Kanchanaburi and the death railway…

Once we’d checked into our hotel on the banks of the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, we went for a wander around the town to see what it was like. It’s quite a strange set up really – an entire ‘tourist resort’ complete with backpacker bars, Internet cafes and western restaurants  has sprung up due to the town’s proximity to the Bridge over the River Kwai.

For those of you who have heard of the film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ but aren’t too sure about the history around it – the death railway (known commonly as the Thai-Burma Railway) was commissioned by the Japanese in WWII who needed a new supply route to help aid their conquests throughout Indo China. They used Asian labourers and Allied Prisoners of War (POWs)  to build it and kept them in appalling conditions. 106,000 of them died as a direct result of building the railway and the bridge, whether from overwork, starvation or disease. For more info have a look at this link about the Burma Railway..

Our plan whilst we were in Kanchanaburi was to go and see the famous bridge itself, take a ride on the death railway that still exists, and learn a bit more about the history surrounding it. So the following morning we walked up to the bridge, just over 2 kms from the main touristy area of Kanchanaburi and took some photos of it before walking across it and back.

The bridge itself is a big, iron structure and is pretty unremarkable to look at but that’s not really the point of going there.  Despite the fact that the rafters are a bit wobbly and there isn’t much in the way of a walkway, people are allowed to walk over the bridge whenever they like, including when the train runs, so it can be a bit of a hairy experience!

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Once we’d completed the bridge ritual we went over to the train ‘station’ a few metres back down the track and bought two tickets to Nam Tok. This is where the existing railway finishes and we wanted to ride the train all the way there and back. The tickets cost 100 Baht each for the 60 km, one way journey  and we found ourselves waiting amongst several large tour groups who had evidently bought a ride on the railway as part of an excursion.

The train journey took well over the stated two hours and took us through farmland, past mountains and the famous Tham Krasae Cave, which sits above some remaining parts of the railway at Wang Pho Viaduct. It was at this point that one of the POW camps was based during the building of the railway.

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When we arrived at Nam Tok, we got off and bought our return tickets before going all the way back again! We had hoped to have time to visit Hellfire Pass and the Museum which is a further 20kms from Nam Tok before we went back to Kanchanaburi, but there just wasn’t time due to the train being so late. We’d heard that the Pass and the museum were well worth visiting so we were sorry to miss it!

Arriving back at the River Kwai station, we decided to take another walk over the bridge now that there were far less tourists around and then went to visit the WWII and JEATH Museum (named after the prominent nationalities involved in the building of the death railway – Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland) which is just around the corner. This costs 40 Baht to get in and we were really looking forward to finding out some more about the history of this part of the war.

However, as soon as we walked through the gates we were pretty confused! The museum has absolutely no structure to it whatsoever – no arrows pointing you in the right direction, no members of staff around and seemingly random displays which range from rifles and photographs, to stamps, Miss Thailand posters and ‘minerals of the world’ displays!

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We didn’t really know where to look and the photos documenting the lives of soldiers during the second world war were mixed up with photos from WWI, ancient Thailand and the reign of Julius Caesar!! One interesting section was the various statues of WWII Leaders, such as Churchill, Hitler and President Truman which displayed information about their background and their involvement in the war. We learned quite a few things that we didn’t know before, despite the broken English of the descriptions!

The JEATH part, showed mock ups of the POW camps that those who built the death railway were held in as well as having parts of one of the original bridges over the River Kwai on display. There was also a wealth of information available about the planning, building and aftermath of the railway’s construction which gave us a really good understanding of how it all came together. Unfortunately, by 6pm I think the museum people had forgotten we were in there and all of the lights and displays were turned off, so we may well have missed some of the more interesting titbits!

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At this point we felt like we had taken in quite a lot of info and headed back to town to get something to eat. Later that night we came across a rather random ’10 Baht Bar’ on the street. Literally everything in it cost 10 Baht and the seating consisted of empty paint pots laid out at the side of the road. It was a really quirky idea, we sat there listening to music and indulging in whiskey and cokes until it closed!

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The next morning we got up and packed our bags as we were heading to Bangkok later that day. Before that however, we had one last thing to do to wrap up our stay in Kanchanaburi and that was to visit the Allied War Cemetery.

Over 5000 Commonwealth and 1,500 Dutch casualties are buried here – all were POWs and died as a result of building the death railway. The cemetery itself is beautiful and extremely well kept. The sun was shining over the neatly lined headstones and we spent some time walking through them, reading the names and ages of those who were buried there. The majority of them were under thirty or in their mid thirties and some of the messages engraved on the headstones were really moving.

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There is a large memorial cross in the centre of the cemetery where poppies and wreaths were left last week on the anniversary of ‘D Day’. It was really nice to see that the cemetery was still visited and that the people who died here are still being honoured. It brought together everything that we had learned during our stay in Kanchanaburi – from seeing the bridge, travelling on the death railway, seeing the mock ups of the POW camps and looking at photos of the soldiers, to seeing their graves and the messages left by their loved ones.

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We would definitely urge anyone visiting this part of Thailand to go to Kanchanaburi and gain a bit of appreciation for what people went through to provide us with the lives we live today.


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  1. January 24, 13:45 #1 Aisleen Author

    You learn something new everyday hey?! This is exactly what i love about travelling, you get to find out so many things about the world and other countries!

  2. January 24, 13:39 #2 AlexBerger

    Wow, had no idea. Thanks for the heads up. Definitely something to add to my list for Thailand.

  3. January 19, 13:44 #3 Aisleen Author

    It was pretty hairy – your feet could go right through! Yes, a v sad history and something I was completely ignorant of before I went there.

  4. January 19, 11:07 #4 Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Such a sad history, but the views look beautiful! Not sure I’d walk on that bridge, though. 😛

  5. January 18, 09:22 #5 Aisleen Author

    It really is. If you get to go back try and take the train all the way to Hellfire Pass, we didn’t get the chance to do this but wish we did. And you’ll love the scenery on route!

  6. January 17, 22:27 #6 DTravelsRound

    I can’t wait to go back to Thailand so I can experience this. The death railway is fascinating.

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