Kanchanaburi Travel Guide: War History and Waterfalls in Thailand
Whether you’re looking to splash around in the shallow pools below Erawan Falls or get deep while comprehending the hardships suffered by prisoners of war, my Kanchanaburi travel guide has you covered. This small city in western Thailand, situated on the River Kwai, is more than just waterfalls and war history (although those things draw most tourists there). The lazy floating guesthouses, backpacker conveniences and exotic countryside make this one of the more likeable Thai cities — here’s a quick look at what Kanchanaburi has to offer.
If you’re looking for a respite from the intense Thai heat then you’ll want to head to Erawan Falls. This seven tiered waterfall, around 65 km from Kanchanaburi, is one of the most revered in Thailand. The turquoise pools do get quite crowded at times, especially in weekends, but it’s usually still possible to find some peace. Connecting the seven tiers is a path which snakes up the hill and through the jungle. The first few pools are the most popular but it’s worth hiking up to see them all. The cheapest way to visit Erawan Falls is by bus (8170). It leaves the bus station in Kanchanaburi between every hour or so for most of the day but you’ll probably want to leave early. The first bus is at 8 am — get there early or you’ll have to stand! There are also other waterfalls around Kanchanaburi — the end of dry season isn’t the best time to go so we gave them a pass. Entrance fee for Erawan Falls is 300 baht for foreigners.
The most engaging piece of war history in Kanchanaburi is the train ride over the Death Railway to Hellfire Pass. The trip to Nam Tok takes a couple of hours and passes through mountainous countryside. The views were slightly diminished by the late dry season haze — November / December would be a better time to visit (read more about that below). From Nam Tok you still have a little while to go — taxi touts will urge you to go with them but you can walk to the main road and catch a bus.
When exploring Hellfire Pass you can really feel the hardships the prisoners of war faced. The conditions here are unforgiving — either stiflingly hot or drenched in the rainy season (and it didn’t help that they had to do back breaking work cutting a pass for the Death Railway, which ran all the way to Yangon, Myanmar). While exploring Hellfire Pass you can listen to an informative audio guide featuring anecdotes from some of the men who suffered there. It’s a fascinating place to explore, even for those with limited interest in WW2 history.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
This bridge is one of the most well-known in Southeast Asia thanks to the 1957 classic Bridge on the River Kwai. That movie wasn’t historically accurate though and this bridge looks nothing like the one in the movie. It’s still a nice bridge though and it’s worth following the crowds and walking across it. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” marked the start of the Death Railway which ran all the way to Yangon, Myanmar (at the time it was Rangoon, Burma).
FURTHER READING: Movies Set in Thailand: The Reel Guide
Cycling in the countryside
I first visited Kanchanaburi way back in 2012. One of the highlights of that trip was cycling through the countryside, where I found temples, caves and a quiet rural vibe. I can’t remember too many details but it’s difficult to get lost — just hire a bike, grab a map and go exploring. I would have done the same on my most recent trip but it was 40 degrees outside!
One of the best things about Kanchanaburi is the unique accommodation on offer. It’s easy, and cheap, to get a room on a floating raft / barge. They are secured to the coast, so don’t worry about floating down the river. There’s something calming about a gently swaying room, and watching the sunset while floating on the river is one of the best experiences you can hope to have in Kanchanaburi. If you’re lucky you’ll see tropical birds and monitor lizards.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is another WW2 site worth visiting in Kanchanaburi. It’s a place for quiet contemplation and for remembering the 7000 prisoners of war who died here while working on the Death Railway.
There are several museums in Kanchanaburi, mostly dealing with WW2. I visited the JEATH Museum and it was pretty good, but you can skip the museums if you’ve already been to Hellfire Pass and aren’t a WW2 history buff.
Kanchanaburi Travel Guide: Tips
- When to go: The best time to visit Kanchanaburi is between November and February, when it’s cool and dry. March to May tends to be extremely hot and the rains dominate from June to October. We visited in early April and it wasn’t too bad — if you can handle the heat (and haze) it’s a good place to visit as you can get some great deals on accommodation.
- Where to Stay: Try and stay at a floating guesthouse if you can. Some are luxury and some are aimed squarely at budget backpackers. We stayed in a very comfortable mid-range room complete with AC and a fridge for only 500 baht (I can’t remember the name of the guesthouse though).
- Getting to Kanchanaburi: The first time I went to Kanchanaburi I went by train which took ages. A much quicker and easier way is to take a minibus (assuming you’re coming from Bangkok). It only takes a couple of hours and costs around 100 baht.
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