Every year the town of Kanchanaburi puts together a festival to honor Allied POW’s and Asian laborers that were forced by the Japanese army to build the infamous Death Railway during World War II. The highlight of every evening is the reenactment of the bombing of the famous River Kwai Bridge and the epic fireworks display that lights up the night sky with fiery explosions. For the year 2020, the Lights and Sounds Festival runs from November 27th through December 6th.
In 2019, we took our visiting family to the celebration and it was one of the highlights of their trip to Thailand. Even if you’ve been to Kanchanaburi before this festival is so impressive it warrants a return for an overnight visit. This article is meant to be informative based from our experience and I aim to show you a good time!
First, let’s get you there!
How to get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok
There are several options to get from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. You can drive (if you have a car), hire a private driver/taxi, mini-van, or take a train. On weekends there are also special excursion trains that leave from Hua Lumphong.
But the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get there is by the trains leaving daily from the Thonburi Railway Station.
Tickets to all destinations are all priced at 100 baht. It’s truly the best deal in town. This ticket gives you access to the 100 baht carriage which is equipped with ceiling fans and cushioned seats.
If you want to rough it you can feel free to seek out the carriages with firmer wooden seats (no thanks).
In order to spend the afternoon in Kanchanaburi I recommend the train departing at 0750 from Thonburi to Namtok. This will get you into Kanchanaburi around 1035.
Late sleepers may prefer the other option, an afternoon train departing at 13:55 which will gets into Kanchanaburi around 16:26.
There is a small outdoor market across from the Thonburi Railway Station to load up on snacks. There are also many, many food vendors that hop on and off the train that will happily end your hunger if you fail to stock up.
What feels like the longest part of the trip is just getting out of Bangkok. But once you leave the sprawling metropolis and suburbs the countryside opens up with expansive views of greenery and farm life.
Where do you want to stop?
The first stop into Kanchanaburi is their main railway station. This is a good jump-off point if your hotel is nearby or in Kanchanaburi City, there are also many songtaew trucks that can take you to where you need to go.
But if you’re accommodation is near the River Kwai Bridge, or the bridge is your preferred stop, stay on the train for the next stop.
Our lodging, the Bamboo House Resort, was a 10-minute walk from the bridge. I recommend their inexpensive, comfortable, private bungalows.
Back in time…
I’ve been to the River Kwai Bridge many times. This time it looked very different. It was as if we’d stepped back in time, circa WWII, as the bridge was bedecked with Imperial Japanese flags and elevated bamboo guard platforms fortified with sandbags.
On the left side of the bridge (seen in this picture from across the river where the green light shines) is bleacher-style seating where folks can watch the reenactment (in Thai) and firework show. I personally prefer to view the show a little more comfortably. Rather than cramming in with the crowd, I enjoy drinking beer, eating food, and having easy access to a restroom. If this is more your scene, too, then follow me!
The other side…
Cross the bridge and you’ll find a carnival-like atmosphere with vendors and tables and chairs set up along the water’s edge. You sacrifice not seeing the actors’ performance for comfort. In my opinion, it’s worth it.
My recommendation is to get there early so that you can secure a table for a front-row view of the fireworks show. Order food, drinks, and settle in. Once the sun sets and the sky darkens the show will begin.
Let the show begin!
After a long performance (in Thai), the colorfully lit bridge welcomes the mournful whistle of an approaching steam engine train which signals the show’s explosive kick-off. It’s why you’re here.
Throughout the pyrotechnic performance, spotlights pierce the night sky searching for Allied aircraft (with airplane shaped drones launched nearby fulfilling this role). Explosions rock the river as the bridge and guard posts erupt with sparking fireworks from each aircraft’s swooping bombardment. The bridge is eventually set ablaze underneath with flaming trails along the iron railings.
As the flames along the bridge die down the sky explodes with a grand finale fireworks display.
Night market time…
After the Lights and Sounds show shuffle back across the bridge with the crowd where you’ll find the area has been transformed into a bustling night market.
This is a great opportunity to grab a late dinner on the cheap!
Death Railway Museum
I recommend rather than taking the early morning train back to Bangkok you opt to take the afternoon train. It usually departs around 14:30 from the River Kwai Bridge station (there is a board posted that will give the approximate time with tickets sold about 30 minutes beforehand). This gives you time to check out the Death Railway Museum and gets you into Bangkok around 17:30 (just in time for dinner!).
This museum does a fantastic job of telling the stories of the POWs and captured laborers who were forced to build the “Death Railway” for the Japanese army. The horrific conditions they suffered, the enduring spirit they had to survive, are all told with unvarnished raw detail.
This is a must-visit museum when visiting Kanchanaburi and especially important to gain an understanding of the River Kwai Bridge’s significance after watching the Lights and Sounds Festival!
I want to hear from you!
Should you decide to travel to Kanchanaburi and the Lights and Sounds Festival I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below, directly to me, or via message on either the Chow Traveller Facebook page or Chow Traveller Instagram (and feel free to like/follow these pages if you want to learn about more foodie gems). However you choose, I’d love to hear from you!
Wish I’d have known about this earlier, too late for this year. In diary for next year. Thanks
I’ll be updating the article next year once the new dates are announced. 🙂