Set at the confluence of two rivers, the Kwai Noi and the Kwai Yai, the provincial capital of KANCHANABURI makes the perfect getaway from Bangkok, a two- to three-hour bus ride away. With its rich wartime history, plentiful supply of traveller-oriented accommodation and countless possibilities for easy forays into the surrounding countryside, there are plenty of reasons to linger here, and many visitors end up staying longer than planned. The big appeal is the river: that it’s the famous River Kwai is a bonus, but the more immediate attractions are the guesthouses whose rooms overlook the waterway, many of them offering fine views of the jagged limestone peaks beyond.
The heart of Kanchanaburi’s ever-expanding travellers’ scene dominates the southern end of Thanon Maenam Kwai (also spelt Kwae) and is within easy reach of the train station, but the real town centre is some distance away, running north from the bus station up the town’s main drag, Thanon Saeng Chuto. Between this road and the river you’ll find most of the town’s war sights, with the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai marking the northern limit. Every day, tour groups and day-trippers descend on the Bridge, a symbol of Japanese atrocities in the region, though the town’s main war museums and cemeteries are actually much more moving. Many veterans returning to visit the graves of their wartime comrades are understandably resentful that others have in some cases insensitively exploited the POW experience – the commercial buzz around the Bridge is a case in point. On the other hand, the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre provides shockingly instructive accounts of a period not publicly documented outside this region.
The Chungkai war cemetery and a handful of moderately interesting temples – including cave temples at Wat Tham Khao Poon and Wat Ban Tham, the hilltop twins of Wat Tham Sua and Wat Tham Khao Noi, and a wat featuring a rather bizarre floating nun – provide the focus for pleasurable trips west of the town centre.
It’s worth noting that Kanchanaburi gets packed during its annual son et lumière
River Kwai Bridge Festival, held over ten nights from the end of November to commemorate the first Allied bombing of the Bridge on November 28, 1944, so book accommodation well ahead if you’re planning a visit then.
For most people, the plain steel arches of the Bridge over the River Kwai come as a disappointment: as a war memorial it lacks both the emotive punch of the museums and the perceptible drama of spots further up the line, and as a bridge it looks nothing out of the ordinary – certainly not as awesomely hard to construct as it appears in David Lean’s famous 1957 film, Bridge on the River Kwai (which was in fact shot in Sri Lanka). But it is the link with the multi-Oscar-winning film, of course, that draws tour buses by the dozen, and makes the Bridge approach seethe with trinket-sellers and touts. For all the commercialization of the place, however, you can’t really come to the Kwai and not see it.
The fording of the Kwai Yai at the point just north of Kanchanaburi known as Tha Makkham was one of the first major obstacles in the construction of the Thailand–Burma Railway. Sections of a steel bridge were brought up from Java and reassembled by POWs using only pulleys and derricks. A temporary wooden bridge was built alongside it, taking its first train in February 1943; three months later the steel bridge was finished. Both bridges were severely damaged by Allied bombers (rather than commando-saboteurs as in the film) in 1944 and 1945, but the steel bridge was repaired after the war and is still in use today. The best way to see the Bridge is by walking gingerly across the tracks, or taking the train right over it: the Kanchanaburi–Nam Tok service crosses it three times a day in each direction, stopping briefly at the River Kwai Bridge station on the east bank of the river.
Shortly after entering World War II in December 1941, Japan, fearing an Allied blockade of the Bay of Bengal, began looking for an alternative supply route to connect its newly acquired territories that stretched from Singapore to the Burma–India border. In spite of the almost impenetrable terrain, the River Kwai basin was chosen as the route for a new Thailand–Burma Railway, the aim being to join the existing terminals of Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbuyazat in Burma – a total distance of 415km.
About sixty thousand Allied POWs were shipped up from captured Southeast Asian territories to work on the link, their numbers later augmented by as many as two hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers. Work began at both ends in June 1942. Three million cubic metres of rock were shifted and 14km of bridges built with little else but picks and shovels, dynamite and pulleys. By the time the line was completed, fifteen months later, it had more than earned its nickname, the Death Railway: an estimated sixteen thousand POWs and hundred thousand Asian labourers died while working on it.
The appalling conditions and Japanese brutality were the consequences of the samurai code: Japanese soldiers abhorred the disgrace of imprisonment – to them, ritual suicide was the only honourable option open to a prisoner – and therefore considered that Allied POWs had forfeited any rights as human beings. Food rations were meagre for men forced into backbreaking eighteen-hour shifts, often followed by night-long marches to the next camp. Many suffered from beriberi, many more died of dysentery-induced starvation, but the biggest killers were cholera and malaria, particularly during the monsoon. It is said that one man died for every sleeper laid on the track.
The two lines finally met at Konkuita, just south of present-day Sangkhlaburi. But as if to underscore its tragic futility, the Thailand–Burma link saw less than two years of active service: after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the railway came under the jurisdiction of the British who, thinking it would be used to supply Karen separatists in Burma, tore up 4km of track at Three Pagodas Pass, thereby cutting the Thailand–Burma link forever. When the Thais finally gained control of the rest of the railway, they destroyed the track all the way down to Nam Tok, apparently because it was uneconomic. Recently, however, an Australian–Thai group of volunteers and former POWs has salvaged sections of track near the fearsome stretch of line known as Hellfire Pass, clearing a memorial walk at the pass and founding an excellent museum at the site. There have been a number of books written about the Death Railway, including several by former POWs; the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre stocks a selection, as do the town’s bookshops.
The two-hour journey along the notorious Thailand–Burma Death Railway from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok is one of Thailand’s most scenic and most popular train rides. Though the views are lovely, it’s the history that makes the ride so special, so it’s worth visiting the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi before making the trip, as this provides a context for the enormous loss of human life and the extraordinary feat of engineering behind the line’s construction (see Thailand–Burma Railway Centre). Alternatively, take the bus straight up to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, just north of the line’s current Nam Tok terminus, which provides an equally illuminating introduction to the railway’s history, then return to Kanchanaburi by train. A good tip, to get the best views, is to make sure you sit (or stand) on the right-hand side of the train on the journey back to Kanchanaburi, and on the left-hand side when travelling towards Nam Tok.
Leaving Kanchanaburi via the Bridge over the River Kwai, the train chugs through the Kwai Noi valley, stopping frequently at country stations decked with frangipani and jasmine. The first stop of note is Tha Kilen (1hr 15min), where you can alight for Prasat Muang Singh. About twenty minutes later the most hair-raising section of track begins: at Wang Sing, also known as Arrow Hill, the train squeezes through 30m-deep solid rock cuttings, dug at the cost of numerous POW lives; 6km further, it slows to a crawl at the approach to the Wang Po viaduct, where a 300m-long trestle bridge clings to the cliff face as it curves with the Kwai Noi – almost every man who worked on this part of the railway died. The station at the northern end of the trestle bridge is called Tham Krasae, after the cave that’s hollowed out of the rock face beside the bridge; you can see the cave’s resident Buddha image from the train. North of Tham Krasae, the train pulls in at Wang Po Station before continuing alongside a particularly lovely stretch of the Kwai Noi, its banks thick with jungle and not a raft house in sight, the whole vista framed by distant tree-clad peaks. Thirty minutes later, the train reaches Nam Tok, a small town that thrives chiefly on its position at the end of the line.
Three trains operate daily along the Death Railway in both directions, but they often run very late. At the time of writing, they’re scheduled to leave Kanchanaburi at 6.07am, 10.35am and 4.26pm and to return from Nam Tok at 5.20am, 12.55pm and 3.30pm; Kanchanaburi TAT keeps up-to-date timetables. If you’re up at the Bridge, you can join the train five minutes later.
The parallel valleys of the Kwai Noi and the Kwai Yai, northwest of Kanchanaburi, are stacked full of great day-tripping opportunities, from the exceptionally beautiful Erawan Falls to the drama of a ride on the Death Railway and the pathos of the World War II museum at Hellfire Pass. There are Stone Age artefacts at the Ban Kao Museum, twelfth-century Khmer temple ruins at Prasat Muang Singh, the (controversial) opportunity to get up close to a tiger at the Tiger Sanctuary Temple and several good caves, including at Tham Than Lot National Park and the riverside Tham Lawa.
Many of these attractions are served by public transport, the train being an obvious option along the Kwai Noi valley as far as its Nam Tok terminus, with buses useful along both valleys. But train schedules are unreliable and bus connections can be time-consuming so many people either opt instead to join one of the many mix-and-match tours offered by Kanchanaburi agents or rent their own wheels for a day. Distances are not large, and there’s a handy connecting road between the two valleys just south of Nam Tok.
Considered by many to be the most beautiful falls in Thailand, Erawan Waterfall is the star attraction of Erawan National Park. It’s a great day out – so popular, in fact, that you can get a commemorative photo of yourself at the falls printed on a plate – and combines well with a ride on the Death Railway.
The falls really are astonishingly lovely: the clear glacial-blue waters gush through the forest, dropping in a series of seven tiers along a route of around 2km. At each tier, cascades feed a pool shaded by bamboo, rattan and liana, and the whole course can be walked, along a riverside trail that gets increasingly tricky the further up you go. The distance between tiers, and the ascent to each, is clearly spelled out on signs in the park. It’s just 720m from the visitor centre to level one, and then fairly easy going on and up to the dramatically stepped fifth stage (1800m). The route on to the sixth and seventh levels is steep and slippery and features some dilapidated bridges and ladders: wear appropriate shoes and avoid doing the last bit alone, if you can; it’s about a ninety-minute hike from bottom to top. The best pools for swimming are level two (which gets the most crowded) and level seven, which is a hard slog but rarely busy, and also boasts stunning views over the jungle. The seventh tier is topped by a triple cascade and is the one that gave the falls their name: Erawan is the three-headed god of Hindu mythology.
You can rent a longtail boat (plus driver) from the restaurant beside Nam Tok’s Pak Saeng pier for the forty-minute boat ride upstream to Tham Lawa and its nearby riverside accommodation. To reach the pier from the Highway 323 T-junction, cross the road, turn southeast towards Kanchanaburi, then take the first road on your right; it’s 2km from here to the river. The return journey to the cave takes roughly two hours, including half an hour there, and costs B1000 for the eight-seater boat; for B2000 you can continue to Sai Yok Yai Falls, a six-hour return trip.
All the places listed below advertise day- and overnight trips around the Kanchanaburi and Sangkhlaburi areas, including infinite permutations of rafting, elephant-riding, Erawan Falls, Hellfire Pass and the Death Railway, sometimes with a short trek thrown in. Prices listed are per person, usually for a minimum of four. They all also do tailor-made guided tours to the war sights (often by boat or raft) and to Damnoen Saduak floating markets, and will also provide a cheap transport service – car plus driver but no guide – for the more accessible attractions. If you’re given the opportunity to visit Kanchanaburi’s “Monkey School” as part of your tour, you’re strongly advised to turn it down. The monkeys here are said to have been rescued from abusive owners, but now they spend their days chained up by the neck until they are coerced into performing circus tricks like shooting hoops and riding children’s bicycles.
Travel 63/1 Thanon Maenam Kwai t034 624441, wgood-times-travel.com. Energetically run, with competitively priced day-trips (B900–1550/person) and longer treks that get good reviews. Especially popular for its two-day trip to a Karen area near Hin Dat hot springs, which includes four hours’ trekking each day (B3450/person, based on two sharing). Also offers cycle tours around Thong Pha Phum and Sangkhlaburi and can arrange for joint cycle tours to Ayutthaya.
99–101 Thanon Maenam Kwai t086 396 7349 or t087 153 4147, wtourkanchanaburi.com. Offers a twice-daily trip out to bathe elephants in the river (B650) as well as short bamboo rafting trips (B350). Longer full-day trips are also available (B750–1090) and for your fee you’re promised lunch, fruit, drinking water and an English-speaking guide.
To the west of town at 120/5 Moo 4, Tambon Nongbua t086 049 1662, wsafarine.com. French-run kayaking specialist offering short, full-day and overnight kayaking trips in the Kanchanaburi area for B300–2850.