Bangkok is a thriving metropolis and one of the most popular destinations for travellers from around the globe. A melting pot of palaces, temples, markets, street vendors, huge shopping centres and its well-known dynamic nightlife, Bangkok is a city you could stay in for days and not even see half of the sights. But, despite that, I’m going to recommend that you get out of Bangkok and see some of the amazing sights that are close enough for a day trip.
One of these unmissable places is Kanchanaburi, a hugely important city north-west of Bangkok and less than 70km from the Thai-Burmese border. A lot of people wonder whether Kanchanaburi is worth visiting – read on to find out why I say YES!
A Short History of Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi’s sombre history dates back to 1942, in the midst of World War II. In January 1942, the Japanese army attacked Victoria Point in Myanmar (formerly Burma and then a British colony) and by March they had captured Rangoon. By the end of May 1942, Allied forces had been made to retreat and the Japanese had seized control of the colony. You may be reading this and thinking, I thought we were talking about visiting Kanchanaburi? Isn’t that in Thailand? Here you are correct, and the sombre history of Kanchanaburi I was referring to is forever linked with Myanmar due to the invasion by the Japanese in 1942.
After their invasion of Burma, the Japanese needed an alternate route to the hazardous and exposed supply route by sea around the Malay peninsula. The journey by sea to supply troops in Burma with provisions was a lengthy 3,200km and was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines. The alternative was decided: a railway, stretching from Bangkok to Rangoon.
This route, crossing the Three Pagodas Pass and following the River Kwai Noi, had been surveyed by the British government of Burma but was always considered too difficult due to the hilly terrain and many rivers along the way.
The Japanese made the decision to build this railway, utilising the manpower (in this case, forced labour) of over 180,000 Romusha (South-East Asian civilian labourers) and 60,000 Allied POWs (who were predominantly British, Australian and Dutch). The Thai-Burmese Railway – or the Death Railway as it came to be known – stretched 415km and this forced labour caused more than 90,000 Romusha and 12,000 POWs to die during the construction. The Japanese were brutal, both in forcing them to work as well as the conditions the workers/prisoners had to live under.
The Death Railway is both an important part of World War 2 history but also a place that shouldn’t be forgotten. Kanchanaburi is also much more than just the Death Railway and is a must-visit part of Thailand, especially if you’re staying in Bangkok.
Getting from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi
There are two main options for getting from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. You can either travel by bus or by train to Kanchanaburi and I would highly recommend getting the train at least one way because it’s a beautiful journey.
Getting the train to Kanchanaburi
Trains to Kanchanaburi depart from Bangkok Thonburi station, not the main station. Thonburi used to be much busier but now it’s pretty quiet as it only serves Kanchanaburi and Nam Thok, further along on the line.
The train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi runs twice a day. It departs Bangkok Thonburi daily at 7:50am and 1:55pm, arriving in Kanchanaburi 2.5 hours later at 10:35am and 4:26pm. It’s a pretty pain-free journey but don’t expect anything fancy – the train is a standard commuter-style train with bench seating.
The journey costs 100 THB (around £2.50 or €3). Getting to Thonburi station can be a little trickier than the main station as Thonburi is located on the west side of the city and isn’t near a metro or Skytrain station. The easiest way, in my opinion, is to order a Grab Taxi (the Uber equivalent) from wherever you’re staying. It’s very affordable and you’re much less likely to be ripped off than if you order a standard taxi. You can also order a GrabBike
(Win) if you’re travelling solo and go to the station by motorbike! This is cheaper than a taxi but obviously only handy if you’re by yourself.
From Khao San Road, it’s around 20 minutes to walk to Thonburi Station or 12 minutes by taxi and costs around 80-100 THB. I don’t recommend getting there by public transport since it can take more than double the time of walking.
The trains from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok operate at similar times, hence why it’s a little inconvenient for a day trip since you can’t really go both directions by train. When we went, we took a bus to Kanchanaburi and then came back by train.
The return trains back to Bangkok leave Kanchanaburi at 7:19am and 2:48pm, arriving back in Bangkok at 10:25am and 5:40pm.
Getting a bus to/from Kanchanaburi
The other option of getting to Kanchanaburi is to travel by minivan/bus. The bus takes a little bit longer (3 hours) and is slightly more pricy but they actually run much more regularly than the trains.
There are a few departure options for the minivans, which are Morchit Bus Station (north Bangkok), Sai Tai Kao (quite far on the west side of the city) and Burana Sat Road (near Khao San Road).
ThailandLife has up-to-date departure and arrival times as well as prices for minivan travel to Kanchanaburi so head here to check departure times!
The minivans usually cost around 150-160 THB (around £4 or €4.50) for a one-way journey. They arrive in Kanchanaburi at the bus station, which is around 55-60 minutes walk from the River Kwai Bridge.
Day trips to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok
If you don’t want to deal with public transport and getting around by yourself, taking a group or private tour is a great option.
While we did it all independently, GetYourGuide has some excellently rated and highly recommended tours from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi.
This day tour from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi includes transport to and from Kanchanaburi in an air-conditioned 9-seater minivan, an English-speaking guide, entrance fees to the JEATH museum and a ticket for a train ride on the Death Railway (from Kanchanaburi to Nam Thok, one of the most scenic and epic parts of the railway). The tour starts at only £40 (€47) per person and is a great stress-free way of seeing Kanchanaburi and learning the history of the Death Railway. Book the tour on GetYourGuide here!
Other recommended tours include the small group tour to the River Kwai and Death Railway plus Erawan National Park and waterfalls. This tour costs €90 per person and they run the tour whatever the group size (so some people have ended up being the only person and having their own private tour). Book the Kanchanaburi and Erawan Falls tour here and don’t forget to bring your swimsuit!
If you’re a fan of hiking and want a more active tour, book the Death Railway and Hellfire Pass Private Tour, which costs €261 for one person. If you are two or more people, the cost per person is reduced (for two people it’s €330 or €165 each). This is a much more active tour as it includes a hike through Hellfire Pass, one of the most notorious stretches of the Death Railway due to how many prisoners of war died building this part of the railway. You can find out more about Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) on Mark’s blog, All Points East.
Things to do in Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi is home to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and the JEATH War Museum, two must-sees when in the city. There are two war museums in Kanchanaburi and the best one (they are both referred to as the JEATH War Museum) is further from the War Cemetery and the Bridge on the River Kwai.
At the JEATH War Museum you learn about the history of the Death Railway – the Thailand-Burma Railway constructed to connect Bangkok and Rangoon – as well as the POWs and labourers. The 415km long railroad was built using forced labour, over 180,000 Romusha (South-East Asian civilian labourers) and 60,000 Allied POWs (who were predominantly British, Australian and Dutch).
It is said that one man died for every sleeper laid.
The conditions under the Japanese were brutal and approximately 90,000 Romusha and 12,621 POWs died during the construction. Death came from starvation, maltreatment, sickness and accidents. After liberation, 111 Japanese were tried for war crimes and 32 were sentenced to death for their horrific treatment of labourers and POWs.
The most famous portion of the Death Railway is why most people know of and visit Kanchanaburi. Bridge 277, or “Bridge on the River Kwai” as it is better known, is the main attraction in the city. The bridge was the largest constructed for the railway at 346.3m and was made famous by the book “Bridge on the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle and immortalised by the film adaptation starring Alec Guinness.
There was immense criticism regarding the unrealistic and inaccurate portrayal of the railway and the conditions the POWs had to endure, but nevertheless, the film was a hit and tourists flocked to Thailand to find the “Bridge on the River Kwai”.
There was only one problem… There was no Bridge on the River Kwai. No bridge was built over the River Khwae (Kwai is actually a mispronunciation and means water buffalo, rather than tributary), although the railway did follow the River Khwae for much of the way. In order to solve this issue, the Thai government renamed the river. Originally known as part of the Mae Klong, the stretch of river became the Khwae Yai (big tributary) and the former River Khwae became the Khwae Noi (little tributary).
This is possibly one of my favourite facts about the bridge and the city – if you need to adapt to rising tourism, rename things and you’re all sorted.
The bridge is completely free to see and walk on and you get amazing views up- and downriver. The most difficult part is actually trying to wrap your head around the horrendous conditions POWs and Romusha had to endure during construction and to try to imagine how it could have been possible for them to withstand the brutality of both the soldiers and of life in general on a diet of 250g rice each day.
Their suffering and also their bravery is almost impossible to comprehend, and I recommend that – if you are interested – you read some more about some of those in the camp, such as Eric Lomax, Sir Harold Atcherley, Sir Ernest Edward “Weary” Dunlop, Dr. Henri Hekking and Herbert James “Ringer” Edwards, who survived crucifixion at the hands of the Japanese.
Ringer Edwards’ story is one of the most insane and incredible survival stories I have heard; he was tied with fencing wire, suspended from a tree and beaten with baseball bats before being left for 63 hours – his comrades risked their own lives to smuggle food to him and he actually survived the ordeal.
The city of Kanchanaburi also has a lot to offer aside from the incredible historic importance and tragic but impressive architecture. I definitely recommend getting the train at least one way (Bangkok Thonburi to Kanchanaburi or vice versa) as the journey is truly amazing and you really get the opportunity to think about the literal blood, sweat and tears that went into building the railway.
Kanchanaburi is also an incredible gateway to the Erawan Falls and National Park – if you have the opportunity to see these (which unfortunately I didn’t get time for) you definitely should not miss them!
The city also has a huge jewellery market and, with some bartering, you can get some lovely pieces for excellent value. There is also a market near the bridge where you can buy clothing and food (pad thai is recommended!) and a few coffee shops on the same street.
Kanchanaburi is a city not to be missed, whether you do a day trip as I did or stay for a few days to see the Erawan Falls and National Park as well as Hellfire Pass.
Nearby attractions to Kanchanaburi:
- Erawan National Park
- Hellfire Pass
- Wat Tham Khao Poon and Wat Ban Tham (cave temples)
- Prasat Muang Singh (twelfth-century Khmer temple ruins)
- Tham Than Lot National Park
- Death Valley train journey (Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok)
- Sai Yok Yai Falls
- Damnoen Saduak floating markets
It may not be the best-known place to visit in Thailand, but it is so very important. So, yes, Kanchanaburi is worth visiting!
Where to stay in Kanchanaburi
If you decide to spend longer in Kanchanaburi as you want to see more attractions such as Erawan Falls and National Park or cave temples at Wat Tham Khao Poon and Wat Ban Tham, then you’re going to want to book a hotel in Kanchanaburi itself.
Hostels in Kanchanaburi
Asleep Hostel: rated 8.6 by travellers on Booking.com and includes free breakfast. Beds from £6 per night in an 8-bed dorm.
T&T Hostel: rated 8.1 by travellers in Booking.com. Breakfast costs £1. Double room with a shared bathroom from £7 and with a private bathroom from £14 per night.
Budget hotels in Kanchanaburi
Pongphen Guesthouse: 2* guesthouse with breakfast included. There is an outdoor pool on-site and double rooms start from £22.
RiverKwai Bridge Resort: 3* hotel with an outdoor pool. Double or twin rooms start at £21 per night.
Luxury hotels in Kanchanaburi
U Inchantree Kanchanaburi: 4* hotel resort with outdoor pool, library and free bike rental. Double rooms from £60 per night with breakfast included.
Felix River Kwai Resort: 4* resort with two outdoor pools, a spa as well as multiple restaurant, bar and cafe options onsite. The resort is a 10-minute drive into central Kanchanaburi and double rooms start at £55 (without breakfast) and £60 (including breakfast).
River Kwai View Hotel: 4* centrally located hotel only 400m from the bridge. There is a mini-market on site but this hotel has no pool or restaurants onsite but makes up for it with an amazing location in the city. Double rooms start at £50 including breakfast.
Have you been to Thailand and did you visit Kanchanaburi? If not, do you want to visit? Tell us in the comments! If you enjoyed reading this article, don’t forget to share it – you can re-pin the below photos on Pinterest!