Thailand is home to numerous rivers, which are a source of natural wonder and breathtaking scenery. Not far from Bangkok are two places worth visiting for their unique river environments – one is famous for its WWII history, while the other features a cornucopia of floating markets.
Kanchanaburi: River Kwai
Accessible by car (2.5 hours) or train (4 hours) from Bangkok, the peaceful town of Kanchanaburi was once home to one of the darkest pages in WWII history. In addition to history, it’s also known for its scenic river views.
History: Death Railway & Bridge
Straddling River Kwai is Kanchanaburi’s most photographed landmark: the Bridge Over River Kwai, built by Allied POWs under the Japanese army during WWII as part of the Death Railway. You can walk across it or take one of the twice daily trains that run along it. Visit the nearby JEATH War Museum, housed in replica POW bamboo huts, to learn of its history.
The entire Death Railway stretched 414km into Burma, cutting through some of the most rugged terrains, resulting in the death of over 100,000 POWs. Trace this impressive piece of engineering by hopping on the train from Tha Kilen station to Nam Tok station (2 hours) – it crosses over scenic wooden viaducts that hug the cave-ridden cliff.
Cafes: Riverside dining
While there are plenty of chic and vintage cafes dotted around Kanchanaburi town, one of the best ways to soak in the river scene is to enjoy a meal by the river.
Dejtosapak Restaurant: Boasting a scenic outdoor deck overlooking River Kwai, the tables here have a unique feature: right below them are holes cut out of the floor so you can dangle your feet over the river!
Meena Cafe: This chic cafe’s glass-walled front and various scattered platforms boast impressive panoramas of lush paddy fields, with the pagodas of Wat Tham Sua and Wat Tham Khao Noi in the distance. Explore the ever-changing paddies along raised boardwalks.
Rim Nam Café: Located opposite the Elephant Park, it’s set along the Kwai Nok River against a mountainous backdrop, where you may catch elephants drinking along the river from the cafe’s outdoor platform. The interior of this colourful, eclectic retro cafe is Instagram-worthy; you can also spend the night here in its retrofitted shipping container!
At an hour north of Kanchanaburi town are two gorgeous waterfalls: the 7-tier Erawan Waterfall (in Erawan National Park) with its fish-filled ponds and rock formations, and the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall (in Sai Yok National Park) near Nam Tok Railway Station, which cascades over limestone rocks.
Sleep: River Scene
In addition to rustic homestays and unique boutique hotels, you can also spend the night floating on the river.
Jungle Rafts: There are a number of jungle hotel rafts dotted along the Khwae Noi River in Sai Yok National Park; rooms consists of individual huts with private overwater decks. Both River Kwai Jungle Rafts and The Float House River Kwai are surrounded by lush nature within the quiet park.
X2 River Kwai Resort: A posh resort on the banks of Khwae Noi River near town, it offers riverside accommodation in modern shipping container-like structures, as well as huge double-storey floating cabins with private decks and canoes.
Samut Songkhram: Mae Klong River
About 1.5 hours south of Bangkok is the town of Samut Songkhram, located along the Gulf of Thailand. Straddling the Mae Klong river, the city is famous for its markets.
Railway Market: One of the most famous markets is the Maeklong Railway Market, or the folding umbrella market, named after the awnings that are folded whenever a train comes along. This street market, selling fresh vegetables, food and fruit, literally sits on the railway track and so when a train comes – 8 times a day (4 times each direction) – vendors quickly move things off the tracks to let the slow-moving train pass.
You can ride the 8.35am train from Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai Station to Mahachai, followed by a river crossing boat to Ban Laem and arriving in Maeklong at 11.10am; the train goes through the market by 11.07am.
One of the most interesting attractions about Samut Songkhram is its collection of weekend floating markets. You can take a leisurely boat ride through the canals – and connect to other floating markets – and see how people live along the water.
This area is famous for producing things like coconut sugar, coconut oil, and even honey. From the boat merchants you can also procure a number of Thai specialties, like fried oyster omelettes, grilled meat skewers, and ‘boat’ noodles typically found in floating markets.
Amphawa Floating Market: One of the most famous floating markets in Thailand, the main draw here is eating seafood grilled on the wooden boats moored around the famous central bridge. You can see diners perched on the narrow steps leading down to the water, where food is brought from the boats onto tiny tables.
Lining the canal are shops selling souvenirs and snacks, as well as restaurants. Along the streets, you can find an array of local food sold on pushcarts in the weekends. Just across the river is Wat Bang Kung, a picturesque little temple swallowed by the roots of a banyan tree. By evening, hop on a river cruise to see the firefly-lit mangrove patches. (Operates Fri – Sun; noon to evening
Bang Nok Kwaek Floating Market: This floating market is over 150 years old, and is famous for its local Thai food peddled on wooden boats. Genuine rustic wooden houses and shops line the waterway, providing a sheltered walkway; there are free boat rides up and down the river. Nearby is the French Gothic-style Nativity of our Lady Cathedral. (Operates Sat & Sun; morning till late afternoon)
Tha Kha Floating Market: A very local market, merchants sell colourful agricultural products. Hop on a boat ride where to admire the floating houses and procure some cheap, local food from the khlong peddlers. As the area is located within a coconut grove, you can cruise through the plantation and soak up the atmosphere. (Operates Fri – Sun; morning till lunchtime)
Bang Noi Floating Market: At over 100 years old, it has been revamped with footpaths and bridges, so you can explore the canalside along covered wooden shophouses. The market is known for its handmade souvenirs, as well as its shrimp paste and pickled limes. (Operates Sat & Sun; morning till late afternoon)