Foreign visitors travel out from Bangkok to see the famous Bridge over the River Kwai and ride the Death Railway. But Kanchanaburi is much more than that.
Located in one of the most attractive locations in Outback Thailand, the trip out from Bangkok (train, bus or van) is an interesting contrast from city to countryside, from noise and bustle moving to the slow country pace.
It’s a warm Saturday morning and I’m on a scheduled van service from my home in Ayutthaya driving mainly through flat farming country.
Kanchanaburi. A peaceful place to stay
As we get near Kanchanaburi, I can see hills in the distance and the scenery becomes more rugged. About three hours after leaving home, I’m being dropped off at a town centre guest house that I had booked in advance.
Located near the banks of the river, Kanchanaburi city itself is busy during the day but after the day visitors depart, it’s a really pleasant and quiet town with excellent and inexpensive accommodation and the restaurants both in the town and on the river (floating guesthouses) itself are value for money.
A really moving experience
A quick lunch, and I’m strolling through the town and out to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the main place of rest for those who died whilst building the infamous Death Railway into Burma. There are around 7,000 servicemen buried here and it is one of three war cemeteries. In total over 100,000 Allied prisoners and conscripted Asian workers died building the railway.
The graves are mostly of Australian, Dutch and British troops, plus smaller numbers of Canadian, New Zealand, Gurkha and other soldiers.
Laid out in neat rows in beautifully manicured grounds and in peaceful setting, the graves are sombre reminder of the brutality of their captors. As I walk around I’m struck by how young the victims were when they died.
I’m walking slowly through the cemetery and it’s an emotional experience. To read the inscriptions on the headstones from their grieving families is very poignant and incredibly sad.
The upkeep and respect that the Thai gardeners had put into tending this vast area is evident and it has enhanced this tranquil scene. To me, it’s a place to wander through on your own.
Kanchanaburi – a railway town
Nearby, I wander across to the Kanchanaburi Railway Station, a typical regional Thai station that, although old, is immaculately kept. Train services from Bangkok operate to Kanchanaburi and you can ride the Death Railway on to the end of the line at Nam Tok near Hellfire Pass .
Kanchanaburi has two railway stations. This is the first one passengers arrive at from Thonburi train station in Bangkok. Most of the river side hotels are located in this area. The other station is about 2 kilometres further on and close to the bridge itself. I stroll on in this direction.
Walking across the famous bridge
After a look around and a stop for food, I join the many visitors who had come to see this iconic Bridge.
It was made famous by a French author who had never been here and wrote the book as a work of fiction. The book as what the popular movie ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ was based on and it was actually filmed in Sri Lanka.
The original bridge didn’t actually cross the river Kwai – it spanned the Mae Klong River however, as it had suddenly become famous, the pragmatic Thai’s renamed the river flowing under the bridge the Khwae Yai (big tributary). Everybody’s happy.
There was actually another famous Academy Awarded movie filmed at the Khwae Yai, a movie titled The Deerhunter.
The black steel bridge is larger than I expected and more imposing. It’s mid-afternoon and crowded with people wandering back and forwards, posing for pics. I”m interested to see a few young Japanese visitors who may not have been taught about this piece of history. They look bewildered.
Watch out for trains! The blast of a train horn signals the crowd on the bridge to move hastily to the sides as the afternoon train from Nam Tok slowly passes. They very quickly resume their stroll along the tracks.
Take a walk around the town
From the bridge I can see many floating guest houses and restaurants and a few boats motored up and down the river. The river is quite large and impressive.
Apparently there used to be another wooden bridge just upstream but that was destroyed by the Allies during the war. The current steel structure was also bombed and was later repaired. This is the only one still used daily by trains traveling between Bangkok and Nam Tok.
I visit a museum which is different from what I expected. It has many graphic scenes of the Death Railway atrocities depicted. There are also some really interesting objects and equipment from the time the brutalities took place. It’s one of two major museums in Kanchanaburi.
Many excellent places to stay
By then it was late afternoon and it was time to return to my accommodation for a refreshing swim.
Relaxing in one of the many guest houses in the town centre (at the end of a day’s exploring in the heat) is heaven. I’m in a lounger, by the pool with a cold drink and looking out over the river as the sun sets and the heat goes out of the day.
Dusk and it is time to eat. There is a large selection of restaurants, the one I chose was excellent, the food was delicious and the beer cold. Outside of all major tourist areas in Thailand, restaurant and accommodation prices in are great value for money and Kanchanaburi is no different.
The River Kwai is a day to remember. Even if you’re not interested in the historical sites, the town is relaxing, the people friendly, and the food cheap and good. You’ll experience the “real” traditional Thailand.
A day trip to Hellfire Pass
The next morning I’m up and about early to join a day tour to Hellfire Pass. There are eight of us in a modern comfortable (air conditioned) van that takes us first up into the mountainous Sai Yok National Park, well known for its waterfalls and caves. Here we join the locals for a refreshing swim in the Kwae Noi River.
After rejoining the van we drive on to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum which is about 20 kilometres away and just above the Pass itself. At this point we are free for the next two hours so I take the track to the along the rail bed at a leisurely pace.
Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
This is a great memorial. Opened in 1998, the museum is dedicated to the Allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers who suffered and died at Hellfire Pass and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region during World War II.
The museum is really impressive. This is quite a remote part of Thailand and to see a modern building, developed in keeping with the surroundings, well maintained and spotlessly clean and tidy wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s a credit to the Thai and Australian governments who jointly fund it and maintain Hellfire Pass area.
The museum doesn’t have many physical artefacts, rather it’s more an interpretive centre that explains what happened in a balanced way and prepares visitors for the actual Pass itself.
Outside the museum, a large deck (The Contemplation Deck) overlooks the Kwai Noi valley and it presents a tranquil outlook. There’s a beautiful piece of art created by one of the ex-prisoners called the Peace Vessel which adds to the scene.
Down the hill to Hellfire Pass
I follow a well-defined track that winds down through the trees to the old rail bed of the Death Railway and on to Hellfire Pass. Known by the Japanese as Konyu Cutting, Hellfire Pass got its name from the bright lights of the lanterns that gave off an eerie glow while the prisoners hacked at the rock walls during the night.
This was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and cruelty that took place. The excavation of these cuttings was done largely by hand.
A place to reflect
There were only a few people there and it was eerily silent as I walked through the cutting. There’s a tree growing tall in the middle and some plaques describing the events that took place there.
There’s also a tribute to Colonel Sir Ernest Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop who was an Australian surgeon renowned and revered for his leadership and compassionate medical care towards his fellow prisoners. He constantly fought with his captors to improve the well-being of the prisoners. Part of his ashes were scattered here.
It’s an incredibly moving place and it was hard for me to compare this peaceful and beautiful part of Thailand with the atrocities that took place there.
Further on I come to Compressor Cutting which got its name from the few jackhammers powered by a compressor that were used there. After a few minutes there I retrace my steps and re-join the van to be taken to Nam Tok Station and join the train travelling on the Death Railway back to Kanchanaburi.
Riding the Death Railway
At Nam Tok there is time to wander along the track for a few hundred metres above the river. The view across the valley is spectacular.
The train duly arrived (late). It’s a standard third class train with wooden seats and open doors and windows.
After departing Nam Tok (I’m sitting on the right-hand side for the best view) the track follows the strikingly scenic River Kwae at times running along a cliff face and passing at slow speed over the impressive Wang Po Viaduct which was also built by prisoners of war.
The passengers are leaning out the windows, enjoying the cool breeze and taking photos of the magnificent scenery as well as the train itself.
After rattling along the tracks in the late afternoon, I’m back in Kanchanaburi and the guest house for another early night following a long day.
I’m up early to make my way back home to Ayutthaya the following morning.