A province of Thailand, Kanchanaburi lies two to three hours by land from the capital of Bangkok. A mountainous region irrigated by the Kwai River and bordering Burma, Kanchanaburi has been home to several Southeast Asian cultures, stretching back to Neolithic times. Modern Kanchanaburi town, capital of the province, provides visitors with a base for adventure, history and contact with traditional Thai and Burmese hill-tribe cultures.
The Hill Tribes of Kanchanaburi
Many different hill-tribe cultures, both native Thai and refugees from Burma, call Kanchanaburi home. The Karen people, recognized by the stacks of neck rings their women wear to give the appearance of long, graceful necks, are among the most accessible of Thailand’s traditional hill-tribe people. Visitors who want to immerse themselves in Karen culture can live among them in the home-stay village of Ban Khao Lek.
Bridge Over the River Kwai
The film “Bridge Over the River Kwai” immortalized Kanchanaburi’s sinister history. During World War II, the Japanese forced allied prisoners of war to build a railway through the mountains. Today the infamous “Death Railway” still operates and visitors can take tours all the way to the site of the River Kwai bridge. In Kanchanaburi town, history buffs can visit the Allied War Cemetery and the Thailand Burma Railway Centre, a museum dedicated to World War II POWs.
Kanchanaburi features one of Thailand’s most significant cultural highways high in the Thanon Thongchai Mountain Range. Thought to be the gateway by which Buddhism first came to Thailand in the third century, Three Pagodas Pass also provided an overland trade route from India through Burma. Today the pass is still a major gateway between Burma and Thailand. On the Thai side, several Burmese hill-tribes now live as nation-less people in refugee communities. To visit the Burmese side, travelers can obtain a one-day visa to cross the border, where the locals operate small tourist markets.
Although Kanchanaburi lies on the opposite side of Thailand from Cambodia, that country’s ancient Khmer empire once stretched all the way to Burma. Ruins of an ancient Khmer temple complex and military outpost lie some 30 miles from Kanchanaburi town at Prasat Muang Singh Historical Park. The site comprises four significant buildings that are at least 800 years old, and an exhibition hall with artifacts and Buddha images found within the ruins.