Kanchanaburi offers everything from night market stands to massive tourist restaurants to bars that get pretty crazy late at night.
For the cheapest local food, head into the centre of town. Across from the River Kwai Hotel, the outdoor restaurant called Day/Night Market serves some very delicious and inexpensive Thai food -- come here for their spicy stir-fries or papaya salads if the tourist fare at your guesthouse is too bland for you. A number of food stands operate around the bus station throughout the day and early evening, selling grilled chicken, cheap snacks and fresh tropical fruit. Also near the bus station, you'll find Srifa Bakery, one of the best places in town for real coffee. They don't have an English sign, but it's a massive place -- look out for the blue banners and the giant billboard advertising their baked goods, including delicious pandan buns and young coconut pies. Closer to the traveller strip, a great Isaan restaurant is found across from Nirvana Guesthouse. It's always packed with locals -- a testament to the tasty and spicy laap and som tam salads served here.
Along Maenam Kwai, you'll find a decent selection of restaurants catering to tourists, some with unexpectedly good food. Our favourite for its diverse menu and consistently good food is Mangosteen, which opened in 2011 and is run by the former operators of the Jolly Frog's restaurant. Aside from fresh coffee and outstanding smoothies, Mangosteen serves up a range of authentic Thai food, including unexpected choices like an Isaan sausage grazing plate. They also churn out very good breakfasts and Western fare like a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich and homemade chicken cordon bleu. A couple of Indian dishes are even available. Mangosteen also serves beer and cocktails to go with free WiFi, though you might not need it owing to the great selection of secondhand books, mainly in English.
Just up the street, Tai Thai Restaurant always seems to have a crowd gathering for its stir-fries and steamed fish in a casual, lively set-up. Nearby On's is a friendly spot that serves cheap and hearty vegetarian Thai in a cute, intimate setup. On also runs a cooking school, and when we dropped by her students were happily helping her to cook and take orders from guests -- we thought it was brilliant that they were paying to essentially work as her staff for the night! Another option for a tasty vegetarian lunch is the small traditional Thai-Chinese style vegan shop around the corner from Maenam Kwai Road near Nirvana Guesthouse (look for the yellow flags and a sign that says "vegetarian food"), where you can sample as many types of stir-fries, curries and meat substitutes as you like, all piled high on a mound of rice for dirt cheap prices.
The star of Kanchanaburi's Thai food scene is still Apple and Noi's Blue Rice Restaurant, although it's now located in a spacious veranda overlooking the river at Apple's Retreat on the other side of the river. It's a 10-minute walk from the heart of the traveller strip, but worth it. With bright pictures of each dish and Thai names translated to English and transliterated into Roman characters, reading the menu is like taking a journey through Thai cuisine. All of the standards are done well, but you might try something different like som tam with fresh fruit, laab muu tod (deep fried balls of spicy minced pork), jungle curry and one of several house-made coconut-based desserts. It's not cheap, but prices are reasonable for the quality and you can almost taste the love cooked into each bite.
Next to Apple's, Sut Jai Restaurant has also received good reports for its whole fishes and wide range of spicy Thai soups and salads in a similarly tranquil riverside setting. A string of floating restaurants are found near the JEATH musem south of Rongheabaoy Road. They seem to be mainly geared to weekender Thais, but they're a fine bet for an extensive seafood meal and cold beers next to the river. A number of massive restaurants that cater mainly to tourists are also found near the Death Railway Bridge, where you can dine while gazing at Kanchanaburi's signature landmark. Although the nearby market is mainly devoted to T-shirts and souvenirs, a string of fresh fruit vendors selling tasty durian, pomelo, mango, rose apple and more can also be found there.
For something with more of an upscale vibe, The Resort (strangely a restaurant only -- no rooms here) is a swish and popular spot midway up Maenam Kwai Road that's popular with weekenders from Bangkok and serves delicious Thai food, including some upcountry favourites like deer and wild boar. Tables are set around a colonial-style house in a garden of white lanterns and traveller palms. An upscale air-con coffee shop is run by the same management nearby. Another good bet for a more refined atmosphere is either Keeree Tara or The Loft, both of which look more like resorts from the front and have stylish riverside decks just north of the bridge.
If you're tired of Thai, Bell's Pizzeria is an Italian food operation that serves outstanding pasta dishes and pizza to go with several German beers and great coffee. Service is excellent, and this spacious restaurant right in the heart of the action on Maenam Kwai Road is usually packed with expat regulars. Another great choice is the Peace Cafe further north up Maenam Kwai Road. With Pink Floyd playing in the messy dining area, the atmosphere isn't exactly refined, but the spirited staff serve up Italian coffee along with outstanding baguette sandwiches with generous hunks of real cheddar cheese as well as several tasty pasta dishes and giant salads -- try the calamari. Peace Cafe also has a full bar and is a fun spot to meet travellers and expats after dark.
Kanchanaburi's nightlife scene continues to get bigger and louder, with most foreigner-oriented bars clustered around the southern side of Maenam Kwai Road. Many have billiards tables and flatscreen TVs showing the latest football matches. The majority seem to cater to backpackers looking to get hammered on as few baht as possible. Expect to see signs like "Drink Drunk Dance" and "Get Shit Faced". There are even hole-in-the-wall bars that offer small shots for 10 baht a piece.
Long-running No Name bar offers an English pub menu right down to fish and chips and bangers and mash. In a similar vein is the Snooker Bar, which seems to be the centre of the universe for a lot of Kanchanaburi expats. A few doors down from No Name is the Rasta Bar. This is the meeting place for the Kanchanaburi expat biker gang and a fairly cool hangout, with live reggae bands performing often and dreadlocked Thai "rastas" working the bar. Newer editions include Baa Bar (baa means "crazy" in Thai), which tends to get rowdy the later it gets, and Aussie Bar, a spot that's not surprisingly full day and night of Australians, both expats and tourists having a yarn with them.
If you prefer something a bit more Thai, the floating discos and loud, brash bars on Song Kwai Road are the places to head. Every night rafts set off up the river stacked to the roof with as many loud speakers as they can manage without sinking.