Kanchanaburi, Thailand – Home to the Famous Bridge on the River Kwai

Kanchanaburi has been on our list of places to visit since we first arrived in Thailand. I didn’t know much about it, but Dave told me that it’s a town that was made famous by the Academy Award winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. I’ve never seen that, so that little nugget of information didn’t help me much, but Dave’s never planned anything less than an amazing getaway for us, so I knew I could trust him.

Other than the 3 pages in our Bangkok book about Kanchanaburi, I didn’t know what to expect. From the few people we’d spoken with who had been here, they all described it as “nice” or “lovely” but that was pretty much it. So, all of the above being said and the little amount that we knew was what made our weekend in Kanchanaburi such a pleasant surprise.

Our trip got off to a bit of a rough start (I feel like I say that in almost every post) because the train station we thought we were leaving from turned out to not be the right place. Luckily, we double checked before we left, but the problem was that we had no idea how to get to the actual train station. Instead, we were left taking a van from Victory Monument in Bangkok. We typically take the river taxi boat to get ourselves there, but it happened to be closed this weekend because of Songkran (the Thai New Year which is celebrated with a huge country-wide water fight). So, after all of that, we took a taxi to the train, the train to the van, and then the van two hours to Kanchanaburi. As with many of our trips, getting to whatever our mode of transportation is out of town took the exact same amount of time as getting to our actual destination. But, 4 hours later, and we were in Kanchanaburi.

By 1:30pm we were checked into our guesthouse (which ended up being in the perfect location right in town) and by 1:45 we were back out the door. As I mentioned earlier, Kanchanaburi is known for the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. Though as I mentioned, I didn’t know much about it before we arrived, I soon learned that the story behind it is pretty incredible.

Back in the 1940’s, the Japanese used many Asian workers and POWs to build what is now known as the “Death Railway”. It’s a 450 km long railway that connects Thailand to Burma. The Japanese were planning to use the railway to transport their soldiers and supplies in their attempt to take over much of SE Asia. The workers brought in were subjected to pretty much unlivable working conditions (extremely long hours, very little food, etc), which led to disease and then ultimately the death of over 100,000 workers. Though most of the workers were Asian, many of them were POWs from Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands (about 50,000). There were only about 150 Americans who died, which is why we imagine it’s not something either of us ever learned about in school.

Anyway, a few blocks from our hotel was the War Memorial Cemetery and Museum. Neither Dave nor I really love museums, but this one happened to be great. It had great explanations of the story and was very interactive. It was definitely worth the 120 baht entrance fee (plus you get a free coffee before you leave). And, we’re glad this was our first stop of the day because once we were done, we felt that we really understood the story.

Next, we walked across the street to the cemetery. I think this is actually the first cemetery we’ve seen since our arrival in Thailand and we thought it was a very nice memorial for those who died. It is right in the middle of town, huge, and very well maintained, with flowers planted at every grave.

Once we had made these two stops, we rented bikes (50 baht each for the day) and rode to see the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. We parked our bikes to take a few minutes to take in one of the most impressive sights we’ve seen in a while. The bridge isn’t huge, but there is something very special-looking about it. And, knowing the whole story and imagining so many people slaving away and dying to build it, made seeing it all the more incredible. We were able to walk over the bridge (which had part of the railway going over it), take tons of pictures, and we even saw a train passing over it, which was very cool. You can actually ride the train from Kanchanaburi away from Bangkok on part of the Death Railway and then you can even go all the way back to Bangkok from there. This is the train that we thought we were taking earlier in the morning. It would have been pretty crazy to arrive AT this bridge. But, since we didn’t get around to it this time, we’ve already vowed to go back again sometime to ride the Death Railway and also to visit one of the famous tiger parks located nearby.

By the time we were ready to peel ourselves away from the amazing sight of the bridge, we started to head back to our place but decided we weren’t quite ready to be done with out bike ride yet. So, we kept going in the direction of the bus station where we had been dropped off earlier in the day. On our way back through the street where we were staying, the Songkran festivities had already begun (though the holiday didn’t officially start until the following day). After getting hosed down and then getting a couple buckets dumped on us, we decided that we probably needed to up our Songkran arsenal. Luckily, on our ride into town, we found a van filled with tons of water guns (they actually sell them everywhere, but we thought it would be better – and more fun – to buy one out of a van… And, it was). Dave bought a bigger gun, and his medium-sized gun got passed down to me (I had bought an even smaller one) – lucky me!

With our gun in tow, we headed back to our place to shower and get ready for the night (though we didn’t know if it was worth it since we imagined we’d probably just get soaked again). Besides the great history in Kanchanaburi, there is also an awesome nightlight there. The street we were staying on was lined with cute bars and great restaurants. As always, one of our favorite things when we take these weekend trips is the fact that there are so many different food/cuisine options all in one place. While we can get any type of food we want in Bangkok, restaurants are scattered all over the city. But, in these smaller towns that we go to, they are all located right on one street. It’s always food heaven for us.

After scoping out the situation, we decided that one night would just not be enough for us here. Originally, our plan for day 2 of our trip was to wake up early to head to Erawan Falls, a famous waterfall located about an hour and a half from Kanchanaburi, and then catch a van home around 3 or 4. But, between all of the great food options and the fact that Songkran was (officially) starting the following day, we decided we just had to stay another night. Plus, we had always planned to go to Khaosan Rd. to celebrate Songkran on Monday and now we could take a van straight there for the celebration – our hotel for another night would actually cost exactly the same (350 baht, or $12) as taking a taxi or the train back and forth from Khaosan to our home in the city. So, pretty much a no-brainer. It was going to work out perfectly!

We decided that our two nights of food would be 1) an awesome-looking Thai place, and then 2) a pizza/Italian restaurant, both located right around the corner. But, before we started thinking about eating, it was time to drink. Right next to our guesthouse, there was a little pop-up bar with an advertisement saying “Get Drunk for 10 Baht.” Well, since 10 baht is 30 cents, that sounded pretty great to us. They were selling tons of different shots all for very cheap, but we opted for our favorite go-to – a whisky/redbull bucket for 80 baht (less than $3). Usually these cost us about 200 baht ($7).  We also each had a shot for 30 baht. Did I mention that we love this place??

After round 1, we stopped at another bar for bucket #2 (this one was 150B) and a hookah. By this time, we were already pretty drunk and shortly after we got there, we realized that we desperately needed to eat. We decided that instead of sitting down for Thai food, all we really wanted to do was pick up a pizza to take home with us. So, that’s what we did. We had a pepperoni pizza, bruschetta, and garlic bread on our balcony before calling it a night.

The next morning, we woke up and while we had planned on getting a very early start, we figured that since we were now staying another night, there was really no rush for us to get going. We spent a couple of hours relaxing/checking email in the common area of our guesthouse, which overlooked the river. By 10am, we were ready to head out so we hopped in a tuk tuk to the bus station and got on a local bus to Erawan Falls.

The ride took about an hour and a half, but it was pretty and relaxing (except for a few kids who threw water into the bus as we passed by). By the time we arrived at the falls, it was already packed (we had actually heard that the earlier you can get there, the better because it’s always so crowded around mid-day). Everyone seemed to be there with their families and everyone was having a huge picnic (and when I say picnic, I don’t mean some sandwiches wrapped up in plastic baggies, I mean mortals and pestals to make papaya salad, chickens… the works).  Dave said it reminded him of Ravinia when all of the rich North Shore parents bring their fancy catering platters.  But this was the Thai version, and here, everyone cooked their own food.

The falls have seven different levels and the whole hike took us about 3 hours. The pictures advertising Erawan Falls show these beautiful turquoise blue waters under the falls, but we didn’t see any of that. The water was actually pretty dirty and the whole park was just so crowded. But, we still made our way to the top. At about level 4, we befriended a Thai guy named Mon who ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the hike. It was his second climb up that day, so he showed us all of the shortcuts he had found. It was funny how he just stuck with us for the rest of the day, but we liked it. At the top, we went for a little swim, but shortly after, we were ready to make our way down to catch the last bus at 4pm. At about level 6, my flip flop got stuck in some mud and broke, so I was left hiking down the rest of the way barefoot. It was not easy!

We made one more pit-stop on our way down at level 4. On our way up, we had seen people sliding down this huge rock into the water. It looked like fun, so we wanted to try it out. And, it was! Finally, we made it down, grabbed a snack, and got back on the bus for the long journey back to Kanchanaburi. We didn’t love the falls and probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but we still had a great day there.  Maybe we’re just biased after seeing Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina last year.

By the time we got back to town, Songkran was in full swing on our street. I quickly learned that there are pretty much 2 rules to this crazy water gun fight. 1) People stand on the sidewalk and throw water at everyone that passes by (including cars, buses, motorbikes, etc.), but they never leave their designated spots. So, if you walk out of their shooting range, you are safe. They will never chase after you. 2) Everyone respects the food (this is why I love this place!). No matter how crazy the water fight is, if someone is selling food on the street, people will keep their water away from it. Other than that, everything is fair game. Dave and I think it’s crazy that you can throw water at moving vehicles. That’s what makes this holiday so dangerous – I think this year alone there were over 400 deaths due to accidents on the road, and not surprisingly, most of those are motorcycle accidents. Imagine riding a motorbike, which is dangerous to begin with (we crashed one in Laos and Dave crashed another one in Thailand years ago) and then getting a bucket of water dumped on you as you’re driving down the street or even a highway.  Not safe.  Anyway, we were just on foot so we were safe.

After some Songkran fun on our street, we were ready for dinner at the Thai place near us. We had a great meal and then we were ready to call it an early night so that we were ready to go for Songkran on Khaosan the following day.

We woke up in the morning and booked an 11am van back to Bangkok. We decided though, that before we left, we needed just one more look at the Bridge on the River Kwai. So, we took a walk there to admire it one last time. Then, on our way back, we stopped for a great breakfast (omelet and club sandwich – our vacation go-to) before catching our van.

Before we knew it, we were back on Khaosan Road and ready for some serious water fighting. We stopped at our favorite guesthouse on Khaosan (where we stayed our first week in Bangkok and where we always go back to for booking buses/vans out of town) and asked them to hold onto our bags (they charge 20 baht per day). Then, we were on Khaosan and in the biggest water fight you can imagine. A whisky/redbull bucket and a couple of beers later, and we were ready to get in on the action.

There was water dumping, water gun shooting, foam partying and more. My gun broke half-way through, but luckily I found not one, but two others to replace it throughout the day. By the time we were ready to head home, we were tired, drunk, and of course… SOAKED! But, it was a great weekend and it was turning out to be a great Songkran too. Did we mention that we love this country???

Where We Stayed in Kanchanaburi:

Tamarind Guesthouse – I don’t usually write specifically about the places we stay during our trips, but this guesthouse was so great that I thought it deserved a special mention. Not only was this place in the perfect location (right in the middle of town where all the nightlife takes place, a 5 minute walk to the cemetery and war museum, and about a mile from the Bridge on the River Kwai), it was even a little bit set back from the bustling (and loud) street, which is always the best because you can be right in the action but also get a good night’s sleep.

The guesthouse is right on the river and has an awesome common area to hang out in. The rooms are very clean, the whole place is very cute and peaceful, and for only 350 Baht per night, we were very pleasantly surprised. My only complaint was that there’s only wifi in the common area, but our room was so close that we were able to get it there too. So, problem solved.

Anyway, this was definitely one of the best guesthouses we’ve stayed in throughout our travels and we’d highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Kanchanaburi!

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