Way back in 1998 Thailand was my introduction to South East Asia and it was love at first sight. I was travelling with three friends and we planned to visit Kanchanaburi, however for one reason and another it didn’t happen. Subsequently in 2001 when I solo backpacked around South East Asia intending to make Kanchanaburi a priority it still didn’t eventuate. Fast forward to December 2019 and a holiday with my husband, two children, my 81 year old Dad and Kanchanaburi was the first destination on our six week itinerary,
It felt like the universe was telling me it was not meant to be with our airline deciding to strike on the very day we were flying to Thailand. This meant a possible delay in our arrival, hence pushing our itinerary days forward. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on Kanchanaburi again. So quick action was taken and we arranged to fly a few days early, hallelujah, my dream was back on track.
Getting to Kanchanaburi
Having the time we opted to take the 3rd class train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and experience the historic ride along what has become known as the Death Railway. There are two trains a day from Thornburi Station, one at 7.50am (a good option if you are visiting on a day trip) and the later one at 1.55pm.
The best way to get to the station is to take a river boat to Thornburi Station Pier no.11. From here it is about a twelve minute walk past the Siriraj Hospital. My Dad had travelled from Thornburi station in 2002 and we expecting a large station building so it took us some time to find the current station. The original train station building was sold to Siriraj Hospital in 2003 and a new train terminus was built around 900 metres down the line.
Alternately a taxi ride from Khao San Road should take around 20 minutes and 40 minutes from the City Centre. It is important to negotiate a price if the driver refuses to use the meter.
The station is very small with only one platform, public toilets and a ticket office. All tickets are 3rd class and cost 100 Baht per person for both Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok. Despite being 3rd class the train was surprising comfortable with padded seats, although we realised some carriages do have wooden seats. The journey took us around two and a half hours and when we arrived I was beyond excited to explore this beautiful town.
Siam Guesthouse – A little Oasis
Our accommodation at Siam Guesthouse was an easy 10 minute walk from the station situated at the end of a very quiet street but merely a few minutes walk from numerous bars and restaurants. Our booking included a family room (consisting of two interconnecting rooms and two bathrooms) and a twin room for my Dad. All rooms were spotlessly clean and provided a large fridge, air conditioning, towels, toiletries and other amenities such as toothbrushes and combs. The only amenity not provided was a kettle, although there is free tea, coffee and hot chocolate available all day in the communal kitchen area.
The owners, Nueng and his family continually went above and beyond to make our stay memorable and their generosity was genuinely heartfelt. The real gem at Siam Guesthouse is their beautiful lush garden and courtyard. After a tiring day sightseeing in the heat we loved sitting in the shady garden enjoying a few cold refreshments.
Things to See in and Around Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi is well-known for its dark cruel history where thousands of prisoner of wars lost their lives during World War II building a railway from Thailand to Burma under Japanese brutality. It is also a place of exquisite natural beauty, rural and located on the confluence of Rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai. It is worth taking your time to appreciate Kanchanaburi’s history and beauty.
The Bridge over River Kwai
A quick internet search ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’ will soon render results of the 1957 movie with the same title directed by David Lean. Whilst being hailed an epic war movie at the time of its release the sad reality is that the six academy award winner doesn’t even come close to the truth. I guess the gruesome reality of events that occurred in Kanchanaburi would not fit your traditional Hollywood blockbuster. You can read further details on the history of the bridge in this great article written by Barry Fox for the New Scientist.
The Bridge really is the iconic image of Kanchanaburi and it is definitely worth spending the time to walk across the structure. We visited in the morning and it was very quiet and at times we had the bridge all to ourselves.
Located on the south side of the bridge is the Chinese Temple ‘Wihan Phra Phothisat Kuan In’, a great place to sit and admire unobstructed views of the bridge. The temple itself is also worth strolling around to enjoy the beautiful architecture and colourful ornate shrines.
Thai – Burma Railway Museum and War Cemetery
The Thai-Burma Railway Museum was the first place we visited in Kanchanaburi and for good reason. The museum is very well laid out and provides a wealth of information about the prisoner of war’s and the conditions they were exposed to whilst building the railway. In the gallery upstairs there is a 3 metre deep diorama of Hellfire Pass demonstrating how the cutting got its name. The museum charges 150B for adults and 70B for children.
Across the road from the museum is the Don Rak War Cemetery where 6982 prisoner of war graves are laid out amongst neatly manicured lawns.
We hadn’t planned to visit this museum as I had read that the Thai-Burma Railway Museum is more informative and better organised. However, we had a few hours to fill in so we decided to take a look and I am glad we did. Ok so I will admit that the reviews are spot on, this museum is a little run down and there was no real logic to the positioning and relevance of some of the exhibits. Having said that when you’ve only paid 40B per person it is not really a major issue.
JEATH is an acronym for the nations that were primarily involved in the war; Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland.
Not many people realise that there were in actual fact two bridges built in Kanchanaburi by the POWs, the famous steel and concrete one and the less well-known wooden one. The wooden bridge was built several times (due to bombing) 100 metres downstream from the steel bridge. We discovered that within this museum there are remnants of the original wooden bridge despite lonely planet saying nothing remains. Another highlight upon entering this obscure museum was feeding the large fish of which looked like they’d eat your hand given half a chance!
Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting)
Konyu Cutting infamously known as Hellfire Pass aptly named because of the glow at night from burning torches were said to resemble scenes from hell. The 600m stretch is a place of great historic significance and has become a memorial to those who worked on the railway. It is one thing to visit the museums in Kanchanaburi and learn about the sickening brutality and cruelty inflicted on innocent POWs but a visit to Konyu Cutting brings it to life in an unfathomable way.
The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail built and maintained by the Australian Government is a located 1½ hours by bus from Kanchanaburi. We caught a local bus (8203) from Kanchanaburi bus station at 8am at a cost of 80Baht each. In hindsight it would have worked out cost effective for us to hire a tuk tuk for the day. It would also have saved us some extra walking as the bus drops you off on the highway and it is around 500 metres to the entrance of the centre.
The Interpretive Centre is an introduction to the atrocities that occurred at Hellfire Pass with narratives of the men involved at Konyu Cutting. The information and digital media is displayed respectfully and with great sensitivity. It is truly heart breaking to discover the extreme mistreatment of fellow human beings. It is difficult to even begin to imagine the suffering these men endured and it is unthinkable how some of them survived the torturous conditions.
The Memorial Walking Trail is linked to the Interpretive Centre by a boardwalk and stairway. The centre provides free audio guides that explain each section of the walk. There are two parts to the walk, the memorial walk and a section that takes you further along the railway line to Hintok Cutting. The memorial walk takes around 30 – 40 minutes including stopping to listen to the audio guide. If you chose to walk further along the trail to Hintok Cutting (around 5km) the centre will equip you with a two way radio for your safety as certain parts are steep, uneven and rocks are prone to falling.
Upon touching the rock along the cutting my heart sank, with every step along the track another tear rolled down my face. I can say with my hand on my heart that I can’t remember any other time where I’d felt so emotionally moved.
Sadly this trestle bridge is the only one to survive along the Thai – Burma Railway, although originally the bridge was built with bamboo and has now been replaced with wood. The bridge consists of 164 trestles up above the Kwai Noi River and appears to cling to the side of the mountain. Incredible to believe, this section of the railway was considered to be ‘lucky’ as only 4000 men died.
You can get to Wampho Viaduct by taking the train to Tham Kra Sae station and just a few hundred meters down the line brings you to the trestle bridge.
Walking over the bridge is not for the faint hearted with a fear of heights and you will also need to consider the time of the trains crossing the bridge. The walk beneath the bridge is equally as rewarding as you get to marvel at the engineering prowess of this structure.
On the far side of Wampho Viaduct is the Suansaiyot Resort and the Bridge Bistro Cafe, a great place to stop for a refreshment and admire the bridge against the beautiful back drop.
There are two train stations at each end of Wampho Viaduct.
We chose to walk back over the bridge so we could ride the train over the viaduct and it was an incredible experience. The train rides so close to the mountain but the best views are on the other side of the carriage. It’s fascinating that such a heavy train can still meander its way over this ‘pack of cards’ bridge. The journey back to Kanchanaburi took around one and a half hours.
Pak Prak Heritage Street
Meaning ‘crossroads’ in Chinese Pak Prak Heritage Street takes you back in time and displays 20 heritage buildings of mixed architectural styles. Each of the significant buildings have signs explaining the construction and architectural details. It also details how the building were used during the Second World War, some of which were occupied by Japanese officers and others by wealthy families who profited from the war.
Erawan Falls came as a welcome relief, not just from the emotions of the devastating historic events of Kanchanaburi, but also from the humidity and heat. We had planned to catch a local bus to the falls but as I mentioned previously it was cost effective for us to hire a tuk tuk for the day. For those that catch the bus; it departs from the bus station hourly from 8am to 5pm, costs 45 THB per person and takes around one hour.
The entrance fee does seem expensive especially as the locals pay so much less than tourists but I felt it was worth the money. Firstly, it is a full day out and secondly, it is apparent that the money is used for conservation and keeping the park clean.
The falls are made up of 7 tiers each with a refreshing pool. Food and drink cans are not permitted past tier two to stop the spread of litter and if you take a drink bottle past this point you will need to pay a 20 THB deposit.
Is it worth trekking to all seven tiers of the falls? Firstly it depends on your level of fitness. Sections of the path are very steep and the last section doesn’t really consist of a clear track, at times we were climbing over trees and rocks. Having said that my 81 year old Dad managed to get to the top, although he is much fitter than your average pensioner. It is also very slippery in places so it is sensible to wear good walking shoes or sandals. Secondly, consider how much time you have at the falls, it took us almost an hour to reach the top. I had read on several sites that the first two tiers are very busy and as you progress it gets quieter and quieter, so I was expecting to have the seventh tier to ourselves but it wasn’t the case. In hindsight I’d have probably spent more time at tier five where the swimming was equally as good.
Just one word…FISH!!! Not just any fish, fish that nibble on your dead skin. It doesn’t hurt at all, it just tickles. At tier 5 we noticed that there were really big fish in the pool and we were afraid that they’d nibble our skin but thankfully we discovered it’s only the smaller fish that have that fetish.
Overall we had a wonderful day out in what can be described as paradise on earth.
Kanchanaburi has a wide range of places to dine and has the added appeal of many riverside restaurants. The vast majority of restaurants are located along Th Mae Nam Khwae a kind of ‘backpackers’ street although the quality of food varies greatly.
Here’s where we ate:
We ate at Zeb Zeb on our first night in Kanchanaburi due to its close proximity (a 2 minute walk) from our guesthouse. The restaurant has ample seating inside and a few tables outside. The vibe is quite lively although not too raucous that you can’t enjoy your meal. The food was delicious although like most restaurants in Thailand it doesn’t come out to the table all at once. It was so good we ordered extra dishes from the menu.
The Good Times Resort
The Good Times Resort is a great place to enjoy the peace and quiet with a beautiful river view. The dishes we ordered for lunch were large portion sizes but I found my curry wasn’t overly flavoursome. My husband and son however really enjoyed their dishes. Their prices were also higher than many other places in the area.
Keeree Tara restaurant is located a few minutes walk north west of the famous bridge. Many people go to the Floating Raft restaurant due to the close proximity to the bridge but we had read mixed reviews about the service, high prices and food. Keeree Tara has equally good views of the bridge and the ambience and garden-like environment are truly charming. The food was so delicious and excellent value for money that we ate here twice.
Blue Rice Restaurant by Apple & Noi
I have to say hands down Blue Rice was my absolute favourite place to eat in Kanchanaburi and we visited twice just to be sure! It is located on the opposite side of the river to the main strip but it is worth the effort to get there. We walked to the restaurant and travelled back in a tuk tuk, yes, 3 adults and 2 children in a single tuk tuk. This restaurant has everything going for it, a perfect view on the river, a lovely owner and friendly staff and last but not least some of the tastiest Thai food we’ve eaten.
On’s Thai Issan
Considering On’s Thai Issan only serves vegetarian food and being a meat eating family we were really pleasantly surprised. It is a very small place and the owner has a cooking station at the front of the restaurant. They don’t serve beer but they happily let you bring pre-purchased drinks from the store next door.
If you find yourself along Pak Prak Heritage Street then you must stop by at The Balcony. The interior is delectably modern with satisfying decor that you’d usually only expect in the western world. Wonder through to the back of the cafe and you find a hidden beer garden. Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy a meal here but the snacks and drinks we ordered were amazing . To top it off the owners were super friendly and the prices are very reasonable.
Did it live up to my expectations?
Kanchanaburi offered my family so many beautiful memories with it’s history, culture and overwhelming natural beauty. I can truly say that it far exceeded my expectations and I couldn’t imagine anyone not finding pleasure in this fascinating town. I’d love to hear about your experiences with Kanchanaburi or maybe it is on your must see list.
Where to next….
After five fabulous days exploring Kanchanaburi it was time to move on to our next destination….Hua Hin.