If the hustle and bustle of the big city of Bangkok is just getting to you, there's an easy escape. Kanchanaburi, Thailand is a city located at the meeting of Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai, and is ideal for backpackers looking to reflect and relax. With easily accessible waterfalls and national parks, you'll wonder why anyone ever leaves.
One of the biggest draw to this area, especially for history lovers, is the bridge over the River Kwai, Just a few miles north of Kanchanaburi, this iron bridge across the Kwai River was an integral part of the infamous Death Railway to Burma. The bridge was built by POWs working for the Japanese during World War II. Nearly 16,000 POWs and 90,000 enslaved Asians gave their lives to the construction of this railway. You can cross the bridge by foot since the center of the track has been converted to a steel planks with small side platforms for sightseeing and avoiding trains.
Most of the sites in Kanchanaburi are related to World War II. The Chongkai War Cemetery is where most of the Dutch and British forces are buried, while the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is where approximately 7,000 of the POWs who worked on the railway are buried. They are all from the UK, the Netherlands and Australia. It serves as a somber and peaceful reminder of the tragedy that happened here. The grounds are pristinely kept, and many gravestones have moving inscriptions.
For a natural wonder, head to the River Kwai Valley to see the spectacular waterfalls, caves, lakes and mountains. The Erawan Falls may be the most beautiful waterfalls in all of Thailand. There are seven tiers to travel all of which are spectacular and great for swimming. Set aside at least two hours for hiking plus any swim time. Bring sunblock, and look out for little fishes making a meal of your feet. They won't hurt you, but as they dine on dead skin cells it may be quite ticklish.
The Erawan Falls are absolutely spectacular, but the Sai Yok Noi Falls are more accessible and right next to a national park with limestone caves and hot springs.
Hellfire Pass is another manmade project by the POWs and Asian laborers. They cut and blasted through the rock by hand to clear a path for the Death Railway. In the 1980s, this railway was relocated and reclaimed by the Australian government. Today this museum and the self-guided walking through tour are moving experiences. You'll hear stories from survivors and have a moment to reflect at the peaceful lookout of the Kwai Noi Valley.
Outside of the obvious rock climbing and waterfall swimming, Kanchanaburi offers one more extraordinary and special activity. In this city, there are several elephant camps. One of the largest is the Taweechai Elephant camp, which is home to nearly 30 elephants. Here they offer rides, bathing with elephants, bamboo rafting and special training sessions with their animals. If you're more interested in caring for the elephants rather than playing with them, the ElephantsWorld sanctuary is where you'll want to go. This is where old, abused and sick elephants live, and you have the opportunity to help clean and care for these magnificent creatures.
Food and Dining
There is something to eat in Kanchanaburi for every traveler's budget. If you're looking to stay on the cheaper side of the spectrum, the night market near the train station will get you Thai sushi, pad thai, chicken rice and more for just a handful of Baht. Plus, street vendors will travel along the River Kwai Road all day and night.
For something a little more special, make reservations on one of Kanchanaburi's floating restaurants. Located next to the River Kwai Bridge, these aren't necessarily known for their amazing food, but the views and the atmosphere are stunning.
Kanchanaburi is a bit too sprawled out for visitors to get around by foot. Luckily, the city has plenty of orange and yellow songthaews to pick you up. You'll recognize them as the converted pickup trucks. They're readily available and fairly inexpensive. Tuk-tuks are also available with prices you'll have to negotiate, and some hotels will offer free bicycle rentals.