After visiting Kanchanaburi for our first Songkran in Thailand, we loved it so much, we vowed to go back. Only a two and a half hour ride from Bangkok, it’s a really easy weekend getaway. Between the very cute town filled with tons of bars, restaurants, and guest houses, and the intense (and very sad) history of the area, it has a little bit of everything for everyone. Before our trip this weekend though, we didn’t even realize quite how much the Kanchanaburi province as a whole had to offer.
Kanchanaburi is home to the Bridge on the River Kwai (made famous by the movie) and is part of the Thailand-Burma railway (or the Death Railway, as it’s commonly called) that was commissioned by the Japanese during WWII and built by POWs and many Asians who just thought they were getting a job and place for their families to live. Over 100,000 people died building the railway (About 1/6 of the POWs and 1/2 of the Asians who volunteered to work on it) and after learning more and more about it, it sounds like it was one of the most brutal events with the most horrific conditions to ever take place (working 16-20 hrs/day with little to no food or water, terrible sleeping conditions, tropical thunderstorms during the rainy season and a host of related diseases–eg, malaria, cholera, typhoid, etc; basically getting assigned there as a POW or volunteering there to work as an Asian was like getting a death sentence).
Our first time around, we only planned to stay in Kanchanaburi for a night and two days. We wanted to see the bridge, the war museum (which is very informative) and cemetery, check out the town, and go to Erawan Falls for the day, the most popular waterfall/day trip in the area. We rented bicycles to do all of the above (except Erawan Falls which we took a bus to) and enjoyed our time so much, we decided to stay a second night to celebrate Songkran, the Thai water festival in April.
This time, we wanted to go back to see Hellfire Pass, which is part of the railway that was cut directly through a mountain. This pass was supposed to have the worst working conditions and highest loss of life of anywhere on the railway. We didn’t make it there last time, but this time planned to rent a motorbike and drive the 2 hours or so to see it. You can also take a train to get there (which actually runs along the “Death Railway” or a bus from Kanchanaburi), but we wanted to make some other stops along the way, so we went with the bike.
There are also supposed to be some great golf courses around Kanchanburi, so Dave wanted to play on our second day there. We booked a hotel and made some tee times, but then a few days before our trip, Dave was reading more about the Kanchanaburi province and realized there were so many other things to do in the area, including National Parks, waterfalls, hot springs, etc. We immediately realized that we’d made a mistake in booking our hotel in town for two nights (luckily, at only $12/night, it wasn’t that big of a mistake) and that Dave would no longer be playing golf. There were so many other things we needed to see!
We took a van from Victory Monument for the easy 2.5 hour ride (130 baht pp, runs from about 5am to 8pm). We left as early as possible (the BTS which would take us to Victory Monument opens at 6am and we were there waiting for it), were on a van by 7am and in Kanchanaburi around 10am. We stayed very close to the bus station (which is about 3km from the main street in town) and were out the door with our motorbike by 10:30am.
After about two hours (with a few stops, including our favorite lunch – half a grilled chicken and som tam), we made it to our first stop, Sai Yok Noi, a popular waterfall among the Thais. The waterfall itself isn’t very big, but it has big pools surrounding it, where everyone is swimming or lounging on rafts. In true Thai fashion, everyone brings mats to sit on and huge picnics to enjoy all around the waterfall. No one does picnics better than the Thais! Unfortunately, we were too hungry to make it there for lunch, but figured we could stop by again the following day on our way back. There’s no entrance fee to get in, so it wasn’t a problem coming back.
Our next stop was Hellfire Pass, but like Sai yok Noi, we decided that we were just going to pop in for a quick peek and then come back the following day to go through the museum and the walking tour. We wanted to make it to a town called Thong Pha Phum, about 150km from Kanchanaburi, it’s supposed to be a very small but cute town, and we thought it would be a good place for us to stay for the night. While we’ve done a ton of traveling around Thailand, we rarely stay anywhere too far off the beaten path (other than when we’re trekking and staying in villages, we tend to like the more touristy areas because they’re much more lively and have more to do – if you haven’t noticed by know, we get bored easily:), so we thought it would be fun to stay somewhere a little smaller and more local. We had originally wanted to stay in Sai Yok National Park, but weren’t sure whether we’d be able to camp or get a bungalow. The website where you can book in advance said everything was full and when they wanted to charge us the foreigner price of 300 baht instead of the Thai price of 100 baht just to get into the park to check out the situation (even after showing them our work permit and ABAC ID cards, which usually works for us), we decided it wasn’t worth the risk and continued on to TPP. After driving for most of the day and making some stops at the many restaurants, food stands, strawberry fields, etc. all along the way, we made it to TPP around 4pm. We found a cheap hotel (we were already paying for our room in Kanchanaburi that we wouldn’t be making it back to) and drove through the town to check it out. Our Lonely Planet describes it as a “one street town” and while yes, technically, it is one main street, it’s a very long one. There’s a nice market, some cute restaurants, and a very pretty river that runs along the edge of town. We easily kept ourselves busy for the evening and then called it an early night.
We were up and out the door by 6am to check out Hindad Hotsprings. We got there around 7am and thought we’d be the only ones there, but surprisingly, it was packed. There were tons of Thais there enjoying the hot water on the very cool morning. It was a great start to the day and reminded us how much we had loved our early morning onsen when we were in Japan!
From there, we headed back to Hellfire Pass. Just as we were getting there, we coincidentally ran into some of the other teachers from our school who came for the weekend as well. We checked out the museum (just like the one in Kanchanaburi, this museum did a great job explaining everything) and then went on the 40 minute walking tour of the pass. They give you an audio guide to listen to along the way (it’s free but requires a 200 baht deposit), which gives more explanation and also shares accounts/stories from people who had worked on the pass). The walk is pretty cool as it takes you right through the pass, all along gravel/rock paths, where you can still see traces of the railway. We walked to the end of the pass and wanted to finish the whole trail, but didn’t have time, as it’s about 3 hours round trip as opposed to just 40 minutes to and from the pass.
True to our word from the day before, our next stop was back at Sai Yok Noi for lunch. We’d scoped out the food situation the day before, and decided on another grilled chicken and som tam, plus laab (which is a minced pork with onions and basil – one of our favorite Thai dishes). On our way out, we picked up a couple bags of fried sweet potatoes, which every single shop is selling piles and piles of.
This was the last stop that we’d planned on for the day, but we weren’t quite ready to head back yet, so we decided to take a detour and head back towards Erawan Falls to check out the Sri Nakarin dam (the street right by our apartment is called Srinakarin, so….) and also try to find the golf course Dave had wanted to play at. It was a nice detour for a couple hours, and after seeing the course, we decided we’d definitely be back to Kanchanaburi for a third time so that Dave could play there.
We got back to town and made a pit stop to see the Bridge on the River Kwai one more time. We’d read that we’d be in town for the very last night of the River Kwai Bridge Festival, which is celebrated to remember everything that had happened there. There’s a sound and light show, which tells the story of the Death Railway and a huge carnival. We wanted to check everything out to confirm that we wanted to come back for the night (we did).
When we got back to our place, we quickly showered and got ready for the night (I don’t think anyone has ever spent less time at a hotel they were staying at), drove back into town (we got lucky with our motorbike rental – our guesthouse was a few km outside of town but the shop we rented the bike from was right on the main street in town, so we were able to drive ourselves there before going out for the night) and then walked back over to the bridge. We decided that we wanted to see the light and sound show (the best seats in the house were 300 baht per person, but we found another place, a little further away, selling seats for 100 baht, which was a much better deal). We rarely end up anywhere when there are special festivals or holidays going on, so we thought that we should take advantage of the fact that we were there for this. The show was a bit disappointing (mainly due to the fact that it was all in Thai and so we couldn’t really understand it, though there were a lot of other foreigners), but the carnival was huge and really fun. We picked up dinner there, checked out all the games and rides, and Dave even won me a big stuffed animal on the dart game.
We headed out early the next morning, as we wanted to get home to do laundry and then pack for our trip the following weekend to Pattaya for our friend’s wedding, but it was another successful trip to Kanchanaburi. I’m already looking forward to going back for a third time!