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.
The main traveller strip and most budget accommodation is located towards the south of Maenam Kwai Road, which follows the east to west path of the River Kwai Yai. Though it gets thinner the further you go, accommodation and other services also stretch a couple of kilometres north up to where the road ends at the Death Railway Bridge and River Kwai rail station. With souvenir markets, restaurants and parking lots for the endless stream of tour buses, the area immediately around the bridge is a tourist trap.
Note that many of the bars towards the southern end of Maenam Kwai Road host very loud live bands or DJs on most nights, so you'll want to stay at accommodation further north up Maenam Kwai, south on Rongheabaoy Road, or on Thamakham Road on the other side of the river if wanting peace and quiet before 02:00 in the morning.
The bridge to Thamakham Road is accessible from the centre of the traveller strip off Maenam Kwai Road, opposite France Road. Even if not staying at one of the resorts or guesthouses on the other side of the river, it's worth venturing over there to enjoy the rural setting and a meal at Apple's.
The main traffic thoroughfare through town is the northwest to southeast running Sangchuto Road, which runs parallel to Maenam Kwai Road. Follow this north out of town and you can continue all the way to Erawan National Park up Route 3199 or Prasat Muang Singh, the Tiger Temple, Hellfire Pass, Sai Yok National Park and eventually Thong Pha Phum and Sangkhlaburi up Route 323.
The main tourist police office is located on Sangchuto Road, opposite Indonesia Road. A small tourist police booth that doubles as a tourist info centre is also found near the Death Railway Bridge. With plenty of car dealerships and little else, Sangchuto is not a very charming road as it runs through the west of town, but the main train station, a few hotels, the largest war cemetery and the Death Railway Museum are found along Sangchuto as it gets closer to the centre of town.
Further south and Sangchuto hits a major intersection with the east-running U-Thong Road, immediately after which the bus station and a large shopping complex are tucked just off Sangchuto. The TAT office is located near the bus station, also on Sangchuto, so if you're arriving by bus and need to pick up some information on things to see and do in the region, it's worth popping in before you head off to your accommodation. Continue south from here along Sangchuto and you'll reach a Tesco Lotus supermarket, the government hospital and the immigration office after a few more clicks. A couple of private hospitals -- Thanakan and Memorial -- are also found off Sangchuto Road.
Head west towards the river from the bus station and you'll pass through the narrow streets and weathered shophouses of old Kanchanaburi town, the best of which are found along Kikprak Road. This is a charming area to walk around but is very much the "local" part of town with no traveller services to speak of. Continue to the river and you'll find the JEATH War Museum in a large temple complex and a slew of riverside restaurants.
ATMs are found just about everywhere around town. The main banks for changing travellers cheques or foreign currency can be found on Sangchuto just north of the bus station. The main post office is a kilometre south of the TAT office on Sangchuto, but a small post office is also found within the traveller strip on Maenam Kwai Road.
Several internet cafes are dotted around town and offer reliable, high speed access and many guesthouses provide a couple of terminals in their reception areas. WiFi is also available for customers at most cafes along Maenam Kwai Road. If you prefer paper to electrons, several English-language book shops are found along the traveller strip, and many of these also sell the best maps.
Immigration Bureau: Mae Nam Mae Klong Rd (on the road over the bridge just south of Tesco Lotus), Kanchanaburi. Open: Mon-Fri 08:30-16:30, closed weekends. http://www.immigration.go.th
Kanchanaburi Memorial Hospital: 111 Mu 5 Sangchuto Rd, Kanchanaburi. T: (034) 624 184-193.
Phahonphonphayuhasena (government hospital): 572/1 Sangchuto Rd, Kanchanaburi. T: (034) 622 999.
Post office: 1 km south of the TAT office, Sangchuto Rd, Kanchanaburi. http://www.thailandpost.com
Thanakan Hospital: 20/20 Sangchuto Rd, Kanchanaburi. T: (034) 622 366-375
Tourism Authority of Thailand Central Region 1: Sangchuto Rd, Kanchanaburi. T: (034) 511 200; F: (034) 511 200. Open daily 08:30-16:30. http://www.tourismthailand.org
Tourist police: Sangchuto Rd. T: 1155; (034) 512 668. http://tourist.police.go.th
By David Luekens.