After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Kanchanaburi, Sangkhlaburi & Bangkok, Thailand (3rd - 14th July)

Canoeing on the reservoir in Sangkhlaburi.
From Kho Tao we caught the boat back to the mainland at Chumphon, arriving in the pouring rain.  We secured our rail tickets for the onward journey up to Kanchanaburi, and grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant.  The government election was this weekend and as such alcohol was banned (apparently to ensure the drunks whose votes they had bought actually turned up to vote!) – so we were kindly offered it in quaint little teacups.  I'm sure this facade wouldn't have fooled any police officer who happened to be driving past, but that's just the way things are done in Thailand!  Finally the train was due and we hopped aboard for the night train up north, unfortunately the air conditioning was so ramped up that we spent the night shivering in our jumpers.  The train was delayed and we both had top bunks with no windows, so when Liam got up at our original arrival to find out when we were due to arrive, all the doors were locked and there were no windows to look out of!  Everybody else in the carriage was carrying on to Bangkok, and for a while we thought maybe we were going to be forced to too. Fortunately the train was quite a few hours delayed so we changed trains in Nakhon Pathom as planned.

We had a couple of hours to kill so we had a little wandered, and it happened to be a religious holiday so there were monks being ordained at the huge Wat in the centre of town, and we enjoyed some tasty grilled meats from the numerous street stalls.  We also watched a hilarious Chinese guy do his morning exercises – imagine cut off office trousers as exercise shorts plus press ups on the kerb and lifting a car park barrier as weights and you'll get the picture!

Kanchanaburi is a riverside town set in beautiful countryside, which actually has much more to offer than just the little tourist part of town, as we discovered one day when we stayed on the bus for too long!  The actual city has a fantastic night market and a lively atmosphere, but lots of grey architecture and not much else to distinguish it from other Thai cities.  We stayed in a quieter part of town across the river, at a guesthouse with some lovely, albeit bonkers, staff.  Whilst we were there we hired bikes and had a great day cycling around the rice fields and gazing at the mountains.  A sudden ferocious downpour forced us to duck into a rural shop for a while where we watched guys playing a game which involved playing pool and cards at the same time, very confusing.  Another day we hired kayaks and were driven upriver to paddle back down to our guesthouse – around 3 hours in the blazing sunshine.  It was incredibly peaceful and we often felt like (and probably were) the only people for miles around!

One of the main points of interest in Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai.  The railway runs between Thailand and Burma, and about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 prisoners of war worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died.  We took the train along the Death Railway and were pleased that it felt like a local service rather than just a tourist attraction aimed at Westerners.  There were fantastic views from the train over lush hillsides and valleys, and some pretty spectacular feats of engineering virtually in the side of cliff faces.  We also visited the Hellfire Pass museum, a stretch of the old railway which was a hugely laborious engineering feat, requiring the workers to blast through huge sections of rock, and where many labourers and POW's lost their lives.  The museum here is very informative, tasteful and thought through, and focuses on the many locals who died as well as the POWs.  Unfortunately we didn't have chance to do the memorial walk as the last bus back was drawing near (the train was massively delayed, a bit of theme in Thailand), so we decided to return another day.  Back in the city there is also the Kanchanaburi War Cemetary and the Death Railway Museum, both well worth a look at, the cemetery being especially moving due to the sheer amount of uniform POW graves.

We were persuaded by the guesthouse to join a guided tour for a few days, not something we have done very often, but it seemed more than worth it and would take us to some places we wouldn’t be able to get to on our own.  Joining Lizzie and Dan from the UK and Erin and Alex from the US we headed out to Erawan Waterfall, a truly awesome seven tier warterfall.  After hiking to the top to decide which levels looked the most fun, we relaxed in the pool at level 5 before heading down to level 4 which had a brilliant natural waterslide – lots of fun!  After some lunch we headed to Daowadung Caves in Sai Yok National Park, some pretty cool caves absolutely teeming with bats.  Our accommodation for the night turned out to be the swishest of the trip so far, with beautiful balcony views of the surrounding countryside.  We cycled through some nearby plantations and ate far too many rambutans, before returning to the guesthouse for dinner and some rather excruciating karaoke.  Liam and Dan performed a pitch-perfect rendition of Band on the Run by Wings, which was of course the highlight of the evening(!).  The second day of the tour included elephant trekking, which we weren't entirely sure about, having done it before and not being very comfortable with it.  However, not ones to cause a fuss, we reckoned the elephants looked well looked after and so hopped aboard for a lumber around the park and then down to the river where the elephants squirted each other, and us, and the camera (!) with water.  We thanked our elephant with a basket of bananas, which was by far the most satisfying part of the journey.  Although of course we had to pay for the bananas but at least they were being well fed.  It is quite amazing how dextrous elephants are with their trunks, although not quite enough to peel the bananas (they scoffed them whole)!  We then floated down-river on a bamboo raft and caught up with our mini-bus.  Next stop was the Hellfire Pass museum again, so we skipped the museum and headed straight for the memorial walk, a very interesting walk in terms of being able to see the old railway and a pretty challenging walk to do in the short time frame that we had!  We then said goodbye to our tour mates and were left by the side of the road to catch a different bus onto Sanklaburi. The journey was slow going up steep mountain roads, and quite a few times the bus was stopped by police to check passports and ID cards. This is because many Burmese refugees live in the region, although the Thai government restricts their movement.

We arrived after nightfall in Sangkhlaburi, and whizzed down to our waterfront guesthouse on the back of motorcycle taxis.  The government flooded the area a few years ago to create a reservoir, forcing the locals to retreat up the hillsides.  To gain access across the water, the largest man-made wooden bridge in the world was built. There was a cafĂ© at one end that did a mean noodle soup so we sat and watched the bridge being maintained by guys in wooden safety helmets, clambering down the slats without a harness, and wearing Thai-style safety boots (flip-flops).  We enjoyed eating Burmese food (a highlight being nut and seed salad with fermented tea leaves, nicer than it sounds!), visiting the Mon village across the water, and visiting the local wats.  There are a lot of NGOs based there helping ethnic minority Burmese who have had to flea Burma, but aren’t allowed to travel freely within Thailand.  The upshot of this was there were a few cute cafes selling wholesome bakery treats to Western volunteers and tourists like ourselves, but the place wasn’t touristy like a lot of Thailand as to spoil it. We also hired an old-style American Indian canoe (strange but true) from our guesthouse and paddled around the reservoir and up to the 'sunken temple', which is sometimes completely submerged but as the water level wasn’t very high we were able to walk through it.  A short trip on a songthaew from Sangklaburi took us to Three Pagodas Pass, a border with Burma currently closed to foreigners (though it was pretty much unguarded and looked as if you could just wander through. Needless to say, we didn't give it a go).  We wandered around the local market and marvelled at how the landscape looked genuinely different as you stood on the border facing Thailand, and then turned around to face Burma (lots more forest on the Burmese side).

Our 2 month Thai visa was on the verge of expiring and, with our flights finally booked to Australia, we intended to hot-foot it to Cambodia for our final big ticket travel destination, Angkor Wat.

First we spent another night back in Kanchanaburi and were reunited with our backpacks at what was probably our favourite accommodation of the trip, Apples Retreat. Clean, cheap, cute rooms and an awesome restaurant by the riverside. We can’t overstate how good the food was, and Apple and Choi were great hosts and cooks. Completely crackers, as most Thais seem to be, but in the best possible way!

We took a bus to Bangkok (decided to forget taking the randomly timed and always delayed train!) where we stayed the night, although we arrived late in the afternoon so didn't see any sights (although we have been before). We had a funny exchange with a tuk-tuk driver who was driving to charge us to drive us round the corner to the taxi rank when we just wanted to know where the bus went from! Despite some bare-faced lies we smiled and insisted that we know there is a bus, we just want to know where it goes from. Begrudgingly they pointed us a hundred yards around the corner where the bus driver and locals alike seemed shocked to see a tourist getting on the bus!

We spent the night a little guesthouse run by a local family, and had a quiet night as we were getting on the train at 5am. We were worried the train would be packed as it was a religious holiday the next day and the train would be free for locals, but thankfully we managed to get a seat and we were on our way to the Thai-Cambodian border at Aranyaprathet. 
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
National Parks near Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

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