When you need a little break from Bangkok’s frenzied way of life, it’s easy to make an escape for the weekend – or longer. In these upcountry destinations, just a hop, skip and jump from downtown madness in the Thai capital, you’ll find a slower pace of life, local culture to soak up, fresh air to breathe and lush green landscapes to enjoy. These are our recommended spots for weekend escapes from Bangkok.
Just a little over two hours from the capital, Kanchanaburi offers just about everything you might be looking for – verdant countryside, stunning waterfalls and national park scenery, a chilled riverside setting, and history by the bucketload in the form of cemeteries and museums dedicated to those who perished during the construction of the Thai-Burma Death Railway in World War 2, not to mention the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. Whether you choose to switch off and indulge in a good book from the comfort of a riverside hammock, or fancy something mildly more raucous (and yet still beautifully tame compared to Bangkok) by joining fellow travellers for 10-baht whisky shots and drinking games on backpacker-oriented Maenam Kwae Road, there’s something for just about everyone in Kanchanaburi. The nearby Erawan national park has seven-tiered waterfalls that are perhaps Thailand’s most famous, while both the breathtaking train ride out to Nam Tok terminus, and the moving Hellfire Pass memorial to the most gruelling part of the Death Railway construction project, are both worth making time for. If you’re not in a hurry, head further west to Sangkhlaburi town, just a few kilometres from the Burmese border, where you’ll be greeted with yet more serenity, the iconic handmade wooden bridge, a sunken temple and more. To get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok, take a bus or minivan from either the northern or southern bus terminal, a minivan from Victory Monument, or a slow, scenic train from Thonburi station across the Chaophraya river.
One of Thailand’s largest national parks, Khao Yai sits on the route into the northeast Isaan region and covers over 2,000km of land. Its popularity is well deserved – this is a sprawling and impressive green zone of mountains and wildlife, with wild tigers, elephants and bears here, as well as being a famous bird-watching destination. For the less nature-inclined among us, it’s nonetheless a great destination to simply turn up and switch off for the weekend, enjoying the seclusion that these parts offer. There are also plenty of waterfalls to discover; both day guides and night safari tours are available, while basic national park-style accommodation is pretty much your only option for staying on the grounds of the park itself. If coming by public transport, take a bus to Pak Chong from Bangkok’s northern terminal, and then either take a public truck to Khao Yai or rent one for the day (public trucks only run to the gates, from where it’s still a long distance to the visitor centre and further inside the park).
Eastern Thailand’s Chantaburi is one to which you’ll want to devote a long weekend if you can, given that it lies some five hours from Bangkok, either by bus or minivan from the capital’s Ekkamai station, or by minivan from Victory Monument. But once you arrive, you’ll feel a very long way from Bangkok – this close to Cambodia, Chantaburi is a diverse melting pot of cultures; you’ll find everyone from descendants of Catholic Vietnamese refugees to Thai Buddhists and Muslims, and plenty of traders here from far and wide thanks to the city’s reputation as a jem-trading hub. Indeed, Chantaburi’s imposing cathedral is a nod towards its multicultural history – it was constructed during a period of 12 years towards the end of the 19th century when this part of Thailand was occupied by the French, and the French-inspired architecture of the crumbling shophouses in the city’s old town is an attraction in itself. Chantaburi has a foodie history, too – it’s the birthplace of the sen chan variety of noodles that is used in traditional recipes for pad thai, and the locals have a few of their own prized noodle dishes up their sleeves, too. Among them are crab-loaded noodle soup, and the moo liang variety with plenty of dark and flavoursome pork. Seafood is a big draw here, too, as is fresh Thai fruit – including the likes of rambutans, mangosteens and durians – for which Chantaburi is famous across Thailand.
This popular floating market, around an hour from downtown Bangkok by minivan from Victory Monument, or by way of a train journey to the infamous Mae Klong railway market and then an onward trip by public truck, is a lower-key alternative to the Damnoen Saduak market that makes it onto postcards sent the world over. Yet of a late weekend afternoon even Amphawa gets busy with day-tripping Thais and, while it’s still well worth a visit, the real pleasure in visiting comes from extending it into an overnight stay at one of the many simple guest houses and homestay options that line the canal. That way, you can have all the fun of the market in the afternoon and early evening, spend a pleasant night in this serene environment, and then rise the next morning to the sight of Buddhist monks rowing along the water to collect food donations from locals. There’s also the option to come in the week – although the market itself won’t be open, you’ll enjoy cut-price guest house rates and have the peaceful canalside space practically to yourself.
Where do you like to escape to at the weekend? Let us know in the comments!
Khao Yai photo by Wat Coothong; all other photos by Chris Wotton.