The Thai province of Kanchanaburi is located in the west of the country, alongside the border with Burma / Myanmar. With heaps of things to see and do close to the main provincial town, also called Kanchanaburi, as well as a plethora of other terrific attractions spread throughout the province, it is no surprise that it is a very popular tourist destination.
The province is particularly well-known for its stunning scenery and war history. The bus journey from Bangkok takes just a couple of hours, and several operators can also arrange (somewhat hurried) daytrips. A perfect place to combine nature, wildlife, history, culture, fun, and adventures, you should ideally plan to spend at least a few days exploring this scenic and fascinating place.
Here are some of the top things to do in Kanchanaburi:
1. Admire the gleaming bridge on the River Kwai
One of Kanchanaburi’s highlights, the shiny black iron bridge spans the calm waters of the River Kwai. You can walk up onto the bridge and there are plenty of wider spaces to take refuge if a slow-moving train comes.
Small tourist trains complete short (approximately 20 minutes) return trips over the bridge and there are several regular train services throughout the day that connect the town with Bangkok. A popular activity is for people to take the regular train to Nam Tok Station, around a two hour journey, and then return to town by road. Gaze out of the windows as the train snakes its way along the track and feast your eyes on the glorious feats of nature that lie all around. Part of the elevated track is cut into the sheer cliff-face, with a wall of rock to one side and a perilous drop into the river to the other side.
Part of an ambitious project for a railroad connecting Thailand to Burma / Myanmar, scenes at the now-peaceful bridge were once very different. Built by prisoners of war and forced labourers under the control of Japanese forces during World War II, conditions during construction were horrendous. Many lives were lost, earning the project the stark nickname of the Death Railway.
Interestingly, although the name was etched on people’s minds in a popular 1950s war movie, the correct pronunciation of the river’s name is Kwair (rhyming with air). The common mispronunciation may raise a smile or two from Thai people, as when it rhymes with the word why, it actually means buffalo!
2. Pay your respects at the sombre Kanchanaburi War Cemetery / Don Rak
Neatly arranged memorial stones sit in precise and orderly rows in the well-maintained grassy grounds of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery / Don Rak. The final resting place of many Allied troops that lost their lives in the area during World War II, the mood is reflective and respectful. The graves are arranged according to the regiment of the deceased, with sections for Australian, Dutch, and British military. A simple yet touching memorial stands directly in front of the arched entrance.
The smaller Chongkai Cemetery houses more graves of fallen British and Dutch service personnel.
3. Learn more about Kanchanaburi’s past at the JEATH Museum …
Kanchanaburi is home to several interesting and emotive museums. Each offers a snapshot into the area’s past and the devastating impacts of war on local life and the land. Conditions under the invading Japanese forces were incredibly harsh, at times brutal, and the museums seek to ensure that people never forget the horrendous experiences of these times.
The smaller JEATH Museum contains replicas of the bamboo huts that housed prisoners of war along with haunting images from times gone by. Another hut contains items, such as uniforms, helmets, and weapons that were used by Japanese soldiers. A small museum, you will probably only need around an hour to see everything. Admission costs 30 THB (approximately 0.85 USD).
4. And then visit the other JEATH Museum / World War II Museum for even more insights
The town somewhat confusingly has two unrelated and unaffiliated museums called JEATH. The name comes from the initial of the main countries involved in WW2 activities in Thailand – Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, and Holland. The USA is omitted, but is usually remembered with Australia.
The larger JEATH Museum, also known as the World War II Museum, costs 40 THB (approximately 1.10 USD) to look around. A huge museum, it is home to an eclectic, and often random, assortment of exhibits. At the entrance is a historic train, which visitors can climb upon for pictures. There are more items from wartime within the museum, including old train carriages, weapons, bombs, helicopters, bicycles, clothing, uniforms, and tools.
A towering white pagoda decorated with crockery stands in the centre of the courtyard, and you will spot some buffalo skulls with the accompanying, if somewhat ironic, message of “Please Conserve Thai Buffalos by Not Killing Them”! Narratives and creepy statues of former figures of far, such as Adolf Hitler occupy some of the outer walls, and there is also a section dedicated to the Bang Rachan heroes (a small group of men from a Thai village who headed off to bravely fight invaded Burmese forces).
With a section devoted to previous Thai beauty queens, display cases filled with cigarettes and alcohol, dusty traditional household equipment, and more, plan to spend a few hours being bemused by the museum’s bizarre compilation of stuff.
5. Admire the beauty of nature at Erawan Waterfall
Found within Erawan National Park, Erawan Waterfall is a majestic seven-tiered waterfall. Although you cannot see all the levels together, you can hike on trails to each tier to admire the individual beauty of the various states of cascading water. Sparkling emerald pools offer enticing swimming spots at some of the stages – a perfect way to cool down when hiking in the heat. The top tier pool contains carp fish that will nibble away at the dead skin on your feet if you allow them too! A tickly and strange sensation, don’t be alarmed if you feel a little nip when swimming!
A cacophony of birdsong and insect chatter fills the air, and you may spot mischievous macaques swinging in the tree tops. Beautiful butterflies flit around you and it is difficult not to feel completely enamored with the wonder of nature.
The large national park is also home to some fabulous cave systems, such as the Phrathat Cave, and fantastic walking trails.
There are restaurants, shops, and bathrooms close to the park’s main entrance. Admission to the park is 400 THB (approximately 11.25 USD) per person for non-Thai nationals.
Even more excellent things to do and see in captivating Kanchanaburi
The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is home to a collection of highly personal letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings, and artifacts, as well as lots of information about the construction of the bridge and railway and the way that locals, prisoners of war, and forced labourers were treated. It humanizes the people of the past, helping you to really take a step back in time and imagine a little of what life was like during these tragic times. Highly charged and emotional, you will probably find some of the exhibits very disturbing. A packet of tissues slipped into your pocket may come in useful. Admission is 80 THB (approximately 2.25 USD).
Hellfire Pass, also known as the Konya Cutting, offers more war history and the Hindad Hot Springs are an ideal place to soothe away any tensions. More gorgeous waterfalls, such as Huay Mae Khamin and Sai Yok Yai, add to the stunning landscapes and the province’s remote northern town of Sangkhlaburi boasts its own numerous terrific attractions and sights.
There really are so many reasons to visit Kanchanaburi so don’t miss spending some time in this beguiling and interesting town when exploring Thailand.