Explore The central plains
Set at the confluence of two rivers, the Kwai Noi and the Kwai Yai, the provincial capital of KANCHANABURI makes the perfect getaway from Bangkok, a two- to three-hour bus ride away. With its rich wartime history, plentiful supply of traveller-oriented accommodation and countless possibilities for easy forays into the surrounding countryside, there are plenty of reasons to linger here, and many visitors end up staying longer than planned. The big appeal is the river: that it’s the famous River Kwai is a bonus, but the more immediate attractions are the guesthouses whose rooms overlook the waterway, many of them offering fine views of the jagged limestone peaks beyond.
The heart of Kanchanaburi’s ever-expanding travellers’ scene dominates the southern end of Thanon Maenam Kwai (also spelt Kwae) and is within easy reach of the train station, but the real town centre is some distance away, running north from the bus station up the town’s main drag, Thanon Saeng Chuto. Between this road and the river you’ll find most of the town’s war sights, with the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai marking the northern limit. Every day, tour groups and day-trippers descend on the Bridge, a symbol of Japanese atrocities in the region, though the town’s main war museums and cemeteries are actually much more moving. Many veterans returning to visit the graves of their wartime comrades are understandably resentful that others have in some cases insensitively exploited the POW experience – the commercial buzz around the Bridge is a case in point. On the other hand, the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre provides shockingly instructive accounts of a period not publicly documented outside this region.
The Chungkai war cemetery and a handful of moderately interesting temples – including cave temples at Wat Tham Khao Poon and Wat Ban Tham, the hilltop twins of Wat Tham Sua and Wat Tham Khao Noi, and a wat featuring a rather bizarre floating nun – provide the focus for pleasurable trips west of the town centre.
It’s worth noting that Kanchanaburi gets packed during its annual son et lumière
River Kwai Bridge Festival, held over ten nights from the end of November to commemorate the first Allied bombing of the Bridge on November 28, 1944, so book accommodation well ahead if you’re planning a visit then.
The Bridge over the River Kwai
The Bridge over the River Kwai
For most people, the plain steel arches of the Bridge over the River Kwai come as a disappointment: as a war memorial it lacks both the emotive punch of the museums and the perceptible drama of spots further up the line, and as a bridge it looks nothing out of the ordinary – certainly not as awesomely hard to construct as it appears in David Lean’s famous 1957 film, Bridge on the River Kwai (which was in fact shot in Sri Lanka). But it is the link with the multi-Oscar-winning film, of course, that draws tour buses by the dozen, and makes the Bridge approach seethe with trinket-sellers and touts. For all the commercialization of the place, however, you can’t really come to the Kwai and not see it.
The fording of the Kwai Yai at the point just north of Kanchanaburi known as Tha Makkham was one of the first major obstacles in the construction of the Thailand–Burma Railway. Sections of a steel bridge were brought up from Java and reassembled by POWs using only pulleys and derricks. A temporary wooden bridge was built alongside it, taking its first train in February 1943; three months later the steel bridge was finished. Both bridges were severely damaged by Allied bombers (rather than commando-saboteurs as in the film) in 1944 and 1945, but the steel bridge was repaired after the war and is still in use today. The best way to see the Bridge is by walking gingerly across the tracks, or taking the train right over it: the Kanchanaburi–Nam Tok service crosses it three times a day in each direction, stopping briefly at the River Kwai Bridge station on the east bank of the river.
The Death Railway
The Death Railway
Shortly after entering World War II in December 1941, Japan, fearing an Allied blockade of the Bay of Bengal, began looking for an alternative supply route to connect its newly acquired territories that stretched from Singapore to the Burma–India border. In spite of the almost impenetrable terrain, the River Kwai basin was chosen as the route for a new Thailand–Burma Railway, the aim being to join the existing terminals of Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbuyazat in Burma – a total distance of 415km.
About sixty thousand Allied POWs were shipped up from captured Southeast Asian territories to work on the link, their numbers later augmented by as many as two hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers. Work began at both ends in June 1942. Three million cubic metres of rock were shifted and 14km of bridges built with little else but picks and shovels, dynamite and pulleys. By the time the line was completed, fifteen months later, it had more than earned its nickname, the Death Railway: an estimated sixteen thousand POWs and hundred thousand Asian labourers died while working on it.
The appalling conditions and Japanese brutality were the consequences of the samurai code: Japanese soldiers abhorred the disgrace of imprisonment – to them, ritual suicide was the only honourable option open to a prisoner – and therefore considered that Allied POWs had forfeited any rights as human beings. Food rations were meagre for men forced into backbreaking eighteen-hour shifts, often followed by night-long marches to the next camp. Many suffered from beriberi, many more died of dysentery-induced starvation, but the biggest killers were cholera and malaria, particularly during the monsoon. It is said that one man died for every sleeper laid on the track.
The two lines finally met at Konkuita, just south of present-day Sangkhlaburi. But as if to underscore its tragic futility, the Thailand–Burma link saw less than two years of active service: after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the railway came under the jurisdiction of the British who, thinking it would be used to supply Karen separatists in Burma, tore up 4km of track at Three Pagodas Pass, thereby cutting the Thailand–Burma link forever. When the Thais finally gained control of the rest of the railway, they destroyed the track all the way down to Nam Tok, apparently because it was uneconomic. Recently, however, an Australian–Thai group of volunteers and former POWs has salvaged sections of track near the fearsome stretch of line known as Hellfire Pass, clearing a memorial walk at the pass and founding an excellent museum at the site. There have been a number of books written about the Death Railway, including several by former POWs; the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre stocks a selection, as do the town’s bookshops.