Things to Do in Central Thailand
Built by forced laborers under the control of the Japanese Army at the height of World War II, Thailand’s Burma Railway (Death Railway) is a 258 mile (415 kilometer) long railway line designed to connect Thailand and Myanmar. Although its existence serves as a grim landmark of recent history, the Burma Railway remains one of the country’s key historical attractions.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol is an ancient Buddhist temple situated to the southeast of Ayutthaya. It was built in 1357 by King Uthong to house returning monks who had gone to study practical Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
In 1592, King Naresuan built the temple’s iconic bell-shaped chedi after a victory over Burma. This towering chedi can be seen from far and wide and features a platform offering wonderful views of the temple site and city beyond. Wat Yai Chai Mongkol was then destroyed by the Burmese in the mid-18th century, and was only rebuilt to its former glory in 1957.
The temple’s beautifully manicured gardens make this one of Ayutthaya’s most scenic and photogenic temple complexes. Perhaps the biggest attraction for most visitors however is the seven-meter reclining Buddha located near its entrance, which lays claim to being one of the largest outdoor reclining Buddha statues in Thailand.
Located in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province, Erawan National Park is one of the most famous natural areas in the country. Known for its impressive seven-tiered waterfall and abundance of native flora and fauna, the park is a popular weekend spot for locals from Bangkok and Kanchanaburi as well as for international visitors.
Also known as the Don-Rak War Cemetery, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery commemorates victims of the building of the Burma Railway during World War II.
Located on Saeng Chuto Road, the main road of the city of Kanchanaburi, the cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and contains the graves of Australian, British and Dutch POWs who were forced into labor by the Japanese, who controlled the area at the time of the Burma Railway construction.
A nearby privately funded museum, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, contains interactive displays describing the history of the railway and the prisoners who died building it.
The JEATH War Museum is a museum in Kanchanaburi dedicated to the story of the men who worked on the Death Railway. JEATH is an acronym for the different nationalities of the POWs that worked on the construction of the bridge between 1942 and 1943 (Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, and Holland).
The museum displays the actual items that were used for the construction of the Death Railway. It also exhibits a large number of photographs taken by prisoners at the time, including graphic images of the harsh conditions that the men lived and worked in. One of the three galleries featuring such photographs is housed within a bamboo hut that’s an exact replica of the shelters that the POWs lived in during this time. There also written accounts,correspondence, interviews, and artwork by the prisoners that were forced to work on the bridge, along with a number of personal effects. In addition, the museum is home to a bomb dropped by the allies to destroy the bridge but that failed to explode.
Just 38 miles (50 kilometers) from the Cambodian border in Thailand’s Isan region, the Phanom Rung Historical Park (Prasat Hin Phanom Rung) houses a spectacular Khmer temple perched atop an extinct volcano. Follow in the steps of long-dead pilgrims up the warm sandstone staircase to discover towers, bridges, galleries, walkways, and more.
During the construction of the Death Railway from Burma to Thailand during World War II, Allied prisoners of war worked 18 hours a day in sweltering heat chiseling through rock in what is today known as Hellfire Pass. The Hellfire Pass Memorial and Museum opened in 1998 as a place to honor and remember the men — both POWs and Asian laborers — who suffered and lost their lives during the war.
A free audio guide leads visitors through the museum and includes several firsthand accounts from former POWs who were forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. A staircase from the museum leads down to the rail bed itself. A viewpoint overlooks the Hellfire Pass cutting, where many visitors leave behind flowers and flags. The Office of Australian War Graves built and maintains the museum.
Encompassing 193 square miles (500 square kilometers) of limestone mountains blanketed in deciduous, dry evergreen and bamboo forest, Sai Yok National Park attracts hikers to its caves, waterfalls and rare wildlife. The park’s most famous attraction is the Sai Yok Noi waterfall, a cascade along the Khwae Noi River near the terminus of the famous Death Railway.
The park is also famously home to the world’s smallest mammal, the thumb-sized Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, which can be spotted in a series of caves about a mile (2 kilometers) past Sai Yok Noi. Other fauna in the park include Rachinee crab, sambar deer, guars, water monitors and wild pigs.
For those who wish to stay within the park, accommodation options include campgrounds (with tents for rent), bungalows and private raft resorts floating on the Kwai Noi River. None are equipped with electricity.
Built over the course of only 17 days during the spring of 1943, Tham Krasae Bridge is the longest railway bridge in Thailand and one of the most famous; the railway bridge is part of the infamous Death Railway. During World War II, Japanese occupiers used prisoners of war as laborers to built a rail line from Myanmar to Thailand to help keep their troops supplied. Working conditions were horrific, and more than 12,000 Allied POWs lost their lives working on it.
Today, trains traveling along the railway stop at Tham Krasae, where passengers can jump off and photograph the trestle bridge as it crosses the Khwae Noi River. The nearby Krasae Cave was believed to have served as a campground and field hospital for Japanese soldiers.
The Hellfire Pass segment of the Burma-Thailand railway cuts through the Tenasserim Hills in western Thailand. It earned notoriety during the World War II construction of the railway by Allied POWS, who suffered high casualty rates due to the isolation, the amount of rock that needed to be removed, and the lack of proper equipment.
More Things to Do in Central Thailand
Between 1979 and 1984 the Vajiralongkorn Dam was built across the Khwae River, creating a reservoir that completely submerged a village that once stood in the area. Today Khao Laem Lake (Khao Laem Reservoir), located in Kanchanaburi Province in Western Thailand, measures some 37 miles (60 kilometers) long and 15 miles (25 kilometers) wide — a vast area that has developed swamps, mangroves and forest habitats along its banks.
Local and international visitors come for the serene atmosphere and the leisure activities, including boat tours, canoeing and fishing for giant snakehead, jungle perch and Indian carp. Local guesthouses often take the form of floating houses, allowing visitors to spend a night right on the surface of the lake or even travel to various points on the lake via houseboat.
The verdant hills surrounding the town of Kanchanaburi hide numerous limestone caves, many of which have been used as Buddhist and animistic temples over the years. Khao Pun Cave Temple (Wat Tham Khao Pun or, occasionally, Wat Tham Khao Poon) is one of the best.
Claustrophobic passages burrow into the hill, where cave formations — stalagmites and stalactites — are interspersed with alters carved from the rock, displaying statues of the Buddha, various Hindu deities and offerings left by devotees.
During World War II, soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army used the Kanchanaburi caves for storage.
Bung Boraphet is the largest freshwater swamp in Thailand, covering an area of more than 200 square kilometers. The site is home to a large number of sea flowers, along with unique fish and birdlife, including the tiger perch and the incredibly rare white-eyed river martin. From November through March, a huge number of waterfowl migrate to Bung Boraphet, and indeed, one of the main draws is birdwatching. Other popular spots and activities include a crocodile farm, boat rides on the lake, and an extensive aquarium.
Some parts of Bung Boraphet have been designated as no-hunting areas by the Wildlife Conservation Division, and in 2000, the site was declared a wetland of international importance by the Thai government.
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