From the Archives: The temples and waterfalls of Kanchanaburi

Thailand Trekker is not dead! I owe my two-month posting hiatus to some laziness, but also to a one-month break between semesters that involved trips to Hawaii and Vietnam, and a big move to a new school in a new town. Posts on those trips and my new life in Northern Thailand will come eventually, but in the meantime, here’s a post on a trip I took way back in August that’s been sitting in my drafts folder for way too long.

As much as I love traveling, there are times when my inner homebody kicks in and begs me not to sit on another bus or make small talk with another traveler. There are some days when all I want to do is sit in my air-conditioned room and read a book, or go down a YouTube black hole of Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake videos while trying out too many flavors of Thai potato chips– for experimental purposes only.

I was so travel-tired after a whirlwind weekend trip to Ko Lanta to visit a friend, that I didn’t even really want to go on a trip to Kanchanburi the next weekend. But I decided to suck it up and go anyway. I’m so glad I did because this trip completely reignited my wanderlust.

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View from the Guesthouse

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The view at night

I made my first trip to Kanchanaburi during my foreign teacher orientation. I loved it. The mountains, the river, and the lush green landscape were exactly what I had imagined Thailand would look like. We didn’t have time to see the famous Erawan waterfalls, so some teachers friends decided to head back on a three-day weekend thanks to the Queen’s Birthday/Mother’s Day holiday.

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After a three-hour van ride that made me want to write a love letter to whoever invited dramamine, we arrived in the town of Kanchanaburi and took a songtheaw to VN Guesthouse and Restaurant– an adorable riverfront pocket of bungalows. The restaurant’s river and mountain views, comfy lounge pillows, and delicious food made it the perfect spot to eat and hang out. After a few hours of sipping smoothies and eating some of the best cashew chicken I’ve tasted, we decided to explore some temples along the river and call it an early night.

The next morning we hired a songthaew to drive us about an hour outside the main town to Erawan National Park. It was a holiday weekend, so the park was packed with tourists.

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The falls are split up into seven levels, which are divided by paths of various lengths and difficulty levels. Based on what I’d read (anyone can do it!) (you can wear sandals!), I wasn’t expecting the “hold on to that tree branch for dear life,” “return of the evil stairmaster,” adventure that followed. The first few treks between the falls were pretty easy, but then it got a little more difficult.

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As the difficulty level increased, so did the beauty of the falls. Each level looked like one of those cheesy, backlit posters you see hanging in a dentist office waiting room– almost too incredible to be real. And despite rubbing elbows with tons of other tourists taking photos, the falls were still peaceful and beautiful.

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What makes the Erawan Falls experience different is that hikers can swim in each level, using the falls as a natural water slide. So after we reached the top tier, I immediately stripped down to my swimsuit and cooled off in the water. Despite the the flesh-eating fish (I’m not kidding!), it felt great to slide around in the water.

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On the hike down, we saw a part of the falls completely devoid of tourists. With a little bit of climbing and muddy maneuvering, we climbed down into the water and had the tier completely to ourselves.

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DOUBLE RAINBOW (at the Guesthouse)

After collapsing in our bungalow and witnessing a double rainbow, we managed to find a great restaurant in town with incredible pumpkin curry. We wandered along the main backpacker strip, which had the usual top 40 music blaring, but we stopped when we heard something different—live reggae music. So naturally, we spent the rest of the night listening to a group of dreadlock and tie-dye (Thai dye?) clad Thai guys play Bob Marley covers.

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We still had one day left in Kanchanaburi. The trip didn’t peak at the waterfalls, or when I saw a Thai guy with a Tim McGraw shirt playing the bongos. The highlight of the trip was a few temples that I almost didn’t bother to see.

I was under the false impression that “you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all.” So after waking up sore and exhausted from the previous day’s hike, I was a little hesitant to hire a songtheaw to take us to three temples in the area listed in the Lonely Planet guide.

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After a 15-minute drive to the outskirts of town and along the river, we arrived at the first temple. Wat Ban Tham is perched on the side of the mountain and looks like a giant dragon. This probably sounds like more of a tacky Chucky Cheese spectacle than a spiritual center, so here’s a picture to prove that it’s actually pretty cool.

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Blurry Buddha in a cave

We hauled our seven tiers of waterfall fury bodies up the stairs and through the mouth and body of the dragon until we found ourselves in a cave with a giant Buddha figure in the center. Thick streams of light flooded into a corner of the cave through a narrow opening, casting an eerie, incredible glow over the statue. We saw a sign to walk up a flight of narrow spiral stairs and found ourselves outside with, once again, more stairs to climb. The incredible mountain views were worth it.

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Magical floating temple

Another gorgeous ride along the river and mountains led us to Wat Tham Sua. I would have turned around after seeing (yes, more) stairs, but it looked too beautiful to miss.

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I felt like the temple was hovering on a cloud, overlooking flooded rice fields and distant mountains. The temple complex was massive. It featured a giant golden Buddha statue and a large building with a seemingly never-ending winding staircase. Each flight of stairs took me to a circular chamber with Buddha statues perched in front of windows with incredible mountain views. The top floor of the spiral staircase featured a sacred artifact that Buddhists travel far to see.

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Maybe it was the endorphins from walking up what felt like the Empire State Building. Maybe it was the fact that I was the only non-worshipper in the room. But standing in that crowded circular chamber gave me goose bumps.

Our songthaew arrived at a Chinese Temple next door with (surprise!) more stairs. At this point, I climbed a few stairs, poked around, and waved my white flag. I sat in the songthaew with another redactor and ate some defeat ice cream.

We then took a terrible bus back to Bangkok, to the most inconvenient bus station known to man, where I almost attempted a pee in a water bottle maneuver because the bus didn’t have a bathroom…but I’m not really going to go into that. I just wanted my readers to know that it’s not all glorious waterfalls and bizarre bands and stunning views. There’s always a climb, or other unfortunate means transportation, to get to that totally “worth it” place.

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