Kanchanaburi offers visitors an unbeatable mix of history, culture and natural beauty that is almost impossible to get bored of. From the famous Death Railway and Bridge over the River Kwai, to the imposing river, colourful temples, cascading waterfalls and impossibly-intricate cave systems, there’s something to suit even the fussiest attraction seekers on this unavoidable history lesson.
The Bridge over the River Kwai is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kanchanaburi, mainly thanks to the 1957 Hollywood movie of the same name. Hordes of visitors arrive every day after the short Death Railway journey for the obligatory walk across the river. Despite being heavily bombed towards the end of the war, the bridge was rebuilt using many of the original steel girders.
As the river itself is also a major focal point, riverlunch cruises are mightily popular. The two tributaries, the Mae Naam Kwai Yai and the Mae Naam Kwai Noi, meander through a hilly backdrop and lush, tropical scenery. There are also many nice guesthouses to be found alongside the river’s banks. In addition, groups can club together to rent a barge (1,500 baht for three hours) and enjoy a private tour or booze-cruise.
There are several poignant reminders of WWII in the form of Thailand-Burma Death Railway cemeteries. The memorial plaques, which commemorate the thousands of American, Dutch, Australian and British POWs who died from beatings, exhaustion and diseases during the construction of the railway, can be reached on foot, bicycle or in a short taxi ride. There is also the Allied War Cemetery in the centre of town, the Chinese Cemetery with its weird and wonderful headstones next door, and the peaceful Chung Kai Cemetery on the outskirts.
The tragedies and events of Kanchanaburi’s famous legacy are recounted at the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum (Open: 09:00-17:00 (daily), tel: (034) 512 721, website). It offers informative multimedia displays, heartbreaking writings and salvaged items. The Hellfire Pass information centre (Open: 09:00-16:00 (daily), tel: 034-919 605, 034- 531 347) provides a much more memorable and dramatic account of the struggles to complete the Japanese-ordered supply line to Rangoon, but sits around 45 minutes drive outside of town so is best reached on a tour.
Around 15kms to the southeast of Kanchanaburi sits Wat Tham Suea (Tiger Cave Temple), not to be confused with the controversial ‘Tiger Temple’. After a short but tiring climb, visitors will be offered a stunning view of the river from the colourful monasteries which are built among honeycomb caves.
The Tiger Temple (Open: 09:00-17:00 (daily), tel: (81) 308 2300, website) offers unforgettable experiences and photo opportunities, but visitors should be warned that although the orphaned beasts have been tamed and raised by monks since they were cubs, cuddling them comes with a liability waiver. Petting is also not as well policed at it is in other regions of Thailand, and nothing is ever 100 per cent with wild animals.
Those who aren’t claustrophobic may enjoy caving in Kanchanaburi. The maze of caves and tunnels at Wat Tham Mangkon are great fun to work your way around and are the best of several caves in the area. They are also in easy reach of the town by pushbike.
The waterfalls at Erawan and Sai Yok are particularly stunning, with each coming with its own national park, packed full of picnic spots, wildlife and hiking trails. These two are among the prettiest waterfalls in Thailand, but you’ll need to put a whole day aside to visit them on separate highways west of the main town. Note that Sai Yok (and the more tucked-away Huay Kamin) dries up in the dry season between January and May. More on Kanchanaburi attractions.