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.
Sights in Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (สุสานทหารสัมพันธมิตร)
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 (พิพิธภัณฑ์ทางรถไฟ ไทย-พม่า)
The excellent Thailand–Burma Railway Centre (73 Jaokunnen Rd., 03/451-2721, 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 (พิพิธภัณฑ์อักษะเชลยศึก)
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 (สะพานข้ามแม่น้ำแคว)
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.
Ancient Kanchanaburi (โบราณสถานในเขตเม อื งกาชจนบรุ เี ก่า)
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 (พิพิธภัณฑสถานแห่งชาติ บ้านเก่า)
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.
Arts and Leisure in Kanchanaburi
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, 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). 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.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Bangkok.