June in Thailand: The Tiger Temple

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The real reason why I wanted to go to Kanchanaburi was to visit the Tiger Temple. I know it’s vaguely gratuitous to see wild tigers in captivity, but getting close to these beautiful kings of the jungle was an irresistible premise. Before they let you into the area, you’ll have to sign off the back of your ticket. Doesn’t help that it’s all in Thai. I’m assuming that the sign below in English was what it said, rather than something like were I to die from a tiger mauling, the temple would get all my worldly belongings.

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No matter, the Tiger Canyon beckoned.

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It was a bit of a walk inside and I was glad to have met Tom, who was on the same tour. His enthusiasm and anticipation rubbed off mine and we got well excited just getting down the path.

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Only to come to a long queue in front of the tigers. They were all chained and the yellow-shirted volunteers thronged them, making sure that both tigers and tourists alike behaved themselves. Here you could choose between simply having a picture taken with a tiger for a small fee or paying an exorbitant 1000 baht (approx S$40) to have a picture with the tiger’s head on your lap. Being on a tight budget, we both agreed that we’d go for the regular picture, at the same time looking longingly at those who were happy-snapping away at tiger on lap.

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Needless to say, these were majestic creatures and we were surprised by how placid they were. Tom struck up a conversation with an Australian volunteer and he explained to us that the tigers had gotten used to the monks and the volunteers. As long as no red was flashed before them and the weather remained hot, they were generally non-aggressive.

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Despite knowing all this, something inside me was ready to run should the worst happen. They’d get someone else who ran slower, not me.

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Soon after, the unbearable humidity finally turned into torrential rain and the tourists started scattering. We were upset that having queued so long we still hadn’t our turn, but the volunteers insisted that photo-taking was over and that it was time for the tigers to retire for the night. The same volunteer told us that as the weather got cooler with the rain, the tigers would start getting restless and that was when any kind of aggravation would be dangerous.

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True enough, we noticed them starting to get up and pace and gradually getting more agitated. Reluctantly, Tom and I started up the slope. We were debating what to do as we’d come this far but hadn’t a picture taken yet, quintessential tourists we were. Tom spoke glumly about having to come back up the next day on another tour. We decided to hang around for a while and take shelter from the pelting rain before deciding what to do.

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The rain cleared and the Australian volunteer came by again. He told us that we could hang around and wait till some other tigers came out for a walk and we could get our pictures then. Soon the scattered remnants of wet and rather bedraggled tourists formed a queue behind the monks and volunteers. We gave our cameras to the volunteers and were given strict instructions to keep walking and to stay behind the tiger’s head. Before I knew it, I was holding the tiger’s leash, wondering what on earth I was doing as I’d obviously be dragged along the muddy ground if the fella decided to break into a run. Too soon, I had to give up the leash to Tom behind me.

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Thank God for second chances. This time I was relaxed enough to get close and pet the scratchy coarse pelt and force a grin for the camera.

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Tom and I returned to Kanchanaburi damp and smelly yet jubilant over our tiger experience!

June in Thailand: Erawan Falls

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Another stop on my day tour was the Erawan Falls,  a lovely series of seven waterfalls in a nature reserve.

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The first waterfall had a wide plunge area and was so beautiful that there was a photo shoot there. If you look carefully, you’ll see some reflectors and an unnaturally bright area above the waterfall.

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This was where Jess and David, two friends I met on the tour, had a great idea of taking pictures with the number of each waterfall. So here’s me and number one.

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Number two I felt was far prettier because we could get much closer to the waterfall and also because the cascades were far wider and more “trickly”.

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There were also fish that we were warned nibble at people, so not to swim there. We weren’t that hot yet anyway.

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Nonetheless, we appreciated the signs to be careful while swimming lest we got cramps. That was super kind of them.

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We also liked the friendly Fun With English reminder to beware of a monkey stealing a belonging.

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Next up, number three was a slimmer version of number two and no less pretty.

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We slogged up further to number four, which was then deserted. It was a small waterfall flowing over a smooth rock into a deep plunge pool. We didn’t think much of it and pressed on…

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… past shamanistic sites where locals appeased the spirits of nature by wrapping them with cloth and offering up clothes to them.

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Then waterfall number five, consisting of many shallow pools. We had to clamber over them, getting our shoes wet, to get to the next level of the falls.

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Number six was a bit of a dud as it was hidden behind some fairly thick undergrowth. It was quite hard to get a good shot, but Jess and David were excellent company and that kept the spirits up despite the growing heat of the day.

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Even duds have their own beauty. Number six showed how pristine it could be up here, it was almost as if too many people gave up and headed back after the first five falls. I like how there was this feeling of stumbling across number six for the first time, it was so hidden behind the trees.

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Finally we made it to number seven together, as evidenced by Jess and David below.

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This topmost waterfall had lovely pools to swim in…

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… so after discovering the end of the trail and not being adventurous enough to go off-trail hiking…

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… we contented ourselves in a lovely dip in one of these pools. It was a great way to cool off after the hot and sweaty hike up.

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On our way down, there were lots of people at number four.

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As it turned out, the smooth rock and deep plunge pool were perfect for sliding down. I did it three ways: solo sitting up, solo face down and with a group.

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It was loads of fun splashing about!

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We just had to be careful of wardrobe malfunctions, which thankfully I didn’t have.

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And down we went, back to revisit number one again.

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What a lovely trek!

June in Thailand: The Death Railway

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One of the main things to see in Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway. I took a day tour out that included the Death Railway and the Erawan Falls. Oddly enough, the first stop before seeing the Death Railway was a little pit stop in the middle of nowhere for tourists to feed wild monkeys. I found it a bit disturbing because it makes monkeys dependent on people for handouts and also quite aggressive to humans, particularly when they’re holding on to shiny things like chocolate bar wrappers and water bottles. I just stood aside while everyone else emptied their pockets of food and took opportunistic snaps of the monkeys including this one with the cute googly-eyed baby.

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Onward to the Death Railway. Thousands of Allied POWs died during WWII to construct this railway to help the Japanese forces travel overland faster.

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Despite its sad history, the scenery was lovely. The tracks followed the bend of the River Kwai.

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Where we were dropped off, a little way beyond the station platform, was a small dark cave with with a Buddha image. Perhaps it was to provide peace to those who perished there.

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The Death Railway is still an active train line now, with not just tourists using it. We clambered onto the old-school train to find seats among the locals. There were all sorts: school children on their way home, vendors lugging their wares, regular people on the commute.

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And we pulled out of the platform into more of the verdant countryside.

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It’s funny how tourists pretty much took over the train, everyone was leaning out the windows trying to get a good shot and also trying not to take pictures of the cameras.

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I took the opposite tack and just went ahead to capture all the tourists doing their thing. It’s interesting how tourists only occupied the front few cars and became sparser and sparser down to the last car.

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The view was a lot prettier than I expected, with the clouds against the pale blue and the trees silhouetted against the river and far hills.

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It was such a lovely sight.

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June in Thailand: Kanchanaburi

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Kanchanaburi was my first stop out of Bangkok. It was also the first time in my trip where I was completely without a plan. Previously in The Philippines I had something of a schedule to keep to so I could make my way round the islands and meet my friends in time. Here, I only had to make my flight back in three weeks, there wasn’t a particular plan except a vague idea to stick to land activities and head north to the hill tribe area.

Kanchanaburi was the best place to be. It had such a laidback backpacker vibe and was firmly on the beaten track, as evidenced by the many cheap bars set up for smelly backpackers like me. Later that night I’d be sitting on the road downing the cheap local moonshine called sang som and going slightly upmarket with 50 baht shots of 100 Pipers whiskey (extra 20 baht for coke mixers).

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The touristy part of town was right on the infamous River Kwai, including of course the bridge. It was rather over-touristed, as expected in that part of Thailand and supposedly not even the “real” one.

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Still, the back of town was much nicer. My guest house had a lovely view of the river.

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The view was just amazing in the morning, it was so still and placid the clouds and blue sky reflected beautifully where there weren’t lotus pads and flowers. What a great place to start backpacking in Thailand.

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