Kanchanaburi – a town with many faces

I am finding Kanchanaburi difficult. I have been here before, but only for a few hours at most – a quick glimpse of the Death Railway, en route to Erawan waterfalls or transiting to Sangkhlaburi, further west. In fact, it was only yesterday as I wandered aimlessly around the Bridge over the Kwai that I was able to place the spot where a photo of me, some travel buddies and the then-loved-now-loathed ex-boyfriend was taken two years ago. Suddenly, Kanchanaburi feels less like a strange land and more like somewhere I have been before and feel at least a little at home – even if it is by no means my favourite place in the country. And yet at the same time, it is a place which has opened my mind to the sheer futility of group gap year travel – something I have given but cursory thought to before, if frequent. The last time I spent anything near any real length of time here – when that photo was taken – I didn’t really know where I was. We were bussed in and out in a matter of hours, stopping only for a couple of snaps in front of the bridge. I didn’t even notice, I don’t think the railway track to my left as the photos were being taken – and certainly none of the other little things I came across as I ambled around yesterday. In the midst of being the ultimate tourist I was whisked off by the ex, who, as a tour guide, had seen the bridge and track countless times before anyway, to what I now realise was a cheap and tacky little market, its sole raison d’être being to empty the pockets of the coachloads of tourists as quickly as possible. At the time it seemed a lovely little place, and I was gutted when in my first few days of university I lost the two cute little rings I bought there. Wanting to replace them, this little market seemed remote and special – now much less so.

All these things make me feel as though Kanchanaburi is taking me on much more of a journey than I had anticipated. Yet these are certainly not the feelings I had just a few days ago, when I first thought about writing this post. Having vegged in my room the night I got here and indulged in a massage, the following day I ventured out down the main backpacker street and felt thoroughly disappointed. Here was a street so widely touted as competition for Bangkok’s Khaosan, and yet it was practically dead, the bars occupied by little other than a few sad, desperate-looking old men. My taxi driver had proclaimed that Kanchanaburi was cheap; perhaps ‘tacky’ was closer to the word he was looking for.

And yet as you dig deeper, Kanchanaburi’s multi-faceted nature becomes only more appealing. Sure, this is cheap-as-chips Thailand: the beer is only a fraction more expensive than 7/11 prices, there’s whisky-and-lemonade going for 10B a glass, and signs invite you to ‘get shitfaced on a shoestring’. This is, after all, what pulls in both expats and tourists, both Thai and farang, in such extreme numbers every weekend – and particularly this weekend, being Buddhist lent as it is. It’s easy to forget that this is also the province of stunning stunning natural beauty as Erawan and Sangkhlaburi – which most certainly is my favourite place in Thailand, until I find a new one at least. Then there is the historical appeal of the town itself, its role in the second world war – the reason why it’s so famous in the first place.

With so many personalities, this town’s a strange one, and a difficult one to get used to – but it’s a grow-er.

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