Despite the bridge over the River Kwai’s history and the world-famous whistled melody that filled the air during my visit, I was not too fond of Kanchanaburi and wouldn’t go back.
Everything (meals, cocktails, massages) is even cheaper than in the rest of the country, but the streets are filthy, and the city is a cheap and sad sex tourism destination. It is, however, an important stage essential to understanding the recent history of Thailand.
Kanchanaburi is a small town in the center of Thailand, west of Bangkok and not far from the border with Myanmar.
Downtown can easily be visited on foot or by bicycle (40-50 baht per day). Shops, bars, and restaurants are all pretty spartan, and almost all of them “offer” girls and ladyboys to their customers, and it’s very common to have them walking in front of the door to attract western men.
The city’s temples do not have great architectural or historical importance, but the Chinese ones along the river deserve a visit.
Only very little subsist of its origins, just a few ruins, and a few revamped temples, but it’s actually easier to visit them from Ayutthaya than from Kanchanaburi (!). A pity that I only found afterwords, having followed the Lonely Planet’s tips in this matter… However, the only one that is worth a visit is the Wat Pa Lelai in Suphanburi.
The railway bridge over the River Kwai
The most important attraction in Kanchanaburi is, of course, the railway bridge over the River Kwai, made legendary by the book and then the movie and built by thousands of Western prisoners and Thais, Malaysians, Indonesians, and Burmese slave laborers in the course of little more than a year, between 1942 and 1943, all death to ensure the imperial Japanese army a connection between Thailand and Burma. The Death Railway…
If you want to soak into the II World War memories, you can also visit the Don Rak cemetery downtown, in front of the Kanchanaburi train station, flanked by the Thai-Burma Railway Centre (110 baht in 2010), which is well worth a visit, even if it’s likely to undermine your mood…
Another important visit is the one to the Chongkai cemetery, at a fifteen minutes bike ride from the previous one, but much more quiet and reserved to Dutch and British prisoners.
The more poignant visit to me was the one to the so-called Hellfire Pass, the pass that cost the lives of more prisoners and slaves, highlighting once again the brutality of too many human beings. The Australian army opened the linked museum and brought to life that period, even though audio testimonials of a few survivors. In order not to forget. Not to repeat.
The Erawan Park
I arranged the visit to the Hellfire Pass in the afternoon, after the one to the Erawan Park. I negotiated with the store where I rented the scooter to leave it at the entrance of the lava caves, not far from the railway stop, to come back downtown by train with an extra 50 baht (450 baht in total for the day).
A completely different visit was the one to the seven waterfalls of Erawan Park! I relaxed, laughed, breathed fresh air; I swam with a large class in the second waterfall pools and had a fish-spa break in the tiny ponds of the sixth and seventh waterfalls 😉
The Erawan Park is also an important school trip destination and amusing site selected by many monks for their meditation sessions.
To visit it, you’ll have to have the contents of your backpack checked at the entrance of the path leading to the falls. If something is missing on your way back, you’ll have to pay a fine for throwing that something in the wild. I’d love to have this same rule applied in the Cinque Terre National Park!
In Kanchanaburi, I also visited the Taweechai Elephant Camp, which also included a tour on the elephant back. These are obviously personal feelings, emotions, and choices. Still, I didn’t ride the elephant after seeing the chains around their legs, scars on their foreheads, and the behavior of the owners-trainers. This visit traumatized me, and I couldn’t visit any other elephant center, not even elsewhere in Southeast Asia. If anyone had a different experience, and above all different feelings, please do tell me about it. I am choked up to write about this experience…
Getting to Kanchanaburi
In hindsight, I suggest you pick the train. From Thonburi Train Station in Bangkok, they leave twice a day, and it takes about two and half hours for 100 baht to get to Kanchanaburi. You can get directly to the stop on the River Kwai Bridge downtown.
Another option, which I rejected as too touristy and detached from the local context, is provided by minibusses departing from Khao San Road.
I chose the slower option. The number 81 bus leaves from the bus station Sai Tai Taling Chan in Bangkok every fifteen to twenty minutes and takes two to three hours to get there. The second-class bus ticket in 2010 costs 75 baht and, in my case, included a monsoonal downpour while waiting to board… it was like diving into the sea with a backpack, shoes, and everything else and emerging without knowing how to shake off the hysterical laughter that accompanied me for a while and that actually plagued the kids around me.
The result was a long conversation in Esperanto and many gestures, and a fantastic arm wrestles contest. Guess who was the loser 😉 To sum it all up: an alternative trip.
Accommodation in Kanchanaburi
If you do not need luxury, the VN Guesthouse is a good, typical accommodation in Kanchanaburi. I chose the most expensive room with a river view, air conditioning (essential in Kanchanaburi!), and hot water. A room on a floating house on the River Kwai… top. Clean and ultrabasic, but with a good complimentary breakfast and an always very helpful owner. All for 350 baht per day.