Exploring Kanchanaburi

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Exploring Kanchanaburi
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It seems like most people who visit Kanchanaburi are either Thai, backpackers, or on a day trip from elsewhere in the region (generally in a tour bus). The region is beautiful though, and if you enjoy nature and history I think it’s well worth taking a couple of days to explore the area.

Kanchanaburi is infamous for being the nexus of the Thailand-Burma Railway during World War II (if you’ve seen Bridge on the River Kwai this is the setting). Along those lines, and given the short shrift given to the Pacific Theater in the American educational system, we all read The Railway Man on the trip, which provided some useful historical context and interesting discussion topics. I understand the movie of the same name is a bit graphic, but the book was appropriate enough for teens.

We had four nights, which was perfect for us as we were traveling with a toddler wanted to spend some time relaxing, but you could probably hit the highlights in a day or two if you wanted to move at a faster pace.

So, in no particular order, here are a few of the things we enjoyed:

Hellfire Pass & Museum

The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum was just up the road from our guest house, which was quite convenient.

While the museum itself was well done (nicely signed, interesting exhibits, quality audio tours, etc.), the emphasis truly seemed to be on the memorial aspect. For example, everyone removed their footwear prior to entering the museum itself, which established a very solemn and reverent tone.

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Memorial overlooking the Khwae River valley

In the valley below the museum, the former roadbed had been cleared (or partially cleared in places) to create a walking trail.

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Cleared portion of the railbed

Audio guides were available at the museum, so as you walked you could listen to accounts from the POWs who worked on the railroad. This was very well done, and added valuable context to the walk.

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Poppies and Australian flags were abundant

The eponymous Hellfire Pass is about a 15-minute walk down the trail, and even if you’re not a competent hiker you should be fine for this portion. This area was fully cleared, and the most difficult part of the trek was the climb back up the stairs to the museum.

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I can’t imagine what it would be like to cut through this rock by hand

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Konyu Cutting/Hellfire Pass

In addition to the markers and memorials, there were an assortment of rusted equipment, old trestles, and what I’m going to refer to as “train parts” unless anyone knows the technical terms.

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Very narrow-gauge track

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I guess these were like glorified wheelbarrows? I’m sure they have an actual name…

The full hike is about 4 miles, and a bit gnarly in places. You don’t need to be an experienced mountain climber or anything, but you definitely wouldn’t want to tackle this trail without the right shoes, extra water, and so on.

“Death” Railway

About 20 minutes down the river from Hellfire Pass is Nam Tok, the last functional station on the Thailand-Burma railway.

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Train approaching the station

There’s a special “tourist train” that runs from here all the way to Bangkok, and foreigners can purchase tickets for 100 Baht in either direction.

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How fun is this train car?!

Ticketing was loosely enforced, and unlimited stopovers seemed to be allowed. 😉

If I had it to do over again, I would probably have taken this train from Bangkok all the way up to Nam Tok (or at least to Kanchanaburi), as we really enjoyed the journey.

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Views from the Death Railway

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Views from the Death Railway

The scenery was stunning, and it was fun being on an old train trundling through pretty remote areas.

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Passing through a small station

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Views from the Death Railway

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Extra train cars on a siding

The “vintage” aspect to the train was fun as well. There was something charming about the wooden seats and windows, the rattly metal fans hanging from the ceilings, and local vendors hawking snacks and drinks up and down the aisle.

We had a really nice time trying new-to-us foods (no idea what any of it was, but it was all good and cheap), and just enjoying time together.

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See anyone absorbed in their electronics? I didn’t think so.

The train cars (obviously) aren’t air conditioned though, so it was very warm in the afternoon sun. We took a break from the train at Tham Kra Sae to get some ice cream see the caves and the shrine there.

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Looking out of the cave towards the railway

I loved that the “established” path to the caves involved walking on the railway trestles.

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My older niece did not approve of intentionally walking on train tracks

Fortunately the train doesn’t move very quickly through this area, or really at all.

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Train approaching Tham Kra Sae station

Given the slow speed of the train, you can probably drive to/from Bangkok more quickly, but there was something quaint about the train journey. If time allows, I think structuring your trip such that you could arrive in Kanchanaburi by train would set a nice tone for the visit.

JEATH War Museum

Not gonna lie, I didn’t like this museum. It was hot, the staff was rude, and there were mosquitos everywhere.

It did, however, offer nice views of the bridge over the River Khwae (or Kwai). Though I understand that’s not actually the name of the river? Or it only is called that in this spot?

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It’s a bridge on some river, and this is the famous one, so…

The museum also had reconstructions of the bamboo huts lived in by the POWs as they constructed the railway, and a ton of artifacts (including unexploded bombs, which seemed odd, but whatever), but there was just no descriptive information anywhere.

There were rows and rows of photographs, but nothing explaining who the people were, or why they were important, and it just seemed chaotic and poorly maintained.

Death Railway Museum/ Thailand-Burma Railway Centre

This is probably the better museum of the two, and is adjacent to the War Cemetery. Pictures aren’t allowed in the museum, but there wasn’t really anything I would have wanted to document anyway.

As opposed to the JEATH museum, there was an incredible amount of text here, to the point where it was information overload. There weren’t as many artifacts, and I still didn’t feel the story was well told, despite the improved signage.

Really, it’s a shame that they don’t have one combined and well-curated museum. This is an interesting part of history, with a tremendous human toll — an estimated 100,000 people died during construction of the railway — and it could be presented in a more impactful way, in my opinion.

So personally, I think both of these museums can be given a pass — and I say that as someone who loves museums. If you have a family connection to the Death Railway, then the scraps of journals and such might be more poignant, but we didn’t feel the curation of the exhibits did much to enable that otherwise.

I’d spend the time reading first-hand POW accounts instead, I think, combined with a visit to the Hellfire Pass museum.

Erawan Falls

So I had a very unrealistic vision of Erawan National Park. In my imagination it was this secluded series of pools, with an undeveloped trail winding through the jungle, with the occasional monkey. Maybe even some snakes.

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I was picturing tranquil and peaceful, basically

It’s not really like that.

I mean, maybe it is if you go on a weekday, or just some day other than when we were there, but holy cow it was crowded. School groups, tour groups, family groups.

There were a lot of people.

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And this was at one of the upper pools, where you could actually get to the water

Most of the people (who seemed to be Thai), were content to hang out around the first two waterfalls. Many had either brought picnics, or purchased food from the various vendors at the entrance, and as you aren’t allowed to bring food past the second waterfall, that helped to thin the crowds out a bit.

The third waterfall had a rock slide, which was great fun!

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Waaaay better than a waterpark

And all the pools had “pedicure fish” which were both awesome and terrifying. You know those shops you see from time to time with the little tiny fish that nibble dead skin off feet?

These were like those, only much bigger.

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Do those look like a reasonable size of creature for toe-nibbling? Nope.

My comfort level with carnivorous marine life is apparently somewhere below “let them intentionally latch on to my skin,” especially given the size of some of these fish. They got smaller as we climbed higher, which was a relief.

The 7th tier of the waterfall is about a mile from the trailhead, but it’s worth noting this is a surprisingly demanding hike. Because of the improvements done to the trail, and the high volume of traffic (at least when we were there), you basically felt like you were climbing a mile up stairs, and then a mile down. In some places we had to scramble over rocks and tree roots as well, which was okay on the way up, but a little treacherous on the way down (especially with what felt like 5000 teenagers in their school uniforms going the other direction).

We had a great time though, and I’d definitely recommend a visit to Erawan Falls. Just be sure to go on a weekday, and give yourself plenty of time if you want to hike to the top.

Overall

really enjoyed the time we spent in Kanchanaburi.

The whole area seemed to move at a pretty languid pace, and being able to hike and swim every day was perfect for us. I didn’t ever feel like we were on the “typical tourist track” even when we did more touristy things, which was so refreshing.

The best thing we did though was visiting the elephants, which was so awesome it gets its own post tomorrow.

For those who have spent time in Kanchanaburi, anything great we missed?

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Comments

  1. The picture with the caption “See anyone absorbed in their electronics?” is a killer. My teens will get a heart attack. For them it will be like a fish out of water. How is that possible if you cannot update your status on facebook every five minutes.

    I guess the wooden seats on the train must be very uncomfortable.

  2. @ caveman — Hah, being halfway across the world helps with that, because if their friends are all asleep the internet isn’t nearly as compelling!

    And the seats weren’t too bad, surprisingly, at least for an afternoon trip.

  3. This was highly entertaining before you even got to the ‘pedicure fish’ part of the trip report, then it turned the corner to ‘laugh out loud amazing’. Thanks for a great read. Can’t wait for the elephants.

  4. That movie is nice. Who are we to hate, when people who suffered so much can forgive. The movie has a scene in the helfire pass.

    Thank you for being less American and not writing about another Europe trip.

  5. @ panda — Well, we hired a driver, and I’m glad we did. You certainly rent a car, but it’s probably going to be less expensive to arrange for someone else to drive. I think there’s a bus as well.

  6. “You certainly rent a car, but it’s probably going to be less expensive to arrange for someone else to drive”

    So do you mean, hire someone with their own car?

  7. @ M — Yep! Our airbnb helped us find a car and driver for our entire trip, but there are tons of services out there offering long-haul drives. I get the sense that going to Kanchanaburi is a popular day trip from Bangkok, so it shouldn’t be too tough to find a driver.

  8. Thanks for an awesome post and topic!

    You should definitely watch the movie with your kids. I watched it with my 11 year old boy and it was very educational and not “graphic” or “scary”, just plain truthgul. Movies recreate scenes in a way that static museums can’t. And it’s an awesome movie besides it’s educational value.

  9. Hey tiffanny! We did almost exactly the same itnerary with the whole family of 12 in the 90s, it was still a bit undevelloped but equal fun. It helped we had a guide and driver and we are all a bit crazy Dutchmens but we even learned a bit of Thai to get around.

    Things we did extra was:
    – renting the floating restaurant and having the kids swim alongside
    – visit the western most outpost Khmer temple of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mueang_Sing_Historical_Park

    Glad you had a fun holiday and may i say if you have your own blog, i’d subscribe right away! Very pleasent writing style and very interesting articles!

  10. @Tiff

    Wonderful and refreshing article and trip. Try the book The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Truly an exceptional novel that portrays the story of the Japanese rail projects from the perspectives of the various parties involved including the Australians POWs, but highly emotional as one would expect.

    I also hope that you get to try some of these amazing hotels at the wonderful destinations for your leisure. http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/20/travel/tripadvisor-best-hotels-world-feat/

    My wife and I have stayed in about 12 (or 13) of the destinations including all of those in India. We were surprised to not find the Lake Palace Hotel on Udaipur on the list. You should give that a try. Our experiences and memories will remain forever (in the positive sense). There is just this sincere warmth and hospitality I feel during my travels to the east that somehow I miss in the West and at the run of the mill hotel chains.

    Since you love adventurous travels, try the Palace on Wheels in India also. Nothing more amazing than traveling in carriages with all of the luxuries of a hotel that once catered to the Maharajas and Maharanis.

    Thanks for keeping this blog fresh and unique. We are about to start our annual six month travel soon and I think we are gonna visit Kanchanbari based on your review since we’ve never visited there on our previous trips to the country and it looks beautiful.

    Happy and safe travels!

  11. As an Australian who was brought up in Thailand I have been here a number of times. It is a tragic place where numerous crimes against humanity occurred. My most special visit was on ANZAC day a few years ago where a service is held down in hell fire pass, it is spine tingling stuff in the eery dawn of the morning with the silent crowd and last post. There are also some great ‘jungle’ based lodges in the area which are popular with people having a break from Bangkok. I actually had one of my school camps at one of them! Glad you enjoyed your visit to the area.

  12. What was the cost of an individual train pass? It’s nice you get unlimited stops, effectively. I think the cost of the train would be FAAAAR cheaper than hiring a driver and makes sense if you have a larger group…but if only 2 or 3 ppl, not so much

  13. @ brian — The train was 100 baht each way, and I think you might only get unlimited stops because no one cares if you get on and off. It’s definitely cheaper though.

  14. The river the Bridge Over River Kwai pass over is actually called “Maenam Khwae Yai” (Big Khwae River). There is another river called “Maenam Khwae Lek” (Small Khwae River) nearby. Though if you just say Khwae it is usually mean Khwae Yai (thanks to the bridge)

    And by the way, those “vintage” train are actual in-service long-distance train in Thailand. (the tourist train probably looks better than the commuter train though)

  15. @ innocenat — Ah, that explains it, thank you! And very interesting about the trains, I hadn’t realized that. My assumption was this line had a different style of train due to the age of the tracks, but maybe they’ve updated the line?

  16. Nah, we just didnt update the locomotive!

    Due to track age and its construction condition it probably cant run very fast on this line, but the carriage (which is real old) is also similiar to those in service for cheapest class on long-distance train.

  17. My wife wants to go to Chang Mai since she’s never been there. However she is an avid hiker and maybe I can convince her to go to Kanchanaburi instead. I’m glad your review with her. Thank you Tiffany

  18. You hired a car and driver for the whole 4 days? How much does that cost? Although there being 6+ of you, that probably entails a much larger car than for just the two of us.

    And if one was to take the train instead of driving, how would you get around when you get there? Can you arrange a car and driver starting from the train station?

    I have a feeling the upcoming elephant article, added to today’s report, is going to start us thinking quite seriously about going there.

  19. @ Robert Hanson — Well, we actually hired a driver for the full eight days, including the long drives, given we had seven people (one in a car seat), luggage, etc. It was only $50 a day, plus fuel, but that was booked last minute over the holidays, so I think you could probably get a much better price if you tried.

    Otherwise, I’m sure your lodging in Kanchanaburi could arrange a car to pick you up, or help with organizing a single driver the entire time. I got the sense that’s the “done thing” there, so it should be pretty easy.

  20. Ah, Thai prices; going there is sounding better and better. Looking forward to the next installment. Thanks so much.

  21. Tiffany–I really like that your family read a book together before the trip and discussed it. Very nice!

  22. @ Gaurav — We actually read a lot of the same books, which has been really fun over the years. Heather reads everything the girls have to read for school, and my husband and I try to keep up. Makes for some great conversations, and it’s interesting seeing perspectives change as the kids get older.

  23. I haven’t been to Thailand but recognized one of your photos from a movie. IMDB confirms that Casualties of War was filmed on that railroad bridge you walked on. Thanks for the cool trip report

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