Communicating in Thailand: Looking for Kanchanaburi (Bonus)

In this bonus post about communicating abroad, I’m going to share my story of getting lost in one of my favorite countries –– Thailand.

Looking for Kanchanaburi

Bangkok, Thailand

I heard about Kanchanaburi from backpackers, saw the posters of its legendary Bridge on the River Kwai in Bangkok travel agencies and had even seen the 1957 movie years ago. Visiting Kanchanaburi definitely seemed like a worthwhile trip. Finding it would be the only problem.

Winding around the south end of Bangkok’s Victory Monument and tucked amidst food stalls and coffee kiosks, an endless row of minibusses departed every thirty minutes to dozens of towns and cities outside of Bangkok. “Where you go?” a driver asked.


He pointed to a man sitting at a plastic table, smoking a cigarette and counting 100 baht banknotes.

“Kanchanaburi,” I said.

He asked for 110 baht and pointed his cigarette at a minibus.

“Kanchanaburi, chai mai kraup?” I confirmed with the driver. You’re going to Kanchanaburi, aren’t you?

He nodded. “Kraup! Kraup!” Yes! Yes!

I climbed inside the minibus, nudged between a woman with a cylinder of nasal spray dangling from her right nostril and a man with a dozen Buddhist amulets around his neck. The bus pulled out, the Thai pop music cranked up and I was out – absent from the world, sleeping upright and dreaming of the Bridge on the River Kwai. Two hours later I awoke.

Farang! Farang!” the driver shouted above the music. Foreigner! Foreigner! He pointed to the sliding door. “You! Now!”

I looked out the tinted window as we slowed past a fish-shaped street sign. I’d read these signs were everywhere in Kanchanaburi, symbolizing its freshwater cuisine. 

Kanchanaburi's Street Signs

Kanchanaburi's Street Signs

The minibus suddenly jerked to a stop and the driver pointed to the door again. “Now! You!”

At each intersection, I looked up and down the soi side streets for the guesthouses, cooking schools, girlie bars, massage parlors, CD and DVD shops –– all the types of entertainment that surround tourist attractions in Thailand. Nothing. Not even an English sign. Not even another farang.

I passed a group of motorbike taxi drivers, uniformed in numbered vests. “You go Pattaya?” asked number thirty-nine.

Kanchanaburi is the hilly Myanmar border town where tourists come to learn about the construction of the Burma Railway during WW II. Pattaya is the beach resort city on the Gulf of Thailand, where tourists bask in the sunshine and indulge in the nightlife. Why would I want to travel almost 300 kilometers to Pattaya and why would I want to go by motorbike taxi?

Phom ao bi Chiang Mai.” I jokingly said, referring to the popular Northern city. I want to go to Chiang Mai.

They laughed.

I stopped in front of a pedestrian bridge and watched the motorbikes zigzag between cars and converted pick-up trucks called sawngthaews. Kanchanaburi's a small town, I assured myself. I should be able to walk to from here.

A woman in a yellow polo shirt pulled her wheeled suitcase in front of her and stopped beside me.

Sawaddii kraup.” I said.


A highway bus raced toward us –– honking its horn, spraying diesel and abruptly extinguishing whatever conversation might’ve just been ignited. A teenage bus attendant jumped from the slowing bus and squeezed the woman’s suitcase into the underneath compartment. He pointed to me. “Pattaya?”


The bus attendant nodded, then followed the woman onto the bus. It accelerated down the road again, until it eventually blurred in the heat and vanished in the distance.



I sank to the bottom step of the pedestrian bridge and thought. Why was there direct transport between Kanchanaburi and Pattaya? Was there a national event in Pattaya this week? Regardless, where were the hills? The trees? The scent of nature? The sound of trains? Where were all the farang?

I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my guidebook. Apparently, my location was somewhere off the Kanchanaburi map –– somewhere Lonely Planet hadn’t deemed important, but somewhere others had. Hoping an English-speaking employee could point me in the right direction, I crossed the pedestrian bridge and entered McDonald's.

Khun phu phuuttttt phu…” I said to the female cashier, but stumbled in my words and had to restart. “Khun phuut phassaa Angrit dai mai kraup?” Can you speak English?

Dai nitnoi.” she said. A little.

“Is this Kanchanaburi?”

She nodded.

“Kanchanaburi? Are you sure?”

She nodded again. “Sure.”

Convinced she misunderstood, I borrowed her pen and wrote K-a-n-c-h-u-n-a-b-u-r-i on a discarded cheeseburger receipt. I pointed to the receipt. “Ok?”


I pointed outside. “Kanchanaburi, chai mai kraup?” Is this Kanchanaburi?

Chai kha.” she said. Yes.



I unzipped my backpack and turned to page 217 of Lonely Planet Thailand and showed her the colorful picture of the River Kwai Bridge.

Klai!” she said.

Klai is the Thai word for ‘near,’ but klai is also the word for ‘far.’ Or did I have it backwards? Tone markers separated the two. My untrained ears separated nothing.




She smiled goodbye and signaled for the next customer.

Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

I trudged past a laughing Ronald McDonald statue and back up the pedestrian bridge. From the center of the bridge, I watched the traffic below. The sawngthaews, motorbikes and highway buses were supposed to be boats and karaoke barges. The cracks in the blacktop were supposed to be ripples in the water. Instead of oil spills and skid marks, I should’ve been able to see the bridge’s reflection. Where was the river? Where was the bridge? Where was I? Near or far? Klai or klai?

I passed the motorbike taxis again. “Go to Chiang Mai?” asked number thirty-three.


Klai.” he agreed.

I was lost.

River Raft Guesthouse

River Raft Guesthouse

I walked along the road, searching for Kanchanaburi signage and other farang.

I eventually stopped at a clinic with an English sign outside and computers, couches and white elephant paintings in the lobby. As soon as the receptionist said, “Good morning,” I imagined checking into a nearby river raft guesthouse and spending the rest of the day exploring Kanchanaburi.

I explained to her that I was looking for the street that led to the river.


“The river with the bridge.”


“I’m looking for Kanchanaburi.”

“You’re here!” she exclaimed.

“Are you sure?”


I showed her the picture of the bridge in my guidebook. “Can I walk or do I need a motorbike taxi?”





“You need to go to Bangkok.”


“This is Chonburi."


She opened her desk and pulled out a yellow pad of paper and wrote –– Kanchanaburi.

“That’s it!” I said. “Kanchanaburi!”

You’re on the wrong side of the country.” she said. “You need to go west, not east. You’re near Pattaya. This is Chonburi.”

I pointed at the pad of paper. “This isn’t Kanchanaburi?”

She crossed out Kanchanaburi and rewrote it, then underlined it. “Thai people pronounce it Kan-chun-nop-bu-rii.

“What about the fish-shaped road signs?” I said, referring to the Kanchanaburi-like signage I saw from the minibus.

“Probably just advertising seafood. Chonburi’s a gulf city.”

I compared the pronunciations. “Kanchanaburi. Chonburi. Kanchun... ”

“If you pronounce Kanchanaburi in Thai like you do in English, we hear Chonburi. “Be careful!” she added. “We also call Kanchanaburi, Kan Buri or just Kan.”

Karaoke Barges

Karaoke Barges

I finally dropped my backpack at a river raft guesthouse at 10:00 pm in Kanchanaburi. At a candlelit restaurant, I met an American and Canadian. We listened to a band of bearded Thais drumming and singing reggae music. “Know any good songs?” asked the Canadian.

“How about a story?" I said. “Have you ever heard of Chonburi?”

Where have you gotten lost and what happened? Answer in the Comments below.

Communicating in Thailand: Looking for Kanchanaburi (Bonus) first appeared on the Culture Gaps Blog by Jeff Shibasaki.


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Jeff Shibasaki blogs about effective communication skills for the USA at Culture Gaps and healthy web design for unhealthy websites at Bento Sites.