Province and town of Kanchanaburi lie at the western border of Thailand, about 130km away from the capital Bangkok. As always in Thailand, the name of the province's capital is namegiving for the province. The Province of Kanchanaburi is one of the largest in the country.
Kanchanaburi town therefore is not a big one. With it's unreliable official number of around 30,000 inhabitants, it's a place one can walk easily from one end to the other. It's situated at the confluence of the two rivers Nam Khwae Noi and Nam Khwae Yai, the second better known as the river Kwai. After the two rivers join, they form the Mae Nam Klong (river). The place became famous in a most tragical way as the theatre of the most vulnerable part of the Death Railway, which was built by forced labour of allied prisoners of war and Southeast Asians in 1942/43.
The western parts of the province are coined by the picturesque landscapes of the Tenasserim Mountains. At the Three Pagodas Pass one reaches the border to Burma/Myanmar. The mountains are partially still overgrown with tropical rainforests. Many waterfalls and caves are here. There are also three bigger hydroelectic dams (Si-Nakharin, Tha Thung Na and Khao Laem), who produce electricity mainly for the megacity Bangkok.
According to the massive expansion of Southeast Asia's traffic nets, the border point at Bong Ti will gain much more importance as a connection between central Thailand with the country's commercial center Bangkok and a future deepsea port at Dawei in Burma. It's planned to reestablish the railway line and additionally build a huge east-west highway.
It's a custom in Thailand (and generally in Southeast Asia) to put one's shoes out when visiting people's houses. It's a very nice custom, for it keeps the places clean. It's somewhat odd in my opinion when it's expected to do so in public places, though. Pretty strange I found it that one has to do it when using the public toilet at Kanchanaburi's bus station.
There have been found traces of stone-age settlements in the province, who are shown in the National Museum of Ban Kao.
The laterite temple site of Prasat Mueang Sing in Kanchanaburi Province seems to mark the western edge of the medieval empire of Angkor. The Khmers of the time invaded central Thailand in the first half of the 12th century under king Suryavarman II (the godking who ordered the construction of Angkor Wat). Prasat Mueang Sing has been subsequently built in not earlier than that time, or in later centuries. Defenitely it has at least been expanded later, because part of the compound's style follows the Bayon style of the time of king Jayavarman VII, who reigned from 1181 to supposedly 1206 or 1220 CE.
The area was certainly also of strategical importance in the Ayutthaya era, for the region was already the border region for the Siamese empire and there were posts established who informed the Siamese of invading armies from the west.
Archaeological findings in 1982 give reason to the speculation that the famous battle of the Siamese king Naresuan against a Burmese crown prince in the 16th century happened here.
The contemporary town of Kanchanaburi has been transferred to the place where it is now only in the year 1833. It had the function of being a first bastion against Burmese invaders, who entered the plains of central Thailand traditionally via the Three Pagodas Pass.
In December 1941, at the same time when the attack on Pearl Harbour on Hawaii was launched, Japanese troops landed at eleven points along the western coast of peninsular Thailand. After short, but heavy fightings, the Thai government came to an agreement with the Japanese. From then on, Thailand was an ally of imperial Japan. Another view on this part of history is, that Thailand wouldn't have been able to effectively defend itself against the superior Japanese war machine. The agreement was a smart move to avoid the worst, but brought Thailand de facto in a state of occupation. Besides, the whole of Southeast Asia was under Japanese occupation from 1942 on.
The Japanese intention was now to attack Britain in India. Since shipping war supplies all around the Malay Peninsula into the Gulf of Bengal would have been first a long way and second a very risky one, for this gulf was still under the control of the British and American navies, it was in Japan's favour to build a land supply line from Thailand through Burma. The railway started in Bangkok and led over the Three Pagodas Pass. Employing against all international conventions prisoners of war and civilians of the occupied countries as forced labour under horrible conditions, a 100,000 Southeast Asians and 16,000 western prisoners died due to exhaustment, malnourishment, mistreatment, malaria, dengue fever and other diseases. The Japanese advance went so far until the border of India. The weakest point of the railway, however, was the Bridge over the River Kwai. Allied bombing concentrated on this point and repeatedly interrupted the supply lines.
A wider fame gained 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' with the 1957 movie with Alec Guiness. The bridge which is shown in the movie looks, by the way, completely different than the relatively unspectacular one in reality. Another, newer movie is 'Railway Man' (2013), the story of a war traumatized former POW who was employed in the construction of the Death Railway. Another movie is 'Return from the River Kwai' (1989). That's certainly the most unrealistic one, barely worth to be mentioned.
What is left from the Death Railway is the section from Bangkok Noi Railway Station (in Thonburi) via Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok. The line even goes a few kilometers farther westwards through hellfire pass, where is a little museum placed. The continuing sections were pulled out after the Second World War, allegedly to not give future Burmese invaders a mean of transport into Thailand. There are a few remaining meters railway line left at the Three Pagodas Pass.
That what was actually the Death Railway, built in forced labour, was the part from Nong Pla Duk Railway Station in Ratchaburi Province on westwards, not the whole line from Thonburi) in Bangkok. Alltogether it was about 300km long inside Thailand, and more in neighbouring Burma.
The fertile surroundings in the province are used for a variety of agricultural productions. Besides rice grow here sugar cane, cassava, maize, fruits and even cotton and tobacco.
Another source of income is the tourism sector. A number of guesthouses, resorts and hotels target for Bangkokians, who like to spend here weekends and holidays, having heavy karaoke parties on large restaurant boats on the river. That makes the place, unfortunately, brutally noisy.
Western tourists come here often for visiting the Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai, as well as the large war cemeteries and the War Museum in town. However, the ones who were personally involved in the war activities are nowadays very old and getting ever fewer in their number. The Second World War is meanwhile so long ago, that few eyewittnesses are anymore.
In the western parts of the province stretch the Tenasserim Mountains. Here are mines where sapphires and other precious stones are dug out.
In the mountains are also some national parks established. The Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary is even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage.
A touristic hotspot in the province is (better: was, for it's shut down meanwhile) also the notorious tiger temple Wat Pa Luangta Bua. When I came for the first time to Kanchanaburi, the tiger temple was already permanently under critic for it's shady methods to make money with drugged and ill-kept tigers. The latest news indicated that the place has been shut down eventually by the authorities. There were the remains of 60 dead tiger kittens found burried around. It was for 22 years a gold mine for a bunch of unscrupulous Buddhist monks. The temple was founded only in 1994.