Thursday, 8 August 2013

Rolling on the River Kwai

Lying on my bed at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts "floatel", I'm grateful I'm not a sleepwalker.

My cabin is one of four on this particular wooden raft, which is at one end of a chain of connected and anchored rafts bobbing on the River Kwai in western Thailand.   

Recent rain has swollen the river, with the sound of running water creating the ultimate "mood soundtrack" to fall asleep to.   Every now and then a long-tail boat passes, gently rocking the raft.

But with water beneath and all around, going for a stroll in the dark is not advised.

Here there's no electricity.  No wifi.  No hot water. 

And it's perfect.

The chain of rafts creating the River Kwai Jungle Rafts
Created in 1976, it seems the River Kwai Jungle Rafts existed long before the term "eco-hotel" was coined.

Surrounded by steep river banks engulfed by dense jungle, like all guests I arrive and depart using long-tail boats that slice their way along the river.

Raft view across the river to the jungle
A makeshift, bamboo gangplank is the only connection the rafts have with the "mainland" and this takes you to a local village of Mon people who staff the floatel.

The Mon people are an ethnic group from Myanmar (about 20km away) who have migrated into Thailand in search of a better life.   Over time they've struggled for proper recognition and their movements in Thailand are restricted by the government.  But working at the floatel gives them an opportunity to not only work, attend school, and eventually gain Thai citizenship, but also a chance to showcase their unique culture.

The locals paint their faces with thanaka in the traditional way, perform nightly dance shows, and proudly show visitors the unique aspects of their language, homes and religion.  

Local Mon girl joins her mum on the raft 
There's quite a community feel on the rafts, no doubt aided by the fact that we're all literally "in the one boat together".

The cabins are simple, but provide everything I need, including a separate toilet, shower and, most importantly, hammock.   A central raft supports the restaurant and bar, along with reception.

I feel like I've completely removed myself from the world when I slip under the mosquito net and into my double bed.

Given it feels like I'm in the middle of nowhere, surprisingly there's more to do here than just hang around in a hammock in between delicious meals of Thai food.

Activity option: hanging around
Groups of guests routinely don life jackets, race to the front of the rafts, jump into the swiftly-flowing river, and then float down to the end of the raft chain.  It's not quite clear where you could end up if you don't manage to haul yourself out of the river by the end raft.

Trips to the nearby Lawa Cave and Soi Yok Noi Waterfall also highlight some of the river's natural attractions.

The village's elephants who come and bath in the river in the morning 
Joining me on the rafts are plenty of British, Australian, Dutch and other tourists.  Many have been attracted to this region around Kanchanaburi to learn more about the building of the Thai-Burma "Death" Railway by Japanese POWs during World War II.  

A short trip away is the notorious Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, dedicated to those who worked and died on one of the most demanding stretches of the railway's construction.  This reminder of the death, torture and hardship of those sent here against their will to work is a striking contrast to the tranquil setting of my temporary raft home.

But it also reminds me that the River Kwai and surrounding jungle are the real masters in this neck of the woods and I'm just along for the ride.

Being in the middle of the jungle doesn't mean you have to go thirsty

The River Kwai Jungle Rafts

I travelled as a guest of River Kwai Jungle Rafts (; Scoot Airlines (; The Pullman Bangkok King Power (; The Tourism Authority of Thailand (; and the Ibis Bencoolen Singapore (

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