Located about 100km west of Bangkok at the convergence of three rivers, Kanchanaburi offers a relatively easy getaway from Thailand’s capital.
Attracting crowds of tourists interested in learning about the difficult history of Thailand during World War II, it is here that the occupying Japanese constructed the Thai-Burma Railway. Today, trains still use the tracks and travellers riding in the carriages are taken through landscapes rich in sugar cane, rice fields and farmland while remaining ever conscious of the victims who paid the price for its construction.
The impressive bridge over the river in Kanchanaburi was one of many that formed part of the infamous railway line. History abounds in the area and should not be overlooked, with a visit to the JEATH War Museum, the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre and one of the war cemeteries recommended to learn more about the events that occurred here.
Some of the highlight attractions and activities in the Kanchanaburi include the following.
Before heading over to the Bridge over the River Kwae, it’s a good idea to stop by the JEATH War Museum to learn of the stories behind the construction of the infamous Death Railway. The museum is housed inside the exact replica of the Prisoners of War’s bamboo huts, built on the original site of the first wooden bridge across the river. The dark, cramped interiors display a collection of photographs from the days when the construction took place and the living conditions that the POW’s were forced to endure, accompanied by real accounts of the event by the POW’s themselves as well as their relatives, friends and writers of that time. These stories help bring a context to the scene where the reconstructed bridge now stands.
The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum is a tribute to those who suffered building the railway. Allied prisoners of war and hundreds of thousands of Asian workers were ordered to build a rail route to Myanmar by Japanese forces during the WWII. The Museum’s looming walls are marked with the hammer and drill marks of the prisoners forced to cut through the mountainous terrain.
After seeing Hellfire Pass for yourself, head to the Death Railway Museum to further your understanding of both the construction of the railway as well as the war itself.
Built by the same prisoners who cut through Hellfire Pass, the Bridge Over The River Kwai, which actually crosses over the beautiful Kwai Yai River, is yet another reminder of the town’s dark past. The bridge itself is a major tourist attraction and although constructed under terrible circumstances, is surprisingly attractive and overlooks riverside restaurants and lush, green banks.
Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery (Don Rak) is the final resting place of those who lost their lives during the construction of the railway. The second you step inside; you are embraced by complete stillness. The name plaques of nearly 7000 Allied POW’s are spread neatly across the landscaped grounds. Out of some 100 000 labourers who died during the construction of the Death Railway, 16000 were Allied POW’s, the rest were Thai and Asian forced labourers.
Smaller and less visited War Cemeteries can be found at the Chung Kai Allied War Memorial across the river that houses the graves of 1740 Allied POWs. Volunteers impeccably maintain the grounds at both.
A cultural highlight not far from the town’s centre, the Prasat Muang Singh Historical Park features four 13th-Century Khmer-style ruins and an ancient human burial site. The main ruin is of an ancient temple set on a rectangular base with a corn-shaped prang standing at its centre. Four walls and entrance gates with stone-carved lintels surround the temple. Archaeological evidence implies heavy Khmer influences in the area and that the temple was built as a place of worship for Mahayana Buddhists. Strolling around the grounds can take time and you may opt to rent a bicycle and explore the site on two wheels.
Be sure to visit the stunning Wat Tham Sua. About an hour outside of Kanchanaburi, this quieter temple is off the usual routes. Not to be confused with the Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua), Wat Them Sua (Tiger Cave Temple) is an architectural wonder. Climb the 157 steep steps to get to the top, where the giant golden Buddha image rests inside a semi-circular dome. The main chapel features ornate, multi-tier gables and door arches, built on an octagonal base. Another highlight is the ‘Ket Kaew’ pagoda, featuring multiple built-in niches along its polygonal sides. The climb to the top of the temple may be a long one, but the view towards the rice fields, the River Kwai and Kanchanaburi in the distance makes it well worth it.
Wat Ban Tham is another cave temple located halfway up a mountain that is accessed by climbing through the mouth and insides of a huge dragon statue. Various moments of Lord Buddha’s life are painted on the walls inside the dragon, but it is the dragon staircase that usually steals the show.
Colourful open-air market scenes await you at the two Kanchanaburi Night Markets. Although not as big as the legendary Chiang Mai or other Bangkok night markets, Kanchanaburi night markets are great places to interact with the locals, to bargain for goods and find delicious food. The two markets are located near the bus station and train station, and the best time to go is after sunset until 21:00.
The area adjoining the eastern approach of the Bridge over the River Kwai has dozens of stalls selling every kind of crafts and goods from handmade bamboo products, porcelain, Thai musical instruments, gemstones, silk and clothing. Shopping here serves as an extension of your sightseeing experience.
The location of Kanchanaburi makes it a perfect place for riverboat tours and water sports and there is a wide range of activities on offer by travel agents in the town, including kayaking, canoeing and scenic cruises on the river.
Natural Attractions around Kanchanaburi
The main draw to the area may undeniably be the River Kwai and the infamous railway line that dates back to the Japanese occupation of Thailand during World War II, but as the largest of Thailand’s western provinces, Kanchanaburi has much more to offer, making it ideal for visitors seeking both a cultural and nature-based experience.
The numerous national parks and conservation areas in the province ensure the protection of a wealth of indigenous plant and animal species, including tigers and elephants, while the surrounding hills are home to Buddhist temples hidden within the large and impressive limestone cave systems.
These are some of the top recommended attractions for nature and animal enthusiasts.
Erawan National Park
A waterfall oasis, the Erawan National Park is found about an hour outside the city. You can spend the whole day here exploring the seven levels of waterfalls, climbing from one to the next. There are hiking trails, caves and emerald coloured plunge pools to explore and enjoy along the way. One of the most famous parks in all of Thailand, the deciduous forest makes up 80% of the park, and the remainder is covered in evergreens. With the spectacular waterfalls that flow into each other and the heavily wooded land, the area is a fairy tale haven for nature lovers.
Srinakarin National Park
Srinakarin National Park is best known for the spectacular Huay Mae Khamin Waterfall that cascades down towards the Khwae Yai River and is arguably one of the most stunning in the country. Adventurous visitors can visit the caves that are found around the park, while art lovers will appreciate Tham Sawan and Tham Phra, where prehistoric paintings are found alongside imageries of Lord Buddha. Numerous animal species occur here, so keep your eyes open.
Another area of beautiful natural scenery is the Srinakarind Reservoir, which is located behind the Srinakarind Dam. This marks the beginning of the waterway that leads to the famous River Kwai. The hike there will take a few hours, and by boat it takes around 5 hours from the ferry pier at Srinakarind Dam. Other interesting sights in the area are the Phra That Cave, the Huay Mae Khamin Waterfalls and the Tham Than Lot Cave. The Srinakarind Dam has a nice cafe serving mostly Thai food and is open every day.
Cycle out to the Giant Tree
If big, wise, ancient trees warm your heart, head out into the gorgeous countryside surrounding Kanchanaburi by bicycle – or scooter, if you don’t feel like tackling the 30km round trip in the heat. As soon as you leave the city you’ll find yourself in peaceful green surrounds, with limestone peaks and plenty of temples to visit along the way. Out here you’ll find the giant monkey-pod (or rain tree) of Kanchanaburi. With a canopy height of 20m and a trunk large enough to be encircled by ten people, it stands understated grandness. Estimated to be over 100 years old, once arrived you may want to enjoy some time under the huge, shady branches, while you pay your respects.
Cruise the River Kwai
As famous for its history as for its natural form, the River Kwai is well known for its bridge and the namesake book and movie that detail its construction by Allied POWs under the command of the Japanese military. That said the river itself deserves to be explored. Take a boat tour to learn its history, and admire its extent and significance in the natural and social histories of the region. There is an educational and commercial developments centre near the bridge, should you wish to visit it. Or simply take a cruise along the water to a quieter section of the river and enjoy the plant and animal life found along the riverbanks.
Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Park
This beautiful public park surround by limestone mountains is home to a garden of ornamental plants and flowers, and the statue of the King’s mother Somdech Phra Srinagarindra. There are two adjoining caves here called Tham Ruesi Sawan and Tham Luk Suea, in which a stream and formations of stalactites and stalagmites are found. Not far from the park is a historic cave, Tham Khao Ngoen. Here King Rama V’s initials are carved into the cave wall, left there by the King in 1889.
Elephant Conservation Network
The Elephant Conservation Network (ECN) is a small non-government organisation located in Kanchanaburi that works in partnership with local people as well as local and national government agencies tackling the challenges of elephant conservation and human-elephant conflict. ECN’s ultimate aim is to ensure a future for wild elephants in Thailand. The sanctuary is home to over 150 wild elephants whose forest habitat has been reduced by encroachment, as well as by dams and roads. The aim of the Elephant Conservation Network is to secure the future of the elephants and their forest ecosystem.
Elephant’s World is a sanctuary near Kanchanaburi that is home to over 30 elephants that are rescued and freed from inhumane treatment. Offering day and overnight programs that allow travellers to visit with the elephants in an ethical way while enjoying the picturesque scenery of the River Kwai.
If it’s a beach you’re after, get to Chuk Don Beach on the Mae Klong River just a few kilometres outside Kanchanaburi town. It offers a magical playground for children and a place where adults can relax in between their exploration of the area.
Orienting yourself in Kanchanaburi is very easy. The main road, Saeng Chuto Road, runs through the length of the town from north to south, connecting the River Kwai Bridge, the train station and the bus station. Running parallel to this, closer to the river, is Mae Nam Kwae Road where most of the guesthouses and the local bar scene can be found.
Where to Stay
Kanchanaburi offers a variety of accommodation with most conveniently located in the central part of the town where most of the food options are, as well as near the main War Cemetery and train station. A popular option is a raft house on the river, where you will be gently rocked to sleep by the flow of the water, although this can get noisy over weekends.
Kanchanaburi can be conveniently reached from Bangkok via bus or train. The daily trains take around three hours to reach Kanchanaburi. Getting there by bus may take anywhere from 2-5 hours, depending on the traffic. This being the home of the death railway, naturally, you may want to arrive by train. Bear in mind that there are two train stations – the main one is near the central part of town, and the other is at the River Kwai bridge itself.
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** Images courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand.