Most people visit Thailand to enjoy tropical islands surrounded by clear turquoise waters, eat delicious Thai food, and perhaps visit a temple or two.
But if you’d like to dig a little deeper and learn a little history then Kanchanaburi is the perfect destination for you.
Located in the central-western part of the country, Kanchanaburi Province is the site of the notorious Death Railway from World War II. Visitors can learn about the atrocities that took place here at memorials and museums that are located throughout the area.
The region has more to offer than its morbid history however, including magnificent natural landscapes, stunning waterfalls, fascinating temples, and of course that yummy Thai food!
Many people visit on a day trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, but if you have the time, we recommend staying for a few days so you can explore the area at your leisure.
To help you get started, here is a list of the top 10 unmissable things to do in Kanchanaburi Thailand.
1) Walk Across The Bridge On The River Kwai
One of the most popular and iconic places to visit in Kanchanaburi is the Bridge Over The River Kwai. Also known as the Death Railway Bridge it was built by Allied prisoners of war as well as forced labour during the Japanese occupation of Thailand in World War II.
The bridge was part of the Kanchanaburi “Death Railway” that was named for the huge number of men who died during its construction.
The Bridge was relatively unknown until the 1957 film “The Bridge On The River Kwai” brought its story to the world. Although not entirely factual the movie was critically acclaimed receiving numerous awards including 7 Oscar wins.
The iron bridge is now a busy Kanchanaburi attraction with scores of people walking across it snapping selfies every day. The area around the Bridge that was once the site of a Prisoner Of War Camp is filled with cafes, museums, and tourist shops.
It’s best to visit either early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the many tour buses. If you arrive around 5 o’clock you can have a drink at one of the floating restaurants while watching the sun set over the Kwai Bridge.
2) Ride The Death Railway
Originally called the Thailand-Burma Railway, the Death Railway was built by the Japanese Empire to ferry troops and supplies to the Burmese front, and to support onward moves into India.
The Allied Prisoners and forced labour that was used to construct the rail line suffered intolerable conditions and appalling treatment that claimed over 100,000 lives. It’s been said that one man died for every sleeper that was laid along the 415 kilometres of track.
Tourists can take a slow train ride along the track from Kanchanaburi City to Nam Tok. The rail line crosses the historic Wang Po Viaduct passing picture perfect farmlands along the way.
3) Pay Your Respects At A Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Of the 100,000 men who died building the Burma Railway 12,000 were prisoners-of-war and more than half of the soldiers who perished have been laid to rest in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. There are close to 7,000 soldiers’ graves most of whom were Australian, British, and Dutch.
The beautifully manicured cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and it’s the perfect place to pay your respects to the men who have fallen.
If you have time, I also recommend paying a visit to the much smaller Chong Kai War Cemetery. Located along the river, the cemetery is just as well maintained but much less visited, and it offers a more private place for reflection.
4) Learn More At A Kanchanaburi War Museum
Once you’ve visited the Death Railway and Kanchanaburi’s famous bridge you can get more in-depth knowledge of the railway’s construction and the prisoner’s living conditions at the local war museums.
The JEATH museum is found close to the bridge and it mostly focuses on the horrors endured by the POWs who built the railway. The acronym JEATH stands for the countries involved in the railway’s construction namely Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, and Holland.
Situated across the road from the cemetery is the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (also called the Death Railway Museum) that documents the railway’s shocking history through personal stories, artifacts, photographs, and videos. There is an onsite café and a gift shop selling hand-made souvenirs.
Around 90 minutes from town is the Hellfire Pass Museum. Established with the help of the Australian Government, this informative museum is dedicated to the men who suffered and died creating the pass.
5) Visit Kanchanaburi Temples
Thailand is simply teeming with stunning temples and while visitors are often in danger of becoming “Templed Out”, the Kanchanaburi temples are a welcome relief from all the war memorabilia.
The most impressive feature of Wat Tham Sua is a giant Buddha image. Standing at 18 metres high the image is covered in sparkling gold mosaics and it can be seen from quite some distance away. The complex also houses various other shrines and buildings, including an 8-storey high orange Chinese pagoda.
Just 4 kilometres away from Wat Tham Sua is Wat Ban Tham the Dragon Head Cave Temple. Visitors to this unusual temple enter through the mouth of a dragon, climbing higher and higher to a cave temple and onto a pretty pagoda at the top of the mountain. It’s a good idea to wear sturdy sandals when visiting this temple as they are easy to slip on and off and help protect your feet from the rough surface.
A much less visited temple in Kanchanaburi is Guan Inn Sutham Temple. I’m not sure why visitors don’t make it to this temple as it sits on the banks of the River Kwai right across from the bridge. It’s a Chinese style Buddhist temple with immaculately kept grounds filled with gold coins, dragons, animal sculptures, and a huge totem pole. Visitors to the temple can also enjoy fantastic views of the Kanchanaburi Bridge.
6) Gape At A Giant Tree
Not far from Wat Tham Sua and the Dragon Head Temple, and easily incorporated into a day trip, is a giant rain tree. Over 100 years old the spectacular tree stands at 20 metres high and its enormous canopy spreads out almost 26 metres.
The tree stands alone in a vacant lot rather than in a forest, so visitors can fully embrace the impact of its size. We were fortunate enough to visit during the rainy season when the tree is at its most impressive.
Kanchanaburi’s Giant Rain Tree is well worth a visit in conjunction with the two temples. It’s considered sacred so please don’t climb it.
7) Eat And Shop At The Kanchanaburi Night Market
Most towns in Thailand have dedicated areas that of an evening are opened to markets and street stalls. The streets come alive with vendors selling all manner of household items, clothing, fresh produce, and mouth-watering delights.
Kanchanaburi’s Night Market takes place every evening near the train station. Here you can chow down on your favourite spicy snack, slurp on a banana smoothie, or snag yourself a cheap T-shirt. It’s a must-visit if you’re staying a couple of days and a good excuse to stay overnight!
8) Stroll Down Heritage Walking Street
For something a little different that won’t cost you a cent, take a stroll down Pak Phraek Road in the older part of Kanchanaburi town for a glimpse into the city’s past.
Many of the historic street’s buildings date back to the 1920s and 30s and feature a unique blend of Thai, Sino-Portuguese, and Chinese styles of architecture. There are about 20 of these delightful buildings with information about their history, architecture, and the present-day owners.
At the weekend Pak Phraek Road becomes a Heritage Walking Street, with food vendors offering traditional snacks. The 500-metre street starts at the old city gate and ends at Wat Thewasangkaram. You can start your exploring at either end.
9) Take A Dip At Erawan Falls
High on visitors’ lists of Kanchanaburi things to do is swimming at Erawan Falls. Considered by many to be Thailand’s most beautiful waterfall Erawan Falls is about an hour’s drive from Kanchanaburi.
The 7-tiered waterfall pours over limestone cliffs into clear turquoise waters surrounded by dense tropical jungle.
The sweltering heat and humidity can make the hike to the last waterfall a bit of a challenge. So, it’s best to arrive early to avoid the hottest part of the day and the crowds. Remember to bring plenty of water.
10) Explore Soi Yok National Park
For lovers of nature there are a number of national parks around Kanchanaburi to explore. Many of the parks have waterfalls and pools you can swim in so make sure you pack your bathers and a towel.
One of the easiest to get to that can be combined with the Death Railway and Hellfire Pass, is Soi Yok National Park. Full of outdoor adventures the park features 3 cascading waterfalls, hiking trails, and caves filled with bats! It’s possible to stay overnight in the park with bungalows available for hire.
Other national parks include, Erawan National Park, Chaloem Rattana Kosin National Park, and Thong Pha Phum National Park. Note, the last two are much more difficult to get to on your own.
Kanchanaburi is a wonderful part of Thailand to visit. I’m confident that with this list of what to do in Kanchanaburi, you’ll have a fantastic Kanchanaburi trip!
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Travel Writer – Gumnuts Abroad
Audrey is a coffee drinking adventurer who has spent the last 30 years travelling with her partner Andrew. In 2017 they set off together on a 14-month career break to wander the world. She loves nothing better than helping others to follow in their footsteps.