The biggest draw card in Kanchanaburi is the unavoidable history lesson from the Death Railway. The tragic story of the 416km railway though to Burma, which cost more than 100,000 lost lives under forced labour by the Japanese Imperial Army, is recounted in several museums, cemeteries and information centres in the area.
There are also some fantastic waterfalls and national parks, several intriguing caves, a temple that raises tigers and numerous soft adventure activities that attract both free-spirited backpackers and tour buses alike.
The Bridge over the River Kwai
The ‘bridge’ attracts tourists by the busload, especially in the late afternoon after they have all done the obligatory short rail journey. Much of the steel girders used are the original spans of the famous bridge that became the focus of the 1957 Hollywood movie of the same name. Although bombed in the closing stages of the war, it was rebuilt and continues to help dozens of trains and hundreds of tourists across the river. Open: always.
The River Kwai
This is more of a focal point for the area than a tourist attraction, and it’s impossible to visit Kanchanaburi without experiencing this lovely river.
It consists of two tributories, the Mae Naam Kwai Noi and Mae Naam Kwai Yai, which snake their way through lush typically tropical scenery with a rugged hilly backdrop. Many guesthouses and resorts front the river, but a lunch cruise is the best way to see it.
Several of these sombre reminders of the Second World War are dotted about the area and can be reached by bicycle, taxi or on foot. Scores of neatly arranged memorial plaques commemorate the estimated 12,000 British, Australian, Dutch and American POWs who perished from disease, exhaustion, beatings and injury during the construction of the railway.
The Allied War Cemetery in the town centre is easiest to visit, but the Chung Kai Cemetery, a little out of town, is more peaceful. The Chinese Cemetery, adjacent to the Allied War Cemetery, is not associated with the war but is interesting for its bizarre tombstones. The rotunda shaped Regina Mundi Memorial is another landmark opposite the cemetery. Open: always.
Thailand-Burma Railway Museum
Informative multimedia displays recount the background, events, conditions and tragedies of Kanchanaburi’s best known legacy. Open: 09:00-17:00 (daily); tel: (034) 512 721.
This is the most impressionable reminder of the near impossible task that was undertaken under pressure from the Japanese to complete their supply line to Rangoon.
A brilliant information centre and free MP3 commentary has been provided by the Thai-Australian Chamber of Commerce, and it recounts every detail of the prisoner and labourers’ ordeal in dramatic fashion.
It is a 45-minute drive west of the town along the railway and best reached on a tour. Open: 09:00-16:00 (daily); tel: (034) 531 347, mobile: 081 754 2098.
Wat Tham Suea (Tiger Cave Temple)
This more enduring temple, with a richer vein of history and importance than Wat Tham Khao Noi, offers hilltop monasteries around 15kms southeast of Kanchanaburi, with a particularly colourful Chinese character. The monasteries are built around a honeycomb of caves and include a short, exhausting climb, but offer some of the best views of the river. Open: always.
Prasat Meuang Singh Historical Park
Kanchanaburi’s very own ancient ruins are found 40kms west of the city and include original Khmer remains from a 13th century outpost of the Angkor empire. A sizeable compound of laterite walls and ramparts remain, including some Khmer prangs and further sites yet to be excavated. Several significant shrines remain and a museum on the site retraces the pre-Angkor civilisations that lived here. Open: 09:00-18:00 (daily).
A ‘must-see’ if you have kids or fancy cuddling a few Asian tigers. These magnificent tamed (drugged?) beasts are a recent phenomenon to the area after some monks took in and raised a litter of orphaned cubs. However, the animal petting isn’t particularly well managed and visiting comes with a liability waiver warning (at least one tourist has been mauled). Open: 08:00-16:00 (daily).
Wat Nuea Pagoda
This unusual Chinese-style pagoda defies the usual chedi-shaped Buddhist icons seen all around Thailand, and is a rather colourful and new multi-storey structure beside the river with distinctive Chinese Buddhist religious importance. Open: always, admission: free.
There are two other museums in Kanchanaburi capitalising on the Second World War; the rather dated and unremarkable JEATH Museum is downtown next to Wat Chai Chumpon and hardly worth the trek. The WWII Museum next to the bridge is a poor attempt that is more fixated with the Chinese heritage of its owners. Open 09:00-18:00 (daily), admission: 40 baht each.
Activities in Kanchanaburi
Riding the Death Railway : this is one of those cheesy ‘must-do’ activities which is included on every tour itinerary in Kanchanaburi. Usually tours end up at Kra Sae cutting late in the day, which has an unremarkable cave to explore while you wait for the train. Most of the original railway is no longer in use, but this particular section crosses original wooden trusses alongside the river and cliffside in a pretty setting.
Jungle trekking, rafting and elephant riding: these are the chief attractions for those too young to be bothered with history, and Kanchanburi is a great place to experience the Asian jungle. Numerous tour operators can arrange single or multi-day treks to hilltribe villages, which include elephant riding and skiff rafting. The hilly scenery of the area adds to the impression.
Caving: if you’re interested in caving, you’ll find the labyrinth of narrow passages at Wat Tham Mangkon fun. Unlike other caves in Thailand, this one seems tailor-made with a maze of meandering passages that send you around in circles. It’s the best of several caves in the area including those at Kra Sae and Wat Tham Seua. It’s also within cycling distance of the town.
Visiting waterfalls and parks: you cannot leave Kanchanaburi without witnessing the lovely cascades of Sai Yok and Erawan waterfalls, which each have their own commendable national parks full of hiking trails and picnic spots. You’ll need a full day to visit both (on different highways west of the town) and Sai Yok dries up between January and May. Along with the less accessible Huay Kamin Falls, they are among the prettiest and most impressive in Thailand.
River cruising: a great way to while away a balmy tropical afternoon is to club together with others and rent a barge (around 2,000 baht for three hours) for a booze cruise down the River Kwai, with lunch provided. The scenery is lovely and the water swimmable. Alternatively, join the locals on one of the noisy evening time floating discos that take off from near the JEATH Museum.
Excursion to Three Pagodas Pass: with a little more free time, consider an overnight trip to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Myanmar border. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the three pagodas, but the 200kms drive here with an overnight stay in the lakeside town of Sangklaburi is very scenic.