we had the requisite “We Love the King” carving:


We had seen all we needed to see by lunchtime and after having some food – more on that in another entry – we bought some souvenir melons and then turned the car’s nose back towards the City of Angels.


Here’s a 4-minute story about the trip.  I hope you enjoy it.