RegionWest

KANCHANABURI: A JOURNEY THROUGH THAILAND’S WILD WEST

KANCHANABURI, TH
26°
KANCHANABURI, TH
79°
overcast clouds
83% humidity
wind: 5m/s W
H 79 • L 79

Kanchanaburi province is a quick drive away from Bangkok and always booming with an adventurous spirit. Located in Thailand’s westernmost frontier, it shares the high ranges of Tenasserim mountain, evergreen forest, hidden passes, and cultural and ethnic heritage with Myanmar.

The Burmese army marched through the Three Pagodas Pass between the 14th and 18th centuries to challenge the Ayutthaya Kingdom on the Chao Phraya River Basin. In the second World War, the Imperial Japanese Army came up with the wild idea to conquer India via Burma, starting from Kanchanaburi. About 300,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and laborers in Southeast Asia were herded to Kanchanaburi to construct the Thai–Burma Railway. Unfortunately, almost half of them were killed by disease, malnutrition, overwork, and poor sanitary conditions, making Kanchanaburi their resting place far away from home.

Today, thousands of visitors from around the world flock to Kanchanaburi annually to travel around the River Kwai Bridge, the War Cemetery, the Death Railway, and museums. Beyond its dark history and harrowing stories, the Western province has a beautiful countryside, cultural landmarks, ethnic communities, and natural beauty to mesmerize you.

To thoroughly enjoy a journey through Thailand’s wild west, you will need at least a week.

Getting There 

Bus

Public buses depart the Southern Bus Terminal for Kanchanaburi province every 30 minutes from 5am to 10pm. The journey takes about two hours. 

Train

Take a train from Bangkok’s Thonburi railway station (also known as Bangkok Noi railway station) to Kanchanaburi. Visit the State Railway of Thailand for more information. 

Getting around

Songthaews (taxi pick-ups) park in the market and most of Kanchanaburi’s busy areas. 

A public bus and minivan depart from Kanchanaburi Bus Terminals to Bangkok and other districts, Si Sawat, Sai Yok, Thong Pha Phum, and Sangkhla Buri.

A private car (or minivan) with a driver is also a good option when traveling with friends and family. It allows flexibility and convenience to hop on and off while sightseeing around Kanchanaburi. Ask your hotel for an arrangement.

10 THINGS TO DO IN KANCHANABURI

1. Visit JEATH War Museum, and feel for the POWs

Two kilometers south of The Bridge on the River Kwai is JEATH War Museum. This war museum is well worth visiting before you head out to the infamous iron bridge, the Death Railway, and WWII memorials. The exhibition is displayed in confined bamboo shacks, reconstructed from the original POWs camps in 1942. Dark as it’s cramped, the showcase demonstrates the prisoners’ possessions like weapons, materials, and maps in an uncomfortable way. More than 300,000 POWs had to construct the Siam-Burma railway during WWII, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

Location: Inside Chai Chumphon Temple, about two kilometers south of the Bridge on the River Kwai

How to get there:  Climb aboard a songthaew.

2. Walk down the infamous River Kwai Bridge 

Set against a scenic backdrop of the Kwai Yai River in Kanchanaburi, this iconic River Kwai Bridge was made famous by French writer Pierre Boulle. The book “Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï” by Boulle was later made into an award-winning film, “The Bridge on The River Kwai” by British filmmaker David Lean.

The British director preferred remaking the bridge in Sri Lanka to the original in Thailand because of its scenery. The film won seven Oscar Awards, including the Best Movie, Best Director and Best Cinematography. The “award-winning bridge” in Sri Lanka is long gone, making the original bridge in Kanchanaburi tremendously famous. 

Originally known as Bridge 277, the River Kwai Bridge is a standing icon of the Death Railway. Initially built by British prisoners of war beginning in 1942, the labor force started with 1,000 workers, and later added another 1,ooo Dutch POWs. Under the control of General Philip Toosey, an allied officer of the Japanese Army, the men labored on the bridge for 16 months before it was complete, however the Death Railway itself took another two years to complete.

The original bridge was damaged in 1945 by the Royal Airforce and again by the  US Army Air Forces, but was quickly repaired within several months of the attack.

Today the bridge remains as a footbridge, and you can walk on across it to the other side of the river.

3. Hop on the Death Railway and enjoy the scenic ride

The Death Railway claimed more than 100,000 deaths of POWs, including 133 Americans from western Texas. The casualty was due to tropical diseases, malnutrition, and exhaustion during the railway construction in 1942. Part of the Japanese army’s Burma campaign in WWII, the Death Railway back then stretched 257 miles across western Thailand, via Kanchanaburi, into Myanmar’s Mon State. The Japanese Army wanted to reach India from Kanchanaburi. Fortunately, WWII was over before the challenge of India. After the war, Thailand reconstructed most of the Death Railway and connected it to the rail network. Today, the Death Railway is a living anti-war memorial where you can hop on a train for a scenic ride. The Kanchanaburi–Namtok route (77.8 miles) passes through the most beautiful section of the Death Railway, where the train rumbles and crisscrosses over the wooden viaduct hugging the cave-ridden cliff. The train stops for 30 minutes at Kra Sae Cave (once a shelter for the POWs) and for three hours at Sai Yok Waterfall for sightseeing. Bring swimwear if you want to take a dip in the waterfalls.

How to get there: Three trains operate daily along the Death Railway between Kanchanaburi and Namtok stations. 

4. Walk down the Hellfire Pass, and feel the cold black days of atrocity 

Halfway between the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thailand-Myanmar border is the Hellfire Pass. The infamous pass is one of the most challenging sections to build as it required rock cutting through the mountain. Walking down the 600-meter long, 26-meter deep path through concrete boulders will send a chill down your spine, knowing that around 500 prisoners worked 16 to 18 hours a day in the final ‘Speedo’ construction period. The flickering light from the burning torches cast strange shadows on the Japanese soldiers and the bony, weary laborers resembling Dante’s Inferno’s scene, as one former prisoner remarked. About 700 out of 1,000 Australian and British soldiers died within 12 weeks of working on this section. Today, the Hellfire Pass draws visitors to pay honor to the dead and the suffering caused by war. Wreaths of poppies, small crosses, and miniature Australian and English flags lay aside the historic pass. Beyond Hellfire Pass are the Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail dedicated to the POWs who suffered and lost their lives at the Hellfire Pass.

Opening Hours: 9am–4pm (daily)

Location: On Highway 323, between Sai Yok and Thong Pha Phoom Districts

How to get there: Buses running between Kanchanaburi and Thong Pha Phoom pass the site.

5. A trip to the memorable Mon Bridge

The Mon Bridge is one of the best places in Thailand to go for people watching. Initiated by the late famous Mon monk Luang Phor Uttama in 1980, the iconic Mon Bridge (or “Saphan Mon” in Thai) spans 1,300 feet across the scenic Songaria River estuary. The wooden bridge connects a peaceful Mon community to the main part of Sangkhla Buri town. Just after the sunrise and before the sunset, Mons, Karens, Thais, Chinese, Laos, Arakanese, and Bangladeshis commute across the iconic wood bridge. Beyond the historic bridge, local markets, Three Pagodas Pass, and beautiful villages in the countryside are well worth visiting for a large dose of adventure and rustic beauty.

How to get to the Mon Bridge: Sangkhla Buri is about a three-hour ride to the north of Kanchanaburi. Many visitors take a public bus “Kanchanaburi-Sangkhla Buri” from the bus terminal in downtown Kanchanaburi or get a private transfer to Sangkhla Buri. Small hotels, resorts, and homestays are available for online and offline bookings.

6. Visit Thailand-Burma Railway Centre

 The modern Thailand-Burma Railway Centre preserves the memory of the infamous Thailand-Burma railway and the people taking part in building it. Rod Beattie, the Australian Death Railway researcher and long-time Kanchanaburi resident, curated it. Along with a gift shop, coffee shop, and research library, the museum has collected a lot of memorabilia from private hands in Australia. It displays information and photographs about the railway construction planning and processes and the geography, living conditions in POWs camps, medical aspects, summary of deaths, operation, bombing and end of the railway, plus the aftermath of the war.

Opening hours: 9am-5pm (daily)

Admission:  $4.61 USD for adults and $2.30 USD for children under 12.

Location: Next to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak). 

How to get there: Hop a ride on a songthaew.

7. Hike up the waterfall trail at Sai Yok National Park

At Namtok railway station, where the scenic Death Railway ride comes to an end, another adventure begins. Within 240,000 acres, Sai Yok National Park features a magnificent mix of limestone mountains, dry evergreen forest, and wildlife. Moreover, prehistoric human abodes and POWs camps add a sense of mystery to the woods. The Sai Yok National Park draws visitors for stunning limestone waterfalls (Sai Yok Yai and Sai Yok Noi), where they can soak in swimming holes. The Sai Yok National Park, with campgrounds and cozy riverside cottages around, is the perfect base to explore the Hellfire Pass, Khmer-styled ruin, and majestic caves before heading further north.

Location: At the end of the Death Railway line (Nam Tok Terminal Station).

How to get there: Take the train from Tha Kilen Station to Nam Tok. Local buses also operate between Sai Yok National Park and Kanchanaburi City.

8. Dip in swimming holes at Erawan Waterfall

Named after the mystical Hindu triple-headed elephant, Erawan National Park is a refuge for the tropical rainforest flora and fauna. The centerpiece is the Erawan Waterfall, where seven cascades sweep down in a rush of white water for two kilometers. You will find it’s hard to resist the urge to strip down to your shorts and plunge in. Erawan Waterfall is one of the best natural spots to swim with the crystal-clear water gushing into hundreds of pools. There are no jagged rocks to worry about thanks to the limestone geology. To escape the crowds, you’ll probably have to hike to the higher cascades.

Opening Hours: 7am-4.30pm

How to get there: Erawan Waterfall is about a one and a half-hour ride from the city of Kanchanaburi. The public bus (No. 8170) departs every hour from Kanchanaburi Bus Terminal to Erawan Waterfalls. There are cottages and campgrounds available in the national park.

9. Rub shoulders with Mon and more

About 25 kilometers away from the Three Pagoda Pass. The sleepy little town of Sangkhla Buri is home to Mon, Karen, Thai, Chinese, Lao, and even Arakanese and Bangladeshis. This wonderland is also famous for the iconic “Mon Bridge,” the 452-yard-long wooden bridge that spans across the Songaria River estuary. If you love waking up in a peaceful ethnic community, Sangkla Buri is the right call. You will need a few days to browse the local markets, take a ride to the Three Pagodas Pass, and trek to remote villages outside the district town. 

Location: Three-hours ride from the city of Kanchanaburi. 

How to get there: Local buses operate between Kanchanaburi and Sangkhla Buri.

10. Elephant experiences

Coming face-to-face with an Asian elephant, a gentle and majestic creature, is an unforgettable and fascinating experience in the peaceful woodland. With plenty of evergreen forest and natural landscape, Kanchanaburi is home to two elephant sanctuaries, the Elephants World and the Elephant Haven. Nestled along the Kwai Yai River, about a 30-minutes ride to the north of downtown Kanchanaburi is Elephants World. It is a rehabilitating center and eco-tourism destination and one of the top choices for ethical elephant experiences. The sanctuary allows visitors to prepare elephant food by cutting banana leaves, feed elephants, and observe elephants on a river through its volunteer programs.

Tucked away on the Kwai Noi River’s western side, the Elephant Haven took a great leap for the gentle giants. They liberate the elephants from chains and saddles, and they now roam freely, enjoying socializing in the natural sanctuary. Through its ecotourism programs, you will get to know the elephants by creating a trusting relationship.

How to do it:

The Elephant World and the Elephant Haven provide different elephant programs for visitors, varying from a half-day volunteer program to a two-night stay at the sanctuaries. Both offer hotel pick-up and drop-off in Kanchanaburi.

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