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123 kilometers, 2 to 3 hours west of Bangkok towards the Myanmar border, capital of the province, along the famous River Kwai, Kanchanburi. Definitely on the tourist trail, but missed by so many including myself on my first trip. Only wanting to see the bridge ultimately (nostalgia from watching the film as a kid with my dad), I was bound and determined to visit my second time around in Thailand. While there for a 4 day stay, I was fortunate enough to land a job cooking which kept me here for 5 months. 3.5 months were spent working, but after developing friends and a second home here, I then treated it like a home base in Southeast Asia. I found myself always returning here while in this part of the world. Ever since I have always recommended it as the next best thing if your time is short and are unable to make it to the north. With similar attractions, the beauty of surrounding mountains, ancient and current history, less touristy, Kanchanaburi should not be missed even if the north is on your itinerary.
Bridge on the River Kwai – Playing a major role in Thai World War II history along with the classic war film, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ really put this town on the world map. This is what brought me here, along with many others whether a history buff or visiting a long lost relative at the War Memorial Cemetery. The completion of the Death Railway and bridge was a tremendous accomplishment by the quarter million slave labourers and POWs that worked in horrendous conditions. It was bombed numerous times from November 1944 until in mid-1945 it was put out of commission for the rest of the war. The original parts of the bridge are in the JEATH War Museum along with a thorough history.
The Bridge Festival (light and sound show) starts at the end of November every year for a week to commemorate the bombings and lives lost. An extraordinary fireworks show is put on display along with a re-enactment of the bombing. Originally only wanting to walk across for my father, being lucky enough to attend the Bridge Festival made this a much more personal experience for me.
Erawan Waterfalls – Located in Erawan National Park, the best way to reach the falls is by scooter. An hour ride through the limestone hills that surround the park. Other ways are joining a day trip or taking the 2 hour local bus (last one returns at 4:30pm). I have personally hiked the 7 tiers of waterfalls 5 times. Once with my friend’s tour group, the others with friends whom I’d influenced to come this way, everyone impressed each time. Only taking between 3-4 hours to trek to the top and back, depending on how long you want to spend in the emerald green ponds at the base of each waterfall. A whole day can easily be spent here.
Tier 2 – the busiest of the ponds, you can climb through the waterfall onto the rocks behind, crawl through a tight cave and jump off a raised area (careful, it’s not that deep)
Tier 5 – a natural rock waterslide
Tier 7 – the top, or is it! Technically you’re not supposed to and sometimes there will be park security preventing it, but if you’re daring enough you can climb the 7th waterfall to a secret 8th one with a small cave you can swim into behind the waterfall. I’ve been up twice and it is extremely dangerous. One slip would hospitalize almost guaranteed.
Safari Park – Shortly after I began working in Kanchanaburi, a local friend took me for the day, so I didn’t go on the safari bus like most guests (which goes through a giraffe pasture, popping their heads through the windows). We simply walked around the park, scratching the back of a gibbon, holding macaws, received an elephant ‘massage’ (not the most relaxing) and my favorite part, playing with 15 month old leopards. Born and raised in captivity they act no different than a kitten with bigger teeth. Grabbing my arm with their paws, nibbling and licking my hand. Jumping around chasing a coconut on a string. I could have spent all day with these innocent and docile animals. For those who do want to spend days, weeks or months nurturing, cleaning and playing with these amazing animals, there is a volunteer program to look into.
ElephantsWorld – Just a short ride from the city, this place offers you the chance to work with these majestic and intelligent animals. It is a sanctuary for rescued elephants, old, sick or abused. You get to help prepare and feed the elephants, along with jumping in the pond and scrubbing behind their ears. A 1-4 week long Mahout course is offered delving much deeper into the life and care required. Generally working alongside one elephant you can really develop a connection making it that much more memorable.
Temples – Another afternoon trip out of town, is to the nearby temples, Wat Tham Sua (Tiger Cave Temple) and the smaller Wat Tham Khao Noi beside it. The temple towers over the surrounding area on the hilltop. Once there, it’s 100 steps or so to the top and to Thailand’s largest Buddha. The scenery overlooking the rice paddies with limestone hills in the background is spectacular making it worth the trip as a viewpoint alone.
Night Market – Like everywhere in Asia there are generally night markets for cloths, electronics, souvenirs, and most importantly to me, cheap and local eats. Here is no different. A lane dedicated to stalls of street food where an array of local eats can be found. Pets sold, hair being cut, clothing and not the normal tourist paraphernalia. It is the most local market in which tourists still visit that I have been to. Placed directly in front of the train station (easy to find), it begins daily at 6pm weather permitting.
There is also a street food market in front of the bus station. It is quite local, so sometimes you have to be adventurous, but it’s fantastic. Open until the early hours in the morning, I remember being brought here after the bar for a feast at 4am.
Nightlife – All congregated along the main tourist strip, Maenam Kwai Road, there is more than enough places to choose from. Bars are always open around 5pm until “2am”, while some just turn down the tunes and I know I’ve walked home well after the sun had risen.
Sugar Member is generally busy and can get a little crazy in a good way. Anything from getting tattooed there to being naked during ridiculous bar games. Pool table and wrecking ball always at the ready. Across the street is the 10 Baht Bar. Self-explanatory, near turpentine for 10B, or slightly classier for on average no more than 40B. My go to would be Blend 285, 20B for a drink with soda. Down the road, the reggae bar Jamaikarn has live music every night until 12am.
Jolly Frog – I have a certain bond with this place since this is what brought me to Kanchanaburi for longer than just a 4 day period. I stayed here and helped in the kitchen with western food while learning Thai food in exchange. Although certain areas could use a little love it is slowly getting the attention it deserves. It’s an amazing place none the less and for the price point nothing else will beat it. A huge beautiful garden set right on the River Kwai. Centered quite well amongst the restaurants, bars and only 10 min from the market, although the restaurant at the front is great and extremely affordable. The Jolly Frog is half of Kanchanaburi for myself, making it a necessity to stay at.