Kanchanaburi was initially made famous for its infamous Bridge on the River Kwai. Built during the Second World War as part of the 258-mile Death Railway by Allied prisoners of war and Asian slave laborers, this feat of engineering resulted in the death of thousands. Some of these experiences were then fictionalized and portrayed in the 1958 Oscar-winning movie Bridge on the River Kwai.
Nowadays, Kanchanaburi is a popular tourist destination in Thailand. Aside from its historical significance, the town is situated in amazing nature and has loads of attractions and activities to keep you occupied for days. To help you organize your trip, here’s my travel guide to this fabulous town.
What to see in Kanchanaburi
The major Kanchanaburi attractions include the waterfalls, historical spots, museums, elephant camps and of course the Kwai river. Here are my suggestions for you.
1. Erawan Waterfalls
Set amongst the lush Erawan National Park is one of Kanchanaburi’s most popular attractions, the sparkling emerald green Erawan Waterfalls. This is my favorite place when I visit Kanchanaburi for two reasons. First it is a great place to relax, but more importantly, it offers plenty of photo opportunities.
The name Erawan comes from the name of the top tier of the waterfall, which is said to resemble the three-headed Hindu white elephant god.
It consists of seven major tiers and a few smaller tiers, all which can be accessed by the walking trails and footbridges up to the sixth tier. If you want to go higher up to the seventh tier, you’ll need to scramble your way up some rocky cliffs; a cool thing to do if you enjoy a challenge. Along the way you’ll find plenty of water pools where you can swim – just watch out for the fish, which will nibble at your feet in order to feast on the dead skin!
The national park itself also has loads to offer. It’s made up of deciduous and evergreen forest and is a great place for wildlife watching as the park is home to a number of different species, such as monitor lizards, gibbon, elephants, wild boar, muntjacs and deer, as well as many species of bird. There are also a few caves to explore such as Phra That Cave, Reua Cave, and Mi Cave.
2. Bridge on the River Kwai
The site for which the town of Kanchanaburi is famous, the Bridge on the River Kwai is an absolute must-see on your trip here.
Made famous across the world in novels and films, it was David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai which brought it to the full attention of western travelers. Now a tourist destination, it’s possible to walk across the bridge now, taking in the splendid views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. A small tourist train also runs back and forth across the bridge.
3. Hellfire Pass and Memorial Museum
Hellfire Pass is well-known for having been the hardest part of the Death Railway to build. It was the longest and deepest cutting along the entire length of the line and was so-called as the sight of emaciated laborers working in torchlight at night was said to resemble a scene from Hell itself. Thousands of men would drill holes into the rock and then fill them with explosives and detonate. The resulting rubble would then be moved in either skips or by hand in sacks and baskets, an excruciating task for the prisoners.
Lost to the jungle for many years after World War II when the railway was demolished, it was then rediscovered during the 1980s and is now visited by many tourists throughout the year. As well as the pass itself, there is also the Memorial Museum to visit.
The museum is a joint project between the Australian Government and the Royal Thai Armed Forces Development Command to commemorate those who lost their lives during the construction of the pass. It has many interesting and informative displays, and also an audio guide which will take you down the steps to walk through the pass. As you walk through, the audio guide gives you detailed information on specific issues prisoners had to deal with, such as the food they were given to eat and the diseases which were rife among the workers. You’ll get to listen to interviews with survivors who tell their stories about their experiences of working on the railway. It’s not easy listening but does give you an insight into the horrors of war.
Hellfire Pass is also the location of an annual ANZAC Day dawn memorial service, an important national holiday in Australia and New Zealand to commemorate those who have perished in all wars. It takes place on 25th April every year. If you are a history buff or interested in the world war incidents, then I would say this is a must visit spot for you.
4. War Cemetery
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak) is the main prisoner-of-war cemetery for those who lost their lives during the building of the Death Railway during World War Two. There are almost 7,000 people buried here, predominantly nationals of Great Britain, Australia and the Netherlands.
The cemetery and the graves are kept immaculately maintained and a walk around the graves, seeing the large number of people who died, is a sobering experience. It is free to enter.
Close to the cemetery are the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, a museum and research center on the history of the railway, and a Dutch Roman Catholic Church.
5. JEATH War Museum
The first museum to appear in Kanchanaburi and quite small, but no less interesting for it, JEATH War Museum documents the living conditions of the prisoners of war during the building of the Death Railway.
The name derives from the countries involved in its building from 1942 to 1945: Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, and Holland. The museum is split into two sections.
The first section is a reconstruction of the quarters used by Allied prisoners of war and informs visitors about the construction of the railway.
The second section displays a number of drawings, paintings, and photographs of the former prisoners (some of these were donated by the prisoners themselves) as well as other artifacts such as weapons, tools, uniforms, and maps.
6. Sai Yok Yai Waterfall
This beautiful waterfall is located just a couple of kilometers away from Nam Tok railway station, the end of the line of the Death Railway. It’s known locally as Khao Pung, which translates as ‘crumbled mountain’, referring to the natural state of the waterfall; it is a series of eroded limestone cliffs which descend in many levels to the foothills.
One of the most wonderful falls in Thailand during the rain, it’s a popular spot for picnickers and bathers. A good time to visit is during the rainy season from June/July onwards; during the dry season there may not be as much water flowing through, but it’s still a lovely spot to visit. But I must warn you that during the weekends and Thai public holidays the place gets crowded by local tourists. I suggest you to avoid going there during those days or reach there early in the morning to avoid the crowd.
Although the highlight is the waterfall, there are a few more sights of interest located in the same area. Close by are Krasae Cave (Tham Krase), a small Buddhist shrine, and Dawadung Cave, an impressive series of chambers with stalactites and stalagmites and home to different bat species. You can also see a World War II-era steam train displayed close to the waterfall.
7. Prasat Mueang Singh Historical Park
At the height of its power, the Khmer Empire spanned all the way to what is now present-day Kanchanaburi. Once a military stronghold in order to keep invading forces from the west out, Mueang Singh – translating as ‘Lion City’ – is now a historical park protecting the remnants of the Khmer monuments which are still standing.
The main temple at the center of the complex is built in the Bayon style, named after the temple of the same name at Angkor in Cambodia, and dates back to between the 12th and 14th centuries. There are four monuments altogether and they are set within the attractive forest scenery which Kanchanaburi is famous for. Although the site isn’t as well preserved as some other Khmer temples, it’s still worthy of a stroll around. Don’t expect to see a huge temple complex like Angor Wat.
There is also a small museum on site which displays a number of artifacts found there, including numerous Buddhist icons and images.
About eight kilometers away from Prasat Mueang Singh is the Ban Kao National Museum. This modest but interesting museum houses a host of artifacts found on archaeological digs in the area, such as skeletons, axes, stone tools, and pots.
8. Khuean Srinagarinda National Park
Centered around the Srinagarind Reservoir, this national park covers over 1,500 square kilometers and forms part of the Western Forest Complex protected area. There are a lot of caves to discover in the park. A lot of these caves, in particular Tham Phra Prang, were used as hiding places during the 18th-century Thai-Burmese Wars. Tham Phra Prang features an image of Buddha, whereas in Tham Sawan you will find a number of prehistoric cave paintings. However, the park’s highlight is the Huay Mae Khamin waterfall, which is situated to the east of the park and consists of seven levels.
There are numerous varieties of flora and fauna to spot here, including slow lorises, leopard cats, civet, bats, squirrels, osprey, parakeets, kingfishers, and green peafowl.
9. Elephant Camps
Of course, Thailand is famous for its elephant camps and it sure is a definite highlight on any trip to the country. However, recent years have seen a lot of these camps criticized for their ill-treatment of the animals. It’s a good idea to check out any camp you fancy going to make sure they’re treating the elephants well. If you’re not sure, ask your accommodation owners/workers for recommendations.
A good place I can recommend is Elephants World. They have offers of a day programme, an overnight programme, and their mahout programme. A mahout is someone who stays with the elephants all the time to take care of them. It ranges from one to four weeks, giving you plenty of opportunities to get to know the elephants and learn about these amazing creatures.
If you’re short on time, the day programme is an excellent option. You’ll get to prepare their fruit, vegetables and sticky rice, feed them, and take them to the river to scrub and bathe them. The programme also includes lunch, drinking water, coffee, and tea for yourself throughout the day and costs 2500 baht.
How to get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok
There are three options for you to get from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi: bus, train or taxi.
As a Bangkokean it is easy for me to drive from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. But for tourists, I find that bus is generally a great option when needing to travel in Thailand. Buses run to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal approximately every 30 minutes between 5 am and 10 pm, and from Morchit Bus Terminal around every hour from 4 am to 6 pm, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get a bus at a time that suits you. There are both first class buses, which have air conditioning and toilets, and second class buses, and there’s not much between them in price; if you can spare it, go for the first class option as the journey takes around three to four hours, depending on the route the bus takes, so it’s worth the extra money for that bit more comfort.
If you can afford even more convenience, it’s also possible to take minivans that will pick you up from your accommodation if you’re staying in Bangkok before heading to Kanchanaburi. They can be booked from most hotels and hostels. Go for this option if you don’t paying the extra bucks since it will save you some valuable time.
The next option is the train. In terms of convenience, it’s not the best option as there are only two trains leaving per day, one at 7:50 am and the next at 1:55 pm, taking around three hours. (It’s supposed to take two-and-a-half, but delays are common.) However, it is by far the most scenic route, passing through lush green countryside. It begins its route at Thonburi station in Bangkok, is usually slightly cheaper than the bus and is reasonably comfortable. It’s third class only, so be prepared for no air con.
Obviously, a taxi is the most expensive option of the three. However, there are many advantages to taking this option. It’s usually the fastest if you drive straight there, although if you want to make stops on the way, this is the best way to do it. Just remember to make it clear to your driver that you want them to wait for you. Prices vary widely depending on the taxi company.
As you can see, Kanchanaburi has an array of museums, historical sites, and natural spots to visit and explore. In this fantastic town, you will learn of its hard and sometimes horrific history, and contrast it with its present-day natural beauty and wonder. Alongside the must-see places detailed in this article, there are also plenty of other things to do, including cookery classes and water sports, so you might just find that once you arrive in Kanchanaburi, you’ll find it difficult to leave.