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Kanchanburi: Riding the Death Railway

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

I grew up hearing about WWII from my grandparents, and I studied abroad in France where I had the chance to observe the rusting relics around the beaches of Normandy firsthand.  When the chance came to visit another infamous WWII site, the Death Railway, I felt that I couldn’t pass up the chance – both to pay my respects, and to enjoy another adventure in beautiful Thailand.

Photo by Well

I was joined by the Thailand office team – Nicole, Chris and Joy, along with one of our top guides in Bangkok – Well, and together we met at the hotel for an early-morning start to head out to Kanchanaburi in the Thai countryside.  To my great surprise, our driver for the day had brought his personally outfitted van which would not have been out of place at a bachelorette party, and came with light up etched glass displays with koi fish, bejeweled seats, an impressive sound system and a drop-down TV.  There we were on our way to visit memorials dedicated to a particularly harsh piece of history, riding along in great luxury, compete with coffees from a drive-through Starbucks at Joy’s insistence, and I could not help but see the irony and be grateful for what I have in life (and laugh about the van).

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

For those who are not already aware, the ‘Death Railway’ was constructed during WWII by Allied POWs and forcibly drafted Southeast Asians known as Romusha,  to bring supplies to the front in Burma (now Myanmar).  The difficult terrain, jungle diseases, malnourishment, beatings and around-the-clock work schedule led to the deaths of 12,621 Allied POWs, and thousands of Ramusha (the exact numbers are unknown, and the estimates vary), giving the railroad its name.  Now, the railway serves as a tourist attraction and mode of transportation to some of the small towns in this area.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

As we drove out into the green countryside, our first stop was to visit the main Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in downtown Kanchanburi, where 6,982 fallen POWs from Australia, the UK and the Netherlands are interred.  The cemetery also displays a plaque to commemorate 11 fallen Indian POWS who fought for the British during the war.  (The bodies of fallen American POWs were repatriated after the war.)  Across the street, we visited the small but well-done The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre which houses 8 main galleries which detail the construction of the railway through first-hand accounts, photographs and artifacts.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

After this somber start, we next drove to the train station, at the edge of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.  I could not help but notice the vendors who had set up a temporary market selling souvenirs such as soaps carved in the shape of flowers, t-shirts and coconut drinks.   The weather was lovely with beautiful bright sunshine, blue skies and beautiful green vistas along the riverbanks.  Even knowing where we stood, I found it difficult to feel anything but cheerful, and we strolled across the bridge with the other tourists while we waited for the train.

The train itself was a joy – an antique passenger train from another era with uniformed ticket checkers and waiters bringing beverages – and I couldn’t help but picture my grandparents coming along for the ride with me.  I know they would love it as much as I did.  We enjoyed the breeze blowing through our hair and took in the beautiful and peaceful countryside rolling past.

Once we reached the small town of Krasae where we disembarked to visit a large Buddha statue built into a cave in the cliff, and to enjoy lunch at the Krasae Cave Restaurant, looking out over the river.  I also took note of a WWII era bomb which had failed to detonate sitting on a plinth in the middle of town, and it served as a reminder that this lovely place was once a war-zone, and that the allied forces had destroyed as much of the railway as they could to prevent its use in bringing supplies to the front in Burma. After we’d visited the impressive Buddha, had our fortunes revealed through the fortune sticks, stuffed ourselves on a big Thai lunch of salad, noodles, rice, shrimp, chicken and curry, and did some souvenir shopping, we reunited with our driver and bedazzled van.

We drove past green winding green hillsides and small towns until we reached our next stop – the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, which the Australian government built and maintains through a partnership with the Thai government.  After exploring the museum, we strolled down the path through the bamboo forest until we reached the old railway bed.  The railway here had long since been removed, with only a short section left as a memorial to all those who died here.  The jungle scenery was beautiful but there was a quiet and sad eeriness to the place.  Small Australian flags and mementos had been left behind by comrades, loved ones and relatives, hinting at what this cut in the railway grade used to look like.  Feeling a strange sense of standing in both the 1940’s and in 2016 at the same time, we walked back up the hill to our waiting driver and began the journey back to Bangkok, stopping to purchase pumpkins from a roadside stand and feed fish along the way.  It is a memory that will stay with me – both as a wonderful day with friends, and as a reminder of those who served.

If Kanchanaburi interests you, check out our new two-day Kanchanaburi tour which includes spending time at an elephant sanctuary.

From the Ground: New Kanchanaburi Tour with Elephants

By Nicole Long & Jay Austin,

We are excited to announce a new 2 day Kanchanaburi Option.  Kanachanaburi is beautiful and for guests with the time, we highly recommend visiting this region to take in more of Thailand’s recent history and beautiful countryside.  This particular option combines the historical significance of the area with a more active, philanthropic element with a visit to ElephantsWorld. This nonprofit organization was founded in 2008 and considers itself a “retirement home” for elephants who are too old or have become injured working in the tourism industry.  We love this tour option for returning guests who have been to Thailand before, and want to spend time with elephants in a sustainable setting, without needing to return to Chiang Mai.  This option is also great for families as there are discounted rates for kids aged 4-11, and children under 3 years are free!

Here’s what you can expect from this two-day tour, which can be combined with any itinerary:

Day 1: Bridge Over The River Kwai

You will be met at your hotel in Bangkok at 7:00am and taken by minivan to Kanchanburi. Enjoy the beautiful views along the way, with your guide available to answer any questions you may have. Your first stop will be the WWII Museum and Donrak POW Cemetery, before continuing on to the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. You can walk across the bridge and take some time to soak up the atmosphere and watch the river go by before taking the original “death railway” train to Krasae station, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant. Later you will board a long-tailed boat and head up river to your hotel with wonderful views of the jungle along the way. After checking in to your floating accommodation, enjoy your dinner before watching a Traditional Mon Dance performance.

Day 2: ElephantsWorld Day Program

After an early breakfast, check out of your hotel and coast down river to meet your driver, who will transfer you ElphantsWorld’s camp, located approximately an hour from the town of Kanchanburi.  When you arrive at the camp, you’ll join the other participants for your introduction to the camp and ElephantsWorld’s mission, which is to provide sanctuary for sick, old, disabled, abused and rescued elephants. You will have the opportunity to meet and feed the elephants and meet their mahouts. You will assist with preparing food for the elephants by cleaning fruits and vegetables, and preparing sticky rice for the elderly giants. Afterwards, you and the group will break for lunch. Work off your lunch by planting fruit trees and/or gathering food for the elephants’ afternoon meal before helping the mahouts to feed sticky rice balls to the older elephants. Then it’s to the river for bath time! Enjoy getting wet with these gentle giants as you bathe and scrub them clean. Finally, give them the fruit and vegetables you collected earlier before saying goodbye to your new friends. You will depart the camp at approximately 4pm and head back to Bangkok.

Please note: We recommend bringing a change of clothes as you will get wet in assisting with the elephant’s bath.

Alms-Giving in Laos & Thailand

The daily procession of monks Collecting Alms in Luang Prabang – Photo credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Many travelers to Laos and Thailand choose to get up early at some point to partake in the daily alms-giving to the monks, otherwise known as ‘Tak Batt’.  ‘Tak’ comes from the act of giving food directly from your plate or bowl to the monk’s “batt” or alms bowl. .  Most of our travelers experience this in either Laos or Thailand or both, so we wanted to give a brief overview of what to expect, how this practice is different between the two countries, and the proper etiquette to use when joining in these experiences.

To begin with, throughout Southeast Asia, monks should be treated with the highest respect and women in particular should never touch monks, their robes or hand anything directly to them.  Many young men will spend a period of time as a monk for a number of reasons.  For poor families, sending their sons to the monkhood allows them to receive an education and skills that will serve them later in life.  Spending time as a monk is also thought to bring ‘merit’ to yourself and your family, and is thought to help round you out spiritually as a person.  One aspect of monkhood, in Laos and Thailand at least, is that you are meant to live piously off of ‘alms’ or donations from the local community.   For the locals, giving alms to the monks brings them ‘merit’.

A young monk in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In Laos, particularly in Luang Prabang, there are large numbers of monks and multiple monasteries, with monks ranging from the very young to the very old.  At the first sight of dawn each morning, the temple bells ring and the monks line up single file, usually with the eldest monk in front, and walk down the streets near their temple.  The local people gather on the edges of the street to give alms – donations of food – to each monk that passes by.  To give alms, the locals will kneel on a mat laid out on the street, with their shoes removed, and a sash wrapped over one shoulder.

Me giving alms in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel (and the local lady who sold me the offerings)

As each monk passes, he will lift the lid on his alms bowl (a large metal bowl hung slung over his shoulder with a sash) and the townspeople will drop in a handful of food – usually fruit or rice.  There is no verbal communication between the monks and the townspeople.  Back at the temple the food is collected into a communal pile and evenly distributed.  If you choose to partake in this ritual, be sure to be properly dressed with your shoulders and knees covered and sash in place.

Only the elderly may sit in a chair; otherwise, you should kneel when presenting alms – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

If you choose to simply observe and photograph this spiritual practice, please be respectful.  You may notice other travelers jumping right in front of monks and jamming a camera lens right in their faces, and we respectfully request that you don’t do this.  Giving alms is a sacred practice for the local people, and monks are the most revered members of society.  Additionally, you may notice that people do this in particular to younger (child) monks.  While iconic, please keep in mind that these young monks are still sacred societal figures, and what’s more, they are also still children – please take care to respect and protect their rights.

The daily procession of monks in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In Thailand, smaller groups of monks, usually around 1- 6 at a time, will set forth from their temples in the early morning.  You will spot vendors with small booths offering to sell food or lotus flowers which you may present as an offering.  When the monks come past, you’ll once again kneel at the edge of the road, with your shoes removed, and place the offering (if it is food) into their begging bowls.  In Thailand, the food is usually pre-packed in plastic or Styrofoam containers.  If presenting a lotus flower, you’ll set it on top of the bowl and the monk will then pick it up (don’t hand it directly to the monk.)  Once you present your offering, the monks will pour water on the ground in front of you, and chant a blessing for you, before moving on down the street.

A local vendor selling alms offerings in Chiang Mai – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

You can certainly partake in alms-giving on your own, but we recommend using our Journeys Within guides to improve the experience.  Our guides can help explain the proper technique to each step, help you purchase and prepare your offerings, and explain the significance of each ritual and translate for you as needed.  I’ve experienced it both ways – in Thailand, my guide Tien walked me through the process, explained everything, and made it a wonderful and enriching experience, and took photos for me.

Monks blessing alms-givers in Chiang Mai – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In Laos, I walked out of my hotel with the intention of simply watching and taking a few photos, and a local woman approached me and offered to sell me a few offerings for a very cheap price. Figuring that I was here and might as well join in the moment, I agreed. She helped me wrap a scarf properly, offered a place for me to kneel and kept bringing me more offerings to hand the monks, and took a rather blurry photo of me giving alms with my cell phone, before proceeding to demand extra money, which fortunately I happened to have in my pocket – all in all quite a skillful hussle, but I chalked it up as being part of the experience, and noted it as something that wouldn’t happen under the watchful eye of a Journeys Within guide.

Me giving alms in Chiang Mai – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel (and my guide Tien)

Other tips about visiting sacred sites in Southeast Asia and partaking in religious ceremonies:

  • Dress properly when visiting active temples. Be sure to remove your hat and shoes before entering a temple.
  • In many Asian cultures the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body while the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body. Do not sit with your feet towards the Buddha or another person– sit with your feet tucked behind you and don’t use your foot to point or motion “kicking”. Try not to cross your legs while sitting, especially in the presence of a monk.  This applies whether you are sitting on the floor or in a chair.  When sitting in a chair, keep your feet on the ground.
  • There are many sacred sites and items in Southeast Asia – please don’t touch sacred items, sites or statues without permission. Don’t sit with your back against a Buddhist image or statue.  If you purchase mementos, don’t keep Buddhist images or sacred objects in inappropriate places.
  • You may notice contribution boxes – although not required, it is appropriate to drop a small contribution into a donation box at a monastery or pagoda, especially if there is no entry fee for visiting the site. These donations help maintain the sites and are considered to help create good karma.
  • Many temples or historical sites will post signs that state that photography is not allowed. Even if there is no sign, please be respectful and consider not using the flash in places of worship.
  • Speak softly when in a temple. Even more so if monks or locals are present worshiping! When handing something to someone, or receiving something, use both hands. When you pay for something, hold the money in both hands when passing it to the receiver.
Morning alms in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

What you need to know when planning for Loi Krathong, and why you should book it with Journeys Within

Launching my sky lantern

By Courtney Ridgel

Loi Krathong is one of the most well-known Festivals in Southeast Asia and has been documented everywhere from National Geographic to Instagram many times over.   It had long been on my wish-list and last November, I was lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai to see Loi Krathong for myself.

A monk giving this couple a blessing for Loi Krathong

Loi Krathong is beautiful and holds a great historical, religious and cultural significance to the Thai people.  This festival typically falls in November, on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (which is November 4th this year) and Thais celebrate both this festival as both a Buddhist holiday, and as a chance to give thanks to the Ping River and the Water Goddess.  The festival is celebrated by releasing the iconic paper lanterns into the sky, and floating ‘Krathongs’ or small boats with leaves, candles, flowers and incense downriver.  The largest celebrations take place in Chiang Mai and are typically accompanied by a grand parade and street parties.

Krathongs are typically made from banana tree wood, flowers, leaves, incense and candles
Krathongs come in a variety of styles

One thing that became immediately obvious to me was that there are things you notice in person that you can’t necessarily tell from photos posted on the internet.  I was very glad that Journeys Within had made the arrangements for me as there are there are many factors worth considering in planning a Loi Krathong experience:

Lanterns floating high above Chiang Mai and the Ping River
  • Because this festival is beautiful, it has also become very popular among other travelers, particularly in Chiang Mai. This means that Chiang Mai will be very crowded during this time of year.  You can expect to see the streets full of people, and traffic moves very slowly.  Keep this in mind as all travel times will be longer than normal, especially when traveling to and from the airports – plan ahead and leave early.  As I was traveling with Journeys Within, I didn’t have worry about this, and could just relax and enjoy my time in Chiang Mai.
People crowd the river’s edge to launch their Krathongs
  • The same goes for restaurants – most restaurants don’t take reservations over Loi Krathong, and the ones that do will be very busy and full. Many of them hire college students to help out with the rush, so the service and English-speaking skills may not be entirely perfect.  This isn’t really a downside – sitting down for slow dinner at a restaurant on the river can be a wonderful way to pass the evening as you’ll have a great view of both the lanterns and the Krathongs, and often live music to enjoy.  Some restaurants even have stairs down to the water so you can launch your own lanterns and krathongs on the spot after dinner, and Journeys Within can make this happen for you.
The Riverside Bar & Restaurant features live music and a wonderful view of the river
Only a few restaurants will take reservations over Loi Krathong
  • Expect the flights traveling in and out of Chiang Mai to have delays or changes in flight times. Keep an eye on this, as the airlines may not give you much notice, if any and Google doesn’t always keep up.  The reason for this is that there are concerns about the floating lanterns getting caught in the jet engines during certain times of the day, particularly in the evening, so they try to work around the peak balloon-launching hours.  Fortunately, my Journeys Within guide monitored my changing flight schedules closely and made sure that I arrived at the airport at the proper time.
A woman launching her lantern into the sky
  • Hotels will likely fill up and prices will be more expensive over Loi Krathong, so it is best to plan ahead if you can to take advantage of the best deals. Journeys Within has contract rates with many partner hotels, so you’ll likely be able to get a better deal than you would trying to book the same hotels on your own during this period.
Waiting for my turn to float my krathong downstream
  • I insisted on striking out on my own (against the recommendations of my guide), intending to seek the heart of the action, and boy did I! This can be a wonderful adventure if it is what you are looking for, or it could ruin your whole evening.   The streets of Chiang Mai, particularly those close to the river, turn into a street party and it can take hours to wind your way through the foot, motorbike and car traffic.  The whole scene is a bit reminiscent of a super-sized college party with very strange food options and a lot of drunken revelers playing with fire (literally).  If this is your scene – go for it!  For families with younger kids or for older couples, I’d recommend sticking to the riverside restaurant option I mentioned above.   Alternatively, there are also river cruises available, some of them with a dinner option.  Keep in mind that the fireworks are launched over the river, so be prepared for a front-row seat.  Certain hotels in town, such as the Sala Lanna which is right on the river, also have rooftop bars where you can enjoy a cocktail and take in the view without navigating through the crowds in the streets.
The streets of Chiang Mai turn into a giant party
  • The most beautiful Loi Krathong photos with thousands of lanterns being released all at once actually take place in Mae Jo, outside of Chiang Mai, and this event, known as the ‘Mass Sky Lantern Release’ is put on by an independent Buddhist group. There is a free event, intended largely for locals, which encompasses a robes ceremony and money trees.  This event is also extremely crowded and transportation to and from the Mae Jo can be a challenge due to the traffic.  There is also a ticketed lantern release designed for tourists, and transportation is included with the cost of the tickets (which are expensive and need to be purchased in advance as there are a limited number of them).  That said, the ticketed event does not include many of the traditional cultural and religious elements of this holiday, so it loses authenticity, and once again, the travel time can be extensive.  Otherwise, festival-goers in Chiang Mai proper release their own personal lanterns whenever the mood takes them.  This means that the scene is still beautiful and the sky has many lanterns twinkling like fireflies after dark, but the effect is not the same – there is no sudden rush of lanterns being released – just one or two at a time.  Most of the locals feel overwhelmed by the crowds these days so they just head home to be with their families.
Inside the city of Chiang Mai, lanterns are released one or two at a time
  • One very neat aspect of Loi Krathong that is often overlooked is the fact that this is indeed a religious holiday, meaning that the temples around Chiang Mai are particularly active on this day, and you’ll see locals visiting to hear the chanting, bring donations and receive blessings. I was able to observe several hundred schoolchildren rotating through stations to learn from the monks on a field trip, and Tien, my guide, translated for me.  It was a really unique and unusual window into the world of Buddhism in Thailand.
A local schoolgirl looks up from her lesson from the resident monks to make a new friend
Schoolchildren learning from the resident monks on a field trip
  • If Chiang Mai doesn’t fit into your travel plans, you can also celebrate Loi Krathong at one of Thailand’s beautiful beaches. The celebrations are not as extravagant, but you can make a very romantic evening out of releasing lanterns at the beach and floating your Krathong out to sea.  For a different kind of experience, you can also head to Luang Prabang’s Festival  of Lights, which also falls in November.
My krathong floating downstream
My lantern floating away into the night sky

Overall, the best advice I can give about visiting Loi Krathong is that I strongly recommend working with a travel specialist (Journeys Within) over going it alone.  Journeys Within guides make all the difference in navigating this festival and providing an outstanding experience.  I’ve seen firsthand that their extensive local knowledge is invaluable, and they can point in you in the right direction for your personal travel preferences so that you can take everything in and not be overwhelmed by the crowds.  Additionally, Journeys Within guides are a life-saver when it comes to keep track of unexpected flight changes and navigating traffic delays so that you don’t miss any of the highlights. If you are planning a visit to the Loi Krathong festivities, check out our Loi Krathong Tour for Couples & Loi Krathong Tour for Families tours!

Guests watching the lanterns from their table
Lanterns drifting in the sky behind a temple

What to Expect when Arriving in Chiang Mai

Downtown Chiang Mai

By Courtney Ridgel

You may find yourself arriving into Chiang Mai via either a domestic flight (coming from somewhere else in Thailand) or on an International Flight.  If you are coming from a neighboring country such as Cambodia or Laos, you’ll likely be arriving on a smaller aircraft, which means that you’ll disembark outside.  Intercontinental flights will be arriving on larger aircraft which taxi up to the gate as usual.

Smaller international flights may disembark on the tarmac

A very short bus ride will ferry you to the air conditioned Immigration wing of the airport.  (If you are arriving on a domestic flight, you won’t need to pass through Immigration again – you’ll just collect your luggage and head out to meet your guide.)

A bus will transfer you to Immigration

Thailand is one the most visited places in the world, so the airports tend to be much busier than those found in Laos and Cambodia. For US citizens, if you will be staying less than 30 days, no visa is necessary.  Your passport will be stamped on arrival.  You should receive the necessary entry and exit forms on your flight into Thailand.  (If not, you can always pick them up in the airport when you arrive.)

The Immigration desks in Chiang Mai are divided between citizens of Thailand and other ASEAN countries, and all other travelers

If you are not a US citizen, be sure to check the Immigration and visa requirements for your home country before traveling.  If you need visa on arrival, the visa application window is to the left of the main Immigration line in the Chiang Mai airport.  You may need a passport photo, and you can bring this with you, or have a photo taken for a fee.

Journeys Within guide, Tien helping with luggage and checking the schedule

Once you pass through Immigration, collect your luggage and head outside to meet your waiting Journeys Within guide, who will be holding a sign with your name.

Cars in Thailand drive on the other side of the road!

Your guide and driver will help load your luggage into the car, and will transfer you to your hotel to check in.

The Ping River runs right through Chiang Mai

Welcome to the ancient city of Chiang Mai!

The original city walls of Chiang Mai can still be seen in between the modern buildings and streets