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Kanchanaburi: nature, food and the memories of WW II


Tham Krasae Rail Bridge Next To the Khwae Noi River, Kanchanaburi, Thailand.


Many tourists in Thailand visit Kanchanaburi as a day trip or overnight from Bangkok. The typical stops include the death railway bridge – also known as the Bridge over the River Kwai (the vowel is pronounced like “way”, not “why”), the World War II cemetery, a war museum, and Erawan Falls. However there is so much more to see and do in Kanchanaburi. I’ve been living in Thailand for several years and during that time I’ve made two separate trips to Kanchanaburi with friends. Because the province is so big and packed with things to do, we did totally different activities each time, and I still haven’t even begun to cover all of it. After all, Kanchanaburi is Thailand’s third largest province by area. So if you have time, go for at least a few days. There is so much nature and beauty all around, so it can be hard to imagine the region’s troubled past. However it’s important to understand Thailand’s involvement in World War II, and there are plenty of museums and memorials to visit.

How to get there

I’m not the typical traveler in that I have my own car and drive to places within a few hours of Bangkok. However it’s quite easy and not too expensive to rent a car or van with a driver for a few days. Then you can design your own itinerary and have them take you. You can also take the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi if you want the experience. Your accommodation may be able to setup a car with a driver for you once you arrive. Buses also go to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok.

River Kwai Jungle Rafts - raft accommodation in Sai Yok


Where to stay

You can get some pretty typical accommodation in Kanchanaburi town and around. Any budget can be met, from budget hotels in the town, to five star resorts on the river. One unique type of accommodation is the floating rafts or bungalows. Some of these can be found along the river, while many others are dotted around Lake Srinakarin. The last time I visited, we stayed on land at Home Phutoey River Kwai, in Sai Yok. The same company also owns two floating accommodations – The Floathouse and River Kwai Jungle Rafts.


View from the campsite at Huay Mai Khamin falls, overlooking Srinakarin Lake


Nature

Kanchanaburi is full of national parks, with mountains, dense jungle, lakes, and stunning waterfalls. Erawan Falls is the most popular nature stop in the region, but I’ve never actually been. It’s said to be quite crowded most of the year. Instead my friends and I opted to drive an hour north to Huay Mae Khamin Waterfall. This waterfall, with a campground on site, has a nice view of the lake and it is supposed to be quieter than Erawan. It’s definitely more popular with Thais than foreigners, especially since it’s too far for the Bangkok day trippers. The waterfall is multi-leveled, with people enjoying a swim in the brisk water at all levels.


Srinakarin Dam, Kanchanaburi

Not far from Erawan Falls is the Srinakarin Dam. Many dams are popular tourist attractions in Thailand, and if you stop there, you’ll have a nice view of the lake.

Sai Yok Waterfall is probably the second most popular waterfall in the region. In fact the terminus of the train line in Kanchanaburi ends at “Namtok Sai Yok Noi” (small Sai Yok waterfall) station, and there is limited service to this station on the weekends. Nearby the Sai Yok fall, I would recommend visiting Tham Kasae Bridge and Kasae Cave. This wooden railroad bridge hugs the side of a cliff, with the Khwae Noi river below. You’ll get great views. It was also part of the death railway, which I will address below.

Fried whole fish from Baan-Aaya Coffee and Restaurant in Sai Yok

Food

In Kanchanaburi town, seafood and floating restaurants are popular. Some restaurants even take you on a river cruise while you eat. There are many different restaurants to choose from along the riverside, and they all have nice views. It’s a nice way to spend an evening as the sun sets. Just make sure to bring mosquito repellent. I always recommend getting a whole fish, whether fried, grilled, or steamed. Thai style whole fish is one of my favorite dishes to eat. You can get the fish with various sauces and toppings at different spice levels. The fish is for sharing, of course. I also like to order various Thai salads with shrimp/prawns, Thai fish cakes (tod mun pla), and maybe a soup like tom yum. If you’re not a seafood person, meat and vegetarian dishes are usually available. On my last trip, we visited Taraburee and Dedthodsaphak. Both were on the river and both were lovely. In the Sai Yok area (away from the river), we were all pleasantly surprised by Baan-Aaya Coffee and Restaurant, with huge portions, excellent flavor, and a pretty presentation.


Gaeng Som (orange tamarind fish soup/curry) at Dedthodsaphak Restaurant, Tables on the river at Dedthodsaphak Restaurant, Shrimp salad at Taraburee Restaurant,Tod mun pla (fried fish cakes) at Taraburee Restaurant

Death Railway Bridge, aka “The Bridge Over The River Kwai”

History

The Kanchanaburi region is very significant for its role in World War II. Thousands of men lost their lives while building a railroad to provide a land route for the Japanese forces to transport supplies between Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. The Japanese forces wanted a land crossing because the Allies were encroaching on the sea routes, and they wanted it built in record time. So they shipped allied POWs to Kanchanaburi and kept them in grueling conditions to build this railway. In addition to POWs, they also hired Southeast Asians on the promise of a decent salary, but basically turned them into slaves no better off than the POWs. In a place with so much natural beauty, we must remember the lives that were lost here.


The death railway bridge, made popular by the film “The Bridge Over The River Kwai”, is the most popular attraction in the region. Right now people come to take selfies and walk across the bridge. Trains do operate today on this stretch of railway, all the way up to Sai Yok. Almost next to the bridge is the World War II and JEATH war museum. This museum doesn’t delve deeply into the history but it does give you an idea of the conditions the POWs suffered building the railway. It also has some weird collections like old Thai money, typewriters, swords, and old guns. Another popular museum in Kanchanaburi town is the Thai-Burma Railway Center (also called the Death Railway Museum) which is supposed to be more informative. I plan to visit next time.


Kanchanaburi War Cemetery


In addition to the bridge and the museums, it’s worthwhile to visit the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, in the middle of Kanchanaburi town. This is the main cemetery for POW’s from the UK, Netherlands, and Australia. If you visit this cemetery, please be respectful of the somber nature of this cemetery and do not take selfies or other funny photos within the cemetery grounds. Unfortunately when I was there some tourists were taking smiling selfies around the cemetery.


Hellfire pass - the blood of thousands of men went into cutting through this rock


Further north in the Sai Yok area is Hellfire Pass, which is a cutting into the mountain where thousands perished. It contains an information center with extensive details in English, and a walk to the actual pass. Creating Hellfire Pass involved having men working 18+ hour days in horrible conditions to manually blow up part of a mountain so the train could travel through at a safe grade. These men would be forced to spend all day hammering into the rock by hand and then drop in sticks of dynamite to blow up a small portion of rock. Walking to the pass seems like a nice mountain stroll, so I think it’s good that first you go through the information center for context.


One of the two temple ruins at Prasat Mueang Singh, Kanchanaburi

While World War II history is what Kanchanaburi is known for, Prasat Mueang Singh contains the westernmost Khmer (think Angkor Wat) temple ruins in the region, so you can really imagine the extent of the ancient Khmer empire, stretching all the way from present day Cambodia to Kanchanaburi. Here you can find the remains of two temples from the 13th and 14th centuries. One is quite well preserved while the other is just a foundation. If you’re into ancient history, Prasat Mueang Singh is definitely worth a stop to check out.

As you can see, a day or a two won’t do Kanchanaburi justice. If you like nature, enjoy Thai food, and appreciate history, you may well want to spend a week or more in Kanchanaburi. The next time I visit Kanchanaburi, I want to go to the northern end of the province to visit the Mon Bridge and Khao Laem National Park.



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