Kanchanaburi, the Death Railway, and the Bridge on the River Kwai

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, Kanchanaburi is especially popular with nature-loving Thais who use the city as a base from which to explore the surrounding jungle and, particularly, Erawan Falls. I already detailed my visit to the falls, but Kanchanaburi is also famous (or infamous) for its many sites of historical importance. Unlike places like Ayutthaya or Sukothai, however, Kanchanaburi’s historical sites are more modern and tied not only to Thai history but to world history.

See, Kanchanburi became a staging area for the Japanese military’s push to create a supply route from Singapore, far to the south, into Burma (now Myanmar). This required that they build a railway through three nations, including across the Thai-Burmese border. As labor, they used POWs, mostly Australians and Brits, along with a few Americans and Dutchmen. Not as well reported, however, was that the Japanese also employed thousands upon thousands of “local” laborers (from Burma, Thailand, Java, Malaysia, and China by way of Singapore) who were initially promised good conditions and a salary but ended up little more than indentured slaves. The railroad these unfortunate people built came to be known, tellingly, as the Death Railway, the most famous part of which was commemorated in the wildly fictionalized movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Various WWII sites are scattered throughout and around Kanchanaburi and I was able to visit a half dozen of them. The first I saw was the JEATH Museum. I initially thought this tiny museum established and maintained by a local Buddhist monastery was named with a typo, that it was meant to read DEATH Museum, but no, JEATH is actually an acronym listing the countries involved: Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, and Holland. The museum is very small but its highlight is a sobering reconstruction of typical prisoners’ quarters. Photography was not allowed inside (though below is a picture of the exterior), but I can tell you that it was absolutely stunning.

JEATH Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

From the JEATH Museum, I walked to the Kanchanaburi WWII Cemetery. The graveyard is deceptively small and beautifully maintained by the Common Wealth. While I was there it began to rain. I joined a few other tourists, all European, inside a small covered space. Impatient, a few people braved the rain to find a marker and pay their respects.

Kanchanaburi, WWII Cemetery, Thailand
Kanchanaburi, WWII Cemetery, Thailand
Kanchanaburi, WWII Cemetery, Thailand

My next stop was to the excellent Thai-Burmese WWII Museum which provided a fascinating overview of the events that ultimately cost the lives of some 12,000 Allied soldiers and—incredibly, given it is rarely spoken of—90,000 Southeast Asians. The death toll was so high in large part because of conditions, which were brutal, but also because the Japanese wanted the work completed in a ridiculously short amount of time. In fact, you can see the death toll rise as the deadline approached, with the Japanese pushing harder with every passing week, day, and hour.

After the museum, I made my way on foot to the city’s most famous site: the aforementioned Bridge on the River Kwai. First, it should be noted that Kwai is pronounced not as to rhyme with “why” but rather with “way” (in fact, “kwai” rhyming with “why” means “water buffalo” and is used as a serious insult in Thailand). Now, the second thing to know is that the man who wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai never actually set foot in Thailand and so, in his novel which became the basis for the movie, he actually situated the bridge on a completely different part of the river. So as to placate confused tourists, the local authorities actually moved the bridge from its original site to its current location. Besides, the original bridge was actually destroyed (and rebuilt and destroyed again) by the Allies. So, when we call it an important historical site, we should slap quotation marks around the word “historical”.

Anyway, it was still interesting.

Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, WWII
Kanchanaburi, WWII Cemetery, Thailand
Kanchanaburi, WWII Cemetery, Thailand

The following day, I took a van tour that took me to two more accurately historical sites: a stretch of the Death Railway itself and the staggering Hellfire Pass. To save time, the Japanese decided not to run their railway around the rocky ridge that lined the Thai-Burma border, rather they endeavored to cut straight through it. Of course, they would not be doing the work, their POWs and forced laborers would be made to chisel straight down, through the stone, carving a gash in the ridge that was some sixty feet deep and about a hundred and fifty yards long. It took six weeks, with the prisoners working 18 hours a day, and during which sixty some were beaten to death, while more died of malaria, malnutrition, cholera and fatigue. I walked through the cutting and climbed to the edge so I could look down. That people were forced to cut it by hand was absolutely incredible. At night, they worked by lantern light, the shadowplay creating what appeared to be a scene from hell, hence the name.

Hellfire Pass, Death Railway, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, WWII

From there, we visited a part of the Death Railway. The tour included a brief train ride upon the rails and, while we waited for the train, we visited a large cave. Now a Buddhist shrine containing a seated Buddha, the cave had served as a military hospital during the war.

Death Railway, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, WWII

The railway runs along the river, upon which there are several small and rustic resorts popular with Thais.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand, travel
Kanchanaburi, Thailand, travel
Kanchanaburi, Thailand, travel

All said, it was a fascinating dive into a portion of history with which I was barely familiar. I was especially impressed with the quality of the museums and exhibits and glad to see that they did in fact place emphasis on the effect the war had on the local countries and their people. The Thais, for example, remained neutral during the war, ill-equipped to fend off Japan’s incursion, but locals actually did what they could to help the Allies, even participating in actions of sabotage and delivering food and medical aid when possible. The cost to those Southeast Asian nations is also shamefully downplayed in western historical sources.

Anyway, it was an interesting change from the travels I’d done elsewhere in the country and I’d recommend a similar tour to anyone interested in WWII history. The town also had great street food! Every night at around five PM, a parking lot near my hotel was taken over by dozens of food trucks and food stalls, all open until midnight. Obviously, I ate dinner there every evening.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand, night market, food
Kanchanaburi, Thailand, night market, food