This morning we take a short walk to the Chao Praya river where we board a long tail boat for a tour of the local canals. Bangkok was once known as the Venice of the East because of its intricate canal network. We get a glimpse of daily life as we pass locals selling their wares by the river. We will visit what to this day remains the home of the Thai Royal family at the Royal Palace complex followed by Wat Phra Kaew, home to the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand's most venerated images. Another highlight is Wat Po, the largest temple in Bangkok, housing a 46m long, 15m high gold-plated reclining Buddha. We then head back to our hotel. This afternoon is free for personal exploration.
Leaving Bangkok we transfer by road to Kanchanaburi (approx 3 hours). Kanchanaburi province is a pretty area and a favourite with travellers for its caves, waterfalls and river trips. Kanchanburi is an area made famous by the film 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. We will visit the J.E.A.T.H war museum, which is more a memorial to the thousands who were killed whilst constructing the 'death railway', and have a chance to pay our respects at the War Cemetery in town. We then visit Erawan National Park with its picturesque waterfalls. The waterfalls are named after the Erawan, the three-headed white elephant of Hindu mythology which the seven-tiered falls are said to resemble. Your time here is free to enjoy the falls area and there is a chance to enjoy some swimming or to walk to the top of the falls (approx 2 hours return trip), before checking into our riverside resort on the outskirts of Kanchanaburi town.
Today we take a ride on the infamous Death Railway but first we visit Hellfire Pass so called because POW's were forced to chisel through solid rock, working by firelight on a particularly difficult section of the line resulting in a heavy loss of life. The film 'Bridge on the River Kwai' is fictional but uses the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-43 for its historical setting. The Japanese used Allied POW's to build a railway from Thailand to Burma so they could supply their army without the dangers of sending supplies by sea. Thousands of POW's died under appalling conditions during its construction, and the line became known as the 'death railway'. Our train ride will finish at the bridge itself which was reconstructed after the war and is used today to take tourist trains over the river.
After breakfast we head to Ayuthaya (approx 4 hours drive), the 2nd royal capital of the Kingdom of Siam. At its peak the Kingdom encompassed large parts of present day Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Diplomatic and international trade missions found their way to Ayuthaya from countries as far afield as Europe. It was not long before Ayuthaya became one of the most important trading centres of the region. The population grew to over 1 million people by the 17th Century, more than any European capital at the same time. Following decades of wars and then a siege that lasted nearly 2 years, Ayuthaya was invaded and destroyed by the Burmese army. Temples were ransacked and statues of gold stolen and carried off to Burma. Following this devastating defeat the Siamese Kingdom relocated its capital to Thonburi (now a suburb in Bangkok) on the banks of the Chao Praya River. In Ayuthaya we explore the temples that still remain today as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the afternoon we board a converted rice barge for a delightful lunch cruise, sampling the delights that Thai cuisine has to offer. Early evening we board our overnight sleeper train bound for Chiang Mai.
In the early morning the train pulls into Chiang Mai, 'The Rose of the North', known for its temples, markets and the many colourful hill tribes that live in the area. After transferring to our hotel, the rest of the morning is free to relax or explore on your own. Chiang Mai is a former religious and cultural centre, twice coming under the control of the Burmese, there is a strong Burmese influence reflected in the architecture of the city. In the afternoon we visit the hilltop temple of Doi Suthep, the most revered Buddhist shrine in the Chiang Mai region. The climb up to the temple is well worth the effort as on a clear day it affords an excellent view over Chiang Mai and its striking temple landscape. In the evening we can visit the night market where many of the hilltribe's handicrafts can be seen.
We spend the day at a highly commended Thai Cooking School, where we learn the intricacies of Thai cooking. Under the supervision of an English-speaking Thai chef you have the opportunity to create your own 'gaeng keow wahn' or green coconut curry or spicy Pad Thai. You don't need to be a proficient cook to enjoy this activity but, be warned, you get to eat your creations at the end of the day!
In the morning we drive (approx 1½ hours) to the Chiang Dao elephant conservation centre. In the past elephants have been used as beast of burden in the logging industry but over a decade ago the Thai government banned logging leaving the elephants and their mahouts out of work. This is a centre set up for the long term care of these graceful animals and we get to go on a ride on one of them while we are there. From here we head to our Hmong Lodge. The evening is free to relax in the lodge's rural setting, where the staff will perform some of the traditional Hmong dances. Our lodgings are bungalows built in Hmong style but with the creature comforts of a proper bed, hot shower and Western toilets.
Today we take a gentle 2-3 hour trek into the hills to visit a nearby Hmong village to learn a little more about the lifestyles on the Hmong Hilltribe people who are believed to have migrated down from southern China 100 - 150 years ago. It was the Hmong tribesmen who made up much of the CIA's secret army in Laos during the Indochina conflict. They are a ferociously independent hilltribe group who have maintained their own culture, customs and languages over the centuries. We then return to Chiang Mai.
This morning we fly to Bangkok and then drive to Hua Hin, approximately 3 hours by minivan, a popular tourist destination for Thais as well as foreigners.
Day 12 - 13
These two days are ours to relax and unwind in tropical Hua Hin. This royal beach resort, features long stretches of sand and smooth waters. We take a day trip to 'Khao Sam Roi Yort National Park, meaning Three Hundred Mountain Peaks in English. The park features towering limestone pinnacles and mysterious caves. Great for birdlife, the park is best explored on foot and by boat along the coastline. We will visit the famous Tham Phraya Nakhon, a cave that houses a Royal Salaa (meeting hall) for one of the Thai kings, Rama V. The park is an adventurers dream, and your guide will help you explore it on foot to get that perfect photo. Your hotel has a pool, and is just a short ride from the heart of the town which features an eclectic night market, and a large variety of restaurants.
This morning we drive back to Bangkok where the afternoon is free for any final shopping, sightseeing or relaxing that you wish to do.
Fly to London.