Love visiting Thailand but find that the thrills of Bangkok wear off after a few days? It's time to get out of town and discover fascinating culture, history, scenery and cuisine in the provinces. Curious? Rhonda Bannisters uncovers where to live it up like the locals…
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Our three-day journey in-country encompasses a two-hour road trip west to Kanchanaburi, returning via the estuarine province of Samut Songkhram — an experience which offers us a window into local life and a lifetime of indelible memories.
As the sun drops toward the horizon and the pink hue of twilight washes the sky from blue to purple, we clamber aboard a small timber boat for the trip up the Mae Klong River to the nearby town of Amphawa (90 minutes southwest of Bangkok). It's best known for its floating markets, which date back centuries and attract hordes of visitors from Bangkok every weekend, but tonight it's quiet and peaceful. We spy only locals walking along the timber pathways or else shutting up shop, ready to go home – more for us to enjoy!
The birthplace of King Rama II, Amphawa has been here since the early 17th century and is a tantalising picture of multiple canals, all connected by wooden pedestrian bridges. As we putter along, captivated by the charming traditional architecture, we start planning a return trip so we can enjoy the spectacle of the markets and the ambience of this enchanting heritage town. With shophouses selling local arts and crafts, and a collection of good restaurants, this vibrant spot seems made for a fabulous short break.
We motor to the opposite bank to watch a shimmering light show as night falls. Put on by the local fireflies hanging out in the trees, it’s essentially a flashy dance of sexual innuendo – an insect’s Tinder if you will. When a female likes a male’s flash, she responds with a brighter glow; he returns with a brighter one as does she until they finally get together. They can’t swipe right or left so they use their glittery dance to communicate and, well, mate. How very romantic, indeed.
The next day, we travel deeper into unspoiled Thailand. The Mae Klong River starts its journey to the Gulf of Thailand from the confluence of the Khwae Noi and the Khwae Yai Rivers in the town of Kanchanaburi — the gateway to Thailand’s Wild West. This is an area of untamed wilderness, jungle-clad mountains and full-flowing rivers, and it's an ideal base from which to explore the many surrounding attractions. The area has a dark past, though, famously explored in Pierre Boulle’s Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï (1952) which was adapted into the 1957 David Lean epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
During WWII, Japanese forces used Allied prisoners of war to build a rail line from Thailand to Burma, cutting through dense jungle and along steep river cliffs. Some 16,000 POWs died in unspeakable cruelty while being forced to create a 400-kilometre railway track. The back-breaking work began in Kanchanaburi, so on arrival we do what all visitors come to do. We pay our respects at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, where the remains of nearly 7,000 British, Dutch and Australian soldiers lie in eternal rest, before walking across the infamous steel bridge.
We then catch the train which runs from Bangkok three times a day and continues along the Death Railway, squeezing through tight rock cuttings before reaching the Wampo Viaduct. It's a heart-stopping experience, especially when combined with a visit to Hellfire Pass which we do the next morning (it’s hard to do it all in one day). But it’s a journey I think all Australian visitors to Thailand should take in order to understand the great privileges we enjoy, thanks to the sacrifices of these brave young men.
Kanchanaburi (two hours northwest of Bangkok) is an area worthy of a longer stay as there’s so much to see and do, plus plenty of accommodation — from backpacker to 'flashpacker'. If the ebb and flow of a river appeals, look out for one of the floating hotels strung along the bank. Water-based activities here include bamboo rafting, fishing, kayaking and canoeing plus a water-adventure park on the river for the young and young-at-heart. Adventurers and animal-lovers will adore the scenic hiking trails, lush native forest and resident wildlife (including langur monkeys) of Erawan National Park. You could spend an entire day here trekking through the jungle and swimming under Erawan Falls. A seven-tier waterfall with a natural swimming pond at each level, it's a truly spectacular sight to see.
If you’ve ever wanted to get up close with an elephant, you can (ethically) live the dream at Elephants World. This sanctuary for elderly elephants, whose years of labour and abuse are now behind them, is a welcome alternative to other animal ‘encounters’. We enjoy a fabulous afternoon cutting banana grass for their dinner before ‘helping’ these majestic and playful creatures bathe in the river. Although they really don’t need assistance, the elephants graciously indulge us as we brush off mud and splash them with water. Three words – do not miss.
Just an hour’s drive from town is a unique experience of a cultural kind at Mallika Village. This modern ‘living’ heritage museum was built to showcase traditional life in old-time Siam. It’s a fun couple of hours dressing in vintage clothes, visiting a farm and walking through traditional timber houses, and shopping for bespoke local gifts in the town area.
We finish our trip in an area rarely visited by foreign tourists but not far from Amphawa; the small farming neighbourhood of Baan Bangplub. Here, a network of canals supports verdant fruit orchards and coconut groves, and a tight-knit community of villagers make a living selling sweets produced from banana syrup and coconut sugar.
For a memorable taste of local life, you can ride a bicycle around the canals, visiting local families in their traditional timber houses and immersing in their everyday life. As a genuine travel experience, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Where to stay
In Kanchanaburi, couples will love staying right on the water at one of the many floating guesthouses. For a more upmarket experience, try a pool villa or jacuzzi suite at the boutique Mida Resort on the Kwai Yai River. We enjoyed one of the most romantic meals of our trip here, sitting on the bank of the full-flowing river, the twinkling lights of the lanterns strung from tree to tree providing the perfect stage for the soothing sounds of running water.
In Samut Songkhram, the Baan Amphawa Resort & Spa is a riverside resort built in the traditional style. Beginning your travels in the capital? Take a refreshing dip and toast the sunset at Bangkok's riverside Avani Hotel.
Plan your beyond-Bangkok itinerary with the help of a great tour company. We used Absolutely Fantastic Holidays and can recommend highly.
Best time to travel: We travelled in August, a time known as ‘The Green Season’ due to the significant rainfall. Don't be put off, though – it only rained in the evening and daytime temperatures were pleasant. In general, the best time to visit is in the cooler months; November to February.
Getting there: Thai Airways, winner of World’s Best Economy Class at the 2018 Skytrax World Airline Awards, flies to Bangkok from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth with connections throughout Thailand.
Thinking of exploring Thailand? Find plenty of romantic accommodation here...
Image credits: Fotolia, Lei Xu, Nathapon Triratanachat, Teerapon Sooksombat, Dreamstime, Tourism Authority of Thailand, Chris Bird, Flickr