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.
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 half way 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.
Orienting yourself in Kanchanaburi is very easy. The main road, Saeng Chuto Road, runs through the length of 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 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.
One of our favourites here is the River Kwai RESOTEL resort. Perfectly set on the historic river, it offers a serene hideaway surrounded by lush greenery and mountain views. This eco styled hotel impresses with its commitment to nature, and the individual thatched accommodation are private and comfortable. The resort offers a variety of traditional and soothing herbal Thai massages, delicious meals in the Kam Saed restaurant and numerous recreational activities on and off the property. For more see: https://www.riverkwairesotel.net/
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.