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While based in Bangkok we made several excursions outside the city. A visit to Kanchanaburi with its military history was essential, this and the ancient capital of Ayuthaya we had already decided we must see before we travelled.
The floating market was an extra - a colourful slice of traditional Thai life which has so often been lived alongside water.
Ayuthaya was the ancient capital of Thailand from 1350 to 1767. It is named for the home of Rama, Ayodhya, and its full name is "Phra Nakhon Si Ayuthaya - Sacred City of Ayodhya. Ayodhya is Sanskrit for "unassailable" or "undefeatable". 33 kings reigned before the city was taken by the Burmese at which time the city's population was around one million. Many of the sacred sites were destroyed by the Burmese at this time.
It was a golden period for Thailand, when its influence and trading associations were widespread and it ruled a large territory.
It lies some 85 km north of Bangkok so we joined an organised tour. It only took an hour or so by coach to the site of the ruined palaces and temples, some very reminiscent of Angkor Wat in shape. The city is built on an island where three rivers meet - the Chao Praya, the Pa Sak and the Lopburi - and is surrounded by canals.
Built by King Boromatrailokanat in 1448 this is a well-preserved temple, the largest on the island. The three chedis are typical Ayuthaya in style, compared to the Khmer-style prangs seen elsewhere. It once housed a 16m Buddha statue, covered in gold, which was destroyed by the Burmese invaders.
Ayuthaya is really atmospheric to wander around (though in an organised tour there's generally not much chance for that!).
As with many of the historical sites we visited, there were lots of school children learning about their country's past - mostly very sensibly in the shade of the huge trees in the well-kept grounds of the temple.
This monastery lies just south of Wat Phra Si Sanphet and houses one of Thailand's largest Buddha statues.
At least early 16th century in origin, the statue has been restored after damage due to lightning and then fire during the Burmese attacks. The building (viharn) which now houses the statue was built in 1956 and the bronze Buddha was covered in gold leaf in 1990.
Not actually on the island of Ayuthaya but just across the river on the river bank, is this Buddhist monastery, built in 1629 by King Prasat Tong. It is an extremely impressive site with a 35m central Khmer-style prang set in a courtyard with a lesser prang at each corner and other smaller prangs around. In front of the main prang the remains of the Ubosoth - the coronation hall - support two beautiful Buddha statues.
Seated torsos are all that remain of rows of many once-gilded Buddha statues along the courtyard walls.
It's a very tranquil spot now, but still imposing and must have been immensely awe-inspiring in its day.
This wooden stockade near Ayuthaya is a restoration of the kraal once used to gather wild elephants. The fence is composed of huge teak logs at a 45 degree angle and the elephants were rounded up and herded into the enclosure. It must have been quite a sight - I don't suppose the elephants would have been too happy about it! There was a raised pavilion from where the king could watch in safety.
For a tip the mahouts will get their elephants to perform tricks - I hate this kind of thing. They thought I was mad when I handed over money but stopped them making the elephants perform! All I wanted to do was get close to them and stroke them.
The elephants look fine but are swaying, which I always associate with boredom and stress.
Update 2009 In 2005 the Prakochaban Foundation was set up to help protect Thai elephants. Elephantstay, operating under the foundation, is a programme at the kraal whereby visitors can stay and look after one of the elephants - from the accounts that I've read on the web visitors become extremely attached to "their" elephant - I can well-understand it.
We returned to Bangkok by boat - a very relaxing four hours with a surprisingly good meal!
According to the guide leaflet for the palace, a 17th century Dutch merchant, Jeremias van Vliet, reported that King Ekathotsarat (reigned 1606 - 1610/11) was shipwrecked on Bang Pa-In island and there had a son by a woman who befriended him. The son grew up to become First Minister, and after usurping the throne, became King Prasat Thong (reigned 1629-1656). He founded a monastery on land on the island which belonged to his mother, then built a palace to the south of the monastery.
By the beginning of the 19th century the palace was much neglected and only when King Mongkut (Rama IV) ascended the throne in 1851 did attention return to the site. Most of the buildings to be seen now were constructed between 1872 and 1910 during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
The palace is divided by a pond into two parts: an inner palace for the king and members of his family, and an outer palace for the public.
The palace lies about 60 km north of Bangkok. It has a variety of buildings in different styles and in pristine condition. It was extremely hot when we visited and, as most of the buildings are not open to the public, we tended to view the site from the most convenient place in shade!
A beautiful Thai pavilion, in the centre of a large pool, built by King Chulalongkorn, has the daunting name Phra Thinang Aisawan Thiphya-Art - The Royal Residence of the Divine Seat of Personal Freedom. It is a copy of a pavilion built by his father, King Mongkut.
Phra Thinang (Royal Residence) Wehat Chamrun is a Chinese style building in red and gold - Wehat Chamrun means Heavenly Light. It was built by the equivalent of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and presented to King Chulalongkorn in 1889. A functioning building, it was used as a royal residence when the king visited and it is open to the public.
One of the more curious buildings is the Withun Thatsana - built in the shape of a lighthouse with balconies to give wide views of the palace and gardens.
King Chulalongkorn was apparently fond of gardening and the grounds are still very well-looked after - particularly liked the fine herd of topiary elephants!
We wanted to make this excursion to see the infamous bridge over the River Kwhae and to visit the two Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries at Kanchanaburi and, more particularly, Chung Kai.
The Japanese occupied Thailand during World War Two and wanted to build a railway as a supply route for further conquest to the west. The Japanese were harsh task-masters and worked both Allied Prisoners of War and the native labourers extremely hard. Around sixteen thousand POWs and tens of thousands of labourers died from the terrible conditions and brutal treatment. More information and personal accounts of the building of the railway can be found on the Second World War Experience Centre's website.
The Kanchanaburi cemetery is close to the town and easily visited but the Chung Kai cemetery is a little distance away so our guide arranged some private transport for us. Here we wanted to visit the grave of Gunner Lawrenson for an email contact of Andrew's. Chung Kai, as all CWGC cemeteries, is a peaceful and beautifully kept place. Before returning to Kanchanaburi we walked down to the Mae Nam Kwhae Noi river which flows very close to the cemetery
The infamous bridge is located in the town and spans the Mae Nam Kwhae Yai river. The original wooden structure, completed in February 1943, was replaced by a metal version and ready for use by April of the same year. It was used until bombed by the Allies in 1945. I attempted to walk on to the bridge (several tourists had already done so) but nearly fell through - it's a very open structure.
We then went on the little tourist train (upgrading but still very hard seats!) to Kwhae Village along the Death Railway. It's a two hour trip through very lush countryside of the Mae Nam Khwae Noi and the terrain looks immensely difficult for building a railway requiring high bridges and deep cuttings through the mountains. Some of the original wooden railway still remains.
We saw what I think were houses on the river but tethered to the river bank and it looked like they could be floated down the river. Similar craft, without the walls, are used as ferries.
The landscape is pretty much a jungle but there is some evidence of cultivation along the river banks.
We had lunch at the River Khwae village hotel, bailing out two young English lads who had run out of "beer money"! Then an exhilarating long tail boat ride on the river in a jungley gorge.
These boats are ubiquitous; long and narrow they are driven by a bare motor which turns a long pole with a propeller on the end which is dipped in and out of the water as needed.
There is a lot going on down on the river - this is where people live and it is the main local transport artery.
Floating markets are very much part of the traditional Thai way of life. I believe they can be overrun by tourists but these weren't too bad when we visited.
We made a small tour of the khlongs first, again seeing lots of domestic houses along the water. Many of these had either cultivated gardens or lots of plants in pots on the balconies.
Then just wandered around looking at the merchandise and trying things out - deep fried banana is very good - despite the fact neither of us like banana! For refreshment it's hard to beat fresh coconut juice - straight from the nut.
There were lots of boats selling fruit and vegetables and all kinds of things to eat, as well as tourist items - mostly hats and bags.