Where: Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Kanchanaburi is the location of the Bridge over the River Kwai. It is located in the west of Thailand, close to the Burmese border.
When: February 2009.
Why: I visited Kanchanaburi as part of my 30th birthday adventure where I travelled from Bangkok to Singapore.
Kanchanaburi is sadly famous because of some terrible events in recent history and the subsequent film that was made about these events. Kanchanaburi is where Asian labourers and Allied Prisoners of War were forced by the Japanese to build the Thai-Burmese railway, including the Bridge over the River Kwai.
During World War 2, the Japanese used forced Asian labour and Allied POWs to build the railway from Bangkok to Burma. It is known as the death railway as over 100,000 people died building it. 90,000 Asian labourers and over 12,000 POWs died as a direct result of the railways construction. They were starved, broken by hard labour and torture; they perished in the hot sun or caught tropical disease; or they were simply killed by their Japanese guards. It is said that a person died for every sleeper on the railway. Men from Indonesia, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, America, China, Thailand and many more places, were worked to death in the most horrible conditions. Many Japanese soldiers died too – themselves used as pawns in this terrible project.
Kanchanaburi is located in the West of Thailand, towards the Burmese border. The Bridge over the River Kwai, which was formerly on the death railway, is located in Kanchanaburi.
I predominantly went to Kanchanaburi as I wanted to learn more about the war time events, so I could better understand what happened. I also wanted to see more of Thailand and it looked like an easy destination to get to.
I expected Kanchanaburi to move me and to make me think about the nature of war and peace. What I didn’t expect was for it to be such a beautiful, relaxed place. I didn’t expect to like it so much.
When I think of the ‘real’ Thailand, I think of Kanchanaburi: the slow pace of life, the gently flowing river, wooden huts on stilts over the water – and crazy hostess girls called Nu driving around on mopeds in gold mini-dresses.
Getting there and getting around
I took the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi on a golden Friday afternoon.
I caught the train at Thon Buri station in Bangkok. Thon Buri is not the main station in Bangkok, that is Hualamphong Station. Thon Buri is situated on the other side of the river and it is not connected to the public transport network, so I had to take a taxi there.
The station had shade and a toilet, but there were no shops or food stalls. On the train, people walked up and down selling cold drinks and snacks, but I’d to anyone doing this journey, I’d recommend you take stuff with you as it is a long, hot journey. I think there was a toilet on the little two-carriage train, though I didn’t use it so I can’t say for sure.
The train journey took about four hours (it was only supposed to take two) and the train left half an hour late. But this is Thailand – what’s the rush? Incidentally, I have the train ticket in front of me, so I can tell you the train should have left at 13.55 (it left at about 14.40) and should have got in at 16.17 (it was actually after 18.00) – and it cost me 25 bht (that’s 50p!!!!).
The train was basic and it was hot, but there was a lovely breeze blowing through the carriages. The journey was lovely and it was a fascinating way to see more of Thailand. Some of the journey was a little boring in places, but once we got towards the mountains of the Kanchanaburi area, the scenery was beautiful.
I thought that the train ran along the line of the death railway and I really wasn’t sure how I felt about this: whether travelling on the line was a tribute to those who’d died to build the railway or whether it should be left alone. I’ve since found out that the railway from Bangkok to Kanchaniburi isn’t part of the death railway, although some of the section between the bridge and the end of the line are.
There were a load of terrible Thai teenagers on the train, coming home from school; and they were exactly like teenagers across the world, even down to the annoying ring tones and the chewing gum. But I liked that they were there, using the train on what I thought was the death railway. I liked that normal Thai people used the railway in peace (apart from the annoying ring tones) and I liked that some good has come from abject evil.
Travelling on this slow moving line was wonderful: it passed through the centre of villages and through people’s back gardens, so I got a real taste of every day Thai life. It’s a bit of a traveller cliche, but people really would stop to wave at the train. The train broke down at one point (or the line was blocked) and we ended up in the middle of a village football match; and myself and all the terrible Thai teens hung out the windows to watch and cheer.
There are two stations in Kanchanaburi: Kanchanaburi which is in the centre of town, and Bridge over the River Kwai station which is about five minutes further along and is by the bridge. I got off the train at Kanchanaburi station and caught a tuk tuk to my accommodation, but when I travelled back I got on the train at the Bridge over the River Kwai station. The train was delayed, so I spent two hours at the Bridge station, but it was okay as they had toilets, a cafe/shop/drinks stall and some fun cats to play with.
For in depth information on travelling to Kanchanaburi, visit the Bridge over the River Kwai page on The Man in Seat 61 website.
After Kanchanaburi I was supposed to travel back to Bangkok, where I was to catch the night train to Koh Samui. However, the train from Kanchan was two hours late, so I spent two hours on Bridge over the River Kwai station taking photos of myself pulling pirate faces and playing with some cats. Luckily, I was able to change trains at Nakhon Pathon, so it all worked out well in the end. It’s the serendipity of travel.
What I did on my holiday
Visited the Bridge over the River Kwai
It’s what everyone is here to do – walk over the Bridge over the River Kwai. I’m not really sure what to say about this though, as it’s just a railway bridge over a river. It’s the history of the bridge which makes it so famous. If it wasn’t the famous bridge, it would probably be just ignored. There are large gaps which you have to try not to fall down and there are lots of crowds trying to walk out over the water – but hardly anyone goes right over to the other side; they kind of get half way and then turn back again. It’s enough for most visitors to partly walk over the Bridge over the River Kwai.
It is very beautiful at the Bridge: the river has a lovely, slow melodic pace to it; it’s in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by lovely, hilly scenery; it was hot and humid, and a very relaxing place to be – which makes it incredibly hard to believe that this is where the POW death camps were and that hundreds of people died to build this railway. It all seems very unreal.
There isn’t a lot on the other side of the river, but I would highly recommend walking all the way over there as it is very peaceful and it’s nice to be in the sun dappled jungle.
I found it very strange that we were all here because of a tragedy and because of a film of the tragedy. I’m not sure that we should be there as tourists – whether by going somewhere like this for pleasure is denigration to those who died, or whether it is right to come here to pay tribute to them and to learn what happened to them. Surely those men fought for freedom and prosperity and for people to be able to travel freely across the world in peace, so maybe we should be there. I’m not sure what the right thing to do is. There are many other places in the world where I have had to think : ‘should I be here?’, places such as Auschwitz; and yet, I think it is right to pay tribute to those who died and to learn what happened to them – so we can try to stop it happening again.
Incidentally, the train goes over the bridge four times each day. It goes veeeeery slowly, it beeps its horn a lot and the people who are on the bridge can make their way to one of the platforms which stick out over the side of the bridge – so people don’t get pushed off the bridge by the train.
When I visited, the train ran on this section of the railway as far as Nam Tok – which is 50 miles from Kanchanaburi, towards the Burmese border. Nam Tok is 18km south of Hellfire Pass, which was the hardest section of the railway to build, as it was the largest rock cutting. 69 men were beaten to death by the Japanese guards whilst building this section of the railway. To commemorate the people who died here, the Australian government cleared a 7km section of Hellfire Pass and you can now walk along this section of the disused railway. To get here you can get a taxi from Kanchanaburi or from Nam Tok.
There are plans and discussions, now that Burma is opening up to the world again, to reopen the railway all the way to Rangoon, as a way of connecting the two countries. It would be amazing if they could do this, as it would not only link up the two nationals but could also start to be a bridge between the sub-continent, south-east Asia and the Far East.
To find out more about visiting the Bridge or travelling on this section of railway, including train times, visit the Man at Seat 61 website.
JEATH War Museum
JEATH stands for Japanese, English, American and Australian, Thai and Holland – as people of these nations died in the building of the Thai-Burmese railway and this museum is to commemorate them.
This is a very interesting and moving museum. In some places it is quite disturbing and horrific (the pile of POW skulls), in other places it is funny (the terrible wax works of Churchill, Stalin and Albert Einstein). It is well worth a visit if you have time.
As with many museums, there is almost too much to take in in the JEATH museum; but it’s well worth a visit to find out more about the POW camps and the building of the death railway. By visiting the museum I got a much greater understanding of what happened here and it helped to put my visit into context.
It was hard for me to imagine what occurred here when I was on the actual railway line and bridge, as I couldn’t believe that this beautiful, peaceful landscape is where the emaciated POW were held as slaves, and where so many people died.
Entrance to the museum was 30bht (about 60p).
The Japanese Monument
The only time I cried whilst at Kanchanaburi was at the Japanese monument. It really moved me that the nation responsible for the atrocities has commemorated those who died. It takes a lot of courage to say sorry. It is right that the Japanese should be here and it is right that they should be a part of the commemoration process, as peace and prosperity for all is the best commemoration for the men who died here.
The memorial is situated in a small park between the bridge and Kanchan town centre.
(I’ve just read the guidebook and I’ve found out that apparently the memorial commemorates ‘those who died in Kanchanaburi in illness’ – so maybe I shouldn’t have been as moved as I was). Pah.
What I didn’t do on my holiday
Many of those who died during the construction of the death railway are buried in the war cemetery in Kanchanaburi. You can go to see the graves and pay tribute to those who died here.
You can take the train on to Hellfire Pass and to Nam Tok. Apparently this is a beautiful section of railway, with passes and viaducts; though this is part of the original railway build by POWs. You can find out how to travel on this section of the railway and more about what to see at Man at Seat 61 website.
You can also go out into the jungle, visit the national parks and go swimming in wild waterfalls.
There is a Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno) in Kanchanaburi, but a recent report by Care for the Wild highlighted the maltreatment of these animals by the temple, and also the risk to visitors, with staff having little or no training in how to handle tigers. In fact, in August 2013, a British student was attacked by one of the tigers at the sanctuary.
To read the full Care for the Wild report, visit www.careforthewild.com/temple-of-lies.
Where I stayed
Blue Star Guesthouse
The Blue Star Guesthouse is on the banks of the River Kwai. You can’t really see the river from the complex, although some of the tree huts are situated on stilts over the water.
I stayed in a fan room. It was basic accommodation; the sort which I imagined I’d be staying in all across Thailand. There was a slab with a thin mattress, a toilet, a hose pipe for a cold shower and a fan. It was basic but fun and cost 150 bht for the night – that’s £3.
I’m not sure I could have stayed in that room for longer than one night, but it was an okay place to stay.
They also had tree huts at the guest house and more expensive rooms which were nicer, but I was trying to save some money and I was a bit scared about falling out of the tree house in the middle of the night. To be honest, I didn’t mind staying somewhere basic. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the prisoners of war endured; and compared to that, a hard bed and a cold shower were luxurious.
There was a lovely open cafe/bar/terrace area and here they served good food. I had a yummy banana and pineapple pancake for breakfast.
Incidentally – there is a really good map of Kanchanaburi on the Blue Star website.
I had my tea in Ali Bongos: Kanchanaburi’s first dedicated Indian restaurant. Good ambience, great Indian food, brilliant name.
Top tips and useful links
Most people pronounce the river as Kwai, but it’s not – it’s Kwae (with an e). Apparently the Kwai pronunciation actually means Water Buffalo or something quite rude (I know what, but I can’t tell you as it is far too rude).
Apparently this wasn’t the River Kwai, but an off shoot of it. The movie mis-named the river, so to make the destination match the movie the Thai authorities changed the name of the river.
There were a couple of restaurants, hostess bars and small supermarkets around my hotel. There are loads of shops and stores and cafes by the Bridge.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.