I hadn’t been planning to go to Kanchanaburi this year, but somehow I ended up there. I was surprised to find such a laid-back, relaxed, friendly little city so near Bangkok, less than two hours away from the new Sai Tai bus station. I enjoyed staying by the river (on the river!), watching the birds, the people – and listening to the frogs all night long.
The rugged limestone mountains all over the province are a wonderful backdrop wherever you are heading, and they also hide numerous unique or surprising cave temples – not to mention the welcome escape from the direct sunlight and the merciless heat.
A rented motorcycle seems to be the best way to explore the small rural roads and temples around Kanchanaburi, as public transport is very sporadic, and many places of interest are in the middle of nowhere. The area map that comes with rentals is very detailed and useful if you have no idea what is there to see around.
First, I headed just across the river to Wat Tham Khao Pun, which, apparently, became famous when not so long ago a drug-addicted monk murdered a farang girl and hid the body in the caves. The narrow passages and chambers had also been used by the Japanese during the second world war. The grim historical background and thin air were enough to freak me out when the arrows inside the dimly lit cave pointed towards narrower and narrower sections – I didn’t find out how narrow it all gets eventually. I preferred to backtrack to the entrance, where a comprehensive collection of Buddha images, including a large Reclining Buddha, provide a peaceful haven for contemplation.
There is a mandatory donation of 20 baht to enter the caves.
Then, I headed south along the river on a rugged dirt road, heading to the most famous temples in the area, passing by huge Chinese cemeteries and truckloads of gravel and sand dredged from the river. Suddenly, out of the blue, the most amazing naga staircase appeared. I had thought that I had seen everything possible when it comes to nagas in Chiang Mai!
Wat Baan Tham temple is right on the Kwae river, the steep stairs lead to a series of small cave temples perched just inside the hill. It is a very quiet and serene spot with lots of fragrant frangipani trees and burial chedis on the way up. I wished someone could take my photo as I entered the mouth of the beast but there was absolutely nobody else around. Once inside the dragon, stories from the life of the Lord Buddha come alive on the walls. There is a charming view of the surrounding area from the top.
The cave temples at the top are very quiet and a perfect spot for an hour of meditation (and let’s not forget about the shade).
Next on the itinerary, Wat Tham Seua, or Tiger Cave Temple, is only a few kilometres away. This is the one everyone is talking about and heading to. The compound looks very impressive from a distance, you can hardly wait to see it all for yourself.
There is a large parking lot and many souvenir stalls, but for some reason it was all deserted. Maybe the Chinese tour buses hit the spot early in the morning, or late afternoon. I didn’t mind. There is a steep flight of stairs up, or an ancient-looking contraption to haul people up, which looks like it may crash any second. The famous seated Buddha greets the visitor – donations are carried up to the alms bowl by a conveyor belt. I found it noisy, pushy and just totally inappropriate that an attendant switched on the structure whenever someone walked towards the image.
Walking around, I just couldn’t put it all together. What looks great from the distance is actually a compound of mismatched buildings constructed with lots of gold and glitter but without much grace or style. Pretty similar to other prominent places of worship in Thailand that have huge Chinese donations pouring in – the Tiger Cave temple in Krabi immediately comes into mind. My disappointment deepened further when I found out that the caves were dangerous and off limits – so, this was all for Kanchanaburi’s most famous cave temple, then.
Adjacent Wat Khao Noi is a temple built totally in Chinese style, and a lot more pleasant to look at – however, close up it was completely deserted. There was a fine layer of dust all over everything, and a deep silence hovering over the compound: no worshippers, no monks, no incense sticks left behind. Maybe I had chosen the wrong time to visit? It is a mystery.
Even though it was only around 3 o’clock in the afternoon at this stage, I actually had temple fatigue. I enjoyed sitting by the river and gradually slowing down, leaving everything behind me. I realised the river is just as soothing as a temple. Just as perfect a place for all my prayers and contemplation.