Kanchanaburi Province, situated to the west of Bangkok, has surprisingly rugged terrain considering its close proximity to the metropolitan Thai capital. Kanchanaburi is Thailand’s third-largest province, after Nakhon Ratchasima and Chiang Mai, and it contains a plethora of sights, like waterfalls and natural parks. Most visitors head to Kanchanaburi Town, at the eastern edge of the province, which is just 130 kilometers from the Thai capital.
At under three hours by car or bus (and just a four-hour train ride away), Kanchanaburi is a popular destination for visitors who find Bangkok to be too chaotic or who simply want to experience a more rural part of the country without having to go too far.
This sleepy, picturesque river town is exceedingly tranquil, with the slow-moving Kwai River snaking its way through limestone hills.
This is where you’ll find the infamous River Kwai Bridge—or as it’s better known, thanks to the 1957 film, the Bridge on the River Kwai. During World War II, the Japanese forced Asian laborers and Allied POWs to construct a railway between Thailand and Burma. Approximately 115,000 men perished due to inhumane working conditions and disease. Today the bridge stands as a grim tourist attraction.
Further to the west are Sai Yok National Park and the town of Sangkhla Buri, which stretch to the edge of Myanmar.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Saengchuto Rd., daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m.), also known as the Don-Rak War Cemetery, contains the remains of nearly 7,000 British, Dutch, and Australian POWs who perished at the hands of the Japanese during the World War II-era construction of the Thailand-Burma railway. The grounds are maintained beautifully, and plaques at the entrance provide information about the railway and the men memorialized in the cemetery.
Thailand-Burma Railway Centre
The excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (73 Jaokunnen Rd., 03/451-2721, www.tbrconline.com, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., 80B adult, 30B child) is just 100 meters away from the cemetery, on the western side of the grounds. This expertly constructed museum clearly conveys the brutality inflicted on the Asian laborers and Allied POWs.
There are moving illustrations, informative videos, and detailed exhibits highlighting not only the technical aspects of the railroad, but also the human toll that its construction exacted. Particularly moving are the personal effects—wallets, pouches of tobacco, letters, etc.—of the dead soldiers that are on display.
Visit this museum before you go to the River Kwai Bridge, and you’ll have a well-informed understanding of the dark history surrounding the railroad.
JEATH War Museum
The JEATH War Museum (inside Wat Chai Chumphon on Saeng Chuto Rd., daily 8:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m., 30B) commemorates the suffering that the Allied POWs and Asian laborers faced in building the Thailand-Burma railway. The initials JEATH stand for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, and Holland. The museum resembles the bamboo huts used to imprison the workers. There are photos of soldiers and newspaper clippings from the era on display.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Officially called the Death Railway Bridge (Mae Nam Kwai Rd., north of Kanchanaburi Town), this construction was immortalized in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge stands as the most notorious feature of the grisly 413-kilometer-long “Death Railway” that was built between Thailand and Burma.
The Japanese Imperial Army was forced to engineer this rail link during World War II after the Allied forces blockaded their sea routes. The Japanese did so between 1942 and 1943 using forced labor and unending brutality. The result: Approximately 115,000 local laborers and Allied POWs lost their lives due to 18-hour work shifts, cholera, malaria, malnutrition, and inadequate medical care.
Today, the bridge is a tourist attraction, with museums of varying quality in Kanchanaburi Town and even occasional festivities during late November and early December, when there are fireworks and light shows. Much of the original bridge was destroyed by Allied bombing runs, but it was reconstructed by Japanese war reparations.
The bridge is 2.5 kilometers north of town. To get there, you can rent a bicycle or motorbike in the downtown area. Or if you’re up for a long walk, it’s a pleasant stroll. Just follow Mae Nam Kwai Road north from central Kanchanaburi.
The remnants of ancient Kanchanaburi, an Ayutthaya-era town that was believed to have prospered in the 13th century, are in Tambon Lad Ya (Lad Ya sub-district), 20 kilometers from Kanchanaburi Town in neighboring Suphan Buri Province, on Highway 3199. There are few remnants of the once-great border town; the most notable attraction here is a deserted temple called Wat Pa Lelai. The 800-year-old structure contains a large sitting Buddha.
Ban Kao National Museum
The Ban Kao National Museum (Ban Kao sub-district, 03/465-4058, Wed.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 30B) is 34 kilometers west of Kanchanaburi Town. It’s built near a Neolithic burial site that was unearthed by a Dutch POW who was forced to work on the Thailand-Burma railway during World War II. The Ban Kao (which means “old village”) museum houses various items that were found in the area, where people lived beside a river 4,000 years ago. The remnants include human bones, jewelry, tools, and more.
Check with travel agencies in Kanchanaburi Town regarding transportation via minibuses or taxis. If you’re driving from Kanchanaburi Town, take Route 323 North to Route 3229. Follow that road for 16 kilometers before turning onto Route 3445 for the final 2 kilometers.
Kanchanaburi Town’s dining options are somewhat limited—they’re mostly centered on guesthouses and resorts. But there are one or two gems to be found outside the stretch of budget lodgings on Mae Nam Kwai Road.
The restaurants at Apple’s Guest House and Apple’s Retreat (153/4 Mu, 4 Sutjai Bridge, 03/451-2017, www.applenoi-kanchanaburi.com, daily 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 6-10:30 p.m., 100B) serve excellent Thai food. The owners, Apple and Noi, specialize in curries, with the Massaman curry—typically beef with coconut milk and spices—being a particularly popular choice. Highly rated one-day cooking classes are also available at Apple’s. The class runs 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and costs 1,250 baht. Participants learn to cook five dishes.
The restaurant at Jolly Frog Backpackers (28 Soi China, Mae Nam Kwai Rd., 03/451-4579, daily 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m., 50-200B) has a wide-ranging menu. Offerings encompass Western and Thai breakfast foods, coffee drinks, fresh-baked bread, sandwiches, burgers, pasta, pizzas, steak, ice cream, various fruit shakes and lassis, and beer and wine. The Thai dishes to choose from here are equally as diverse. And unlike the Thai fare at other restaurants that cater to foreigners, the local dishes aren’t under-seasoned with more sensitive tourist taste buds in mind. Just be sure to specify if you want your food spicy.
The tiny Daily Club Restaurant (Mae Nam Kwai Rd., no phone, daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m., 50-200B) has Western and Thai-style breakfasts—eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, rice porridge, and more. There are also sandwiches, fruit shakes, and various Thai dishes.
Srifa Bakery (just east of the bus station, 03/461-3074, www.srifabakery.co.th, daily 7 a.m.-5 p.m.) has various cakes, breads, cookies, pastries, and more. This is a good option if you’re in need of a carb fix.
The nighttime food market (on Lak Meuang Rd., just north of the bus station, daily 5-10 p.m., dishes 20-80B) is a place to escape the tourist-oriented restaurants downtown. The market has numerous vendors selling steaming-hot juicy hoi thot (mussels fried in egg batter). This dish can be oily if not done right, but here it’s light and crispy. There are also multiple pad thai vendors, as well as stalls serving fried chicken, noodle soups, and other items. And while there are various Thai desserts on offer, such as cakes and custards, you can’t go wrong with the mango sticky rice. Just do what the locals do here: Order some food, sit down at one of the metal tables, and watch the Thai soap operas blaring from the televisions set up nearby. Foreigners rarely go here, so expect to attract some attention from curious Thais.
Given that Kanchanaburi attracts quite a few backpackers, there is no dearth of cheap beer bars to visit. Ning Bar (on the southern end of Mae Nam Kwai Rd., 08/2403-1492, daily 6 p.m.-1 a.m., drinks from 60B) has multicolored lights, a plethora of photos of the Thai king and queen, and loud music. It’s a popular place on the southern end of the strip.
Bird Land Books (central Mae Nam Kwai Rd., 08/6801-6738, daily 10 a.m.-1 a.m., large beers from 60B) is a bookshop and local watering hole that consists of little more than four or five stools and a small bar on the sidewalk right in the center of the Mae Nam Kwai Road strip. The place is worth visiting if only to have a chat with the gregarious, eccentric owner, Jimmy, a San Francisco native who has lived in Kanchanaburi Province for decades. You’ll know you’ve reached the place when you see a sign that says “Cowboys, Rednecks, Backpackers, Old Hippies, Vikings, and Dutch Welcome.” You can find all of the following here: books, music (Jimmy’s always open to requests), beer, liquor, jewelry, and cheese-and-sausage appetizers.
Kanchanaburi Town has a multitude of tour agencies through which you can book expeditions farther afield in the province if you’re going to be staying for more than the day. Most agencies offer 8 a.m.-5 p.m. trips to see Hellfire Pass, a rugged passage of the Thailand-Burma railway, and/or Erawan National Park, famous for its seven-tier waterfall. A visit to the River Kwai Bridge and perhaps some elephant rides are often thrown in as well. Other tours focus on bamboo rafting or a trip to the Tiger Temple. These one-day tours typically cost 500-1,100 baht.
Two travel agencies in town are Kanchanaburi Travel Center (99-101 Mae Nam Kwai Rd., on the main strip near Jolly Frog Backpackers, 08/6396-7349, www.tourkanchanaburi.com, daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and Good Times Travel (63/1 Mae Nam Kwai Rd., just north of Ploy Guest House, 03/462-4441, daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.).
A well-established outfit that runs river kayaking trips is Safarine (4 Taiwan Rd., near the River Kwai Bridge, 03/462-4140, www.safarine.com). There are package and custom tours available. Prices run from 400 baht for a couple of hours on the River Kwai to 2,000 baht for a multiday trip with camping. All supplies and equipment are provided, and no previous kayaking experience is necessary.
Kanchanaburi tends to have a larger concentration of inexpensive guesthouses catering to backpackers than it does of any other accommodation type. You’ll find a cluster of them along Mae Nam Kwai Road. If you cross the river or head slightly out of town, you’ll find larger resorts along the river that often cater to large groups of local travelers. These are a great option if you want to relax and enjoy the river scenery, but if you do not have your own transport, they can be very difficult to use as a base since you’ll be reliant on sometimes-expensive hotel transfers and tours to get you from one place to another.
Jolly Frog Backpackers (28 Soi China, Mae Nam Kwai Rd., Kanchanaburi, 03/451-4579, 400B) is at the heart of Kanchanaburi’s budget-traveler scene. Its large open-air restaurant-reception area-book shop, surrounded by dense plants and trees, is where many guests congregate and chat, or simply read and drink beer. The grassy central courtyard overlooking the river has several hammocks, big lounge chairs, and—more than anything—a bunch of chilled-out visitors listening to tunes and hanging out in the sun. Uber-cost-conscious visitors will be interested in the tiny fan-cooled single rooms that go for astonishingly low prices. Slightly more expensive (200-400B) are the fan and air-conditioning double rooms. These rooms are small, and their mismatched furnishings could stand to be refurbished—there’s a bed, a desk, a bathroom (with cold water), and little else. Guests flock to the Jolly Frog, though, for its friendly vibe. This is the place to go if you’d like to socialize, meet new friends, and save your money for beer or treks outside of Kanchanaburi.
Blue Star Guest House (241 Mae Nam Kwai Rd., 03/451-2161, bluestar_guesthouse [at] yahoo [dot] com, 500B) is a good low-cost choice for those looking for the added amenities of hot water, cable TV, and more space to stretch out. The private wooden bungalows have big beds and patios with wooden deck furniture that look out toward the river. All of the bungalows are accessible via a wooden walkway elevated above a marsh.
The extremely tidy family-run Apple’s Guest House and Apple’s Retreat (153/4 Mu, 4 Sutjai Bridge, 03/451-2017, www.applenoi-kanchanaburi.com, 490-690B) are two other excellent options for budget-conscious travelers. The very popular Apple’s Guest House has split into two separate, new properties and continues to impress backpackers. The rooms aren’t fancy, but they’re new and clean: The beds have crisp sheets, and there are Thai-style decorations on the walls. A variety of services are available at Apple’s. In addition to the highly-rated restaurant, there’s an Internet café in the reception area, Thai massage, and a popular cooking school. There’s no online booking but you can email them through the website to reserve a room in advance.
Ploy Guest House (79/2 Mae Nam Kwai Rd., 03/451-5804, www.ploygh.com, 600B) is an upscale guesthouse and what you get here would cost easily twice as much in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. The place is well designed, with white buildings covered in palm fronds and a large grassy courtyard shaded by palm trees. The rooms—all of which have air-conditioning, hot water, and cable TV—have white walls and incorporate driftwood and tree stumps into their design. The large soft beds are situated on raised platforms and come decked out with a slew of soft pillows. Some of the rooms have open-air bathrooms leading to small gardens with plants and rocks. (This is a nice touch, but be sure to keep the bathroom door closed lest you let in mosquitoes.) The large restaurant looks out over the river and makes for an excellent place to unwind as you eat breakfast. Plus, there’s even a swimming pool! Ploy’s is what a good mid-range hotel should be: peaceful, stylish, economical, and comfortable.
The Balinese-style Inchantree Resort (Mae Nam Kwai Rd., near the River Kwai Bridge, 03/462-4914, www.uhotelsresorts.com/inchantree/, 2,000B) has sloped roofs and dark-wood buildings. Its 30 rooms all have air-conditioning, televisions, and open-air hot showers. A riverside terrace makes for a peaceful spot to unwind. Inchantree is a relatively new addition to Kanchanaburi, having opened in January 2006.
Kasem Island Resort (44-48 Chaichumpol Rd., Ban Tai, 03/451-3359, www.kasemisland.com, 1,400B) is located on an island in the middle of the Kwai River. The rooms have fans and air-conditioning, and while some of the buildings could use some repainting, there are good views of the river and the surrounding hills. There’s a pool, and you can catch a free shuttle to the place from Chukkadon Road, at the south end of Kanchanaburi Town. Kasem Island Resort also has floating rafts on the river that you can rent and sleep in.
The Duenshine Resort (Thamakham Rd., 03/465-3369, www.duenshine.com, 1,200B) is located across the river from the River Kwai Bridge. The rooms are somewhat sparsely appointed—there’s simple wooden furniture and old-fashioned bedspreads—but many of them have large patios and good views of the river. The grounds are quite tranquil, with an abundance of thick trees. There’s also a swimming pool.
The River Kwai Hotel (284/15-16 Saengchuto Rd., betw. the train and bus stations, 03/451-3348, www.riverkwai.co.th, 1,800B) will interest travelers looking for a more conventional hotel that’s in Kanchanaburi Town and is removed from the cluster of guesthouses along Mae Nam Kwai Road. All rooms have standard offerings like air-conditioning, cable TV, and hot water. What differentiates the River Kwai Hotel from other spots in town are items like minibars, room service, and currency exchange. The rooms feel impersonal, with their rather run-of-the-mill Thai-style decorations and bed coverings, but the accommodations are large and in good condition. Note that there’s a popular bar and disco on the premises.
Pung Wan Resort (72/1 Mu 2, Thamakham, 03/451-4792, www.pungwaanriverkwai.com, 2,500B) is a large high-end resort on the banks of the River Kwai, about 30 minutes by car from the center of town. The large grounds are nicely kept and expansive. The rooms are comfortable, clean, and modestly furnished; river-view rooms are the best, though a bit of a walk from the main part of the resort. The coolest place to sleep is on one of the small floating huts on the river; these are much less luxurious than the ones on dry land. This is a typical large resort catering to local tour groups, so you’ll find some nice amenities, including restaurants on the grounds and organized tours arranged by the hotel.
The Felix River Kwai Resort (across the river from the River Kwai Bridge, 03/455-1000, www.felixriverkwai.co.th, 3,000B) is one of the town’s most popular upscale hotels. Its enormous and well-tended grounds encompass a large swimming pool with bar, and various creeks course throughout the resort. The reception area and restaurant are gigantic. Felix River Kwai is popular with package tourists who want to be close to the bridge and are looking for an extra bit of luxury. The standard rooms have up-to-date furnishings and are clean with spacious bathrooms. The more expensive rooms have views of the river and inviting patios. This is the place to stay if you want luxurious lodgings within sight of the bridge.
Kanchanaburi Town has a small Tourism Authority of Thailand office (Saengchuto Rd., 03/451-1200, daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) that offers maps and basic information about attractions in the region.
Getting to Kanchanaburi Town
From Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal (which Thais call sai tai mai), the journey on a standard air-conditioned bus will cost you approximately 90 baht. Buses leave Bangkok for Kanchanaburi every 30 or 60 minutes throughout the day, and the trip might take as long as 3.5 hours. The Kanchanaburi bus station is located near the corner of Saengchuto Road and Wisutharangsi Road, just around the corner from the TAT office.
A better—though slightly more expensive—idea is to contact a travel agency in Bangkok (on Khao San Rd. or anywhere along Sukhumvit Rd.) to arrange transport to Kanchanaburi in an air-conditioned minivan. It might be a tight squeeze along with 9 or 10 other passengers, but you’ll make it to Kanchanaburi in about three hours and pay around 150 baht.
You can take the train from Bangkok’s Noi station (not the central Hua Lamphong station) in Thonburi for 100 baht. The trip takes about four hours. The cabins, however, don’t have air-conditioning. The train station is located in central Kanchanaburi, within walking distance of the downtown stretch of guesthouses along Mae Nam Kwai Road. For an additional 100 baht, you can also take the train from Kanchanaburi further north, along a historic part of the line that carries on over the River Kwai Bridge and stops at the Nam Tok station, farther to the west, near Erawan National Park.
Trains leave Bangkok Noi train station in Thonburi at 7:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. You can catch the train from Kanchanaburi back to Bangkok at 7:15 a.m., 2:45 p.m., and 5:40 p.m. The two-hour trip from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok station costs 100 baht and takes approximately two hours. These trains leave at 5:50 a.m., 10:20 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. Trains back to Kanchanaburi from Nam Tok run at 5:20 a.m., 12:50 p.m., and 3:15 p.m.
Once you arrive in Kanchanaburi, you can take a taxi from the bus or train station to your guesthouse or hotel. A nice option if you’re coming from the bus station, which is farther from the center of town, is a samlor (pedicab). Expect to pay about 50 baht and to move slowly; this mode of transportation affords you a good chance to see what the town looks like as you make the trip from outside town into the central area.
Cars can be rented from various agencies in Bangkok for about 2,000 baht a day. Unless you’re traveling in a large group, taking the train or bus is much easier, likely less expensive, and will probably afford you the chance to make the journey with local people, but it can take more time. If you do drive, Kanchanaburi is only three hours away by car, as long as there’s no traffic leaving Bangkok. Take Route 338 out of Bangkok heading west, then switch to Highway 4 to Kanchanaburi.
© Suzanne Nam from Moon Bangkok, 5th Edition