Though not particularly known as a food lover’s destination, good eats are plentiful in Kanchanaburi if you know where to look. From the markets to the floating restaurants and Western-style pubs, you’ll find plenty to choose from.
Drawing quite a few travellers thanks to a convenient location just west of the train station, the main night market is a fun place to browse fried munchies, grilled meats, curries for takeaway and a notably strong selection of sweet things. Look for gooey grilled bananas, balls of tapioca stuffed with a sweet mix of pork and peanut (sa-kuu sai muu) and coconut sticky rice topped with mango and jackfruit. While you’ll find very few places to sit down and eat, most of the food is suited to snacking while you peruse the clothing section.
The above-mentioned market isn’t bad, but we suggest heading to Chukdon night market for a better spread of local foods. Drawing very few foreign travellers, a lane is stuffed with long displays of prepared curries and stir-fries like pad prik khing (dry red curry) and gaeng som (sour orange curry); tom yum soup with chicken feet; fiery salads; steaming mussels; pla pao (whole grilled fish) and a lot more. After taking a peek at piles of fresh pla khang, a fatty freshwater fish that Kanchanaburi is known for, wander to the western end and look for an old lady in an older wood shop. She dishes out delicious homemade lod chong, an icy mix of grass jelly and sweetened coconut milk.
We also suggest a stroll through Kanchanaburi’s central fresh market (Talad Sod) to see freshly chopped pig’s heads, loads of fresh seafood, intricate flower garlands and paper offerings used in Chinese funerals. You won’t find a lot of prepared foods—eat before you go—but look around the perimeters to score Thai snacks like ba-bin (mini coconut pancakes) and khao thom mut (sweet steamed rice flour wrapped in coconut husks).
A local specialty is gaeng paa pla khang, the fiery “jungle curry” made with hunks of fatty local fish along with Asian eggplants, pea eggplants and a curry paste made with heavy doses of fresh red chillies and finger root. A top-notch place to try it is Krua Chukdon, a large riverside restaurant at the east end of town near the eponymous market. Though not used to serving foreigners, staffers are patient and the kitchen didn’t hesitate to smack us with the full fury of local spice. They also do a solid tom yum, whole steamed fishes and crab, and a range of stir-fried veggies posted on a simple English menu.
Another highlight, but aiming mainly for travellers, is Blue Rice Restaurant at Apple’s Retreat. Owner Noi told us that she’s “very fussy” when it comes to cleanliness and how the food is prepared, explaining why she makes her own chilli pastes and juices from scratch. We thoroughly enjoyed a bowl of gaeng tae poe, a rich yet slightly sour red curry with blanched morning glory and tender pork. Noi even asked if our tastes tended more towards sweet, sour or spicy, going so far as to educate us about how this dish hails from Nakhon Sawan and was originally prepared with soft-shell terrapin—good to know! Better-known dishes like pad Thai and massaman are also done well and the relaxing riverside setting is best accompanied by one of the house-made juices. Noi also runs the most serious cooking class in town.
While we haven’t tried most of Kanchanaburi’s many riverside restaurants, we did have a tasty and filling meal of mieang pla pao, featuring a whole grilled fish that diners wrap in lettuce with leafy greens, herbs and a sour, spicy sauce—great fun for large groups—at Krua Khun Paen. This humble streetside eatery is located across from the giant floating restaurants and disco rafts on Song Kwai Road and also serves som tam and other Isaan salads.
Mae Nam Khwae Road
Many travellers take all of their meals on Mae Nam Khwae Road, and for good reason. Along with guesthouse eateries and large-scale floating restaurants near the Death Railway Bridge, you’ll find some decent Western grub and no shortage of authentic Thai food served at proper eateries and street kitchens.
A good place to start is The Jolly Frog, a budget guesthouse with a restaurant that was once great, then went downhill, and was once again terrific at research time. Starting at 20 baht, breakfasts are served with house-baked wheat bread and baguettes which are also used for sandwiches, but it’s also worth coming back for dinner. The pad chaa pla khang, sizzling local fish with fresh peppercorns, chillies and ginger, was one of the best guesthouse meals we’ve had in a long time. The long menu also includes whole sea bass or snapper prepared a number of ways for 150 baht, a good deal. Normal dishes like fried rice and green curry start at just 40 baht and the open-sided dining area is a fine place to hang while playing cards and downing a few beers.
Another good breakfast option is the Crowe’s Nest, an inconspicuous open-fronted eatery wedged between some of the beer bars at the heart of the nightlife strip. It offers little more than one option: a fantastic and enormous English fry up with quality sausages, hash browns, grilled tomatoes and all the rest. Crowe’s Nest doesn’t have great coffee, but afterwards you can stroll a little further east up the road to Gravite for a cup of organic Northern Thai or Ethiopian Yirgacheffe drip brew. This hipster cafe is also the only place we know of in Kanchanaburi that serves Thai craft beer—and the IPA is worth the 200 baht.
This same vicinity hosts Mella Rossa, an Italian-run spot serving good wood-oven pizza along with gnocchi, lasagna and a number of steaks. Nearby Bell’s Pizzeria doesn’t have quite as good food but will also cure your dough craving and comes with a lively pub-style scene surrounded by other bars. If you’re after fish and chips, cordon bleu or T-bone steak, nearby Schluck is the place.
Vegetarians should look no further than On’s Issan-Thai, which had moved to a bigger and better-located air-con shop since our last visit. The smiley chef from Si Saket province squeezes in affordable cooking classes between bouts with a streetside wok. On whipped us up a simple but well balanced pad makua yao that mixed eggplant with tofu and basil and was served steaming hot. She’s also adept at banana flower salad, laap tofu and jungle curry. Served with healthy red rice, all dishes go for 60 baht and are pictured in the menu.
Another solid option for Thai is Pai-Kan, located further west up the road and attracting crowds of locals, expats and travellers to an air-con room or outside terrace. Som tam is served in a variety of ways, including with deep-fried soft-shell crab or fresh oysters, or in the usual Thai and Lao variations. Adventurous eaters could opt for a salad made with century eggs, which are extremely salty after a long process of pickling that renders them black as night. Prices range from 40 to 80 baht and you’ll also find standard Thai dishes and even basic Western options, making it a good option for groups with varied tastes. Diners write their orders on notepads; care to try copying the Thai script?
It’s bars galore along the eastern end of Mae Nam Khwae Road. The scene is strange; think Khao San Road meets Pattaya, or in other words, backpackers meet sexpats. Men walking solo should expect to be propositioned, if not grabbed, by some of the women working a cluster of tiny “hostess bars” at the heart of the strip. The seediness will ruin the experience for some, but those who can look beyond it will find dozens of non-raunchy bars that can be a lot of fun.
During our last visit, the most happening nightspot was Triple B, featuring a billiards table, soccer on a few widescreens, live bands and tables sprawling out to the footpaths. Across from that is Blue Jeans, a cowboy-themed spot where a rock band was jamming away and local Thais mingled with travellers.
This area also hosts 10 Baht Bar, a makeshift footpath haunt which claims to “get you drunk for 10 baht”. While most shots go for at least 20 baht, they’ll give you a swig of Yoong Thong Thai whiskey for a 10-baht coin—hello hangover! Stumble a little further south up the strip to find Buddha Bar and Land Pole, two mellow spots with dreadlocked reggae bands attracting dreadlocked travellers. If you feel like meeting some of the local expats, wander up to Crackers Bar to have a yarn for the eccentric Australian owner and his pals.
While there’s now a midnight cut off time for loud music, several bars—especially the seedier ones—pull down awnings and keep the parties going all the way until daybreak if patrons stick around. Do stay in control, as these are the times when bad things tend to happen.
Also worth a mention here are Kanchanaburi’s famous “floating discos”, large roofed rafts studded with incredibly loud speakers and flashing lights, and towed precariously along the rivers by longtail boats. Mainly drawing Thai party people, these can still be arranged at Song Kwai Road but the authorities seemed to have successfully banned them after dark as of early 2017.
Bell’s Pizzeria Mae Nam Khwae Rd; T: (081) 010 6614; Mo-Su: 16:00-00:00.
Blue Rice Restaurant At Apple’s Retreat, Thamakhan Rd, on the west side of the river (cross Sud Jai Bridge from Mae Nam Khwae Rd and go right); T: (034) 512 017, (062) 324 5879; http://www.applesguesthouse.com/ Mo-Su: Lunch and dinner.
Chukdon night market Chukdon Rd (turn left at the far southern end of Pak Prak Rd); Mo-Su: 16:00-20:00.
Crowe’s Nest 268/1 Mae Nam Khwae Rd; Mo-Su: 08:00 till late afternoon.
Gravite Drip Coffee 3/17 Mae Nam Khwae Rd (in front of The Nine Guesthouse); T: (085) 222 7802; Mo-Su: 09:30-21:00.
Kanchanaburi fresh market Centre of town between Pak Prak Rd, Krom Prarad Chawang Boworn Rd and Prasit Songkram Rd; Mo-Su: 05:00-15:00.
Kanchanaburi night market Sangchuto Rd (just west of the train station); Mo-Su: 05:00-21:00.
Krua Chukdon West end of Chukdon Rd (sign in Thai, look for the gate with Thai script on a wood sign next to Chukdon Pier); T: (034) 620 548, (092) 419 6389; Mo-Su: 09:00-22:30.
Krua Khun Paen Far north end of Song Kwai Rd on the inland side of the street (look for the red sign in Thai); T: (085) 294 8367, (092) 284 6891; Mo-Su: Lunch and dinner.
Mella Rossa Near the far south end of Mae Nam Khwae Rd; T: (089) 596 6318; Mo-Su: 12:00-22:00.
On’s Issan-Thai Vegetarian Mae Nam Khwae Rd (just north of Sugarcane Guesthouse and across from Bell’s Pizzeria); T: (087) 364 2264; Mo-Su: 10:00-22:00.
Pai-Kan Restaurant Mae Nam Khwae Rd (just west of Sabai@Kan Resort); Mo-Su: 11:00-22:00.
Schluck Restaurant 20/1 Mae Nam Khwae Rd; T: (081) 355 9477; Mo-Su: 16:00-22:00.
The Jolly Frog 28 Soi China (off Mae Nam Khwae Rd); Mo-Su: 07:00-22:00.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.