Kanchanaburi Travel Guide
Tucked away in an isolated corner of Western Thailand near the Burmese border, Kanchanaburi Province may well have continued to slip under the national radar had the Second World War not put it on the map for all the wrong reasons.
In the early 1940s, the Imperial Japanese Army sought to create a supply line to Burma to aid their efforts to take India. To do so, they brought in prisoners of war (POW’s) from around Asia and worked them relentlessly. By the time the war had ended, almost 7,000 soldiers had been worked to death here.
While in Kanchanaburi, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about this dark chapter in the history of Thailand, but this area’s attractions aren’t all dark – with some of the best wilderness and waterfalls in the country, this area will appeal to outdoor enthusiasts as well.
Get up to speed on the background history of the involvement of Kanchanaburi in the Second World War by first spending time at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. As the name suggests, this institution tells the story of the railroad the Japanese attempted to hack through jungles and mountains in a bid to create a supply line to their Burmese front in the latter stages of World War II.
Their labour force were prisoners of war – shipped in from wherever they were captured, these unwilling workers were made to toil in unrelenting heat amid malarial mosquitoes. Their supervisors were unforgiving, driving their slave workforce to exhaustion and often until they dropped dead on the job.
Throughout the centre, you’ll find haunting artifacts, ranging from the journals and bibles of prisoners to exhibits which educate visitors on the horrifying reality of life in a POW camp.
Next, cross over The Bridge over the River Kwai. As one of the most prominent pieces of infrastructure built by Allied prisoners of war, its hard to mentally transport yourself back to those desperate times, especially when a tourist train filled with holidaymakers rolls by.
Yet, this was one of many venues along the Death Railway where thousands of POW’s lost their lives. Their plight was told by the 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, although it was shot in Sri Lanka, not in Thailand.
If you are visiting between late November and early December, attempt to attend The Bridge of the River Kwai Memorial Week, which features events that aim to educate the public about this horrific period in Thailand’s history.
As mentioned, the construction of the Death Railway was intended to link up with rail lines in Burma. Travel more than hundred kilometres northwest of Kanchanaburi on a day trip to visit Hellfire Pass. Situated in what is lush, peaceful jungle in the present day, the construction of this part of the line made for one of the most gruesome work sites in the entire building process.
Made to pick through solid rock in the middle of nowhere, this place was notorious for pushing prisoners past the breaking point. In fact, the place got its name by the sight of ghastly, malnourished POW’s lit up by the orange torchlight glow of their supervisors.
Home to a memorial which hosts services annually on ANZAC Day, it is a sobering place to visit for any traveller looking to fully appreciate the horrors of war.
End your war-related tour of the area by paying your respects to the dead at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Here, you’ll find the graves of nearly 7,000 allied soldiers who died as POWs along the Death Railway. British, Australian, and Dutch service members can be found here, making this peaceful place a point of pilgrimage for extended family who often drop by to visit their fallen members.
As such, dress and act appropriately during your time here – wear long pants and a respectable top, keep your voice down and save any joking for after your visit.
In addition to its connection to the Second World War, Kanchanaburi is also known for having an abundance of beautiful wild spaces within an easy drive from town. Erawan National Park is the most famous of these, as it plays host to a series of spectacular waterfalls and gorges within its boundaries.
With creamy blue water which is refreshing but not chilly, visitors linger all day, swimming in paradisaical pools, climbing into the caves behind some of the torrents, and sliding down natural water slides carved into the smooth rock found here.
Be aware of the local population of monkeys – avoid feeding them, as it trains them to be reliant on humans, and it perpetuates a theft problem where the more cheeky ones snatch food and objects from unsuspecting visitors.
Want to take in this region’s beautiful waterfalls, but want to get away from the crowds at Erawan? Venturing into the more remote Sai Yok National Park will do the trick. It has cataracts which are just as (if not more) beautiful as Erawan’s while offering jungle-lined rivers and spectacular caves as well.
Naturalists will love the diversity of flora and fauna here – its remote location mean certain species have only been discovered in recent times. This includes Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, which is considered to be the world’s smallest bat.
Temple buffs aren’t left out in Kanchanaburi, as Mueang Sing Historical Park offers a chance to explore one of Thailand’s most westerly Khmer ruins. Dating back to the 12th century, it is surrounded by a laterite wall with a central prang in the middle. Thought to have been an ancient trading outpost, it was likely the westerly point of contact with civilizations to the west, namely the Burmese.
End your time in this corner of Thailand with dinner and an evening of shopping at the Kanchanaburi Night Market. Situated by the train station, you will not have a lack of options when it comes to local cuisine, and with plenty of shoes, clothing, and souvenirs to buy after eating, you’ll have the makings of a lively night.