Updated October 17th, 2018.
Located less than four hours from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is a popular stop on the backpacker trail; due to its accessibility, history, and mainly, for its proximity to Erawan National Park, home to the famous seven-tiered Erawan Waterfall…
Kanchanaburi was a temporary base for the Japanese during WWII, who employed allied Prisoners-of-War (PoW) in the construction of a railroad track; initially designed with the intent of connecting Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar).
The construction of the infamous ‘death railway bridge’ was problematic, to say the least. This was mainly due to the mistreatment of the PoWs by the Japanese, resulting in countless deaths – it’s dark, yes, but important insight if you want to understand the history of Kanchanaburi.
Despite the dark history, Kanchanaburi is surrounded by luscious mountains and even has a river snaking along its city curves; probably due to the fact that Erawan National Park is just around an hour from Kanchanaburi’s’ centre.
One Day Trip: Erawan Waterfall From Bangkok – Don’t Do it!
Renowned for its multi-tiered waterfall(s), Erawan National Park is the real reason why many backpackers actually visit Kanchanaburi, often just on a ‘cram it all in’ one day-trip from Bangkok costing a hefty 1300 THB. Taking more than three hours to reach the waterfall, this kind of trip is a real slog from the city, giving you hardly any time to experience the great outdoors in-between being stuck in traffic leaving and entering Bangkok. It’s one that I would NOT recommend.
So, is Erawan Waterfall even worth visiting at all?
The price: Logistically speaking, especially if you’re on a budget: Erawan might not offer you good bang for your buck – with the entrance fee into Erawan National Park costing 300 THB for foreigners (around $10 US or 7 GBP) and 100 THB for locals. (Dual pricing is a common phenomenon in Asia.) The cost to get there from Bangkok is 1300 THB on a day trip, approx. 1,000 THB for a shared songtaew from Kanchanaburi, or 300 THB to hire a motorbike for the day to get there. (See a cheaper way of getting there via the local bus below.) You could certainly have more value for money experiences in Thailand, and considering you’re backpacking in Southeast Asia, you could definitely find another waterfall sans an entrance fee!
The crowds: Moreover, because the waterfall is such a famous Thai landmark, and thus group-tour destination, there will be others; as in, hordes of others at literally every tier – and there are seven tiers altogether. Of course, this may not be the case if you visit during off-peak hours, so maybe the early morning or late afternoon. At the weekends, local holidaymakers join the backpackers and the sheer number of people jostling for the best spot to take a selfie can really detract from the whole ‘natural’ experience.
Little water depending on the season: Those visiting during the end of dry season Jan-April may be extremely disappointed to find very little water in the falls. To avoid disappointment visit during or just after the rainy season (May – October).
The site itself: In terms of aesthetics, sure, the cascading waterfalls are a sight, particularly for those unfamiliar with Southeast Asian waterfalls – but if you are familiar with Southeast Asian waterfalls then you probably won’t be impressed; especially if you’ve witnessed the might of Tat Kuang Si, known as Kuang Si Waterfall in English, in Luang Prabang. (Speaking of, transport to-and-fro from the centre of Luang Prabang to Tat Kuang Si, inclusive of the waterfall entrance fee, costs a mere 4.5$ – or less if you’re really good at haggling!)
The murky water: A quick glance on trip advisor and you’ll see many people complaining about the brown murky water of the falls, instead of the impossible blue that you see on guidebooks. The truth is somewhere in between and of course depends on how many people are splashing around that day and the time of year (rainy season can make the waters murkier). You can always use clour saturation mode on those Instagram shots (that’s what all the travel websites do!).
Be warned the 4 pm closing time: Entrance is blocked to six of the seven tiers of the waterfall at 4 pm sharp (they start ushering people out at 3.3o pm), leaving visitors who arrive late in the day not much time to get their money’s worth.
Nice trekking: Oh yeah, visiting those tiers requires trekking! I guess this can be a pro or a con depending on who you are, but for me, the trekking was a cool experience. Altogether there are seven tiers, with each tier clearly marked, even detailing the direction and distance to the next tier. The hike ranges from easy to medium, depending on your expertise, but should take you around 45 minutes to an hour.
Care of the environment: One good thing about Erawan National Park is the efforts made to keep the site clean and free from litter. Upon reaching the entrance to the third tier, you will be checked for non-recyclable materials; if, for example, you have a plastic bottle, you will need to pay a deposit of 20 Baht, which you will receive back after showing the person-in-charge the same plastic bottle you entered with. This is to ensure that visitors don’t litter. More nature-based tourism spots should implement it!
Safety: If you’re a solo-female traveller and concerned about your safety trekking through the jungle along, fret not as at almost every tier is a booth with a ranger ensuring order (ish). However, consider choosing a one-piece or a basic two-piece as there are signs requesting for modesty whilst within Erawan National Park; of course, many women ignore the sign(s) and the decision is yours to make, after all.
Fishes! Another reason the waterfall(s) at Erawan National Park are popular is due to the fact that most of the tiers are home to fishes! And these fishes like to nibble at the dead skin cells on your feet – providing a free of charge fish spa (fish spas are actually something Southeast Asia is uniquely known for).
Fun fact! Waterfalls are cold so if you were expecting a warm dip in the water, think again!
How To Visit Erawan Falls & Have the Best Experience!
If you’ve decided that Erawan Waterfall simply must be on your Thailand bucket list, then here’s what you need to know:
1. Avoid Day Tripping!
As we’ve mentioned before, avoid the one-day trip from Bangkok. There just isn’t enough time to experience the falls and you’ll visit right at the worst time of day when all the other tourist buses get there.
2. Stay in Kanchanaburi overnight
Spend a few nights in Kanchanaburi (read more about where to stay in the guide here).
3. Catch the local bus
In the early morning, find your way (by walking or by taxi) to Kanchanaburi Bus Station and upon arriving at the entrance, walk straight ahead then turn left after the ticket-booth – you buy your ticket directly from the make-shift stall before your designated bus, which in this case would be bus #8170.
The bus departs hourly, starting from 8.00 a.m., and costs 50 Baht one-way – but note that it’s an SE Asian “hourly” so really the times are: 8, 8.55, 9.50, 10.45, 11.50, 1300, 1410, 1525, 1630, and 1750.
The drive to Erawan National Park is scenic and lasts at least 45 minutes to an hour, depending on weather conditions and traffic. The bus will bring you directly to the entrance of the falls where the trek to the waterfalls starts.
4. Choose your season
Erawan National Park is open all year round, but the best time to visit the falls is September to December, after the rainy season and before the dry season really kicks in. You may find little or no water if you travel there during the months of March, April and May when Kanchanaburi reaches temperatures of 33 degrees.
5. Avoid weekends and peak times
On Saturday and Sunday, local weekenders join backpackers and daytrippers from Bangkok and crowds reach their max! Visit during the week to avoid crowds.
6. Avoid peak hours
The best time to visit is the early morning before the tour buses get from Bangkok. (They leave at 7 am from Bangkok reaching the falls around 11 am).
7. Don’t make the falls your main reason for visiting Kanchanaburi
People rush in and out to visit Erawan Waterfalls and spend no time enjoying the lovely (and cheap) riverside town of Kanchanaburi. If you make the waterfall your ONLY reason for visiting Kanchanaburi, then there’s more scope for you to be disappointed if the falls don’t meet your expectations.
The second most popular tourist attraction is the ‘bridge over the river Kwai’ – the perfect location for watching the sunset; plus, if you don’t have the energy to visit other sights, you can at least say you visited the main landmark in Kanchanaburi!
If you do have the energy, though, stroll over from the ‘bridge over the river Kwai’ to the JEATH War Museum, which details the history of the bridge you just visited and of the city you’re in. If you’re more into visuals over words then stroll over to the Chinese temple on the other side of the ‘bridge over the river Kwai’; and if you have time, there’s also the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and the War Cemetery.
Further afield lies the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum (related to the PoW), Ban Kao National Museum (prehistoric artefacts from the region), and the Prasat Muang Singh Historical Park (home to Khmer-era temples). In all, Kanchanaburi is worth visiting but as for Erawan National Park, that remains debatable…
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