Category Archives: Kanchanaburi

Erawan waterfalls in Kanchanaburi

Erawan waterfall

Erawan waterfalls in Kanchanaburi province is one of the most popular national parks in Thailand, a favourite with local people as well as visitors on their Death Railway tour. It was certainly the top destination on my itinerary, as I am an avid waterfall fan (coming from a country without real mountains or waterfalls). At the end of the day, Erawan was firmly number one on my “favourite waterfalls” list.

Erawan is a mythical elephant with three heads, a frequently seen figure in shrines all around Thailand. Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan is probably the largest of the species. The top level of the falls is said to resemble this amazing creature.

I had been a little worried about visiting in the middle of March. The waterfalls were definitely not as impressive as in photos taken in the rainy season, but there was still plenty of water to fill up the pools and make the waterfalls definitely look like waterfalls. It also turned out to be the perfect place on a hot day, as all the pools and paths are mostly shaded.

What makes Erawan so popular and pleasant is its versatility. Whatever a great day out at the waterfalls means to you, you get it.

Having a nice family picnic, with the kids splashing and screaming in the shaded pool? Head for levels 1 and 2. They are accessible using golf carts, so family members with limited mobility can also come along. Most Thai families seem to be hanging around here, about ten minutes walk from the entrance. You can swim right up to the waterfalls and take a shower, the pool is deep enough for swimming, with secluded shallow sections for smaller kids.

Erawan waterfall

(The photo at the very beginning of this article was also taken at level 2.)

A nice little jungle trek, not too strenuous, just taking in the scenery? There are 3 well-marked trails wandering away from the shaded cool stream along the mountain slopes.

Looking for a deep pool for swimming and a real postcard waterfall? Level 3 is a shaded, secluded spot a few hundred metres above the picnic area. A large rock face makes it damp and especially cool. There are masses of large fish that come up to people hoping for food scraps. This was my favourite spot.

Erawan waterfall

Looking for an adrenaline rush? The amazing natural water slides at level 4 may be just what you need. The pool here is also large enough for swimming. There is a national park guard on duty here, working hard in his hammock.

Erawan waterfall

Taking pictures? Don’t miss level 5 with its little pools and picturesque falls among the trees. The rocks are very slippery, as one would expect, but once in there, the pools are nice for the smallest kids.

Erawan waterfall

Up to here, it is an easy path, with ragged roots and rocks here and there. Most Thais have no shoes on, or only flipflops. However, to go up to levels 6 and 7, you need to climb a few wooden ladders, balance on rocks, crawl under fallen trees. Then the path is actually in the stream – looks like you will get wet if you want to climb all the way to the top in the rainy season.

Erawan waterfall

There are hardly any people up here, it is easy to find very quiet secluded little spots along the stream with little waterfalls and pools for some private splashing.
I was only some 100 metres away from the top when I realised I had to turn back if I was to catch the bus. I never got a glance of the three-headed elephant waterfall – next time I will get up earlier.

It was still a perfect day. Travelling across rural Thailand in a rickety bus, watching people, doing a little bit of walking, but not too much, listening to the stream jingling, singing, roaring. Slowing down, switching off. Swimming, dangling my feet in the stream, letting the fish eat off dead flakes of skin, taking pictures, watching more people, breathing fresh air, standing still and watching geckos, standing under a waterfall and let it wash everything insignificant away. Nothing really special, if I think of it, but the sheer joy of travelling just flooded me unexpectedly. This is something I cannot plan or foresee, just be happy and smile and go with it when it happens.

Erawan waterfall

A few practicalities:

Erawan waterfall is some 50 km from Kanchanaburi town, it is easily accessible by public bus from the bus station, which drops passengers off right outside the entrance. The last bus back to town leaves at 4 p.m. The fare is 50 baht, it is an ancient non-aircon bus, the kind that is only kept together by prayers.

If you come here as part of an organised daytrip taking in other sights in the area as well, ask carefully – if you don’t get at least 3 or rather 4 hours to enjoy the waterfalls, you won’t make it up to the top, or you will but in a rush. You need at least 50 minutes to walk comfortably all the way back from the top.

Erawan waterfall

(This information board is actually already 10 mins walk from the entrance.)

Regular national park fees apply: 200/50 for foreigners. However, until the middle of May, all national parks offer tickets with 50% discount. The officials did let me pay the Thai price seeing a photocopy of my work permit. I would say it is worth even 200 baht, but this is a personal choice.

Restaurants are outside the entrance, this is also the last spot to buy drinking water, swimwear, floats, or rent a camping mat. The last toilets and showers are at the top of Level 2, after that, it is just you and the stream and the jungle. There are also facilities outside the entrance. I saw signs for a camping area and bungalows as well, these need to be booked through the national park.

You can have a picnic at level 2. In order to cut down on rubbish, bags are searched after level 2, and all food must be left at the checkpoint. A deposit has to be paid on water bottles, to make sure you bring them back. I had never seen this system before, and it is pathetic that they have to be so strict. But it works, there is no rubbish lying around anywhere.

By all means, avoid weekends. Thais love their waterfalls and it will be very crowded.

Cave temples around Kanchanaburi

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.

A Trip to Kanchanaburi


For people who don’t have much time, a trip to Kanchanaburi is an ideal option. The province, which is the third largest in Thailand, is so diverse that there is plenty to see and do. The landscape has both mountains and plains. Natural beauty includes the waterfalls and national parks. There are also limestone caves, tranquil rivers, forests and reservoirs. You can go bamboo rafting, elephant riding, trekking into the forests and a lot more. The province is also historically important because of the infamous death railway.

You can visit Kanchanaburi as a day trip from Bangkok. You can even join day tours organized by the State Railway of Thailand. These are relatively inexpensive if your time is limited. But, I would suggest you go by yourself. The first time I went there, I went by train. Travel third class and you will have a great time with ordinary Thai people. However, the four or five times I have been back I have driven there myself. From Central Bangkok, it takes just over two hours.

I would suggest that you stay in Kanchanaburi at least two nights and three days. There is plenty of guesthouse accommodation down near the river which is quite inexpensive. Unless it is a holiday weekend, you don’t need to book in advance. We went during the last long weekend and had a little difficulty in finding a room. We ended up at a hotel. Most backpackers stay away from hotels as they think they are all expensive. However, sometimes hotels can work out better value for money if you are looking for a little more comfort.

What I am going to write about today is some of the tour options you have and places that are worth seeing.

Look out! There is a train coming!

Day One: Arrive in Kanchanaburi before noon. Find a guesthouse. We suggest either Jollyfrog Guesthouse or Apple Guesthouse. They both have onsite travel services and good restaurants. VN Guesthouse also has good reviews. If you are staying in a guesthouse on Khao San Road, just ask your fellow travellers going the opposite direction where they stayed. Consider renting a motorcycle for the day. It only costs a few hundred baht and you will be able to see more of the town in a short time.

Your first stop should, of course, be the bridge. Fight through the crowds of package tourists to step onto the bridge. Wow! This isn’t obviously the bridge in the movie. That one was wooden and was located about 50 metres downstream. It was destroyed by the Allies during a bombing raid at the end of the war. Notice the arches on this bridge are curved at the start and end of the bridge. The middle span is a different style. This is because the middle section was bombed by the Americans during the war and that part had to be replaced later.

After that little bit of nostalgia, you should now take time out to pay your respects to the prisoners of wars that died building the infamous Death Railway. The neatly attended cemetery is in the center of town and easy to find. On the western side of the cemetery, you will find the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. I had never been there before and I found the place to be both modern and informative in telling the story about the building of the railway. It only costs 60 baht for adults (doesn’t use two priced system). I would suggest you go there.


The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

If you are a bit of a war buff then there a couple of more museums in town you could visit. My old favourite is the JEATH War Museum. You can find this down by the river next to Wat Chanasongkhram. They have reconstructed the barracks of a prisoner of war camp. There are drawings and pictures you can look at. This was interesting when I first visited nearly ten years ago. But now it isn’t really comparable to the new one by the cemetery. There is also another museum next to the bridge, but again, this is only worth a visit for enthusiasts.

On the other side of the river, there is a quieter cemetery called Chungkai. I went there on a previous trip as I felt it was important to pay respects at all memorials in Kanchanaburi. The question is, where is the memorial for the thousands and thousands of Asian labourers that died? These far outnumbered the Allied prisoners of war deaths.

By this time you probably had enough. If you are staying at Apple Guesthouse then eat there. You can go to eat at their restaurant even if you are not guests. We did. The food is delicious. In town, you will find a number of travel services by the side of the road. There are plenty around so you can easily pick and choose. I suggest you book a tour now that you can go on the next day.

Day two: As this is your only full day, then I suggest you do a tour today. There are quite a few you can do, but one I did when I first came to Thailand included: elephant riding, bamboo rafting, swimming and walking at Erawan Waterfalls, and a scenic ride back on the Death Railway. The last time I did this it cost 500 baht. But, there is now a 200 baht entrance fee for foreigners at all national parks. This tour is now about 850–890 baht and lasts all day.

There are quite a few different tours you can join with different combinations. For example: Elephant ride, bamboo raft, hot springs, Hellfire Pass Memorial, Death Railway, all for only 490 baht. If you don’t want to do the elephant ride and bamboo raft then there is another tour which will give you longer at Erawan Falls for about 570 baht. Most tours will bring you back by about 6 p.m.

Wat ban tam

Walk through the dragon to some caves at Wat Ban Tam

Day three: This is now your last day. I suggest you rent a motorcycle for the day. Don’t forget to checkout by midday so you will need to split up your day. You have a number of destinations you could go in the morning. You can pick up a free map at the Tourist Authority of Thailand office on the main road. I would strongly suggest exploring the area around Wat Tham Sua. There are quite a few limestone cave temples that you could explore. Some you won’t find in your guidebook. However, the most popular is Wat Tham Sua. Climb to the top of the pagoda for some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. If you are up to it, consider visiting Wat Tham Mangkon Thong which is otherwise known as the Floating Nun Temple. As the name suggests, you watch a nun floating in a tub of water! Skip it if you don’t have much time.

Make sure you are back at your guesthouse to checkout. Have lunch here then head out towards Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno which is better known as the Tiger Temple. It costs you a 300 baht donation to see the tigers. But you not only have the opportunity to have your photo taken as many times as you like, but you also help contribute to building a better home for the tigers. Make sure you go there after 1.30 p.m. as this is the time the tigers are taken out of their cages for their afternoon walk.

An elephant and a monk at the floating nun temple

There are other places you could see. But, you have by now seen all of the major attractions. There are other national parks, like Sai Yok, you could visit. Also, there is Prasat Muang Singh which is a temple complex dating back to the 12th Century. You can even do longer treks where you can stay overnight in remote villages. Then there are the raft houses where you can spend your time going up and down the river. Endless possibilities. I am already planning my next trip which will probably be next year.

Like I said before, Kanchanaburi is a very big province and there is more to see than what the average tourist gets to visit. Later this week I will tell you about the major destination I visited during my recent trip there. Kanchanaburi city was only two hours from Bangkok. It took me more than six hours to reach my final destination at the far end of Kanchanaburi Province.

Hellfire Pass Memorial


Many of the people that take a side trip to Kanchanaburi are doing so because they have either seen or heard of the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”. On package tours they take you to see the bridge and the nearby cemetery. Here you can pay your respects to the fallen dead. If you have time you can visit a nearby war museum to learn more about the horrendous living conditions the prisoners of war had to suffer. You can even ride the infamous railway from Nam Tok back to the bridge. But all of that is not only very touristy,  it doesn’t really give you an insight into what really happened over 60 years ago.

About an hour’s drive north of Kanchanaburi, on Highway 323, you will reach Hellfire Pass Memorial. The fascinating museum here, which is about the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway,  was opened to the public in 1998. Of all of the museums I have been to already about the war, this one did a pretty good job in showing you what really transpired between 1942 and 1943. Surprisingly the museum is free though we were so impressed with their work that we gave a donation at the end. In the lobby, you can borrow an audio guide which will take you around the various exhibits and then outside to visit Konyu Cutting.


The museum alone is only half the story. What makes this place worth a visit is the walk down behind the museum to the now infamous “Hellfire Pass”. A word of warning, the track can be pretty strenuous at times so it is best to take good walking shoes and a bottle of water. Near the start we reached an intersection where we were given the choice of taking the hard route to the right or a quick descent to the pass on the left. Out of respect to the dead, we decided to take the hard way. Whatever hardship we experienced on this walk, we knew that it was nothing compared to what the POWs and Asian labourers had to endure. As we walked along, we listened to the stories of what happened on our audio headsets.

This is from a memorial plaque: “Hellfire Pass and the adjacent cuttings were excavated by POW labour working around the clock shifts over a desperate period of 12 weeks in 1943. The name Hellfire Pass relates to the awesome scene presented at night by the light from torches and lamps in the cutting. This work was done without the aid of reliable mechanical equipment. The most primitive of hand tools were used to drill holes for the explosives used in blasting the rock and for removing the waste rock.”


It is good that this place is out of town and less visited than the bridge and cemetery. The stillness of the air helps to try and catapult you back to what it was like for the soldiers. But we are unable to do this. It is beyond imagination what they had to endure. We stood to give a moment of silence in memory of not only the POWs that died but also the many Asian labourers. On ANZAC day every year, people come here before the break of dawn and walk down the pass carrying candles. They then lay a wreath at the memorial pictured above.

If you get a chance, then please make an effort to visit the Hellfire Pass Memorial.

Monks and Tigers in Kanchanaburi

A monk with the tiger

Another place on my “Relatively Unknown Thailand” list is the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi Province. Although this temple (real name Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno)  is barely mentioned in most guidebooks, it is fast becoming one of the major attractions of Kanchanaburi. The abbot, Phra Acharn Phusit, pictured above, has been caring for abandoned tigers ever since 1999. The mother of the first cub he took in had been killed by poachers.  By that time, Phra Acharn Phusit was already known locally as a Thai version of Dr. Doolittle for his caring of sick and and abandoned wildlife and pets. While most temple grounds have stray dogs, this temple has wandering buffalo, horses, wild goats and monkeys. The first tiger cub died from its injuries, but a few weeks later two more tiger cubs were rescued from poachers and brought to the temple. Word soon spread and more abandoned or injured tigers were brought to the temple. Today, the tigers outnumber the monks by about two to one.

I must admit I wasn’t too sure whether I would visit this temple or not during my holiday in Kanchanaburi. The idea of having my photo taken with a tiger doesn’t really excite me. You can do this at my local Crocodile Farm here in Samut Prakan. However, what caught my attention were the photographs in the press of monks taking tigers for a walk in a canyon. The temple first opened it doors in early 2004. They asked for a 100 baht donation to enter and a further small fee to have your photograph taken with the tigers. Just before I left for Kanchanaburi, I learned that the “donation” had been increased to 300 baht. I almost decided not to go. Partly because of this sudden increase in price (were the monks getting greedy?) and also because there had been some negative press reports of the temple becoming a tourist trap with more concern of making money than the welfare of the tigers. But, I felt, for the sake of readers of, I should investigate the real situation.

The temple is 38 kms north of Kanchanaburi city center. Take the 323 highway towards Sai Yok waterfall. Look out for the Bangchak petrol station on your left and the road next to it leading to Phasat Muang Singh. Drive a further 6 kms on highway 323 looking out for the billboard for this temple on the right. It is not too easy to spot if you are coming back from Sai Yok on your way to Kanchanaburi. Look our for a yellow sign that says “Tiger Temple”. From here take a dirt track about two kms to the temple car park. If you don’t have your own transport, then tour operators in town will take you there and back for 130 baht.

Arriving at the temple gates we found a small car park and a ticket office. A group of foreign tourists were busy signing pieces of paper which basically said that if you were half eaten by the tigers that you wouldn’t get upset and sue the temple. The ticket seller was keen to emphasize that no-one had ever been harmed by the tigers but they didn’t want to be held responsible as they were, after all, wild animals. We signed the form ourselves and paid, a little grudgingly, the 300 baht donation. My only consolation was that Thai people were paying the same price. We then passed through the front gate and started walking up a dirt track. It was actually a bit like Safari World where you drive through the park with wild animals on either side. But, here we were walking out in the open. We weren’t too sure what to expect or do so just decided to keep walking. We did glance around a few times wondering whether there would be any roaming tigers. I did read that the temple was now finding it hard to pay for the fresh meat for the tigers. Maybe this was there plan to have foreigners donate 300 baht and then to be eaten alive.

A bit further we reached a track which seemed to lead down to a canyon. Another smaller track led higher up to the left of the canyon. There weren’t really any helpful signs about where to go and as we spotted a monk and two lay people on top of the canyon we decided to follow them. But, as soon as we reached the top, the monk was no longer in sight and the path disappeared intoa thick bush. Obviously we had gone the wrong way. Not exactly lost, but no nearer to finding the tigers. Then we heard some shouts and laughter in the canyon below. We carefully moved to the edge and looked down. What we saw was a small trickling waterfall on the far left, a group of tigers in the middle and about a dozen foreign tourists standing behind a line on the far right. The tourists were being led by the hand to different tigers so that they could have their photograph taken. I couldn’t see any monks but just some guys dressed in blue shirts. It reminded me of the construction workers at building sites that are brought in for specific jobs. Our first impression was then, “What a rip-off. We could have done this at a zoo”.

We moved back from the edge before any of the blue-shirted guys spotted us. I was once nearly kicked out of  Disneyland and I had a feeling that I would be told off here too. I have this habit of going places where I shouldn’t be. (In fact, I did later get told off for trying to stand on a rock to get a better view to take a wide angle picture of the tourists and tigers.) Back down in the canyon we approached the group of tourists with some trepidation. Were they really going to charge us more to walk among the tigers? But, no, it wasn’t so. Our 300 baht donation now included as many opportunities as we liked to enter the tiger end of the canyon. What happened, is that you gave one of  the blue shirted guys (they had the words “Tiger Temple Thailand” on the back) your camera and another one would then lead you by the hand to a tiger. This was done in such a way that you were always behind the tiger. They told you where to sit and then, quite expertly, took pictures for you. They even took close-ups of the tigers so that you would get your money’s worth. This was then repeated with two or three different tigers.

It was then that I spotted the monk sitting off to one side. It was Phra Acharn Phusit. Obviously he was keeping an eye on his “children”. Every now and then he would get up and help arrange poses to make better pictures. At one stage, he lifted the head of one tiger to place it in the lap of one of the female tourists. He even posed a few times himself for the cameras. It was actually these kinds of pictures that I really wanted for myself. The image of a monk with a tiger. Seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum but here working together in harmony. I was disappointed that there was only one monk. Maybe the others were now bored of this daily routine of photo sessions for the tourists. At first I was a little annoyed with the blue shirted guys. It looked like that they were trying to commercialise everything by taking the “monk” factor out of the equation. If it wasn’t for the one lone monk and the setting of the canyon, this might as well have been in a zoo. At least in a zoo you would see many other animals and not just tigers. But, I later found out that these guys in blue shirts were volunteer workers.

In conclusion, I now have to say whether I think it is worth for you to visit. To be honest, I am little worried about the direction they are starting to take. What attracted my attention at the start was the idea of these monks taking tigers for walks in the temple grounds. It was unique. Asking for a 100 baht donation at the start was also fair. Then, at some stage, the novelty of having tourists coming to watch these afternoon walks started to wear off. Instead of monks walking the tigers down to the canyon, volunteers took over the task. The admission price, sorry I mean donation, was raised to 300 baht. What will happen next? Will the abbot only attend the photo sessions on some days? Will they start selling postcards, t-shirts and other tacky souvenirs? I hope not, as the place will lose its original charm.

Having said that, after talking to another monk later and reading their web site ( I started to come to the conclusion that their cause is worthy of a donation. These tigers are indeed endangered and if it wasn’t for the sanctuary of the temple they would most likely now be dead. I also could see that it is costly for them to feed these tigers and other animals that roamed the temple grounds. After I left the canyon, I walked up towards the temple where I saw the cages where the tigers lived for the rest of the day and night. Not exactly ideal locations. This is exactly why the admission price was increased to 300 baht. The abbot has a dream of building an artificial island where the tigers could wander freely. I could see that the man has a good heart and I now felt better about my donation.

My only hope is that they don’t commercialize everything too much, that they will let more monks take the tigers for the afternoon walk down to the canyon and that, most importantly, the guys in the blue shirts would have the word “volunteer” printed on the back of their shirts. Yes, I am now suggesting for you to go and visit the tiger temple. Pay your donation happily and have your photo taken with a tiger. At least these tigers have a chance of a better future than the ones in a zoo.

UPDATE: We are now told that the entrance fee is 500 baht which includes basic photos of the tigers. If you want a special photo sitting with the tigers you now have to pay an extra 1,000 baht! Some visitors are also reporting they no longer see the monks with the tigers. (4th November 2008)