Set astride the calming River Khwae, Kanchanaburi is best known for the “Death Railway” built by Allied prisoners of war and Asian conscripted labourers under Japanese command during the Second World War. Wade deeper into this enormous province to hit waterfalls, caves, ruins, temples, lakes and jungle. For history and natural beauty, Kanchanaburi packs a punch.
Inspired by the 1950s novel-turned-film, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Western travellers began flocking here decades ago to pay respects to the thousands of Australian, British, Dutch and other Allied POWs, and many more Asian labourers, who died while being forced to work on the Thai-Burma military supply railway from 1942-45. You can still ride part of the scenic railway and learn about the horrors of its construction at a raft of museums and memorials.
Centuries before the Japanese Imperial Army occupied the area, the laterite sanctuary of Prasat Mueang Singh was built along the western rim of the Khmer empire and can still be hit as a day trip. King Rama I later founded Kanchanaburi as a front line of defence against potential Burmese invaders. Many residents trace their roots to Chinese immigrants who built attractive Sino-European houses that have been preserved and featured along the Pak Prak heritage street.
Kanchanaburi also attracts busloads of Thai and other Asian travellers who are often most interested in river rafting and travertine waterfalls like Erawan and Huai Mae Khamin. Throw in the ever-present Russian package tourists and it’s no surprise that multi-storey hotels now compete with old guesthouses along the river. This is a popular destination with a well-entrenched tourism scene.
At sunset you might lounge on the porch of a rafthouse, feet in river with a cold drink and a good book. For dinner you can try local river fish served in a “jungle curry” at one of the floating restaurants. Things get a little weird on the tacky Mae Nam Khwae Road nightlife strip, where young backpackers gather for live music and sex workers fawn over older men at “hostess bars.” In Kanchanaburi, tranquility and brashness go hand in hand.
Those with plenty of time could check out the remote national parks, hill-tribe villages, meditation centres and volunteering opportunities found around Sangkhlaburi and Thong Pha Phum in the province’s distant northwestern reaches. Defined by cooler air and sedate atmospheres, these smaller towns can be darn refreshing after a couple of nights in Kanchanaburi town.
In 2016, Kanchanaburi made the news when tiger pelts were found among an appalling collection of illegal wildlife goods at the infamous Tiger Temple, which no longer has any tigers (do not visit this joint). Animal lovers who actually care about animal welfare might spend a day or longer at Elephant’s World, a non-profit sanctuary supporting old and ailing elephants that have worked long and hard carrying and performing for tourists elsewhere in Thailand.
While Kanchanaburi can be hit as a very long day trip from Bangkok, we feel that it takes at least two full days to absorb the war history in the provincial capital and hit a few of the best outlying attractions. In a province that spans nearly 20,000 square kilometres, long distances often separate one site from the next: arranging a motorbike, car or tour is a good idea. See Roll your own Kanchanaburi for help with the planning.
Located 120 kilometres west of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi town (“Mueang Kan” for short) is set at the confluence of the River Khwae Yai and River Khwae Noi; south of town these two rivers combine to form the Mae Khlong, which flows into the Gulf of Thailand down in Samut Songkhram. River Khwae is often spelt “Kwai” thanks to Pierre Boulle’s 1952 book; if it rhymes with “why,” it’s a mispronunciation meaning “Buffalo River.”
Kanchanaburi town has a population of around 50,000 and is situated in the eponymous province’s southeastern corner, closer to other Central Thai cities like Suphanburi and Nakhon Pathom than provincial towns like Sangkhlaburi. It’s the third largest province in Thailand after Chiang Mai and Nakhon Ratchasima; driving from one end to the other takes at least five hours without stopping.
Route 323 is the major highway running northwest out of Kanchanaburi town, loosely following the Khwae Noi and passing fairly close to Prasat Muang Singh, Hellfire Pass and Sai Yok National Park on the way up to Thong Pha Phum, Sangkhlaburi, and, eventually, the Burma border at Three Pagodas Pass. As of early 2017, the border crossing here was still open only to Thai and Burmese citizens.
Highway 3199 also runs north out of town and continues just east of the Khwae Yai to Erawan National Park and Sri Nakharin Reservoir. Keep going this way and, after a ferry crossing or two, you’ll reach an extremely remote but beautiful swathe of countryside leading up to the wilds of the Western Forest Complex.
Kanchanaburi town has a north-to-south configuration, with the Khwae Yai and Sangchuto Road running from north-to-south on either side. The main traveller and nightlife strip stretches for three kilometres south from the Death Railway Bridge (aka Saphan Mae Nam Khwae Yai) along Mae Nam Khwae Road. Most of the bars and budget guesthouses are clustered towards the south end of this road, near Sud Jai Bridge, which leads across to a quieter area hosting a couple of good flashpacker-range guesthouses and restaurants on the west bank of the river. The two-dozen side lanes shooting off Mae Nam Khwae Road were named after many of the nations involved in the Second World War.
Just south of Mae Nam Khwae Road, narrow Don Rak Road cuts east towards the night market and train station, which is just north of the centrally located Kanchanaburi War Cemetery on Sangchuto. The quieter Rongheabaoy Road shoots further south from Mae Nam Khwae Road along the river and hosts a few more places to stay. South of that are two large temples—Chinese-style Wat Thawonwararam and a spaceship-like chedi at Wat Thewasangkaram. South of those comes the old town along Pak Prak Road along with a clutch of floating restaurants on riverside Song Kwai Road. Continue to the south end of town and you hit Chukdon, a non-touristy village with another great night market.
The main Tourist Police station is on Sangchuto, opposite Indonesia Road on the north side of town, and the Tourist Police also have booths at the bus station and near the Death Railway Bridge. Kanchanaburi’s central police station is located across from the bus station on Sangchuto in the heart of town. Three hospitals are also found on Sangchuto: the large Phahon Phonphayuasena (Government) Hospital to the south; Saengchuto Hospital in the centre of town; and Kanchanaburi Memorial Hospital to the north. The immigration office is located at the far south end of town on Maenam Mae Klong Road.
You can pick up maps and brochures at an office run by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) just south of the main police station on Sangchuto. ATMs are widely available throughout town and bank branches can be found near the bus station. Several internet shops are found on Mae Nam Khwae Road, including A-Net just east of Mae Nam Khwae Soi 12.
Kanchanaburi town gets extremely hot, even by Thai standards, from March to May. Every year in late November or early December, the town throws the River Kwai Bridge Festival.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Kanchanaburi or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Kanchanaburi. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Kanchanaburi. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Kanchanaburi, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 11th February, 2017.
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