A view over Khao Laem Reservoir
Kanchanaburi is a popular destination for both Thais and foreigners. However, most of the tourists only visit the city and surrounding area. If you have been to Thailand then you would know that the name of each province is also the same name of the provincial capital. Kanchanaburi Province is actually very big and there is more to it than just the “bridge” and war cemeteries. Kanchanaburi is in fact the third largest province in Thailand. Around the city the land is relatively flat. However, as you travel west the terrain becomes increasingly rugged and extremely scenic. At the far Western end is a range of mountains which acts as a natural border between Thailand and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It is this area that I visited a couple of weeks back. It is called Sangkhlaburi and is listed in the Unseen Thailand guidebook for its very long and “homemade” wooden bridge.
From Samut Prakan it is a long drive to Sangkhlaburi. It took us one hour alone just to get to the King Rama IX bridge to cross the Chao Phraya River. As yet there are no bridges across the river in our province and we have to waste time driving through Bangkok just to get to the other side. From here we drove north up to Wong Wian Yai (the Big Roundabout). Here we turned left and joined other Bangkokians on their journey to Kanchanaburi city. For them it only takes about two hours to reach the “Bridge on the River Kwai”. For us it was three hours. We left home at noon and our plan was to keep driving all the way to Sangkhlaburi. I had read that the last 25 kilometers or so could be dangerous and I wanted to get there before it got dark. Also, we didn’t have a hotel booked! That turned out to be a mistake.
The famous wooden bridge from the garden of the Burmese Inn
I do like long road trips and I can keep driving just about all day. I had plenty of practice when I was in Australia. I bought a station wagon and drove all around the country. The Nullarbor Plain in the southern half has some of the longest straight roads in the world. Driving in Thailand isn’t really that difficult. Even if you cannot read Thai you will find that most of the road signs on the major roads are bilingual. However, if you eyes are not so good it might be best if you do learn how to read place names in Thai because those letter are generally three times bigger!
The road to Kanchanaburi was pretty good and we made good progress. We first drove along Highway 4 heading towards Nakhon Pathom (where we stopped on the way back so I will tell you about that later). About nine kilometers further the highway turned left and headed south to Hua Hin and Phuket. Instead we turned right onto Highway 323 and headed towards Ban Pong and then Kanchanaburi. Two hours after leaving the outskirts of Bangkok we had arrived in Kanchanaburi city. It was already mid afternoon but we decided to push on to Sangkhlaburi. Our time was limited as we only had a three day weekend to play with. We only stopped briefly to shoot rabbits (Thai slang for relieving yourself by the side of the road – women pluck flowers if you want to know) and to take a picture of a wonderful sunset over the Khao Laem Reservoir.
The last 25 kilometers was supposed to be pretty rough going according to the guidebooks, but we had seen worse when we did the 1,900 bends on the road to Mae Hong Son a few years back. Both of these roads are very scenic especially this one as it skirts a large reservoir. Although it was just starting to get dark as we arrived, the twilight period was particularly beautiful. In all the 374 km trip had taken us just over six hours.
A floating house and fishing platform on the lake
Sangkhlaburi isn’t really a big town. There isn’t even a 7–eleven which says a lot. We had done our research before we left and decided we would check out two guesthouses in town. Actually, there are only two guesthouses in town! First on the list was the Burmese Inn. The service and atmosphere here was supposed to be better. We went in to check it out. Bad news. There was only one room left and we could only have it for one night. Apparently tour parties from Bangkok would be arriving the following day and the whole place was fully booked. The price was 400 baht for twin beds and a private bathroom. (The cheapest beds were 80 baht in a shared room or 120 baht to be by yourself. Bungalows started at 350 baht.) They told us that if we wanted to turn on the air-conditioning then it would cost us an extra 400 baht! A bit steep as it would only add about 40 baht to their electricity bill. We took a look at the room. It was pretty basic but clean.
People are under the misconception that guesthouses are much cheaper than hotels. But, that isn’t always true. If you want a comfortable room in a guesthouse then you would get better value for money if you went to a hotel. This was the case here. If we went to a hotel that had a room like this for 800 baht we would have walked out. But here, we didn’t think we had much choice. So, we said we would take it. We moved our things into the room and then went to the restaurant in the guesthouse to have an evening meal. The guidebooks suggested that this was a good place to eat. I would say they were wrong. As we arrived, a young Burmese boy had just given a meal to a foreign tourist. Something was wrong and he asked him to take it back. The tourist wasn’t really rude but as the young boy turned away I could see him rolling his eyes. Not a very good start.
For our meal we ordered tom yum with chicken and a Burmese curry with pork. Our third dish was stir-fried vegetables. The beer was a little expensive at 60 baht for a bottle of Chang. That was to be expected I suppose but when we went out later we bought some at a local mini mart for 37 baht. We were very hungry by the time the meal arrived. However, we were a bit disappointed. The tom yum only had a few pieces of chicken and the pork curry turned out to be chicken and it was too salty to eat. We didn’t say anything but we noticed a short while later someone complaining that their Burmese Curry had pork! So much for the recommendations from the guidebooks. At this stage we hadn’t officially checked in. So, we thought we would take the car and see what else we could find. We really wanted to stay here for two nights.
Up the road we stopped at P Guesthouse. The guidebooks (yes we were still referring to them) said this place had a better position overlooking the lake. Not sure if that was true as it was pitch dark when we went there. But we found the atmosphere a lot better. The restaurant area was a lot bigger with a number of private areas. The staff were also very friendly. Even though the place was fully booked they still took the time to help us. We made a mental note to eat here the following day. They were so lively and attentive which was the opposite to the Burmese Inn. We asked if we could book a room for the following night but they said that tour parties from Bangkok had fully booked the place! We then visited about half a dozen hotels in the area all with the same results. Fully booked!
Never mind. We drove back to the Burmese Inn and worked out a plan for the following day. We reckoned we could see all the major areas in one day though I didn’t like the idea of driving back to Kanchanaburi in the dark. During the last stretch of road to the town, we had passed a couple of landslides and I was worried that it would be too dangerous.