Many travellers to Kanchanaburi book themselves straight onto a bunch of tours so they can plug as many sights and attractions as possible into their scant time available. Our man on the ground took a local's advice and skipped the tours to roll his own Khanchanaburi -- read on to find out how he went.
Set along a lazy brown river in a bowl of forested hills, Kanchanaburi is an ideal destination for a little upcountry relaxation. Upon arrival, you may find it difficult not to take a tour. This isn't because the tours take in the most interesting sights or offer tremendous value, but rather because from the moment you're dropped off in town you'll likely be hounded by tour operators, desperate to sign you up for a day of sightseeing.
Perhaps because Kanchanaburi is so accessible from Bangkok, it's frequently visited by short-term travellers, many of who find it easier to take a tour than to strike out on their own. But before you sign up, consider the advice of one helpful guesthouse manager. Asked how best to enjoy the town, he confided, "Forget the elephants, forget the tigers, and forget the tours -- you can see Kanchanaburi on your own."
Given the laid-back setting of the town, you'll likely find that the act of exploration is in itself the most enjoyable activity in Kanchanaburi. Numerous outlets along Maenam Kwai rent bicycles and motorbikes, and you can easily visit jackfruit plantations and quiet Buddhist temples on your own two wheels.
Since Kanchanaburi is a river town, one of the best ways to see it is from the water. The Kanchanaburi Travel Centre, also located on Maenam Kwai, offers very affordable kayak rental. They don't charge by the hour, so you're free to have as meandering of a journey as you'd like. With a few hours on the water, you can paddle among lush forest, bamboo stilt-houses, and swamps of luminous lotus flowers.
Even if your interests lay more than a bike ride away, you can still manage on your own, as Kanchanaburi province is blessed with an easily navigated public transport system. There are plentiful tuk tuks, regular buses, and, of course, the train. Using a combination of public transport, you can have a full day of waterfalls, amazing views, and isolated temples.
If you start your day by 10:00, you can have a great day out on your own. Catch any Sangkhlaburi-bound bus from Kanchanaburi town, and tell the driver that you'll be getting off at Nam Tok. From the station, it's an hour-and-a-half journey along Route 323 before you'll be deposited in front of souvenir stands at the tiny rest stop of Nam Tok.
A short climb from where the buses unload their passengers you'll find the Sai Yok Noi waterfall. Though hardly untouched (the falls now splash into a manicured pool) it's a fun and friendly environment, where Thai families frolic among a forest of overgrown ferns. Nearby, the old train station has been partly refurnished into a casual restaurant, the perfect place to grab a lunch of spicy papaya and smoky grilled chicken.
The old train station only sees one train in the late afternoon, so to continue the trip you'll need to backtrack a few hundred metres to the road that forks off Route 323. Signs will direct you along the 2km walk to the main train station, where you can catch the 13:00 train back towards Kanchanaburi.
The first leg of the trip is incredible: after passing through bamboo groves and hills topped with temples, you'll rumble out along a ledge high over the river, offering heart-stopping views.
Hop off the train at Tha Kilen station. Follow the road that leads directly away from the station, and take the first right. After a short shady walk, you'll reach the Khmer temple of Prasat Muang Singh. The site is interesting enough for being the furthest western outpost of the Khmer empire, but it's also a brilliantly tranquil setting.
Hoopoes and mynahs chatter among the broken pediments, taking food back to their young who wait in the banyan trees. The ruins have been lovingly (if controversially) restored, and strike a perfect balance between being too manicured and remaining atmospherically overgrown. Though breathtaking, the temple grounds are generally overlooked by tour groups, so they're often very nearly deserted.
The next train will rumble through Tha Kilen station at around 14:25, giving you an hour to leisurely explore the ruins, and even grab an iced coffee at the café. Don't miss the train, or you'll have to wait another hour for the next one -- it's an unshaded 8km walk to the highway, so buses aren't an option.
Back on the train, you'll have an hour to relax before you pass over the River Kwai Bridge and return to Kanchanaburi. It'll be the ideal time to look back over your day and reflect on the fact that you've seen the best that Kanchanaburi has to offer—minus the crowds.
So remain firm when dealing with the tour operators: the tigers and elephants won't miss you at all.
By Alexander Santillanes
Last updated on 25th May, 2015.