Our latest short trip inside Thailand from our base in Bangkok was four days visiting the Huay Mae Waterfalls and Kanchanaburi area. The Huay Mae Waterfalls are in a national park about a four and a half hour drive from Bangkok. Kanchanaburi is about halfway in between the national park and Bangkok and is most well known for being the location of the bridge over the river Kwai.
Huay Mae Waterfalls
The seven-level Huay Mae Waterfalls are in the Khuean Srinagarindra National Park. The park is relatively off-the-tourist-trail although we were there during a Thai national holiday, so it was quite full of Thais enjoying the holiday.
We went with a church youth group, yep that’s right, youth group. We don’t necessarily fit into the “youth” demographic, but the church is very kind to us and lets us join in all kinds of activities.
Most of the people spending the night camp out in tents in the park. You don’t have to have your own equipment, the park rents out tents and sleeping bags. There are a few cabins and a lodge there as well. We stayed in the lodge – I guess they had pity on us old people.
The natural beauty of the area is the main attraction. For us, the waterfalls were the highlight of the stay. The waterfalls have seven levels and most of the levels had swimming areas. We were there in late October, so there was a good level of water in the falls and they were quite nice. It was fun swimming for a couple of hours trying out different pools and swimming in and around the falls.
We stopped at the Srinagarind Dam on our way from the falls to Kanchanaburi. The dam was constructed for river regulation and hydroelectric power generation. It offers some nice views and a place to stretch your legs and grab a snack.
On the way back from the waterfalls, we spent two nights in Kanchanaburi.
Kanchanaburi is the capital of the province of the same name and most well known as being the site of the bridge that was part of the infamous Death Railway built by the Japanese during World War II. If you have seen the 1957 movie Bridge on the River Kwai starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, it is not actually that bridge. The famous movie is a fictional story based on the Death Railway but was actually filmed in Sri Lanka. In the movie, the bridge is a wooden bridge that gets blown up, quite spectacularly, at the end of the movie. The actual bridge over the river Kwai was iron and was bombed by the Allies in 1944. The bridge was rebuilt and is now probably the most famous site in the area and visited by thousands of tourists every year.
You can walk across this railway bridge and a couple of times a day a sightseeing train passes over the bridge. I did something a little different, and very corny on the bridge. When I was in Grade 4, I read a joke that I thought was hilarious and decided to recreate the joke in real life. The joke goes like this.
Q. Why did the boy throw an onion into the river?
A. Because he wanted to see the bridge on the River Kwai. (cry)
Hilarious, right? Well, the 10-year-old Carey thought so, and I guess I still like dumb jokes. So, I bought an onion and had my wife take a video and pictures of me throwing an onion into the river, so I could see the Bridge on the River Kwai. It worked! I saw the bridge.
Besides the actual bridge, there are a few museums about the bridge, the Death Railway, and the area in general. It is quite a sad story really. During World War II the Japanese captured Burma, (now called Myanmar) a British colony. Supplying their troops by sea became extremely dangerous, so the Japanese built a railway through Thailand and Burma for the transport of supplies, troops, and prisoners. Allied prisoners of war and Southeast Asia civilians were forced to work on the railway. Accurate records were not kept of the number of laborers or death rates. Estimates put the figures at up to 250,000 Southeast Asians and 61,000 prisoners of war were forced to work on the railway. Approximately 90,000 civilian and 12,000 POW laborers died during the construction.
The Thailand-Burma Railway Center is a good museum that tells the story of the railway and the stories of many of the laborers forced to build it. It is right across the street from the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The cemetery contains the remains of 6858 Commonwealth, Dutch, and Americans that died in the area during World War II.
The JEATH War Museum is another museum and is close to the actual bridge. The acronym JEATH stands for primary nationalities involved in the construction of the Death Railway – Japanese English American Australian Thai and Holland. The museum contains quite a few artifacts but is not that well done. There are far too many artifacts on display with too little explanation. There does not appear to have any real order or logic in the manner of display. Still, if you are in Kanchanaburi and have the time, it is probably worth a visit, but I would put it fairly low on the priority list.
We splurged and stayed at the 4 star U Inchantree Hotel right on the banks of the River Kwai. The hotel was just a couple hundred meters upstream of the bridge and had a restaurant and patio right on the river. When I say we splurged, we paid about $70 USD a night for a room that included breakfast. There were plenty of 3-star hotels in the $40-50 USD per night range, but of course, they were not right on the river.
For our trip back to Bangkok, we did one of our favorite things to do, we took the train. We like taking the train and a good part of the enjoyment for us is seeing local people going about their daily life. The train has hardbacked seats and no air conditioning, but there are fans and with the windows open and the breeze it can be quite comfortable. Vendors walk up and down the aisles selling snacks and drinks.
At the station itself, there were a number of vintage railway safety posters. The posters were originally designed in the 1960s but had recently been reprinted. They show, quite graphically in some cases, what can happen to you if you are not careful around the railway.
We probably never would have visited the Huay Mae Waterfalls if not for the church Youth Camp Out trip, I am so glad we did though. The area is beautiful, and swimming in the pools in the river and ducking under the waterfalls was truly enjoyable. We had Kanchanaburi on our list of places to visit, but visiting there as part of the Huay Mae Waterfall trip was much better.
Getting to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok is quite easy. There are a number of buses leaving Bangkok that can get you there in 2-3 hours for around $4 USD. The train will take a little longer with all the stops, about 4 hours and about $3 USD. The price for Thais is about $1.25. We were a little surprised that the Bangkok to Kanchanaburi train has a local and a foreigner price. Any other trains we have taken in Thailand all have just one price.
Getting from Kanchanaburi to Huay Mae Waterfalls is a little more tricky. Huay Mae is 110 km from Kanchanaburi. The road is paved and in good condition. I have heard of people renting motorcycles in Kanchanaburi and driving up. You can rent a motorcycle for about $8-12 per day depending on the size.