Kanchanaburi Guide – Exploring the Scenic River Kwai and its Brutal History

By Mark Wiens 24 Comments
View out of the cave at Tham Kra Sae
View out of the cave at Tham Kra Sae

Kanchanaburi, located just a few hours drive from Bangkok, is a famous province and city in Thailand.

After attending a travel blogger conference and having a wonderful stay at Amari Watergate hotel, GRRL Traveler, Mochileros, Chris Clark, and myself went on a short trip to Kanchanburi which was arranged by Khiri Travel.

A half unconscious Thai street dog
A half unconscious Thai street dog

Some street dogs in Thailand are mean and annoying, others are fat and lazy, and still others are bizarre looking and walk around looking like they’re half asleep. This was a friendly street dog and he was such a good model.

He’s sort of the mascot of Kanchanaburi, it’s a place that makes you want to just relax with your eyes half closed.

No photos allowed inside the Thailand Burma Railway Museum
No photos allowed inside the Thailand Burma Railway Museum

As soon as we arrived in Kanchanaburi town we headed to the Thailand Burma Railway Center Museum, also known as the Death Railroad Museum.

Kanchanburi was a strategic area for the Japanese during World World II when they attempted to build a railroad from Thailand to Burma using mostly labor provided by Prisoners of War.

The horrible conditions, long working hours, meager rations of food and nutrients, rough terrain, and the dangerous tropical diseases all added to make the construction of the railroad a catastrophe. The museum is filled with lots of information if you’re interested in the history of the railroad.

Open from 9 am – 5 pm daily, entrance is 100 THB

Nothing like a quick power nap
Nothing like a quick power nap

Directly across the street from the Railroad Museum is a graveyard where many POWs that worked and died in Kanchanburi are now buried.

This man was taking a nice siesta.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

There are 6,982 POWs buried at  Kanchanaburi’s War Cemetery (Don Rak), most of whom perished during the brutal construction of the railroad.

Bridge over the River Kwai
Bridge over the River Kwai

Situated about 4 km from Kanchanaburi town is the River Kwai bridge. The sturdy iron bridge was built under the authority of the Japanese during WWII by POWs.

You can walk across the bridge on foot, or there’s also the option of taking a goofy rainbow colored tram across the bridge and back – but if you can walk, walk.

The bridge has also become well known for the 1957 movie “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” though I have yet to see  it. Have you seen it?

One of the worst plates of Thai food I've ever had
One of the worst plates of Thai food I’ve ever had

If you ever visit Kanchanaburi, DO NOT eat at the floating restaurant that has a great view of the bridge.

I love just about all Thai food, but let me tell you, this food was horrible. Served buffet style, there were stale French fries located next to mushy kanom jeen noodles next to a horrible excuse for pad preow wan (sweet and sour) next to other unrecognizable Thai dishes.

The som tam was prepared WITHOUT fish sauce, the nam tok moo was nearly all rubbery fat, and the pad see ew tasted like sugary noodles. I was indeed disappointed, but perhaps if I didn’t eat Thai food so frequently, it may have been slightly better?

Hellfire Pass Memorial
Hellfire Pass Memorial in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

After lunch we headed off to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a combination of a museum and a small hike. The museum gave a brief history of the war and the railroad construction, but I preferred the outdoor section to check out an area where the mountain was carved to make way for the railroad.

Unless you’re really interested in the Thailand Burma Railroad and its history, it wasn’t the most exciting place to visit, and if you already visit the museum in Kanchanaburi town, there’s not much point to visiting Hellfire Pass.

Open 9 am – 4 pm daily, entrance is free but there’s a donation box

Erawan Waterfall
Erawan Waterfall

Kanchanaburi has many rivers and waterfalls, Erawan Waterfall being one of the most well known and popular.

Unfortunately it can get rather busy and rowdy with lots of tourists, but there’s always a nice pool of water where you get some peace and quiet. There are 7 layers at Erawan Waterfall, and to hiking to the very top layer takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and it’s very worth it.

Since Erawan Waterfall is a Thailand National Park, the entrance fee is 200 THB per person.

At the sleepy Nam Tok railroad station waiting for the train
At the sleepy Nam Tok railroad station waiting for the train

After enjoying a leisurely morning at the Kanchanaburi Erawan Waterfalls, we headed off to the Death Railroad to catch a train for a short distance along the historical railroad.

We got out of the van at Nam Tok station and waited for just a few minutes until the empty train pulled in. I think the last time I had taken a train in Thailand was years ago visiting the Maeklong railroad market.

Riding the Death Railroad
Riding the Death Railroad

While some might choose to take the train all the way in to Nong Pla Duk station, we got off just 30 minutes later at Tham Krasae, a strategic point of the railroad in a very beautiful area.

The rain, while boarded with mostly tourists, also picked up some students along the way. It’s still functions for local transportation, but it’s become more of a tourist attraction than anything else.

Pad MaMa - Pure junk food
Pad MaMa – Pure junk food

It would be terrible to ride a train without having something to eat, so we picked up a box of Pad MaMa, stir instant noodles that are a favorite junk food for many Thais.

Tham Kra Sae on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Tham Kra Sae on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Tham Kra Sae is a gorgeous station next to a smal cave and above the winding River Kwai. Walking along the rusty railroad track with green covered mountains in the distance and the chocolatey river below was very scenic.

Elephants in Kanchanaburi
Elephants in Kanchanaburi

Since Kanchanaburi has plenty of forest there are a number of elephant camps and villages that you can visit. I have never visited one, but at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts where I stayed they brought a couple of elephants to the river each morning to feed and bathe them. Elephants are always fun to watch!

River Kwai Jungle Rafts
River Kwai Jungle Rafts

While there are many accommodation options in Kanchanaburi, ranging from budget guest houses in Kanchanaburi town to luxurious floating hotels along the River Kwai, this visit I was sponsored and got a free stay at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts.

Kanchanaburi has a lot of deep and sensitive history, but even if you’re not so much into the history, there’s are many outdoor nature activities to discover. The popular Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple, which I have yet to visit, is also a main draw to Kanchanaburi these days.

The history of the railroad, the gorgeous scenery of the River Kwai, and the surrounding green mountains contribute to Kanchanaburi.

Have you ever visited Kanchanaburi?

24 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Airin

    8 years ago

    Very inspiring stories guide.

  • bernie

    8 years ago

    yeah i liked it in kanchanaburi, didnt stay long enough really so would like to go back. did go to the tiger temple, i quite liked it..

  • Heather

    8 years ago

    We thought about visiting the bridge, but ultimately decided to spend all our time in Bangkok. Looks like we probably made the right call since we only had five days there.

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hey Heather, yes I think you made the right choice. Kanchanaburi is nice, but I think only if you’re in Thailand for a bit longer.

  • Mike Pratt

    8 years ago

    Mark! This was a fantastic post. I haven’t been here yet but have wanted to for quite some time. It isn’t often I read about you having a bad food experience – but yeah, there are some dreadful meals to be found all over the world! Seriously though, som tam without fish sauce is like pizza without cheese! Great series of images, by the way. Cheers.

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hey thanks a lot Mike! Yah, I rarely eat meals that are really bad, but this wasn’t my favorite – hah good comparison!

  • Wil @ Where’s Wil

    8 years ago

    I was in Kan for most of the Sonkran water festival and really fell in love with the place. It’s got a great small town vibe where I didn’t notice and farang pricing. Plus 1 hr thai massage was only 149 baht/hour (~$5)

  • Jens

    8 years ago

    Nice as always.
    Kanchanaburi is lovely. Was there a few months ago. The heat was terrible though (as in most parts of Thailand during March-May).
    Have you been to the great dam at Sri Sawat? Only a short ride from Kanchanaburi town. Very nice option compared to Pattaya, Samet and Hua hin which may be favorites for some to escape the concrete jungle. prices for the rooms near the water are quite hefty though. Lake heaven is the biggest one I guess http://www.lakeheaven.com/contact_e.html
    But personally I prefer Great Lake resort (No Jet skies, more peaceful, a bit better price range) http://www.greatlakeresort.com/
    Well worth a visit if in the area! 🙂

    • Jens

      8 years ago

      PS! 2 Days to Bite Bite! 😀

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hello Jens, good to hear from you. No I haven’t ever been to Sri Sawat, but thanks for the recommendation, it looks nice! Great, see you at Big Bite!

  • Maria

    8 years ago

    OK. The half unconscious Thai street dog – Mark, he was squinting at you!
    Looks as if he was trying to size you up. 😀

  • Paul

    8 years ago

    Finally, a Thai meal Mark doesn’t like! Haha

    Great pictures man. I really wanted to go to Kanchanaburi but could not fit it into my short trip. Glad to see the outdoor nature stuff is great, I’ll try to make it there next time. And just in case I do get there, did you find any good food?

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hey Paul, haha yup! I don’t really have much to recommend food wise, not because it doesn’t exist, but because I was with a tour and ate mostly foreigner catered to food and at the hotel. I wasn’t able to explore the food scene like I normally would. If I do go back sometime I’ll be sure to check out much more local food. Are you planning to come back to Thailand?

      • Paul

        8 years ago

        Yeah man, every day I think about going back to Thailand. Most likely it will happen just not sure when.

  • Phil

    8 years ago

    Great photos. Iv been to Kanchanaburi and i spent 3 weeks there with my wife great time the floating restaraunt i never ate there during the day but did once in the evening as the bridge is lit up with lights no buffet in sight and my wife who is thai agreed that the food was delicious . I also never visited the tiger temple as i read online it should be avoided and mentioned that they were drugged

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hey Phil, I think most of the reason the food was bad was because of the buffet. Good to hear it was alright served by order. Yah, that’s probably true about the tigers!

  • Sirinan

    8 years ago

    Beautiful pictures. 🙂