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If you don’t have much time to spare, Thong Pha Phum works as a one-night stop off during the long trip up to Sangkhlaburi. Other travelers might wonder why you’re jumping off the bus at a destination that attracts few foreigners and does not look enticing from the roadside. Don’t worry—you’ll see why it’s worth a stop after wandering by the river and venturing into the countryside.
The small town lacks foreign tourism services and we always find it refreshingly ordinary after spending time on Kanchanaburi’s brash tourist strip. A Thai Communist Party stronghold into the early 1980s, Thong Pha Phum’s locals have retained an independent spirit in their remote corner of the kingdom.
A lazy sit by the attractive River Khwae Noi is a fine way to unwind before a dinner of locally caught river fish. However, beware that strong currents have caused drownings in the area in recent years. Water from nearby Vajiralongkorn Dam is often released without warning, suddenly turning a calm river into a force that can drag powerful swimmers downstream in a flash.
Those who take the time to properly explore the whole area will find that it competes with Sangkhlaburi on natural scenery and attractions. The Khwae Noi and other waterways join jungle-cloaked mountains and the southern end of Vajiralongkorn Reservoir (aka Khuean Khao Laem) with its many rafthouses and inlets. To make the most of this notably large and heavily forested district, give Thong Pha Phum three or four days and bring a vehicle.
The scenery is most dazzling amid the steep Tenassarim mountains that extend west from town all the way to the Burma border. That’s where you’ll find the relatively high-altitude outpost of Pilok, which gradually shifted from tin mining to low-level tourism over the past few decades. Getting there from Thong Pha Phum town takes you on a bumpy 70-km journey through the mountains.
Pilok is the jumping off point for Thong Pha Phum National Park and its 1,200-metre ridgelines affording vistas into an equally remote expanse of southeastern Burma. Thong Pha Phum town is also within striking distance of waterfalls, caves and other attractions in several other national parks, including Khuean Srinagarindra, Lam Khlong Ngu, Khao Laem and Sai Yok. You could spend weeks exploring them all.
Most of the foreign travelers who visit Thong Pha Phum continue up to Sangkhlaburi and, taken together, this is a terrific pair of offbeat destinations for lovers of nature and culture. On the way up here you’ll pass several strawberry farms that are always fun for a bite and a photo.
While wet season may offer waterfalls at full strength, you’ll pay for it in terrible road conditions. Our advice is to aim for between late October and mid March. This will allow you to dodge most of the rain while enjoying (relatively) cooler temparatures. Kanchanaburi province can be blistering hot in April and May, though it will still be a little cooler in Pilok at that time of the year thanks to the higher altitude.
At 3,655 square km, Thong Pha Phum is the largest district in Kanchanaburi, which in turn is one of the largest provinces in Thailand. The district rims the lower third of Vajiralongkorn Reservoir and has steep mountains stretching west towards Burma’s Tanintharyi region and all the way east to Thailand’s remote Umphang, though you’ll find no through roads in that direction due to the dense wilds of the Western Forest Complex.
The district is anchored by its central town in the River Khwae Noi valley. The bulk of Thong Pha Phum town covers only two square km on the west side of the river, between Highway 3272 and the main drag, known as Thetsaban Sailak Rd. The larger Highway 323 is found over on the east side of the river and it continues north to Sangkhlaburi and south to Kanchanaburi town.
In the heart of town, the Municipal Market is squeezed between the river and Thetsaban Sailak Rd. Continue north up this street and you’ll find some banks and ATMs along with the police station and Thong Pha Phum Hospital (T: 034 599 601), set at the north end of town. Buses and songthaews stop at the market and at the south end of town near the junction where Thetsaban Sailak Rd meets Highway 3272, not far from the post office.
Thong Pha Phum has a sprinkling of passable hotels in town to go with a fantastic family-run resort on the outskirts.
If you have a vehicle and can splash out more than 1,000 baht for a room, head a few km east of town and check into Pukgood Habitat (T: 228/4 Moo 1, 3 km east of town off northbound lane of Highway 323. T: (092) 665 6592). Taking the Thai word for fiddleheads as its name, this stylish family-owned resort has a few freestanding concrete villas set on a hill with an outlook to a forested slope. The 1,200- to 1,500-baht rooms sport temple-style Thai art and terracotta tile floors with rattan furnishings, tables, fridges and kettles with coffee and tea. Creature comforts include soft beds, air-con, TVs, hot-water rain showers in spacious bathrooms and hammocks on the terraces. Below the gravel car park you’ll find an outdoor relaxation area with stairs leading down to more chairs and mats set beside a bubbling stream that feeds the Khwae Noi. The English-speaking Thai owner provided top-notch service in a laid-back way, and her kids are adorable. If you’re not up for stairs however, look elsewhere.
A solid option set directly west of the Municipal Market in the heart of town is Thong Pha Phum Place (West of the municipal market. T: (034) 599 544). This nondescript two-storey guesthouse has a car park and large, clean rooms outfitted with chunky wooden tables and frames for the firm beds. The blank-walled, air-con-cooled rooms with clean hot-water bathrooms come in a variety of sizes and prices range from 600 to 1,500 baht. Some rooms have double beds for couples while others feature as many as five single beds, making this lodge-style guesthouse a good choice for families.
Nearby Suan Rim Kwae Resort (Behind the municipal market. T: (081) 190 9284) is likeable thanks to its prime location between the river and the market. The 600- to 1,000-baht rooms come in a couple of concrete two-storey buildings with entrances by the car park and nearly floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the river. A couple of larger and pricier rooms are set right by the water, and this is one of the only lodgings in town with direct views of the Khwae Noi. The undecorated rooms are furnished with firm beds, tile floors, TVs and wet bathrooms with hot-water showers. Though he spoke little English, the owner was notably welcoming to us.
In the budget department, Somjainuek (Corner of Thetsaban Sailak Rd and Thetsaban Soi 5. T: (034) 599 001) is a long-running spot found south of the market with old 500-baht wooden bungalows sporting air-con, firm beds, hot-water bathrooms and front porches with some chairs overlooking a car park shaded by tamarind trees and set back from the main road. North of the market, S. Boonyong Hotel (161-18 Thetsaban Sailak Rd T: (081) 889 7246 Facebook) is an old standby with well-worn fan rooms (cold water) for 300 baht and air-con digs with hot water for 500 baht.
You’ll also find at least a dozen little Thai-style resorts with rafthouse rooms floating on the lake around 10 km west of town on the way to Pilok. Most have signs in Thai language only and we didn’t have time to inspect them, but places like Angkana Raft and Pha Phueng Raft appear to be lovely if you can speak some Thai. Lodgings are also available out in Pilok.
Along with plentiful fish from the River Khwae Noi, Thong Pha Phum has its share of open-fronted shops selling street staples like kuay thiao nam (noodle soup) and khao ka muu (stewed pork shoulder with rice). Don’t expect traveller-oriented cafes like in Kanchanaburi, however.
Your first stop in town should be the centrally located Municipal Market, known locally as Talad Thong Pha Phum (Centre of town about halfway up Thetsaban Sailak Rd. Mo–Su: early morning to late afternoon) , where food carts dish out grilled chicken and fish along with khao lam (coconut sticky rice grilled in bamboo) and other goodies. It’s also the place to browse fruit, veggies and fish, including the fatty and tender pla khang that the area is known for. If you’re around on a Friday afternoon, also check out the larger market that sprawls on a side lane near the hospital on the north side of town.
For a relaxing riverside meal, stroll to the east side of the Municipal Market and look for the wooden tables at Ruen Suan Restaurant (On the river behind the Municipal Market. Mo–Su: 08:00-22:00). With prices in the 60 to 200 baht range, it serves a local variation of rich gaeng hang-lay which is a typically Northern Thai curry made with pork; and fiery jungle curry (gaeng pa) packed with fish—a signature dish of Kanchanaburi province. The chefs also whip up whole deep-fried fish with spicy dipping sauces along with various Thai soups and salads, and an English-language menu is available.
One of the area’s best-known eateries is Roi Mor (Half km east of the river on Highway 323. Mo–Su: morning to afternoon), a khao gaeng joint whose name means “100 Pots,” although we saw only around 13 pots of curry on our last visit. To reach it, head east out of town and look for the stainless steel pots lined up on the left, a half-km beyond the river.
On the same road but closer to the river, Raan Pad Riew’s (100 metres east of the river on Highway 3272. Mo–Su: 09:00-22:00; T: (034) 599 780) open-sided pavilions are set back beyond a field of wing bean stalks. This relaxing spot is worth a stop for an espresso or beer with tom yum, tod man pla (fish cakes), yum tua plu (wing bean salad with prawn) and other seafood-oriented dishes.
Thong Pha Phum doesn’t have much Western food but you will find spaghetti, burgers, steak, beer and coffee at a centrally located cafe called Hang Laem @ Thong Pha Phum (Corner of Thetsaban Sailak Rd and Highway 3272 at the south end of town. Mo–Su: 11:00-22:00 T: (095) 919 0758). While the town has minimal nightlife, you’ll find a few open-air pubs out on Highway 3272 on the west side of town.
Climb to a chedi for a view of the valley and meet the monkeys at the dam in the immediate vicinity of Thong Pha Phum town. A little further afield, hot springs and a waterfall should leave you refreshed.
The prime attraction in town is Wat Tha Khanun, a forest monastery with a limestone massif topped by a bell-shaped chedi and a Buddha shrine. Scale the vertical cliff via a long set of stairs to enjoy a view of the River Khwae Noi and the town beyond. The temple also has a gold-painted mondop, a white Chinese-style Buddha image and a spacious meditation hall.
Getting to Wat Tha Khanun is half of the fun. Stroll through the Municipal Market and then turn right down a back lane, and you’ll spot a suspension bridge that fords the river and deposits you near the massif on the eastern bank. You can also reach it via the main entrance off Highway 323. A climb up the cliff to go with a poke around the rest of the temple and a slow walk across the bridge should kill a few hours. This along with the market is the extent of what some travelers accomplish during a one-night stay in Thong Pha Phum.
Eight km north of town you’ll find the 1984-completed Vajiralongkorn Dam joined by a golf course and a lakeside park where cherry blossoms bloom late in the dry season. A troupe of macaques also hangs around here. Venturing up to the dam rewards you with views of the valley to the south and the lake’s clean blue water, which stretches north all the way up too Sangkhlaburi. Bring a picnic. To get here you can take a Pilok-bound songthaew and hop out along the main road, which is a one km walk from the dam. If coming on your own steam, it’s a straight shot north from town along Highway 3272.
A little more than 20 km south of town off Highway 323, Hin Dat Hot Springs has several large geothermal pools that Japanese soldiers formed during World War II to capture the 30 to 40 C water. Now the facility doubles as a health spa charging 60 baht for adult entry, with additional costs for massages and other treatments. It’s open 06:00 to 22:00 and can be reached directly by songthaew for 40 baht or by Kanchanaburi-bound bus, which will drop you on the highway and leave the final few hundred metres for you to walk.
Continue eight km past Hin Dat Hot Springs on the same road to find Pha Tad Waterfall, open from 08:30 to 16:30. With travertine water and gently rounded rocks, its three tiers resemble parts of the larger Huai Mae Khamin and Erawan waterfalls. We haven’t made it to Pha Tad because we always seem to pass through late in dry season when the falls become a trickle, but locals told us that at least one of the natural pools is suitable for a swim. The waterfall is a 300-metre walk from a national park station, where camping is permissible.
Pha Tad Waterfall is part of Khuean Srinagarindra National Park, so foreign adults should expect to pay a rather steep 300 baht to enter. See more of this park by heading east on rural road 3091, which cuts up into the mountains before descending to the park’s namesake reservoir and the marvelous Huai Mae Khamin Waterfall with its larger campground and lodgings. Keep in mind however that much of 3091 is a dirt road with no services along the 56 km between waterfalls—travel it at your own risk. If you have four-wheel-drive or a dirt bike and enjoy rough roads, it is a thrilling way to head east before turning south towards Erawan National Park and Kanchanaburi town.
One of the most remote sub-districts in Thailand is Pilok, an old tin mining centre that in recent years has caught on as an offbeat mountain destination. Vistas of rugged terrain in both Burma and Thailand make this tiny border outpost worth a long and bumpy ride into the woods.
Straddling the Burma border amid the sharp ridges of the Tenassarim mountains, the village of I-tong (or E-tong) is the hub of Pilok sub-district. By “hub” we mean a few narrow lanes and a roughly 200- by 300-metre cluster of houses fronted by a human-made pond. I-Tong is located around 1,000 metres above sea level so do pack a sweater for the cold nights and foggy mornings.
The once-bustling village arose on the back of tin mining in the mid 20th century, when reaching it entailed a multi-day journey by boat and mule. When the price of tin crashed in the mid to late 1980s, only a few hundred of the Burman, Mon and Thai residents stayed put in the mountains. A long dirt road that was initially cut through the wilds to bring tin to the wider world, enabled travellers to access the extreme seclusion and mountain vistas of Pilok.
While the relatively recent influx of domestic tourists transformed some houses into souvenir shops and Instagrammable cafes, the village still has old-style Mon homes and gardens to enjoy. You’ll also find a market stuffed with Mon-style clothing and goods imported from Burma, which is easier to access from Pilok than the rest of Thailand—at least for those allowed to cross.
Open only to Burmese and Thai citizens with special permission, a border crossing that slips through a rock cutting on the Nern Sao Thong ridgeline stands a km northwest of the village. After hiking up there to gaze into Burma’s remote Tanintharyi region, we were delighted when a rifle-toting Burmese guard let us walk 10 metres into his country to check out a map of the area.
On the way back to the village we climbed up to the colourful chedi at Wat Mueang Pilok, which affords views of Thailand’s share of the mountains. This small temple is not far from the helipad used to airlift patients to Thong Pha Phum or Kanchanaburi in case of emergency.
The remains of a small, defunct mine remain in the village, but to reach what’s left of the larger Somsak Mine you’ll need to hike or drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle four km along a rough dirt lane that begins at the far south end of the village. Near the old mine you’ll find Somsak Mine Forest Glade Home (T: (065) 935 2235; Facebook), a 30-year-old guesthouse operated by Glennis (or “Auntie Glen”), the Australian widow of the mine’s original Thai owner, Somsak, who died in 1994. Their story is fascinating.
Other reputable lodgings in the village include Love Pilok Homestay (T: (098) 381 5999 Facebook) and Pilok Hill House (T: (080) 781 5702; (089) 477 5656 ; Official site), both of which are relatively comfy. You’ll find several others and booking ahead is not usually necessary unless it’s a weekend—and especially if it’s a holiday weekend. WiFi and cell service worked reasonably well in most of I-Tong, but don’t expect to have service for on the ride out here.
Also in the south of I-Tong, an extremely steep one-km lane leads up to Noen Chang Suek, a viewpoint affording tremendous outlooks to the layered mountains on both sides of the border. From there you can hike another half-km through the forest to the small Pha Pae Waterfall. A Royal Thai Army camp is nearby so don’t be surprised to see armed soldiers afoot.
Eight km northeast of I-Tong on the way back towards Thong Pha Phum you’ll find the marked turn off for another very steep lane. This one cuts downhill to Chokkradin Waterfall, which cascades over a vertical 30-metre cliff. It and Noen Chang Suk can be reached by public songthaew tours that start in I-Tong and cost 100 baht per person if at least four people join. There are no additional charges for any of the attractions.
If using your own vehicle, head north out of Thong Pha Phum town on Highway 3272 and continue west all the way to Pilok. The 70-km drive takes two to three hours—possibly longer during rainy season—and is extremely bumpy and curvy. While the road is (barely) manageable in a sedan during dry season, do not attempt it in rainy season without four-wheel-drive. Past attempts to seal some stretches have left deep ruts. The road is also narrow and there are few guardrails to stop vehicles from falling into ravines. Drive with care.
The other way to reach Pilok is by catching a yellow songthaew at the Municipal Market in Thong Pha Phum town. In February 2020 these departed at 10:30, 11:00 and 13:00 and cost 70 baht per person, but departures often depend on how many passengers are travelling, along with road conditions. The songthaews drop passengers in the centre of I-Tong village. In theory they return to Thong Pha Phum at 06:30 and 07:30, possibly with an 08:00 departure.
Headquartered 10 km east of I-Tong village is Thong Pha Phum National Park, which covers 1,120 square km of hill evergreen forest in the Tenassarim mountains. This is one remote national park.
The park’s main draw is Khao Chang Phuak, a 1,249-metre mountain topped by a breathtaking ridgeline with grades so steep on either side that it’s known as Sun Kom Meed, or “Knife Blade’s Edge”. Those who manage to make it up there are treated to one of Thailand’s most photogenic hikes. (Check out A Thai Trekker’s helpful post to see for yourself.)
Conquering the Knife Blade demands a two-day, two-night trek that starts at park headquarters and cuts through the forest to a campsite, where hikers get some sleep before ascending up to the ridge the following morning. So challenging is the trek that rangers reward hikers with a certificate of completion.
The ridge trail consists of rocks and dirt with waste-high grass blanketing the steep slopes below. It can be dangerous even though much of the trail is fitted with ropes. In 2017, a 26-year-old hiker was severely injured after slipping into a 20-metre plunge.
As some hikers have joked, the hardest part can be organising the trek rather than the trek itself. All participants must be accompanied by park-provided guides and there is a quota of 60 people per trek. Reservations need to be made not more than a week in advance, and the only way to reserve is by calling headquarters. Thai language skills will help.
Once you’ve booked, show up on the right morning with 300 baht per foreign adult for a ticket to the park along with 300 baht per person for the guides and an additional 30 baht for accident insurance. Porters can carry your packs and equipment for 750 baht, and hikers are asked to bring their own tent and food. Up to five hikers can join a trek with a single booking.
The climb up Khao Chang Phuak is only offered during dry-season months from November through January. Expect difficulty securing a spot at any time, but especially over holiday weekends like New Year’s and Father’s Day in early December.
Within park boundaries you’ll also find two waterfalls—Chokkradin and Pha Pae—but these do not require a ticket to the park and they’re typically visited as part of a tour of Pilok. Visitors can camp at park headquarters or stay at a guesthouse over in I-Tong. To reach headquarters, follow the directions to I-Tong and you’ll see the park gates on the right before arriving in the village.
Thong Pha Phum National Park: (T: 034 510 979 ; 098 252 0359 ; Official site
Local buses and minibuses running between Kanchanaburi and Sangkhlaburi—as well as the occasional bus to/from Bangkok—all make a five-minute stop in Thong Pha Phum.
Fetching 80 baht to Kanchanaburi and 70 baht to Sangkhlaburi and taking several hours in either direction, the slow red buses stop at the Municipal Market as well as near the junction of Thetsaban Sailak Rd and Highway 3272 at the south end of town. Picking up passengers around 200 metres north of the Municipal Market, minibuses cost a bit more and are considerably faster. Buses and minibuses heading in either direction stop in Thong Pha Phum at least once per hour from around 07:00 to 19:00.
First-class buses to Bangkok’s Morchit Terminal depart at 09:30 and 11:00 from a bus stop near Thanachart Bank at the south end of town. They cost around 200 baht and take around six hours.
Yellow songthaews to Pilok depart from the Municipal Market at 10:30, 11:00 and 13:00 for 70 baht and take two to three hours. Fewer departures may be available during rainy season.
We didn’t find any car or motorbike rental options in Thong Pha Phum, but you could rent one down in Kanchanaburi and cruise up here. Otherwise the town is small enough to walk around, and we saw a few motorbike taxis and a lone tuk tuk at the Municipal Market.
Last updated on 29th November, 2020.