From the urban sprawl of Bangkok, to white sandy beaches and clear blue seas in the south, many of Thailand’s major destinations like Krabi, Phuket and Samui, will already be extremely familiar to regional travellers. Then there’s Kanchanaburi, a province that is well worth a visit for its rich culture, intriguing war history, and natural beauty. Located about 120km north of Bangkok, it is home to numerous national parks, massive caves, rivers, waterfalls and temples. However, the big draw for tourists is the area’s WWII history, which includes the infamous Death Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai.
For WWII history buffs, the province provides plenty of attractions. The most famous perhaps is the arched railway bridge that spans across the Kwai Yai River, which was immortalised in the 1957 film Bridge over the River Kwai, and still stands to this day. It was part of the Death Railway which was built between 1942 and 1943 by the Japanese during WWII, using POW and slave labour, as a 415km-long supply chain for their army between Thailand and Myanmar. It is estimated that over 100,000 workers have died from disease and exhaustion. Today, visitors can take a train trip – as part of the State Railway of Thailand – along the Death Railway from Bangkok from Noktok Station (weekends and public holidays), or simply walk across the bridge.
Every year, the River Kwai Bridge Festival is organised to mark the Allied bombing of the bridge on November 28, 1944, with a spectacular light and sound show. Besides the train ride in Kanchanaburi, you can visit the Thailand Burma Railway Centre, a museum dedicated to WWII POWs or the JEATH War Museum.
Tribes and Culture
The province of Kanchanaburi is home to several hill tribes who have settled in the area for thousands of years. Among the tribes that call the area home are the Karen and the Mon people, the population of which spread out to neighbouring Myanmar.
Perhaps the most distinctive are the Karen people, who are known for wearing stacks of neck rings to give them the appearance of having long, graceful necks. The Mon tribe’s women are known for their colourful, beaded costumes; there is a Mon Tribal Village which is set up for visitors to experience its dances and cuisine.
For travellers who want to immerse them-selves in their culture, homestays with both the Karen and the Mon can be arranged. The home stay will be in one of the homes in a rustic village surrounded by lush green jungle and farmland.
Accommodation will be basic (think bamboo houses on stilts), but includes homemade meals. It’s a great opportunity to learn how these tribes live off the land, experience their fascinating customs and even a wedding if you’re lucky. Depending on the operator you choose, there are also opportunities for jungle trekking, rafting, or elephant encounters.
Temples and Ruins
There are also a host of monuments and temples to visit, some of which are close to the town. These include the magnificent cave temples of Wat Tham Mungkornthong and Wat Tham Khao Pun (famous for an incredible performance of a nun floating on the surface of a deep pool), as well as Wat Tham Phu Wa, which is known for its meditation courses.
The huge Prasat Muang Singh Historical Park, not far from the city centre, features Khmer ruins that were estimated to be built between 857 and 1157. The main remaining structure is Prasat Mueang Sing (Tower of the City of Lions), framed by city walls.
Another popular site is the Three Pagodas Pass – named after the 3 small, crumbling stupas at the site – which marks the Thai-Myanmar border. Located 4-5 hours from Kanchanaburi town, this was a stop on one of the early trade routes during the Ayutthaya period (14th-18th centuries), and was part of the Death Railway during WWII.
Today, the pass links Sangkhlaburi (Thailand) to Payathonsu in Myanmar’s Kayin State, a region that is home to several hill tribes.
There is a Mon village that is linked to Sangkhlaburi via the iconic Mon Bridge, the longest wooden bridge in Thailand.
While foreign travellers can visit the pass on the Thailand side, currently only Thai nationals are allowed day-trips across the border to Myanmar.
ADVENTURES IN NATIONAL PARKS
Kanchanaburi is home to five national parks that play host to an incredible range of landscapes.
The Erawan National Park has one of the best known natural attractions in the area – the seven-tiered Erawan Falls, with its clear, blue water surrounded by lush greenery and limestone formations. Visitors can also explore the Pra That Cave with its cavernous chambers and ancient stalagmites and stalactites. Wildlife in the park includes elephants, gibbons and the odd King Cobra.
Sri Nakarin National Park is known for its relaxing natural hot springs and the picturesque Huay Mae Khamin Waterfalls. The park is the origin of the Kwae Yai River and plays host to an incredible array of wildlife, including civets, bats, and rare leopards and slow lorises.
One of the best places for a jungle trek are the narrow mountain trails at Thong Pha Phum National Park, with its serrated peaks bordering Myanmar. This ‘Land of Fog and Freezing Rainforest’ is most known for its treetop accommodations that are up to 10m high, which make for ideal places to spot wildlife like palm civets, serow and muntjacs.
Lam Khlong Ngu National Park is a great place for caving, as the river flows through an intricate limestone cave system that requires trekking, climbing, crossing fast-flowing streams and jumping off waterfalls into deep pools to traverse.
The terrain surrounding the city also makes it an ideal place to go mountain biking – quite a few tour companies offer biking tours – as well as kayaking or whitewater rafting through the jungle in the rivers of the north.
Kanchanaburi town is 128kms from Bangkok, and is accessible by regular buses and trains (which brings you to the Death Railway), both taking about 2-3 hours. To get around Kanchanaburi town, you can opt to ride around in songthaews (converted pickups), or rent a bicycle, as the town is a little too spread out to explore on foot. For more on Kanchanaburi, visit Tourism Thailand’s site: www.tourismthailand.org.