Kanchanaburi and beyond
The following trip report is by no means comprehensive of the Kanchanaburi area. The area to the north has a number of impressive national parks with many attractions including well known sites from Thailand’s involvement in world war two. These sites, although having some historical significance, are mainstream tourist locations and not what could be termed “off the beaten track.” In keeping with the general theme of this site I chose to ignore these well-known locations and seek out attractions in the area that are less visited and more difficult to get to.
Having spent the better part of two decades and more in Thailand I’d managed to visit a good deal of the country. One area which continued to elude my interest was the western region of Kanchanaburi and beyond to the Three Pagodas Pass. This area along the Burmese border has some historical significance due to events which transpired during world war two. Hellfire Pass, Death Railway, and Bridge over the River Kwai are names which are well known in commonwealth countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom. My interest in the area was less about visiting these landmarks, which continue to evoke sentiment over long past suffering, and more about visiting some of the spectacular cave sites in an area approximately 140 kilometres north of Kanchanaburi.
Due to the remoteness of the area, and knowing that getting around would prove difficult, I decided to hire a pick-up truck from a car rental agency in Bangkok and drive there myself. The town I decided to use as my base was Thong Pha Phum, approximately 142 kilometres north of Kanchanaburi. Nestled under a border mountain range and straddling the Kwai River, Thong Pha Phum is a picturesque little town a couple of kilometres off the road to Three Pagodas Pass. This area is quite possibly another well-kept secret in terms of tourist visitation. Due to its elevated geographical location the climate, even in mid-February, is still cool and crisp in the mornings and is definitely a viable option for those wanting to escape Bangkok’s heat but looking for a closer alternative to Chiang Mai, etc. This area is quite a unique part of Thailand due to the fact it has a number of national parks which run continuously from Kanchanaburi, north to Three Pagodas Pass, and across to the Erawan Dam.
Travel to Thong Pha Phum is a fairly straight forward six to seven hours run from Bangkok which involves driving due west through Nakhom Pathom, then turning right at Hwy no. 4 and then heading north (skirting Kanchanaburi via the bypass road) until you arrive at Thong Pha Phum. To give myself enough time to achieve the objectives I’d set myself in the area, I’d booked three nights’ accommodation at the Baan Rimdoy resort some five kilometres up the road from the township.
Thong Pha Phum is an unremarkable town apart from the fact it sits next to a picturesque stretch of the Kwai River. Approximately three kilometres directly north there is a café, the Crab Café, which serves great coffee and possibly has the largest milestone in the world. Back across the bridge, to the southern approach to Thong Pha Phum, there is a limestone peak with a Buddhist Temple atop with a precipitous drop to the river. The entrance to the temple grounds are a couple kilometres up the road to Three Pagodas Pass. Further up the road from the entrance to the temple is another interesting Buddhist feature; a line-up of gold Buddha statues flanking a very large white Buddha.
My first full day in Thong Pha Phum proved to be a bit of a dud in terms of fulfilling the first of my planned objectives. The location I was intent on visiting was approximately an hour’s drive north of the town, on the road up to Three Pagodas Pass. Getting there involves driving north on route # 323 for approximately 45 minutes then going right onto route # 3183. Route # 323 is a very scenic drive which winds north through a myriad of jungle covered peaks. The region is elevated and in February it is cool enough for strawberries to be farmed in abundance. At regular intervals road side stalls display their containers of the bright red fruit. The turn off onto route # 3183 is clearly marked with advertising for the different attractions also being displayed. The road is narrower, more remote and has stretches of steep ascents and descents to negotiate. The cave I had my sights on exploring was in an area called Lam Khong Ngu. To get access into the caves it is first a requirement to check into the park HQ, which also has a camping area and basic amenities. After finally arriving there full of expectation, I was disappointed to learn the cave was shut for sightseeing. It is considered one of the most spectacular in Thailand and I was keen to have a look after receiving a good deal of info on it from an American speleological expert during my recent tour to Laos. One of the things he’d mentioned to me was that it was a river cave and passage through it might involve some wading or swimming. And so it proved to be the case. “Cave closed until March, too much water and too cold,” was the reply I got from the park ranger when I enquired about a visitation. His answer hardly surprised me as most of the visitors to the site would be Thai and the reality is they are generally not strong swimmers and they get cold easily. Realising I would be wasting my breathe debating the point with him I nodded in understanding and made my way back to Thong Pha Phum to re-evaluate my options for the second half of the day. Fortunately, there are a number of caving options back down highway #323. I’d noticed the signs on the drive up and decided to do some informed research. Back at the Crab Café I took some time to check Google Guides and found something of interest less than an hour’s drive south of Thong Pha Phum.
Daowadung Cave Is one of numerous caves within this large National Parks district of Thailand and although an interesting excursion is hardly remarkable compared to larger caves in the area such as Lawa Cave and Phra That Cave. Located in Sai Yok district it is approx. 46 kilometres south of Thong Pha Pum, on Hwy # 323 (or a 50 minute drive). If coming from the North the turn off to the cave is on your right and is well marked with directional signage all the way to the cave. The approach to the parking area is up a narrow, hill road where you will be asked to leave your vehicle at a location some 500 meters short of the cave entrance. A local guide provided me with motorbike transportation from the car park to a final rest area, just 50 meters short of the cave entrance, after which we hiked the final stretch. If you walk from the main parking area, the track is an easy trek, with reasonably good going for the most part. The cave itself has lighting and is easy enough to access, with solid steps down into the caverns. It is actually not a very deep cave but it has some nice formations spread among 2 – 3 rooms. The most interesting thing for me within the cave was the bats hanging silently off the grey overhead rock. The cave roof is quite low and the bats are quite close. Even with photography, I was in the cave for no more than 40 minutes and the guide did confirm that Lawa Cave, further down the road, was much bigger.
My third day in the area proved to be much more productive in terms of finding an impressive cave site to do some photography in. After checking google guides for reviews on the various attractions in the area, I determined that Phra Tat Cave over near the Erawan Dam might be a site worth checking. A number of Google reviews mentioned the impressive size of the cave and that was enough to spark my interest. The only problem was it was going to be a 140 kilometre drive to get there from Thong Pha Pum. With that in mind I determined that after visiting the cave I’d drive back to Bangkok as it seemed pointless coming all the way back up highway no. 4 to get my third and final night at the resort. The cave site is actually in the Erawan National Park, which borders the impressive Erawan Dam. After entering the park the road to the cave winds around the western edge of the dam and climbs up into the surrounding peaks. The distance is approximately fourteen kilometres and is well sign posted. The cave site is well set up for sightseers with a large sealed parking area bordered by landscaped gardens and a Thai restaurant. There is the standard checkpoint where entry fees need to be paid before the six hundred meter hike up the hill to the cave entrance. The pathway to the top has been very well constructed with cement steps and footpaths all the way.
On arrival at the cave entrance there is a guide who will offer to accompany you on the cave tour. If you don’t have lights, it’s probably not a bad idea to take him up on his offer to be your guide as the interior of the cave is vast. The only oddity of the guiding service is that the lighting provided isn’t the standard miner’s headlamps one normally sees for hire at most cave sites, it is kerosene lamps. These lamps provide a nice orange glow inside but are a rather archaic approach to lighting within the cave. I had a full range of my own powerful lights, including a couple of nine thousand lumen hand held torches I used for my photography, so I declined the guides offer. The entry point into the cave proper is small and a real squeeze but once through the interior opens up into a massive void, perhaps one of the largest in Thailand, and is quite spectacular. The local tourist authority has done a great job in erecting a solid cement and metal pathway, in a circuitous route, all the way to the rear of the cave and back; a distance of some 250 metres. At the mid-point of the circuit, and where the internal volume is the greatest, the cave roof is around forty meters above the floor. All in all, I would recommend this as a great half day tour if you are in the area, the internal size of the cave is quite spectacular.
Getting to Thong Pha Phum:
Public transport: Take the train from Thon Buri train station, Bangkok, to Nam Tok Station, Kanchanaburi Province. Then take a taxi or mini bus to Thong Pha Phum Township. https://www.rome2rio.com/s/Bangkok/Thong-Pha-Phum-National-Park
Private transport: From Victory Monument go East on Ratchawithi Road, cross the Krung Thon Bridge, then continue straight on Sirindhorn Road (route #341). Continue straight on route #341 (take the elevated expressway) then continue until route #341 merges with route #338. Follow route #338 through Nakhom Pathom, then turn right onto Highway #4 (AH 2). Follow Highway #4, then veer right onto route #323 (look for road markers). Follow route #323 until the outskirts of Kanchanaburi, then take the bypass (route #367) around Kanchanaburi, then back onto route #323. Then follow route #323 all the way to Thong Pha Phum township.
Recommended car rental agency: Golden Car Rentals, New Din Daeng Rd, Khwaeng Samsen Nai, Khet Phaya Thai, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10400, Thailand. www.goldencarrent.com +66 2 246 7837. Price for Toyota Vigo pick-up truck = 1000 THB per day (approx.)
Recommended accommodation in Thong Pha Phum: Baan Rimdoy Resort
Recommended restaurant and café in Thong Pha Phum: The Crab Café.
Wat Tha Kha-nun (approx. 2 km up route #323).
Daowadung Cave – approx. 37 km south of Thong Pha Phum Township on route #323.
Phra That Cave – approx. 140 km south east of Thong Pha Phum (within Erawan national park). Go south form Thong Pha Phum on route #323, then left onto route #3457, then left onto route #3199. Follow directions to entry point for Erawan National Park, then signage to Phra That cave.