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Visiting Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway, Thailand

Updated on March 17, 2017
Bridge over the River Kwai
Bridge over the River Kwai | Source

The town of Kanchanaburi in western Thailand is a popular destination among visitors to the kingdom, yet never to the extent that it feels crowded. Kanchanaburi is accessible from the Thai capital, Bangkok, by bus or train and has quite a few attractions that make it worth a visit, the most famous (or perhaps, infamous) being the 'death railway' and the 'bridge over the River Kwai'. Actually, it's the River Kwae Yai, not Kwai, but the wrong name is far better known outside Thailand than the correct name.

Getting to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok

Plenty of buses leave from both the Northern and Southern bus terminals in Bangkok for Kanchanaburi. They operate from early morning until well into the evening, and the journey time is around two hours. The fares are reasonable costing around 100 baht, ($3+) depending on the class of bus you choose.

Trains to Kanchanaburi are far less frequent and take around half an hour longer. Basically, there are just two trains per day, and they leave from Bangkok's Thonburi station. The first train leaves at 7:45 am and the next (and last) train leaves at 1:55 pm, and both trains arrive around three hours later. The bus service to Kanchanaburi is more efficient and comfortable, but the train service, which is all 3rd class, is cheap and cheerful with an old world charm of its own - and more interesting scenery along the way,too.

Riverside accommodation, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Riverside accommodation, Kanchanaburi, Thailand | Source

Accommodation

If you take the train, you may be approached by touts offering guest house accommodations by the river. These are genuine offers, and I recommend taking any that appeals to you. The accommodations are pretty good, safe and comfortable, costing around 500 baht ($17) for a double room with aircon, TV, wifi, etc.(much more if you want an upmarket resort style of accommodation). You can see pictures in the brochures that they show you of the standard of accommodation and also the locale and views that you can expect. Try to get one with a balcony on the river. It's a very peaceful setting. They will also provide free transport from the station to the guest house.

If you arrive by bus, the same sellers may be waiting to greet you with the same deals and offer of transport to their guest house.

Some of the riverside accommodations have their own restaurants, but there is also a good variety of restaurants serving Thai and foreign food on the main 'River Kwai' road (Thanon Maenam Kwai on the map) and elsewhere throughout the town.

Kuang Im Chinese Buddhist Temple, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Kuang Im Chinese Buddhist Temple, Kanchanaburi, Thailand | Source
The River Kwai War Museum has pictures of the bridge after allied bombing raids.
The River Kwai War Museum has pictures of the bridge after allied bombing raids. | Source
Japanese locomotive for use on the "death railway" in Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Japanese locomotive for use on the "death railway" in Kanchanaburi, Thailand | Source
Allied war cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Allied war cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand | Source
Death Railway Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Death Railway Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand | Source

The Death Raiway and bridge on the River Kwai

The bridge is the most prominent and famous attraction due to its connection with the infamous death railway (officially the Thai-Burma Railway) built by forced labour of allied prisoners of War as well as civilians, by their World War II Japanese captors. The bridge was successfully bombed and partially destroyed by allied air forces, and rebuilt after the war with the present boxed sections replacing the original destroyed arched sections.

You can walk across the bridge on the railway line, which is still in use. If a train comes (which it does at a crawling pace and with horn blaring) everyone moves into small alcoves to let the train pass.

At both ends of the bridge are tourist stalls offering a variety of souvenirs and other wares (precious and semi-precious stones) but far fewer on the far side than there used to be. The far side does have a fairly new and stunningly beautiful Chinese Buddhist Temple, though, with a large Buddha statue and ornate sculptures in the temple grounds.

The River Kwai War Museum

This has various exhibits, such as pictures of the bridge after allied bombing raids and a locomotive that was used to transport ammunitions towards Burma. Ironically, the locomotive bears the stamp "made in North England" in 1921.

The Allied Forces War Cemetery

This is also in the town and contains hundreds of graves of allied soldiers who lost their lives here during the second world war.

The JEATH War Museum

The so-called 'Death Railway Museum; nearby has images and artifacts preserved from that period. JEATH stands for Japan, England, America/Australia, Thailand and Holland - the countries directly involved in conflict in this area. In addition to exhibits, there are videos and recollections of the appaling conditions, torture and mistreatment of the POWs at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. Disease, malnutrition, exhaustion and execution accounted for most of the many deaths within the camps.

Bridge on the River Kwai
Bridge on the River Kwai | Source

Kuang Im Temple

At the far side of the bridge, and just off to the right, lies the recently built Kuang Im Chinese Buddhist Temple. A large Buddha statue dominates the temple grounds and the highly ornate temple roof sculptures are striking. Also within the grounds are various sculptures in Chinese mythology. As with the vast majority of temples in Thailand, entrance is free, and it's worth a visit, especially as the far side of the bridge has far less to offer in terms of stalls and other attractions.

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Kuang Im Chinese TempleKuang Im Chinese temple roof detailBuddha statue at Kuang Im Chinese TempleTurtle sculpture in the grounds of Kuang Im TempleDragon sculpture at Kuang Im Temple Temple building facade décor - Kuang Im Temple
Kuang Im Chinese Temple
Kuang Im Chinese Temple | Source
Kuang Im Chinese temple roof detail
Kuang Im Chinese temple roof detail | Source
Buddha statue at Kuang Im Chinese Temple
Buddha statue at Kuang Im Chinese Temple | Source
Turtle sculpture in the grounds of Kuang Im Temple
Turtle sculpture in the grounds of Kuang Im Temple | Source
Dragon sculpture at Kuang Im Temple
Dragon sculpture at Kuang Im Temple | Source
Temple building facade décor - Kuang Im Temple
Temple building facade décor - Kuang Im Temple | Source
Tiger cub at Tiger Canyon, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Tiger cub at Tiger Canyon, Kanchanaburi, Thailand | Source

Around Kanchanaburi

There are many natural attractions around Kanchanburi, such as Erawan National Park and Sai Yok National Park, with caves and waterfalls and interesting trails winding through thickly-forested hillsides.

Your guest house or hotel will be happy to arrange any trips you want to make either privately or sharing with other guests.

The Tiger Canyon (Tiger Temple) sanctuary lets you get up close to tiger cubs and adults (at your own risk). Although I personally enjoyed my one visit there, I later read from a reputable source some damning reports regarding the welfare of the tigers. Tigers, according to the report, are brought illegally from neighbouring Laos without proper records regarding health and innoculation, etc. Why the tigers are docile to the point that complete strangers can touch them raises a lot of speculation. Some sources, especially the owners, claim that it's because they have been raised around people since they were born - others claim it's a combination of drugs and fear of painful punishment that keeps them in their place and well behaved. Subsequently, I don't recommend this attraction.

River Kwae yai (Kwai) and surrounding countryside, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand
River Kwae yai (Kwai) and surrounding countryside, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand | Source
A markerkanchanburi -
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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A markerKanchanaburi -
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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