Kanchanaburi is best known as the location of the original Bridge over the River Kwai (the real one - not the film location - which was shot in Sri Lanka). It is therefore firmly on the tourist trail. The bridge itself is right in the middle of town - which like many modern Thai towns is ugly, unplanned and a riot of concrete. The main drag (pictured below) could be worse - at least it's not on the main road through town but it still very ugly. By night it livens up with a number of bars (mainly of the 'girlie' variety). Having said that the various museums dotted about the town describing the WWII history of the place and the various cemeteries (including Chinese) are quite interesting and the countryside around is definitely well worth exploring.
We went for a long weekend in March 2006 and this is what we found...
Having said that the main drag of the town is ugly, there are a few good places to stay - including Ploy Guesthouse (below). The rooms are big and clean, but the best part of it is the restaurant and the roof above where you can sit and watch life on the river, especially the wide variety of birdlife which sit and sing on the nearby trees overhanging the river. The calm serenity of the place is sometimes disturbed by the Karaoke boats which occasionally make it this far up river at weekends.
Naturally the impressive Allied Prisoners of War cemeteries get a lot of coverage - but the nearby Chinese Cemetery is no less impressive and a pleasant quiet spot with some interesting architecture.
The famous bridge over the river Kwai is what draws the tourists - interestingly quite a few Japanese as well. It's actually rather unimpressive in its own right but of course once you have been to one of the many museums you realise how different this place was over 50 years ago.
After the museums, cemeteries and bridge there isn't much to keep you in town so we were soon on our trusty rented Honda Dreams and off into the hinterland. And there is plenty to see around Kanchanaburi. Not least a bit of animal life...
One of the best daytrips is to Prasat Muang Singh. The countryside is quite attractive although very flat. We got off the main road fairly quickly and saw plenty of sugar cane. NB You will probably need a half decent map as there are a few turn-offs to take to get to the monument.
The ruin itself is Khmer, built in the 12th century as a far western outpost of empire. Like many of the Thai ancient sites the grounds themselves are very tidy, well kept and attractive with plenty of trees for shade (Including a huge jackfruit inside one of the temple compounds). It's quite good for a bit of birdwatching too as we saw a family of hoopoes which had made a nest inside one of the walls. There are a number of small ruins but the main temple dominates the site. It is completely built of laterite (the pockmarked stone which looks like it could be volcanic but which is actually clay-like). Inside the main ruin are a couple of stone statues which are quite impressive in their own right.
Nearby is a small but interesting museum and a few unobtrusive gift shops, food stall and toilet facilities. As it happens on the way back we came across what we think was part of a monk's ordination. We saw a similar thing happen in Nong Khai - this time the monk was on the back of a truck. We're not quite sure though – make up your own mind by watching the video here:
For our next trip we headed on the main road up towards the Myanmar border to the Sai Yok National Park which is about 100kms away. It is the main road so can be busy along the early stages but after the rail head at Nam Tok (itself the site of a waterfall popular with local tourists at weekends) the road rises into the mountains and is very quiet and picturesque. On the way we did notice a few signs to Thai-style resorts which could be a good option for a quiet weekend away.
On the way we also passed "Hellfire pass" an infamous part of the Death Railway which is depicted in the Kanchanaburi museums and which features its own little museum.
At the town of Sai Yok we turned off and followed signs to the National Park itself. The road stops at a small carpark with the ubiquitous food and trinket stalls and then we had to walk down to the river to our destination: Sai Yok View Rafts. I see since our trip they have changed their website. We went to get away from it all, for a quiet weekend, but you may get a different impression from their new site. It was actually pretty quiet there and very picturesque on the whole but there also was the occasional raft going by full of day-trippers from Kanchanaburi. This didn't really disturb our weekend and I'm sure they were having a good time as well.
At night peace descended again. Just the lapping of the river against the raft, although with no fan inside the rooms it did get a little hot.
On the way back from Sai Yok we took a detour to go to the Erawan Falls, a major tourist destination. Unfortunately it was at the weekend and when we saw the tourist coaches and minibuses draw up at the park gates we decided to give it a miss. It was worthwhile, however, to come this way as the scenery along the road is great: thick jungle and mountains on either side of the river. There are also plenty of attractive restaurants on the banks of the river to satisfy your hunger or thirst.