Last Update: October 2020
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It’s easy to understand why Thailand is one of the most popular countries for travelers in South East Asia. Due to the agreeable climate, price level, delicious food and ample attractions, Thailand has something to offer for everyone. According to the Thai ministry of tourism a whopping 41million tourists a visited the land of smiles in 2019. Mind you, that’s substantially more people than the total population of Canada!
The list of highlights seems endless, but with so many other tourists visiting, you know you won’t be alone. After all, they are…, well let’s just say that everyone wants to visit the highlights. Don’t worry about it too much though, the infrastructure around the most visited attractions in Thailand is often well developed. As a result, visiting the highlights remains the best introduction to Thailand.
Unless you’re a full-time traveler and time is not an issue you’ll have a hard time deciding which destinations to cover. Most visitors start in Bangkok, which is a highlight in itself. After that, it’s either down South for some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, or up North for mountains and rain-forests.
Kanchanaburi is not too far from Bangkok, making it the perfect in between destination to visit before you head either North or South.
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Kanchanaburi in Thailand is the provincial capital of the province with the same name. Although just 125km to the West of Bangkok, it’s a completely different world. Aside from the capital, the province is a green paradise.
Jungle, caves, rivers and waterfalls against a backdrop of WWII monuments are what sums up Kanchanaburi. Within Thailand, Kanchanaburi is known as one of the most beautiful provinces, something that more and more international travelers are finding out.
Its close proximity to Bangkok makes Kanchanaburi very popular with domestic visitors wanting to escape the city. However, with the exception of maybe a few attractions, the province is large enough to never feel overrun by tourism.
Reasons (not) to visit Kanchanaburi
5 Reasons to visit Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi deserves an multiple day visit, but if you are pressed for time it’s close enough to Bangkok to visit the highlights on a day-trip;
WWII history buffs will feel like a kid in a candy shop, but also for non fanatics the war relics and monuments are quite interesting;
Kanchanaburi is a very green province covered in forests with two large lakes. The numerous national parks make this a great area for nature lovers and adventure seekers;
Stay on the river in a floating bungalow in the middle of the jungle and completely disconnect;
Experience local heritage in the small villages and towns;
2 Reasons not to visit Kanchanaburi
The province sees an incredible amount of rain from April to November. During this period it’s also extremely hot and humid with a lot of grey skies. Jungle treks sure are no fun in the mud;
If you’re looking for big city pleasures then Kanchanaburi is not the place to be. Kanchanaburi Town, being the largest town in the province has a population of less than 40,000, so hardly a metropolis.
How to get to Kanchanaburi
The closest airport to Kanchanaburi is Bangkok. In fact, Bangkok has 2 international airports with flights coming in from all over the world. Check the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of incoming and outgoing flights.
Buses and minivans depart to and from Kanchanaburi town on a regular basis. From Bangkok, they even depart multiple times every day. Buses stop at the only bus station in Kanchanaburi town and from there it’s easy to charter a tuk-tuk, motorbike taxi or songthaew to your accommodation.
There’s also a cozy direct train that leaves from Bangkok, Thonburi station twice per day at 7:50am and 1.55pm for just THB100. Unless you read/write Thai it’s not possible to book your train ticket online. Don’t bother, just buy your ticket at the station, except for public holidays seats are not likely to sell out.
Beware of buying tickets at one of the Khaosan road travel agencies though, there have been several reports of scams, don’t be that guy! A better idea might be to use our transport planning tool below to book your ticket online.
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Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s).
Check schedules and compare prices of bus/ferry/train tickets.
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Getting around within Kanchanaburi town
Kanchanaburi town is stretched out along the Khwae Yai river for several kilometers. Because of the distances the town is not easily walkable. Many visitors opt to rent a motorbike, which is easy to find and rather cheap, especially around the backpackers district at Maenamkwai Road. Typically, motorbikes are rented for THB200-300 per day.
Push bikes can be rented for as low as THB50 and some of the guesthouses even make them available to their guests for free. For errands and sightseeing within the town, a push bike will do just fine.
A lot of funny stuff happens on the road while traveling. I vividly remember this incredible scene.
The sheer ingenuity of a young backpacker when trying to rent a bike in Thailand left me both shocked and amused. read more>>
If you don’t care for biking/cycling then the orange songthaews might be for you. They drive up and down Saengchuto Road, which runs parallel to the river. Just hail them when you see them going by. For a THB10-20 standard fee, depending on the distance, they can bring you to the river Kwai bridge, the train/bus station and the war cemetery.
Tuk-tuks and motorbike taxi’s are widely available in town. However, prepare to bargain hard on the fare.
Out of town
Next to air-conditioned cars, rental motorbikes are the most convenient transport when venturing out of town. Note that proper document requirements for tourists riding a motorbike in Thailand can be are very confusing. Not having the right documents will most likely invalidate all insurance you might have. Check out this link for some explanation on regulations.
Other then a motorbike, you can charter a tuk-tuk, motorbike taxi and even a songthaew for private transport. Having said that, regular car and driver might be best for attractions that are a bit further out, like Erawan and Sai Yok National Park or Hellfire Pass. Again, bargain hard to get the best price.
Things to see/do in Kanchanaburi
World War II Monuments
The area is teeming with World War II memorials related to the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway that involved 200,000 thousand of casualties.
Who hasn’t read the book or watched the movie “The bridge on the river Kwai” about the cruelties and hardships that pow’s had to endure during the construction of the “Death Railway”.
The bridge is situated in the Northwestern part of Kanchanaburi City, crossing the Khwae Yai river. Although it is not the exact bridge from the book, it has become the symbol bridge for commemorating the atrocities that took place. Every year by end of November “The River Kwai Bridge Festival” takes place in memory of the allied bombing of the bridge.
It’s undoubtedly the biggest attraction in Kanchanaburi and probably the most photographed. Of course it’s a must-visit location, but you will have to make an effort to look beyond the somewhat inappropriate behavior of your fellow travelers. Call me overly sensitive, but a war monument commemorating 200,000 casualties is not the place for a rather preposterous kiddy train and instagram duck faced selfies.
The “Konyu Cutting” is a 600m long pass that is carved out of the rock by allied prisoners of war and Asian laborers. The cutting is better known as “Hellfire Pass”, a name derived from the glow of torches that were lit so that the prisoners could continue to work during the night. It was said to resemble “a sight from hell”.
The whole pass (and many more) was carved out with nothing more than hand drills, picks and shovels. Prisoners of war as well as Asian laborers were forced to 16h-18h of hard labor per day under extremely harsh conditions in the unrelenting heat.
Some 700 allied prisoners died at Hellfire Pass from beatings, hunger, dehydration and sickness like cholera and dysentery. The count of Asian laborers (forced and paid) that perished is estimated to be at least twice that amount or more.
There are no trains going through Hellfire Pass anymore. There’s a memorial museum and a perfectly good audio guided walk along part of the railway track and to the cutting. Hellfire pass is located app 85km Northwest of Kanchanaburi town. The museum opens every day from 9am to 4pm and admission is free.
Kanchanaburi has two war cemeteries, “Chongkai” about 2km out of town and the larger “Don Rak”, also known as “Kanchanaburi War Cemetery” in the middle of town. Almost 7,000 Pow’s from the Netherlands, Australia and UK who gave their life for the construction of the Death Railway to Burma are buried at Don Rak.
The cemeteries are well kept, peaceful and a perfect opportunity to pay your respects. Don Rak opens to the public from 7am to 2pm, Chong Kai is always open. Admission for both cemeteries is free.
Except for the ‘Thailand-Burma Railway Center” and the “Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum”, the museums are pretty worthless. Unless you’re a war history fanatic I would skip the “Jeath War Museum”, the “WWII Museum and Art Gallery” and the handful of obscure smaller ones.
The Thailand-Burma Railway Center is situated next to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Arguably it’s the best source of information with regards to WWII in Thailand and the Death Railway. There are many videos, artifacts and interactive displays. The museum opens daily from 9am to 5pm, admission is THB150.
Death Railway train
It is possible to ride a train following parts of the original Death Railway. Mind you, this is not the ridiculous kiddy train at the river Kwai bridge, although it does cross there. Instead, the train takes you through narrow cuttings and over wooden bridges. The train itself is not overly comfortable, but the views over the river and cliffs are nothing but fantastic.
A train journey from Kanchanaburi Station to Nam Tok will take app 2hr one way. Trains leave at 6.07am and 10.35am. Of course you can always alight somewhere half way to return if you don’t want to go all the way to Nam Tok. Just make sure not to miss the viaduct at Wampo. Sit on the left-hand side of the train when traveling from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok as that is where the action is. One way journey is THB100 and you don’t need to reserve tickets, just buy them at the station kiosks.
Kanchanaburi has its fair share of temples and some of them really differ from the usual Thai temple. Caves seem to be a re-occurring feature among the temples in Kanchanaburi.
Wat Ban Tham. Up the stairs and into the dragon’s mouth you go. Wat Ban Tham is an interesting cave temple. Continue your walk beyond the main cave and up the 200m hill to find more caves and breathtaking views over the Mae Klong river;
Wat Tham Sua. Another temple on a hill just 4km down the road from Wat Ban Tham. You can reach the top by cable car for THB20 or by climbing the 157 steps staircase, you choose. Next to the views, the giant 18m high golden Buddha is the star of the show. This temple is also known as the “tiger cave temple”;
Wat Tham Khao Noi. You’ll find this temple conveniently right next door to Wat Tham Sua. The architecture of the buildings is Chinese influenced, complete with a pagoda. Fantastic views here as well, this time over the valley covered in green rice fields;
Wat Tham Khao Pun. Old temple consisting of 9 caverns that are absolutely packed with Buddhist and Hindu shrines. The cave system is well lit and definitely worth a visit;
Wat Tham Mungkornthong. Just a small cave temple, but it’s deserves a position on this list because of the small pool in one of the caves. Every once in a while a nun will give floating performances in the pool. I kid you not! Just google it and you will see;
Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua (Tiger Temple, not to be confused with the tiger cave temple “wat tham sua”). Is this tiger sanctuary with a successful breeding program for real? Or is it a front for a commercial business selling wild animals? I have my doubts about this place, but you should do your research and decide for yourselves. Update May 2020: It seems that the tiger temple is closed after a raid by the Thai government.
Erawan National Park
Popular nature park about 65km North of Kanchanaburi town where the famous Erawan waterfall is situated. Although it’s possible to spend the night at the park, most visitors are day-trippers that come for a short hike and a swim at the 7-tiered waterfall. The pools are a wonderful turquoise color, except for deep into the rainy season when the water turns muddy and brown.
A fairly easy hiking trail goes all the way up to tier 7. Do not underestimate the hike though, especially when it’s hot, and it mostly is. It’s about 50min to the 7th tier and 40min to come back, but it’s a bit of climb. Having said that, we once saw a group of about 20 middle-aged Russians go up in nothing more than speedos/bikinis and flip flops. They must have been in good shape, because they didn’t seem the least bothered by the heat, humidity, terrain and the fierce mosquitoes.
There’s a campground near the visitor center and supposedly there are limited bungalows for rent. Keep in mind though that on weekends and public holidays they are often booked by schools and/or groups. So, if you manage to score an accommodation you probably won’t get much sleep, think karaoke and such.
Entrance to the park is THB300 plus another THB20 per motorbike. I believe there is a public bus with a stop on Saengchuto Road in town, but I don’t know the details. Maybe ask your guesthouse for more information.
Sai Yok National Park
95km to the Northwest of Kanchanaburi town is this other beautiful nature reserve. Maybe a bit to far out for a day trip, especially if you’re planning to hike there, but it’s a good stop on the way to Sangkhla Buri. Take note that the entrance fee to Sai Yok National park is rather expensive with THB400 for foreigners.
More waterfalls here, Sai Yok Yai (big) and Sai Yok Lek (small). Both fall from about 10m height and strangely enough Lek (small) is the larger and wider of the two. The park is also home to one of Thailand’s most spectacular caves Tham Lawa that has multiple large chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
Where to stay in Kanchanaburi
It makes sense to stay in Kanchanaburi town, because all of the tourist amenities. Guesthouses and hotels are mainly concentrated on Maenamkwai Road along the riverside. Generally speaking, one can say that the Northern part of this street is more suitable for families and the Southern part for backpackers and party. Restaurants are abundant on either side, it’s just that the South has more bars and is a whole lot louder.
In the past few years a lot of 3star segment hotels have sprung up to accommodate the Bangkokian middle class visitors. You’ll find them on the Western river bank opposite from Maenamkwai Road, as well as on the Eastern river bank, just South from Maenamkwai Road. From an outsiders perspective they seem to be lacking some atmosphere. However, I’ve never actually stayed in any of the hotels there, so I might be completely off here, it’s just an observation.
On the other hand, for a real Kanchanaburi experience you should actually try out one of the floating hotels far out in the province. Some of them are almost luxurious with ample facilities and are therefor quite pricey. Others are a lot more basic and sometimes hidden deep in the jungle. They are the real adventurous deal, without aircon, wifi and sometimes even without electricity. Whichever you prefer, it’s definitely worth it to spend a few days on the river.
My recommended accommodations
Pong Phen Guesthouse
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
This might not be the most beautiful, comfortable or luxurious guesthouse in Kanchanaburi Town. It is the most friendly, welcoming and feel at home though. I’ve spent many a night here on different occasions and it never disappoints. Close to everything with a swimmingpool, personable staff and the best fruitshakes in town.
River Kwai Jungle Rafts
Mid Range = from THB1000 to THB2500
Disconnect completely on the river without electricity and wifi. Become one with nature surrounded by nothing but jungle and water. Don’t worry, the food and beverage are well taken care of. It’s a bit difficult to get there, but if you make a reservation a raft will pick you up at the designated spot. The place is run by a Mon family from a nearby village.
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Where to eat in Kanchanaburi
Backpackers district (Maenamkwai Road)
On’s Thai Issan Vegetarian Restaurant: I’m not a vegetarian, I like my meat. However, if every vegetarian restaurant would serve food like On does, I might just reconsider. Yes, it’s that good.
I don’t care that she doesn’t only serve Isaan food, despite what the restaurant’s name suggests. I also don’t care that they are located in the middle of the backpackers district without a local guest in sight. Least of all I care that prices are a tad higher than normal, mind you the portions are huge here. I only care about my tasty, spicy and meat-free Massaman curry.
Bell’s Pizzeria: Every once in a while I also need pizza, I’m no different from you. This place made me come back twice in a week’s time, and no I’m not ashamed. Honestly, they serve a really good pizza. Maybe not the best in the world, but for sure the best I came accross in Thailand so far. Maybe it’s because of the Swiss owner. I always did like the pizza in Switzerland (yes, I know pizza is Italian). Pizza is never cheap in Thailand. In this case it’s THB200-THB250 which is not bad actually, certainly not for the best pizza in Thailand!
Thip Pochana: The typical Thai rice and noodle shop. The kind we reminisce about when we are back home and homesick for Thailand. It has all the characteristics, like canteen style dining area, delicious Thai comfort food prepared by mom and super cheap prices. The famous crispy pork belly and red pork with noodles or rice goes for just THB30 a plate. This is the stuff that Thai foodie dreams are made of.
Read: “The true essence of Thai food culture” – a different story.
Mueang Kan Grill Restaurant: This place is so much fun. Wanna rub shoulders with the locals in a different atmosphere, then this is the place to be. A little outside of the backpackers district on busy Sangchuto Road, but there’s big reward.
Cooking with charcoal heated Suki pots and grill pans at your table is what it’s about here. The Thai love it and so should you. Mueang Kan offers all you can eat clean food for THB199 in a wonderful Thai family ambiance. Cook your own shrimp and grill your own beef. With a little help from the friendly staff you’re in for a great local experience.
Kanchanaburi organizes several daily markets and they are great food options.
Let’s start with the obligatory night market or the JJ Night Market in this case. Every day from 6pm to 10pm) the vendors set up shop next to the Kanchanaburi railway station. Next to the obligatory t-shirts and trinkets, JJ’s market has a tremendous amount of food vendors selling everything from fresh fruits to Thai desserts, grilled chicken and and even curries for take away. I particularly like that the market is also very popular with the locals, which makes for a great and more authentic ambiance.
The Fresh Market opens daily in the early morning at 4:30am and by 8:30am the last vendors have left. It’s an excellent opportunity to sample authentic breakfast. Among other, various noodle soups, rice porridge and Chinese steamed buns are well represented.
The Kanchanaburi town local market (daily 6am to 8pm) is a good venue for lunch and sampling local snacks. The market features a lot of clothing, bags, shoes and the usual knick knacks, but there’s also a satisfying food court serving simple, but tasty food.
Out of town
Keeree Mantra: A hip restaurant in a nice park-like location about 8km Northwest of the town, apparently it’s part of a melon farm. Many Thai classics are served here with a modern twist, which makes for highly instagrammable dishes. The Bangkok in-crowds love the setting while the food gets mixed reviews. Some like the clean Thai food, others claim to miss flavor.
Although it’s a large place it can still get very crowded. Especially weekends attract many large groups and even some events. My take: Do visit for the ok food, the nice ambiance and the great scenery, but once is enough.
Ploen: If you made it to Nam Tok riding the Death Railway train, or maybe you’re visiting the Sai Yok waterfall, make sure to have your lunch at Ploen. You can avoid the larger tour group restaurants, not because they’re bad, but for more peace and quiet. But only for lunch though, since in the evening Ploen transforms into a Thai beer garten, often with louder music and a drinking crowd. The menu at Ploen is limited with mostly fish, but the dishes are well executed and not too expensive.
ร้านระเบียงนา: I’m not sure about the name of this place, but I think it’s called “Rabiang Khao Coffee Shop”, which translates into “the Rice Terrace Coffee Shop”. We were driving around to nowhere on our rental motorbike and ended up at this cute place for a late lunch. It’s nothing more than an upgraded shack really, however oh so cozy.
They run a simple menu with the usual suspect dishes that were very well executed. The food was really good for next to nothing prices, but the real showstopper by far is the incredible view. Green, green, green rice fields all around us in splendid and vibrant colors with dark silhouettes of jagged rock formations looming in the distance.
Whaa, I really felt at peace with myself and the world, that’s how soothing the effect of this place was. Too bad they close at 7pm, because I could have stayed there forever.
Kanchanaburi is an excellent location for adventurous activities. Whether you’re into hiking, rafting, tubing, climbing on and swimming in waterfalls, canyoning, cave exploring, there’s something for everyone. Be careful though and prepare well, because healthcare in Kanchanaburi is hopelessly underdeveloped, just saying!
Any serious ailments or injuries almost certainly involve medical transport to Bangkok at considerable costs and payable upfront if you lack proper insurance. Make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that covers medical care abroad, evacuation, repatriation and including adventurous activities.
Read more about travel insurance here or get a non-committal instant quote here.