Kanchanaburi Thailand is home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen and a couple of other entirely unspectacular sights, like the bridge over the river Kwai and the very appropriately named Death Railway; appropriate not because it’s dangerous, but because it moves so slowly that anyone who boards past the age of fifty will die of natural causes by the time it arrives.
Of course it’s the bridge that lures the most people, probably because of the movie. I guess if they ever made a movie about the Erawan Falls they would be filled with even more people than they already are and join the other two sites on the long, long list of overrated attractions.
Most people seem to arrive in Kanchanaburi as part of a tour group, but if you come by public bus you will arrive at the bus station a kilometer or two from the main accommodation strip. From there you can try to bargain for a reasonable price with one of the tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers; it’ll be difficult, but if you succeed you’ll stand a good chance of being nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Alternatively, you can get in the back of one of the many jeep taxis that ferry people up and down the main street for a couple of cents, but you’ll have to wait in the heat until the driver feels his jeep is full enough to make it worth the effort to do his job, which usually means having two Thai adults and a kid on your lap and another kid or two on your shoulders.
Or you can just walk. That took me about twenty minutes. I know I wrote it’s about a kilometer or two, but I don’t really know exactly how far it is in western distances—measured in Thai distance, it’s 32 offers of “Tuk-tuk? Need tuk-tuk?” turned down. Once there, I chose one of the many riverfront rooms. They all seemed pretty much the same to me, so I just picked one of the cheaper ones where I liked the owners (The Sugarcane One—there’s a Sugarcane 2 down the road, which I heard was nicer, but I never checked it out).
I spent three days in Kanchanaburi, but only actually did something on one of them. Mainly, I went to the Erawan waterfall, since it was the reason I even bothered to make the trip from Bangkok. Most people will take a tour (not a bad idea, since it makes things simple) and some will take public transport (cheap, but slow and inconvenient), but I wanted to beat the crowds, so I rented a motorbike for the day (200 Bhat + 70 for gas) and set out early in the morning. Anyone who who doesn’t want photos full of Russians and Chinese should do the same. Alternatively, you can spend a night in one of the guesthouses near the falls.
The waterfall has seven tiers; the first few are pretty easy to get to, but the upper tiers require a bit more of a hike. You can swim in most of them and if you arrive early, you can basically choose the type of pool you’d like to hang out in and have it almost to yourself—deep pool, shallow pool, large waterfall, small waterfall and even one with a natural rock slide.
Later in the day, you don’t so much choose the type of pool as you choose the type of tourist you’d like to see bobbing up and down in the water by the hundreds—larger tourists and in larger numbers in the lower, easy to reach tiers and fitter and fewer tourists farther up. That’s the main reason I ended up leaving shortly after noon and checking out the other two sites.
I suppose I should mention one more thing about the waterfall. I’m reluctant to say anything, because I’m not sure I want to ruin the surprise (too late for that, I suppose, thanks to my slightly exaggerated headline), but the water is filled with flesh-eating fish; not the Hollywood-movie-piranha kind, but the recent-beauty-trend-dead-skin-cell-eating kind. People pay a lot of money for these fish spas in Bangkok (and all over the world, really) where they dangle their legs in a pool full of fish that nibble away at their dead skin, but after spending some time in the waters at Erawan, I fail to see the appeal.
The sensation is entirely unpleasant and I quickly decided to make a conscious effort to never stop moving when in the water. As soon as any part of your body is still for more than a second, the fish attack. I have no idea how to describe the feeling, other than to call it creepy. Of course you also have the occasional fish that has managed to grow to mutant proportions and what they do to you cannot be called creepy. Painful would be a better word, as they will rip off a small chunk of flesh. That only happened to me once while there, though, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Have fun!
After the waterfall, I took the little train everyone takes and stood in the open doorway to get some good pictures of the river from above. Then I went back to town and checked out the infamous bridge. If it seems like I’m glossing over the two top sights of Kanchanaburi, I am, because let’s face it—it’s a train and a bridge.
Of course, you might as well see both of them if you’re already in town, but don’t go there just for that reason. Go to Kanchanaburi for the laid back atmosphere of the town’s waterfront lodges and, of course, for the spectacular Erawan waterfall. And, I suppose, the natural fish spa, if you enjoy being eaten alive.