Thong Pha Phum

The town is presided over by a glittering Mon-style chedi just east of the river and accessible via a footbridge from town at Wat Tha Kha Nun or side road off route 323. A walk up the steep hillside to visit it should fill an afternoon, and you’ll be rewarded with a pleasant breeze and excellent views to as far as the dam.

One of the biggest tourist draws in the area isVajiralongkorn Dam. Unfortunately, it’s some distance from town, and not easily accessible without your own transport — it’s a six kilometre walk from town along a straight and shadeless road. You might be able to convince a motorbike taxi to take you there for 60 baht, otherwise hop on a Pilok-bound yellow songthaew from the market. It will drop you off near the dam, from where it is another kilometre hike to get there. If you can manage to make it here you’ll be rewarded with some seriously stunning views — more so of the valley to the south than the lake to the north, though that’s lovely too. There’s also a park with some cherry blossom trees that, along with the karst cliffs that are often shrouded in mist in the morning, lend the feel of being in the far south of China.

If you rustle together a group of people, Som Chaineuk will organise tours, but otherwise you need to rely on public transport to get around. Seventy kilometres to the west of Thong Pha Phum is the mountain border outpost of Pilok. There is not much to experience in Pilok except for remoteness and a complete lack of tourists, but it’s almost worth a trip just for the stunning scenery along the windy road that runs high into the mountains (not recommended for those prone to car sickness).

North of Pilok, Thong Pha Phum National Park offers some outstanding treks on high, lush mountain ridgelines with views into Burma. However, these hikes are not exactly walks in the park — those who conquer the 30-plus kilometre trail are rewarded with a document from park headquarters — and the park is not easily accessed without your own wheels. If you do go by car or motorbike, be certain to have a full tank of gas and extra gasoline as you don’t want to get stuck along the mountain roads. It’s possible to camp in the national park, but you’ll want to pack your own food and necessities. There is also a 100 baht fee to enter the park.

North and en route to Sangkhlaburi is Diachong Thong waterfall and Kraeng Kawia waterfall and aforest wat. With a number of pristine pools suitable for swimming and caves behind the falls, Kraeng Kawia is especially refreshing and it’s easily accessed directly off Route 323. About 15 kilometres south of town is Hin Taat hot springs which are three kilometres off route 323 and signposted in English. The water bubbles away in a series of artificial bathing pools at around 40 degrees, though the hot springs become less enticing when you consider that the air is sometimes 40 degrees anyway.

Further to the south you will reach Sai Yok National Park with its rafthouses, floating restaurants and waterfalls along the River Khwae. There are also a couple of elephant camps: Puthong Elephant Park and Linthinland mainly cater to organised groups from Kanchanaburi but everyone is welcome. All the southbound destinations can be reached by the local bus to Kanchanaburi.

The halfway town of Thong Pha Phum is nestled under limestone hills at the southern end of Vajiralongkorn Lake, 147 kilometres from Kanchanaburi, 70 kilometres short of Sangkhlaburi and just off Route 323.

Although it lacks the tourist amenities of Kanchanaburi and the rustic appeal of Sangkhlaburi, it’s still an attractive little town surrounded by a spectacular landscape. With only a few narrow roads and a colourful market, facilities for Western tourists are limited and the town can be easily explored in a couple of hours. Locals are charming and seem excited to see foreign travellers making time for their quaint town, which offers a good opportunity to get off the beaten track and see something different in the kingdom.

Until the construction of Route 323, Thong Pha Phum was a remote outpost of Kanchanaburi province, best known to Thais as one of the last diehard communist strongholds during the 1970s. Nowadays it’s better known to the trickle of Thai tourists who stop here for its natural beauty. Vajiralongkorn Dam, which was built in the early 1980s to create the lake that submerged old Sangkhlaburi village, is found at the northern crest of Thong Pha Phum and offers sweeping views of the valley and lake.

If you decide to stay, you’ll find a decent range of good value accommodation, and some restaurants offering delicious local fare.

Orientation

Thong Pha Phum is a tiny town, with all three of the accommodation choices, the bus station and the market all within a square kilometre just west of the Khwae River. The main bus station is located to the south of town just off Thetsaban Sailak Road, but buses typically cruise in a loop through town and past the market so you can really catch them anywhere.

Continue north up Thetsaban Sailak Road and you’ll pass a town centre with a couple of banks and ATMs, convenience stores, the police station and the regional tourist office, which rarely receives foreign visitors, so don’t expect a lot of very helpful info.

Passing through the town centre, a great local fresh and prepared foods market stretches east towards the river. The hospital is a short walk further north on Thetsaban Sailak Road, on the way to Vajiralongkorn Dam. Route 3272 connects Thong Pha Phum to the larger Route 323, which is the main road connecting Kanchanaburi to Sangkhlaburi.

Overlooked by mountains – and most tourists – Thong Pha Phum is a small but busy junction town that people exploring the national parks of northern Kanchanaburi will probably pass through.

About the only things to do in town are stroll through the municipal market, where many of the vendors are ethnically Burmese, and walk out on the suspension bridge over the river. On the other bank is Wat Tha Kanun. If you walk past it you’ll reach a long stairway going up to the stupa that seems to float over the town at night.

Outside of town, it’s worth a drive to the top of Vajiralongkorn Dam, 7km northwest, which creates the massive Kheuan Khao Laem lake. The views are beautiful and a troop of monkeys lives there. Twenty kilometres south, just off the Sangkhlaburi–Kanchanaburi highway is the popular (ie crowded) Hin Dat Hot Spring. The bòr nám rórn (hot springs) were originally developed by Japanese soldiers during the war and now have three soothing geothermal pools (plus a fourth exclusively for monks) and a massage pavilion.

Despite a bevy of oddities, such as the toilet-roll holders being outside the bathrooms, the newly built Thong Phaphum Place is the best hotel in town. It’s behind the market: look for the ‘Free WiFi’ sign. A less expensive choice is S. Boonyong Hotel, 200m northwest of the market, with old but clean rooms and bungalows.

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