Kanchanaburi is the town nearest to the infamous Death Railway, and although a very picturesque part of Thailand it would be fair to say a great number of visitors, both tourists from overseas and Thai, visit for an historical insight, not so much for the scenery.
The main attraction, if that’s the right word, is the bridge, made famous in the 1957 American film ‘Bridge Over The River Kwai”.
In fact, there never was such a River Kwai and the river is the Mae Klong with the bridge crossing at Tha Ma Kham.
However such was the fame of the river bridge, the place and the river was renamed in the 1960’s as the Khwae Yai.
Such is the influence of Hollywood. The area provides a sobering reminder of what happened here in the process of building the Burma railway.
Asians from all over the region suffered at the hands of the Japanese who used some 40,000 labourers and prisoners of war to construct a railway which would provide a supply chain from Bangkok to their troops fighting in Burma.
Many died in the forced labour camps and the cemetery of remembrance is also close to Kanchanaburi. It was not only European and Australians who suffered, but many Thais also lost their lives in this era.
Getting to Kanchanaburi
Unusually the buses leave from both the Northern and Southern Bus terminals. The northern is the easiest to get to at Mochit because the Skytrain has its northern terminal station there.
It’s still a taxi ride to the bus station but generally a bit more convenient for most visitors.
The southern terminal is at Sai Tai Mai. From Mochit the journey time is around two hours and thirty minutes with buses leaving every 15 minutes.
The cost on an air con bus (blue and white) is 105 Baht, and from the terminal at Sai Tai Mai, its about 2 hours and costs 95 Baht.
Train: probably the most popular way of getting to Kanchanaburi, and on to Nam Tokt (The final stop) he trains leave from the Thonburi railway Station, not the main Hau lamphang.
However there is an excursion train from Hau Lamphang on weekends. It is a lovely journey through rural Thailand and great way to see the countryside.
It also rules out the traffic problems, although Thai trains have never been known to hurry.
There are two departures a day from Thonburi at 7.45am and 1.55pm each day.
The weekend excusion train leaves from Hua Lamphang at 6.30am and there is just the one service.
Cost on the daily train are 100 Baht through to Nam Tok and the excursion service is 75 baht for the 3 hour trip.
Anyone feeling like a spot of luxury can board the Eastern and Oriental Express which makes a detour to the River Kwai as part of its journey to Singapore.
As of the present a traveler cannot just go to Kanchanaburi on this luxury train.
Every transport option is available for the short trip from Bangkok.
Vans leave from Khaosun Rd and Victory Monument for the trip to Kanchanaburi.
A van for 9 people can be arranged for a pick up at the airport or in Bangkok at a cost of 3,000 Baht, which is very good value for a group trip
Getting to the Bridge and around town
The train which comes from Bangkok has a final destination of Nam Tok, via the River Kwai bridge so that is the most obvious way to get there.
There are the two Bangkok trains plus an extra three local services making the short journey to the bridge and onto Nam Tok. The fare is 50 Baht.
Hotels and guest house can arrange a taxi, but the price would have to be negotiated.
A motorbike can be rented for a day, at a rate of about 200 Baht per day. The bikes should be checked first before heading off.
Other options for getting around are the trishaws, but again, negotiate a price before getting in!
Atractions - What to See
Death Railway and The River Kwai Bridge: The original rail line into Burma was dismantled and moved after World War Two, but the rail link running to Nam Tok still crosses the bridge. The curved sections of the bridge are the original ones constructed by the many POW’s from Europe, Australia and Asia.
Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua - Tiger Temple: A temple is a sanctuary, in this case it extends to Tigers.
Here you will find tame tigers that walk around the place free or on leash, cared for by the temple’s monks.
The Tiger temple is open daily from 9.00am - 4.30pm. The entry fee is 200 baht/person.
Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple
Don Rak War Cemetery: Opposite the railway station in Kanchanburi is the cemetery which provides a reminder of the people who perished on the construction of the railway, totaling nearly 7,000.
*Don Rak War Cemetery
Chong Kai Cemetery: About 2 kilometres from town this is the site of the prisone of war camp, where another 1,700 people, mainly British, Australian and Dutch citizens died from sickness
The JEATH War Museum: The museum had displays showing the various aspects of the period of occupation and the building of the railway. JEATH, stands for Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland, which were the principal countries involved in the rail construction
For anyone very interested in this period of Thai history, then there are also the Thai-Burma Railway Centre and the War Museum at the Bridge
*The JEATH War Museum
Erawan National Park: On a lighter note, the landscape around Kanchanaburi is beautiful and at Erawan there are the largest waterfalls in Thailand with a 7 tier fall, which at the end of the rainy season is quite spectacular. The national park covers some 550 square kilometres with cliffs rising to 1,000 metres. Also here there is the phr That Cave. It is possible to stay overnight in the park. The entrance cost for foreigners is 400 Baht.
In total there are 7 national parks in this area, some free entrance and some with the 400 Baht entrance fee. The national parks have a site www.dnp.go.th which has all the information on each park and overnight facilities.
*Erawan National Park Waterfalls
Three Pagoda Pass: This is a border crossing in to Myanmar (Burma) and can be a good trips from Kanchanaburi, but is 240 Kilometres on. The nearest town to the pass is Sanghlaburi. Foreign visitors can walk across into Myanmar and back, and have a look at the extensive markets on both sides of the border. There is a fee for crossing this border point, and travelers should be aware that this border can be closed sporadically, depending on politics, health, immigration and a host of other issues. It is not a place where a visa can be renewed for Thailand.
To get to the pass there is an air con bus service which takes 4 hours at a price of 185 Baht.
*Three Pagoda Pass
The school has rescued monkeys who in turn are trained to collect coconuts from the trees. There are also shows on demand where the monkeys will show off other skills such as playing basketball.
Where to stay
Given that the rail service is quite late in getting to Kanchanaburi it is inevitable that an overnight stop will be needed. If travelling on to the national parks, this is also a good stopping point en route, There is a good range of hotels and guesthouses, both in the town and on the outskirts.
If anyone really likes the idea of getting away from it all then there are the River Jungle River Rafts, on the Kwai. No air conditioning, and in fact, no electricity, just genuine jungle living on wooden river based accommodation. Apple Guest House has a good restaurant and also a cookery school for Thai cookery enthusiasts
Eating out is the favourite pastime, with the food stalls being top of most visitor lists. The food market is well worth a visit. The Jolly Frog Guest House has a good restaurant, and out by the bridge there are floating restaurants. In all a good choice with plenty of tasty Thai food available.
Apart from the regular Thai events, Kanchanaburi hosts The River Kwai Bridge Festival
which commemorates the bombing of the bridge by allied forces in World War II. The festival includes a light and sound show over the river and runs from November 28th to December 9th.