Visiting Kanchanaburi in Thailand

Emma - 06 December 2016

Leaving the big city of Bangkok for sleepy riverside Kanchanaburi, we decided to get the train. This was partially because it's cheaper (just 100 baht each), partially because it's integral to the history of Kanchanaburi (the town is famous for the 'death railway'), and basically because I love travelling by train when I'm abroad.

Like most, I’m not enamored by the thought of winding, nauseating minibus journeys. Trains cut straight through the countryside, showing you a cross section of life there. You get to see sights as an unnoticed observer, just a fleeting glimpse as you shoot past someone tilling a field, or persuading a cow off a road, or chatting at a market stall. The perfect overview of rural life!

One thing that was NOT an advantage of the train was that it was difficult to get to compared to the tourist minibuses which went from Khao San Road, just minutes away from our guesthouse. Thonburi Railway Station (also called Bangkok Noi) was across the river in a part of town without great public transport connections. We had no choice but to take our first taxi of the trip. The driver seemed suspiciously happy with the result of our attempt at haggling, but we were happy to pay the 150 baht (£3.30) to guarantee we’d get there on time!

Train to Kanchanaburi

Arriving at Thonburi we sat in traffic for a good ten minutes, giving us ample opportunity to ogle the wet market on our left. Tuktuks were piled high with raw meat, and watermelons were being merrily hacked with a cleaver.

Getting tickets at the station was easy, and about half the people waiting on the platform were foreigners. We ‘farang’ (foreigners) pay five times the price that Thai people pay, but even at 100 baht it’s still pretty cheap. The train pulled up around 7.50am and we skipped across two train lines to board on ‘platform’ 3. Which basically just means the third set of tracks!

The train ride was fantastic. Wooden interior to the train, hawkers coming down selling snacks like quail eggs and monkey nuts, windows down, squeezing between incredibly close buildings and foliage, or out into open countryside. The roaring wind was better than any air con, and the deafening clicketty-clack drowned out everything else. Somehow Mike fell asleep again, of course!

Enjoying the amazing train journey from Bangkok to KanchanaburiEnjoying the amazing train journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

Arriving in Kanchanaburi around 11am, it was an easy 10 minute walk from the railway station to Mae Nam Kuai Road, where the majority of the accommodation can be found. If you want riverfront accommodation, you can just walk down the little side streets on the south side of the road, and most of them will have a guesthouse at the end offering rooms floating on the River Kwai.

We picked one at random and wandered down, and hit a jackpot! Tamarind Guesthouse is not only run by the sweetest and friendliest woman, but also does fan rafthouse doubles for 350 baht, complete with private bathroom. You have the choice of off or on the river, so obviously we chose on! Our veranda had a couple of seats outside from which we could look downstream to the Chinese temple. Perfect for evenings playing cards and having a beer!

Our view from Tamarind GuesthouseOur view from Tamarind Guesthouse

The only negative I can think of for the room is that you had to manually flush the toilet using a bucket, but this isn’t really a problem. The room’s floorboards had a few gaps through which you could just about see the river flowing beneath you. The shower water went straight through the floorboards and into the river (try not to use too much soap!). Surprisingly there was absolutely no problem with bugs in the room, and while there were some buzzing around the lights on the veranda, these weren’t low enough to be a bother, and provided entertainment watching the geckos trying to catch them!

Later on during our stay we ended up changing guesthouse, since Kanchanaburi gets much busier at weekends, when Bangkok citizens come for weekend getaways. We moved to Jolly Frog. Jolly Frog was a little grungier than Tamarind, but cost just 230 baht for a private double room with ensuite. The shower was cold and it had an alarming sign about the possibility of the drains regurgitating unmentionables all over the room, but it had everything we needed, plus it had a nice garden area with hammocks and deckchairs, plus a pontoon on the river.

Kanchanaburi turned out to be a nice relaxed base for stuff we wanted to see in the area. The main ‘sights’ we saw while staying there were:

The Thailand - Burma Railway Centre - a great overview of the WWII history the area is famous for. Prisoners of war were sent here by the Japanese to build a railway line connecting Thailand and Burma in impossible conditions. Enormous numbers of western POWs (and even more Asian forced labourers) died as a result of the heat, malnourishment, tropical diseases, poor conditions, overwork and mistreatment. This is very close to the train station.

Death railway museum and research centre

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery - After WWII ended, the War Graves Commission worked with surviving POWs to find the graves of all those who died building the railway, and reburied them here. It’s just across the road from the Railway Centre.

Kanchanaburi war cemetary

Kanchanaburi war cemetary

Hellfire Pass Museum - We hired a scooter and drove up to Hellfire Pass before going to Erawan National Park. This is an Australian-run museum that has further information about the Death Railway, but also a 45 minute round trip walk to ‘Hellfire Pass’. This is the deepest and longest of many cuttings carved through solid rock by POWs using just hammer, chisel and dynamite. The walk in the heat, while being devoured by clouds of mosquitos seemingly unbothered by my thick coating of DEET spray, brought home the horrible conditions. Having said that, most of the walk was remarkably scenic and enjoyable, occasionally littered by old bits of railway track. You can get a free audio guide from the museum reception that tells you what you’re looking at.

Hellfire pass

Erawan National Park - we camped overnight at this gorgeous national park, and hiked up the seven tier waterfall at dawn.

Elephants World - a big blow to the budget that was totally worth it! Elephants World rescues these gorgeous pachyderms from the tourism and logging industries, and funds it by allowing tourists to come help out for the day, feeding and bathing the elephants. Strictly no elephant riding!

Fun fact about the river… It wasn’t actually called River Kwai until the famous film ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai’ came out. The river the bridge crosses isn’t actually the River Kwai, but another river called Mae Klong. So many people came to see ‘the’ bridge that the local authorities obligingly renamed the river! The Thai approach to problem solving in a nutshell.

Oh, and bonus fun fact, one of the many inaccuracies in the film was to mispronounce the river’s name… It’s actually pronounced like ‘square’ without the S. Locals are so used to the mispronunciation now that they won’t bat an eyelid though.