History and Nature Combine in Kanchanaburi

With verdant jungle-clad hills, meandering rivers, and cascading waterfalls, there is so much that is beautiful about Kanchanaburi. But it’s also a location that has a tragic history. Inextricably linked with the Second World War, Kanchanaburi is the site of one of the most notorious stretches of the Thailand-Burma railway, better known today as the ‘Death Railway’. Although the main wartime sites of Kanchanaburi can be visited as a day trip from Bangkok or Hua Hin, it’s worth spending at least a few nights here to enjoy the natural attractions of this scenic area of Thailand.

Highlights of Kanchanaburi

A trip to the war cemeteries and Hellfire Pass are humbling experiences. Whether you are interested in history or not, these are emotional locations to visit and should be high up on any itinerary for Kanchanaburi. During the Second World War, the Japanese army occupied Thailand and forced tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and Asian civilians to construct the Thailand-Burma railway. Subjected to horrendous conditions and inhumane treatment, many working on the line paid the ultimate sacrifice. Historians estimate that 100,000 Asian civilians and 16,000 POWs died while working on the railway.

The immaculately kept Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak) is located in the centre of town, close to the main train station. Many years have elapsed since these young men died, but it remains a moving experience to wander quietly through the grounds and read the epitaphs on the simple headstones that mark the name and regiment of the fallen.   

Adjacent to the cemetery the informative Death Railway Museum and Research Centre provides insights into the construction of the railway and the brutal conditions endured by those who worked on it. At the other end of town, a reconstruction of a POW hut houses the JEATH museum.

Further out from central Kanchanaburi, but not to be missed, is the museum and walking trail at Hellfire Pass. Recognised as one of the best museums in Asia, the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum has been thoughtfully laid out and walking through the steep railway cuttings in the footsteps of the POWs and labourers evokes powerful imagery. Helpful audio guides are available at the museum and online. Hellfire Pass can’t be reached by public transport and it is easier to visit as part of a tour. Some tours will also include a visit to the Chungkai War Cemetery. For a more personal experience, railway pilgrimages can be arranged by the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.

The 1950s film, the Bridge on the River Kwai, is a classic. But David Lean’s cinematic portrayal was only loosely based on real-life characters and the film isn’t historically accurate. The movie was shot mainly in Sri Lanka and at the time of filming there was no River Kwai at Kanchanaburi. The metal bridge that can be seen today straddled the Mae Khlong River. In the 1960s the name of the river was officially renamed Khwae, but the legacy of the film is that the spelling and pronunciation ‘Kwai’ is still commonly used by most non-Thais.

Although some sections of the Death Railway have long been reclaimed by the jungle, other parts of the original route are still used today. This includes the incredible trestle bridge at Wang Po Viaduct. The elevated stretch of track here hugs cliffs on one side and the Khwae Noi River on the other. The spectacular views from the train can be appreciated by passengers today, but it’s still shuddering to think about the conditions endured by the men who slaved over the construction of the railway. On most organised tours, there is the opportunity to ride the train over the bridge and Wang Po Viaduct before disembarking at Tham Krasae station for lunch. This also allows time to walk along the tracks and visit the hillside cave once the train has departed. The standard tour itinerary will then take you by minivan to Hellfire Pass and these tours can be arranged from travel agents in either Bangkok or Kanchanaburi.

Going further back into history, the ruins of Prasat Muang Singh are believed to date back to the 13th century when the site was one of the satellite towns of the Angkor Empire. The ruins might not be as impressive as Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, but are worth a visit if you are in the area and have enough time on your schedule.

Away from the sites of historical importance, there are a host of natural attractions in Kanchanaburi with rivers, caves, lakes and waterfalls. Amongst these, Erawan National Park and the multi-tiered Erawan Waterfall are the most popular and most striking.

Elephant’s World in Kanchanaburi is a sanctuary for old, sick and abandoned elephants. This non-profit organisation provides a safe haven for elephants to enable them to live out the rest of their days in dignity. There are no rides and no shows at Elephant’s World and if you visit here you will be expected to pitch in and prepare and gather food for the elephants. And after you’ve finished working for the elephants your reward is that you get to join them in the river where you can wash and scrub them clean.  

Accommodation

There is a well established guest-house scene in the middle of Kanchanaburi where budget choices abound. For more comfort and to enjoy that epic Kanchanaburi scenery, consider staying further out of town on the quieter stretches of the river. The basic but comfortable River Kwai Jungle Rafts offer a memorable overnight experience on floating accommodation with the Thai jungle providing a stunning backdrop. In a similar vein, but with more modern conveniences, the Float House River Kwai is another good choice.

Suggested hotels:

Away Kanchanaburi Dheva Mantra Resort & Spa

Felix River Kwai Resort

Float House River Kwai

Hintok River Camp

River Kwai Jungle Rafts

X2 River Kwai

Travel

Kanchanaburi can be reached from Bangkok by road or rail. If opting for the latter, you can arrange transport yourself with a couple of train services departing Bangkok Noi (Thonburi) station for the leisurely three hour journey out to Kanchanaburi. If you are pressed for time or prefer more comfort, you can join a group tour or hire a vehicle privately to take you to Kanchanaburi and back.