The train to Kanchanaburi only had 3rd class cars and this translated into wooden benches for extra comfort! Lisa somehow managed to have a snooze regardless. We chugged through mile after mile of rice paddies filled with Thai’s working them. For entertainment, I sat watching a girl almost dropping her camera out the window and then proceeded to have an argument with her boyfriend.
Kanchanaburi’s train station is fairly close to the hub of streets housing popular backpackers and guesthouses. We fought off the now-familiar onslaught of touts and took a walk there. Unbeknownst to us our first choice accommodation, Sam’s House (which was quite far away) was closed for renovations. Luckily we managed to stumble across Sam himself who took us to one of his other establishments – Sam’s River Raft House. He gladly arranged a little green scooter for the next couple of days to get around on from his ‘cousin’. That night we explored the brilliant night market close to the station and were gently rocked to sleep in our “raft room” on the river Kwai.
Early the following morning we saddled up our green scooter and headed for the mountains. First stop was Erawan National Park. It’s around 70km’s from Kanchanaburi and the green scoot was pushed to its limits with both of us on it! The vibrations at certain speeds numbed our feet and my hands started to lose all feeling. Little did we know that as far as physical exertion is concerned this would only be the beginning for the day.
Erawan waterfall is a very popular spot for locals and tourist alike. The seven-tier fall hold some or other mystical and religious significance and its huge pools make for a relaxing getaway. The humidity is very high amongst the dense tropical forest surrounding the cascading water. The mist of the falls and the heat made the pathway slippery and very difficult to traverse.
Rapidly our leisurely stroll became a serious hike! The top tier seemed very far away all of a sudden! Some places it was a case of five steps up and three steps down! The awesome scenery (almost) made it worth the effort. We passed all sorts of people in different stages of fatigue en-route. Getting to the top tier was all that mattered at the time!
A large pool with welcoming cool water finally greeted us two hours later and we immediately shed our clothes for a dip. I promptly slipped on the green rocks and made a spectacular belly flop to the delight of a small group of Germans nearby. The cool relief of the water was short lasted after we discovered small fish kept nibbling at us. We made a hasty retreat for the safety of the rocks and spent some time watching others mimic my disastrous water entry. It made for good entertainment and the thought of the long route down through the trees in the sweltering heat made us linger for as long as we possibly could.
We found the lower pools filled up with Thai children splashing around and after a quick bite, we mounted our green steed again and made our way to the next stop – Tiger Temple.
Apparently, in 1999 the temple received their first tiger cub which was found by villagers but died soon after. Several tiger cubs were given to the temple over time, seemingly when the mothers had been killed by poachers or came from people who wanted to get rid of their "pets". There was some pressure to do so as laws and policies surrounding the keeping of this protected species became stricter. Since 2007, over 20 cubs were born at the temple and thus the total number of tigers now much higher.
Huge controversy surrounds this place and conservation organizations claim that the tigers at the temple are not rescued wild tigers, but are obtained by illegally trading with black market tiger farms. The argument is that over time the purpose of helping tigers have evolved into a money-making scheme. As can be expected, there is huge criticism for the resulting interbreeding of different subspecies of tigers in such an uncontrolled environment, which violates basic conservation principles. Alleged abuse of tigers at the temple has been reported by some visitors and according to locals the temple's stated goal of building a new sanctuary for the tigers has been repeatedly postponed. The claim is that once the tigers are moved to a more natural environment it would be more difficult to charge for photo opportunities with them.
An investigation by Care for the Wild International revealed evidence of illegal tiger trade, animal cruelty, false conservation claims and visitor safety risks based on information collected between 2005 and 2008.
Because of these issues, we were extremely hesitant to support such a controversial attraction. However, we decided that we might as well go there and make up our own minds. In retrospect, the experience was exactly as expected and we feel that we shouldn’t have done it at all. The only highlight was the opportunity to play with some of the small tiger cubs.
Our green scooter made it back to Kanchanaburi and the rest of the afternoon was spent hanging around the Kwai River Bridge watching people going about their business. The walk across the bridge proved a rather daunting task for Lisa as for the most of it, the walkway just consists of a narrow ledge. That evening the Night market yet again provided food and some entertainment.
Our third day in Kanchanaburi was celebrated by sleeping late for the first time in weeks! We managed to find a nice spot for breakfast and from there got back on the green scooter and explored the immediate surrounds of Kanchanaburi. Close by was a temple famed for the “Floating Nun” that lives/appears there. Sadly we never got to see her nor witness her gravity-defying stunts. An old lady insisted that we inspect the old caves in the mountain and ushered us along enthusiastically. Close by the temple we found a small monkey sanctuary which showcases some of their more talented inmates to raise funds. All of the monkeys at the school have been rescued from illegal trading and abused situations and some of them are being trained to harvest coconuts. We spent a good few hours there chatting with the staff and playing with the monkeys.
Late afternoon we got collected for our evening excursion to a Karen village where there was an elephant camp. Elephants have always been an important part of Thai culture and the Thai way of life. They traditionally symbolize royal power and is an essential feature of Buddhist art and architecture. In the early part of the century, elephants roamed freely and in multitude throughout Thailand and prior to the 18th century, they were the main machine used in Southeast Asian warfare - a Thai king of the late 17th century is said to have had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle. Elephants in Thailand have always been a symbol of both power and peace and they have always been well-loved.
We met with the mahouts and at sunset, we went into the river and spent some time ‘washing’ the elephants. It was great fun and a real privilege. The evening was concluded with a magnificent traditional supper next to the river.