In a nutshell
Take it easy on a rafthouse floating on the River Kwai after checking out the Death Railway Bridge. Reflect at various war memorials and cemeteries, in particular the moving Hellfire Pass. Take a Thai cuisine cooking course. Hike to Erawan Waterfalls amid Thai tourist hordes.
For history, natural beauty, activities and accessibility, Kanchanaburi province is tough to beat. Located just 128 kilometres from Bangkok, Kan (as it's known to locals) is home to pristine national parks, cavernous caves, majestic rivers, lakes, waterfalls and temples. For many though, all this takes a backseat to the area's World War II history. Thousands of allied prisoners of war (POWs) and forced labourers lost their lives while building a Japanese military supply line known as the Death Railway, which cut through the province and linked Bangkok to Burma by way of a precarious and heavily bombed track.
Home to some 35,000 people, the provincial capital town of Kanchanaburi sits alongside the River Kwai (pronounced ‘khwae'), surrounded by sugarcane fields and dramatic mountains to the west. The town's signature landmark is a rail bridge built by POWs and made famous by the 1957 film, Bridge Over the River Kwai. World War II history buffs should plan on a solid two to three days to visit the bridge and take in the cemetaries and museums in town, plus another day to visit Hellfire Pass, 80 kilometres to the northwest.
With no less than seven national parks, Kanchanaburi province could keep nature lovers busy for weeks. Keep in mind however that at nearly 20,000 square kilometres, this is one of Thailand's largest provinces and huge distances often separate one sight from the next. Travellers who aren't up for renting their own wheels have little other choice than to book tours to most of the outlying sights. Dozens of tour companies have sprung up in Kanchanaburi town to heed the demand, and prices are generally reasonable.
With tourism firmly established here for decades, Kanchanaburi town has an extensive strip of foreigner-oriented restaurants, bars and guesthouses matched only by places like Khao San Road in Bangkok and the most popular islands. Hundreds of Western expats have also made their homes in Kanchanaburi. If possible, it's best to avoid arriving on weekends when throngs of Thais escape the cities and add to the crowds.
A rather debaucherous nightlife scene has grown steadily in recent years, but the town is still a fine place to relax on a rafthouse and watch the water slide by, feet in river with a cold drink and a good book. The old town centre is also worth a stroll to see the dilapidated but lovely century-old Sino-Portuguese and Thai-style shophouses. With that said, you're probably better off making the five-hour trip up to Sangkhlaburi (still part of Kanchanaburi province) if seeking spectacular scenery, cooler air and a more enchanting experience.
A word of warning to those not into extreme heat: Kanchanaburi is consistently a few degrees hotter than Bangkok, and in April the mercury bursts right through the top of the thermometer. Air-con will be a sound investment.
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Take one, maybe two days to visit the war related attractions in Kanchanaburi town, and do shell out the extra cash for the newish Death Railway museum (it's worth it). Also set aside an hour for a stroll through the old town streets. But rather than spending the rest of your days in the bars along Mae Nam Kwai Road, be sure to at least hit some of the outlying attractions. A train ride on the Death Railway is certainly worthwhile, though the province is particularly suited to exploration by motorbike or car.
Hellfire Pass is a must; visit independently if possible to avoid time restraints on the memorial trail. The conveniently located Khmer ruins at Prasat Muang Singh provide a refreshing contrast to the many war and natural attractions. The waterfalls at Sai Yok national park aren't as spectacular as those at Erawan, but Sai Yok is worth an overnight for some great swimming and quiet time.
If you're the sort who likes to really get "out there", ask around at the local travel agencies about trekking and camping in the province's more remote national parks, such as Thong Pha Phum and Sri Nakarin. And if time allows, make the trip to Sangkhlaburi -- it's truly a special place.
One more piece of advice: Don't visit the Tiger Temple. Read here to find out why.
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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.