Kanchanaburi is located in the intersection of the Kwai Noi & Kwai Yai rivers to the west of Bangkok and on the way to the Burmese Border. The city is home to the famous Bridge Over The River Kwai and the starting point of the Death Railway that was built by POWs in the second world war to provide a route from Bangkok into Burma and beyond.
Today its a place thats growing in popularity with backpackers, travellers and WWII veterans as a travel destination and is the ideal place for a quick weekend out of Bangkok.
Getting to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok
Take a bus or a taxi to the Southern Bus Terminal (Sai Tai Mai) and head to the ticketing counters upstairs (ignore the touts on the road). Price varies depending on the class of bus, as does departure time but generally speaking it takes 2-3 hours to get to Kanchanaburi and costs 70-110 Baht.
You can also get there by Minibus from Khao San road and other touristy areas, but I’d rather avoid tempting fate and go with the comparatively more comfortable government buses that are less likely to result in a car crash.
Accommodation In Kanchanaburi
Being a long weekend (Magha Puja Day) and also Valentines day we were hard pressed to find any accommodation, with every guest house we visited being booked out.
We walked for ages down the riverside until we came to a place which had rooms – the Tamarind Guesthouse (29 / 1 River Kwai Road, Kanchanaburi 71000, Thailand). They wanted 500 Baht for a Night, River Hut with air conditioning (which we don’t use, its not exactly great for your sinuses it seems), but as it was the only place available and a large amount of tourists were in line behind us we took the place . Rooms had a flush it your self toilet, and a hot shower, as well as a fan if you aren’t a fan of air con. There wasn’t a TV, but I haven’t voluntarily watched Thai TV since I’ve come here, so thats not an issue at all!
Accommodation was simple but nice, with a private room floating on the Kwai Yai river, with views down towards one of the bridges. To start with the place was peaceful and quiet, with the neighbours being some Thai university students on holiday and an expat/thai couple and their kids.
Signs about reminded visitors to keep the noise down and to respect other guests, so it looked like it would be nice and relaxing. How wrong we were. Half way through the afternoon, the neighbours started with their Thai karaoke, which unfortunately sounds like cats being strangled on auto tune. No one should ever have to suffer the sounds of Thai karaoke unless they are undergoing interrogation at some extraordinary rendition centre by the CIA, but alas, we had no choice.
To add to the frustration, we were thwarted in our riverside reading attempts when the outside lightbulb decided to blow up, followed shortly by our “friendly” next door neighbours returning home. It turns out that they were every bad stereotype of a bad Thai/Farang relationship rolled into one.
After listening to them argue about relationship issues, and the foreign male call the poor woman a whore, before demanding that she come home and sleep with him, or else he would go to the local brothel for a while he left, obviously for the 7/11 to get more cheap booze. It was at this cue that we decided to leave for some food, and to leave them to argue over the phone while we were gone. Its sad – as its exactly this sort of behaviour that gives foreigners a bad reputation in Thailand.
Had it not been for this guy, I’d say the place would have been perfect, which goes to show the impact that guests can have on a trip away.
Becoming A Viang Veng of Thailand?
While I’ve yet to make it to the tourist mecca of drunken tubing in Laos, and can only judge by what I’ve heard – the similarities are definitely there, a nice river, backpackers everywhere, and guesthouses dotted along the river.
It looks like theres a fair bit of sex pats/sex tourism going on in the area, judging by the sheer amount of single, middle aged european males sitting on bar stools talking to local women, and of course a large amount of massage places, which well, advertise that you can have a massage in privacy upstairs if you get what I mean. I’m willing to guess that perhaps our loud drunken neighbour was partaking in this sexpat culture, which is just part of living in Thailand unfortunately.
I also saw a LOT of patched western riders on big bikes, passing through the area, I’ve got no idea whether they lived there (didn’t catch the bottom rockers on their jackets), but again bikies and hookers tend to show a darker side to a nice touristy area, the proximity of the Burmese border might have something to do with it as well. Also spotted was a rather ignorant local rocking some Nazi swastikas (a common thing in Thailand due to the shockingly bad history lessons here, and other variants of a Swastika appearing in ancient carvings and art for luck and health).
The Viang Veng image is further reinforced by signs prompting tourists to “get fucked up” “get shitfaced” or “get blind drunk” on various stalls. Its the first time I’ve seen this sort of low class advertising and that includes living in party islands like Koh Phangan.
Getting around the town of Kanchanaburi is reasonably easy due to it being nice and flat. You can walk, bike, take a scooter or a local Songthew – with bikes costing around 50 baht a day from most guesthouses and scooters around 200 baht a day. If you want a scooter expect to leave either a passport as a deposit or pay around 1000 baht, which is considerably less than what was required in Koh Tao or Koh Phangan. We opted for bikes, and used them to get to the River Kwai Bridge, JEATH Museum and War Museum, as well as biking surrounding farmlands and out to cafes for breakfast. While its hot, you still get a decent breeze, making it ideal for riding around and checking out the sites. There is minimal traffic, the roads are clean and in good condition, making it nice and safe to get around.
Walking Street & Old Town Area
Thankfully theres a lot more to Kanchanaburi than the main backpacking/guesthouse street.
Walking towards the river from the bus station takes you into the historical walking street area, which in a departure from what I’m used to includes historical information on many of the old Chinese shophouses in the area, including information about present and past owners, what they were used for and the like.
World War II History
I’m guessing the Thai concept of saving face has a lot to do with it, but considering the town has so much history to do with the Japanese Occupation of parts of Thailand, POW Camps, War Crimes and the like, its very strange to see virtually nothing on the role of Thailand in World War II, and local Thais in the area.
The way everything is portrayed its as if everyone either conveniently forgot, or had nothing to do with it. I’m pretty sure the only reference to anything remotely Thai at the time was to do with locals trading with POWs and former POWs marrying locals post war.
That said there is a fair bit of information regarding Japan and Allied forces in the area and historical tourist attractions including:
Japanese War Memorial:
Spotted on the way to the Bridge over the River Kwai was this war memorial build by Japanese soldiers for casualties of both Japanese and allied nations during the war at the camp. Information on the memorial is vague, and isn’t easy to find online, but I suspect this was built post war, possibly by Japanese POWs after they lost the war.
The Bridge Over The River Kwai
The most famous World War II site in Kanchanaburi, as depicted (very loosely) in the movie of the same name. An easy bike ride from most guesthouses, there isn’t really much to do once you get there, but is generally the first stop before visiting the war cemeteries and the two main museums.
You can read more about my visit to the Bridge over the River Kwai here.
The JEATH Museum
Beware that there are two museums that are referred to as the JEATH Museum, one of the official one, and one is … well ..odd.
The official one is on the site of a Temple next to the TAT building and consists of replica POW huts and exhibits on POW life, WWII weapons and artefacts, newspaper clippings and ordinance that was used to knock out the bridge.
You can read more about the JEATH Museum here.
War MuseumThe second museum is far stranger, and way more interesting. While it lacks usefulness as a museum due to lack of proper curation, it more than makes up for it in just plain weirdness. Where else are you going to see a war museum that also includes stamp collections, history of Miss Thailand, random pictures of erotica on the walls and other oddities.
Final thoughts on Kanchanaburi
All in all its a really interesting place to visit and two days really didn’t do Kanchanaburi justice. We’ll be back again, this time booking our accommodation in advance and probably will look into hiring a motorbike or doing a guided tour of the area to visit sites that are outside of the town centre such as Hellfire Pass, The Death Railway, national parks and hot springs.