Kanchanaburi. You've probably never heard of it, even if you visited Thailand. Around a two and a half hour bus ride from Bangkok is a town with lots of history in a beautiful natural surroundings. It's mostly known for the Bridge on the River Kwai.
Originally the bridge was made famous in a movie (based on a novel) "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in the 1950s. The movie and book told of British Prisoners of War who had to build a railway from Burma, now known as Myanmar, to Thailand under the command of the Japanese. While the original tale is fiction, the basis is historically acccurate. The bridge was part of an operation that woulld later be known as Death Railway.
Thousands of PoWs (mostly British and Australian) and even more forced Asian laborers lost their lives in the harsh conditions of the railway's construction. Starvation and disease abounded, coupled with the extreme heat and drive of the Japanese. Other workers were killed by Allied Forces' bombings, since the Japanese would not reveal the location of prisoners. All to transport goods to the warfront in Burma.
The bridge was bombed in 1944, so today there are three replaced portions. A local train still runs across in a link from Bangkok to Nam Tok (not all the way to Myanmar). I was able to walk across the bridge and observe the perverse beauty of this place. It is not far walk from town and there are plenty of quality restaurants and shops lining the way. As well there is a market and some restaurants right near the bridge. I suggest eating at a floating restaurant, to gaze upon the bridge, mountains, and water.
Also the War Cemetery is open to visitors and a lovely spot to spend a few minutes reflecting. Across the road is a very nice museum that explains in depth the construction of the railway and how it fit into WWII. I particularly enjoyed the many personal stories told throughout the exhibits and the artifacts recovered.
For a worth-while day trip out of Kanchanaburi go to Erawan! Any travel agency in Kanchanaburi will sell you some tour that includes the waterfalls, but it is so much better to do it yourself and spend the whole day. You can go either by motorbike (rental is cheap in town) or by taxi or public bus. I chose the public bus. It picks up every hour from the bus station and filled to the brim with locals, takes the two hour trip to the waterfalls. 50 baht will get you all the way there and back. But beware, the last bus leaves Erawan at 4. So go early to avoid the crowds and give yourself some time to relax.
There are seven levels of pools and waterfalls, each seemingly more beautiful than the last. There is quite a bit of trekking in between levels so wear sturdy shoes, not just flip flops. The first three levels are okay, stop here to eat food, because you can't take any past the third level. However, there is a drop-off where you can come back for it. There is also a food stand here with reasonably-priced basic Thai cuisine. The fourth level is where the swimming starts getting nice and there's an awesome rock to slide off of. After that I found the fifth and seventh levels the prettiest and most enjoyable. My favorite spot was somewhere between six and seven, a big pool off to the side with a waterfall and nearly nobody in it.
Erawan falls is the perfect place to appreciate the beauty Thailand has to offer. Drink in the sight of aqua blue water and the sound of rushing water. Let the fishies nimble at your toes in the most natural form of fish massage. Take a book (or sketchbook) and find a mossy nook.
Getting to and from Kanchanaburi
I couldn't resist--I had to take the train running from Bangkok. About 3 hours, only 100 baht, the train is quite basic without aircon and only in third class. Still the views were gorgeous and the windows wide open. Note that it leaves from Thonburi station (Bangkok Noi) not the normal train station Hua Lamphong. It runs twice daily, check the Man in Seat 61 for details.
The other option is to spend 140-180 baht on an air-conditioned minibus that leaves every hour in either direction. Generally this is quicker and more convenient.
When I visited Kanchanaburi, it was off-season and quite quiet. Honestly, it felt like a good break from Bangkok's rush. I deeply enjoyed my time here and suggest you stop in for a few days if you have an open itinerary in Thailand.
Have you ever been to Kanchanaburi? What did you enjoy there?