Many of the best things to do in Kanchanaburi can be done for free or on self-guided trips. It’s the type of place where a traveler can still get those tingles of discovery and reflection. Grab a map, rent a scooter, and go! There’s enough World War II history to keep you learning new things for days.
Along with history, Kanchanaburi lures travelers with the promise of a slower pace than Bangkok. It’s an accessible escape from the big city. Rivers, caves, waterfalls, and other natural attractions are within reach once Bangkok’s traffic is no longer tolerable.
Note: Although the Tiger Temple was formerly one of the popular things to do in Kanchanaburi, you won’t find it on this list. The famous temple where travelers could pose for pictures with tigers is now closed and under investigation.
Relax Along the River Kwai
After the busy buzz of Thailand’s capital, the pleasant vibe of Mae Nam Kwae Road along the River Kwai is just what a traveler needs. The stretch that parallels the river is crammed with guesthouses, cafes and bars for eating and socializing.
Although the road isn’t overly relaxing, serenity can be found just behind it. Many of the cafes and guesthouses have green gardens with lounge areas that back up to the river. Enjoy a lazy afternoon in a hammock beneath a plumeria tree or on a deck with a cold Chang,Leo or Singha in hand. But try not to lose your Zen when the occasional party boat passes by blaring full-volume karaoke or disco.
Walk Over the Bridge on the River Kwai
The premier attraction in Kanchanaburi is an iron bridge popularized by the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, although very little of the present bridge is original. Even the river below it wasn’t the River Kwai (it was the Mae Klong) until it was renamed to please tourists who were specifically looking for the “bridge on the River Kwai.”
The 1957 film is based on a French novel written by Pierre Boulle that portrayed the lives of Allied POWs forced to assist building the Burma Railway. The film was showered with awards but is regarded as wildly inaccurate and fictional.
The Burma Railway between Thailand and Burma was constructed by the Japanese during World War II. The project came at such a cost of human life, it is better known by its ominous nickname, the Death Railway. The bridge just north of Kanchanaburi enjoyed by tourists today is neither the one depicted in the film nor the original used on the Death Railway. Only the outer ends of the first bridge remain; the rest was bombed away by Allied forces in 1945.
Although the actual history isn’t what many visitors expect, the bridge is still impressive. Walking across is the thing to do in Kanchanaburi; there are guardrails and overlooks along the way. Slow-moving trains still use the bridge, so some caution is required with small children.
Take a Ride on the Train
Riding the train across the bridge then to Nam Tok is a popular thing to do in Kanchanaburi. The slow-moving train click clacks along with the main event being a crossing of the Wang Po viaduct. The wooden trestle is crude, original, and was constructed by POWs in a record 17 days and nights.
Some of the organized tour packages promise to include a certificate crediting you with having ridden the “Death Railway.” In reality, the tracks are modern replacements, not the ones laid by forced labor. The original Death Railway tracks were pulled up after being deemed unsafe. Only the trestle is original; it's a standing reminder of the hard work involved.
Forgo the agents who want to sell you a tour package. Instead, purchase an inexpensive ticket yourself and board the train for some nice scenery. Optionally, you could take the train one way to Nam Tok (the terminus) then return by hiring a boat.
Go See Hellfire Pass
While the iron bridge draws tourists with some big-screen infamy, Hellfire Pass is a bit more authentic. The Australian government turned the jungle railway cutting (Konyu Cutting) into a well-done war memorial.
The POWs worked relentlessly to dig the pass, and at least 69 were documented as beaten to death by their captors. Many more conscripted Southeast Asian laborers perished while completing the difficult project.
Visitors can walk the steep, jungle trail to get a feeling for the harsh environment in which the laborers lived and worked. A small museum provides history and audio headsets that really enhance the trail walk. Note: The many stairs and slippery trail may make the walk inaccessible for some visitors.
Hellfire Pass is around a 90-minute drive from Kanchanaburi, but it’s on the way to Sai Yok National Park. A pleasant day can be enjoyed by combining the two. If not driving, you can get yourself to Hellfire Pass without joining a tour by taking the train to Nam Tok then grab a songthaew (truck taxi) to the entrance of the monument.
Explore Sai Yok National Park
Although the ever-popular Erawan Falls draw the most tourists, the smaller set of falls in the Sai Yok National Park attracts plenty of locals.
With caves, hot springs, and remnants of another bridge over the Kwai Noi River, the national park is a destination worth exploration. But most people only have time to visit the falls while on the way to see Hellfire Pass.
Staying in floating bungalows on the river is an option. The tense Russian roulette scene in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter was filmed in Sai Yok National Park.
Swim at the Erawan Falls
Swimming in the multi-leveled pools of the Erawan Falls is the most popular thing to do in Kanchanaburi away from the bridge. The turquoise-colored water is home to fish that nibble dead skin. Be ready for some tickling attention when you stick your feet into the water!
The seven Erawan Falls are arguably the most photogenic waterfalls in all of Thailand—especially during the dry months when rain runoff hasn’t clouded the water. Unfortunately, word is out; you’ll have to share the swimming holes with large tour groups.
If you’re comfortable driving in Thailand, consider renting a scooter to make the one-hour drive to Erawan National Park. Entrance at the park is 300 baht (around $10). Things quiet down a bit in the afternoon when tour groups leave, however, be aware that the top waterfall tiers close at 3 p.m. Keep an eye out for the cheeky macaques that sometimes grab belongings. Don’t encourage them with food offerings!
Visit the War Cemeteries
To round out your tour of war history in Kanchanaburi, go visit one or both of the war cemeteries. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the largest and most visited; find it just across from the railway station.
Close to 7,000 POWs from Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are laid to rest in the well-maintained cemetery. The massive number of graves seen isn’t even close to the number of people who perished. It’s a sobering reminder of the human cost involved to build the railway.
The smaller Chong Kai War Cemetery is located south of Kanchanaburi along the River Kwai Noi. With 1,750 buried there, this cemetery sits on the actual site of a POW camp. An old church and hospital still stand. You’ll have more solitude for reflection there than at the larger cemetery.
Tour the World War II Museums
On the main road near the bridge over the River Kwai, you’ll find the Arts Gallery and War Museum along with the JEATH War Museum. JEATH stands for “Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, Holland.” A hodgepodge of exhibits show daily life, including sleeping barracks, for the POWs. Old photos and recreated scenes compete for dusty spaces.
Although exhibits are poorly labeled and confusing (sometimes bordering on bizarre), no one could leave the Arts Gallery and War Museum and say it wasn’t interesting! Subject matter ranges from war history—as one would expect—to Miss Thailand winners, kings of Thailand, and even some prehistoric stuff thrown in for good measure.
Picnic at the Dam
The Srinakarind Dam is a massive hydroelectric plant situated on the River Kwai Yai just north of Erawan National Park. Public transportation doesn’t service the area, so most travelers visit Erawan then head back to town without seeing the reservoir. There are some picturesque picnic spots for enjoying tranquility and a snack along the water.
Along with being a scenic area, there is a friendly cafe, a sundial monument, and some places to stay. Tours can be booked to nearby caves and smaller waterfalls. Consider purchasing some of the woven goods to support the Karen people who live nearby.
The dam is just 15 minutes beyond the entrance for Erawan National Park. If you drove yourself to the falls, continue a short distance north to the reservoir and explore a bit—the diversion is worth the effort.
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
A number of elephant camps and sanctuaries can be found in the Tham Than Lot National Park (also called Chaloem Rattanakosin National Park) located northeast of Erawan and the hydroelectric dam. Numerous wildlife conservation groups now advise against riding elephants; conditions for elephants are questionable at some of these camps.
ElephantsWorld, one of the sustainable choices in the area, allows visitors a chance to interact with elephants in a helpful way without riding them. Elephants aren’t forced to perform. Western volunteers live and work on site to help with care.
The sanctuary provides pick-up service from Kanchanaburi, however, there are other things to do in the national park area. You may wish to drive yourself and overnight to look around.
Marvel at a Giant Tree
A rain tree (Albizia saman) over 100 years old is growing just south of Kanchanaburi. The tree stands alone in the middle of a lot, making it even more prominent. The massive canopy spans outward over 60 feet and is even more impressive during rainy months when covered in greenery. The tree is considered sacred—don’t climb on it.
A cave temple (Wat Tham Mangkonthong) is located nearby and well worth a look. Climb the stairs to enter the dragon. This is a working temple, so the rules of temple etiquette in Thailand apply.
To find both, take Highway 3429 south from Kanchanaburi then turn left after the Wat Tham Mangkonthong school.
See Buddha Images in Caves
Bigger and with more caves than the temple mentioned above, Wat Tham Khaopoon can be found south of town on Highway 3228, just past the Chong Kai War Cemetery.
Many kinds of Buddha images call the limestone caves home. The much more famous Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Sua) on a hill above Kanchanaburi really draws tourists. While they’re fighting for space to take selfies, you could manage to have a chamber all to yourself at Wat Tham Khaopoon.