We are interested in WWII history, and have visited quite a few historical sites from the war. However, as Canadians, we grew up learning, almost exclusively, about the European war and much less about the Pacific war. In an effort to learn a bit more about what happened in the Pacific, we decided to visit Kanchanaburi. It is a town along the infamous Death Railway and the location of the actual bridge on the River Kwai.
About a 2.5 hour drive west of Bangkok, along the banks of the Kwai Yai River, is the town of Kanchanaburi. It is best known as being a stop along the train line from Thailand to Burma, dubbed the “Death Railway” due to the 100,000+ POWs and conscripted workers who died building the line under Japanese control during WWII.
The town remains largely off the main tourist map in Thailand, and we found it to be a bit of a hidden gem especially to anyone with even a passing interest in WWII history. Costs, including accommodation and meals, are substantially lower than in the better known and more touristy parts of the country. We found the riverside town to be friendly, very walkable, scenic, and a great place to spend a few days. We even got the best massages we’ve had thus far in Thailand – at only C$8/hr, you can’t beat it!
There are several museums around town explaining the history of Kanchanaburi during the war. We visited the Jeath War Museum since it was close to our guesthouse and less than half the price of the larger Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.
The Death Railway
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The bridge is probably best known because of the famous 1957 movie. Interestingly, at the time of the fictionalized movie, the bridge didn’t actually cross the Kwai River. It was an error by the author of the book the movie was based on (who also wrote the screenplay). Due to the popularity of the movie, and an increasing number of tourists visiting Kanchanaburi looking for the bridge, the river that the bridge does cross was renamed Kwai Yai to reduce confusion.
There were several bridges in the area, including another wooden bridge just upstream from the one that remains today. The remaining steel bridge was bombed by the Allies during the war, but was later repaired and continues to be used by trains traveling between Bangkok and Nam Tok.
Around the bridge is the only part of Kanchanburi that feels touristy. Even then, the few crowds walking along the bridge itself (trains are very infrequent so this isn’t as unsafe as it sounds) are limited.
Anyone who comes only to see the bridge is really missing the best sites. We took a daytrip from Kanchanaburi to the Hellfire Pass. About 90 minutes by minibus from the town, Hellfire Pass is a portion of the Death Railway that is carved through rock, and was done by hand. The name came from the glow on the rocks from lanterns at night (laborers worked up to 18 hrs a day). The railway has since been dismantled beyond Nam Tok. A museum has been built, co-sponsored by the Australian government and the Thai military, so visitors can read about the history of the railway and walk along the former railbed to commemorate the suffering of those involved in its construction.
Just be warned – we visited independently rather than as part of a package tour. Getting there was easy, but getting back was not. There are no taxis at the museum, and only a once-an-hour bus that you can flag down on the highway. We ended up bribing a tour guide in the parking lot to drive us back the 20km to Nam Tok, where we could connect back to Kanchanaburi via train.
Riding the Railway
Visiting the Death Railway wouldn’t be complete without riding the train. We got on the train in Nam Tok to take the 2-hour journey back to Kanchanaburi for only 100baht/C$4 (the train continues another 2 hours all the way to Bangkok). There are only 3 trains per day, so you don’t want to miss it. Keep in mind the train is often (always) late.
The train is very basic, with only 3rd class seating. Tickets are sold starting 30 minutes prior to the train, but it was easy to get seats. Many people on guided tours only ride the train about 30 minutes from Nam Tok over the Wampo viaduct, then are picked up by their buses again to continue their tours.
The trip through the countryside is often scenic, and was much more enjoyable than the outbound drive. Even though we rode only a small portion of the Death Railway, the trip reinforced in our minds the extent of the hardships that the POWs and laborers were put under to complete the rail line. And the scenery while the train slowly rolls over the Wampo viaduct is pretty incredible.
Kanchanaburi – Off The Beaten Path, but Well Worth It
On our first trip to Thailand, we’re really trying to mix seeing the country’s highlights with off-the-beaten-path destinations. Kanchanaburi is definitely one of the latter, although we really enjoyed it. Even if we weren’t interested in the historical sites, the town was relaxing, the people friendly, and the food cheap and good. We felt we got to see some of the “real” or traditional Thailand, and we enjoyed it.