The River Kwai at Kanchanaburi is one of those iconic “must visit” places in Thailand, especially if you have Australian or British heritage. It was here that literally thousands of Allied prisoners of war lost their lives in the 1940s at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army while building and maintaining the rail line from Thailand to Burma. It’s a sad and touching place, but one you’ll never forget if you do visit.
For the purposes of this guide, I’m going to bunch a handful of places under the broad heading of Kanchanaburi, because most people come to this district with a view to visiting a set of particular attractions spread over a largish area around this general vicinity.
You can go to Kanchanaburi on a day tour or book into one of several multi-day tours from Bangkok. For example, the 3-day River Kwai cultural tour includes bike riding, Thai cooking classes and a visit with a monk from just US$365 per person ex-Bangkok, but does not go to the big cultural attractions we saw. To also see the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Thai-Burma Death Railway, you’ll need to book the 3-day Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi Cultural Tour, from US$429 per person, or the 3-day River Kwai Historical Tour from US$365.
Bridge over the River Kwai
The Bridge over the River Kwai is the drawcard of Kanchanaburi, made famous of course by the movie of the same name. It’s the site of one of the most infamous events of World War 2 in Asia, when Japanese soldiers forced Australia, New Zealand, British and other Commonwealth prisoners-of-war to build a railway line from Burma to Thailand to feed the war machine. The river’s not actually called “Kwai” but “Kwae” is pretty close I guess. Prisoners of war slaved away in nightmare conditions to hack a railway line through jungle, swamp and mountains. Some 16,000 of them never made it out, dying together with about 100,000 rarely remembered Asian slave labourers.
It sounds like a bleak place to visit, but it’s not. For me it was a bit emotional as my father was destined to serve in Singapore where many of these soldiers were taken prisoner – but for a twist of fate that saw his ship diverted to Palestine for political reasons, half-way into its voyage. But it’s also a very scenic location and the box girder bridge spanning the broad river is an interesting piece of engineering. It’s apparently not entirely authentic as the Allies bombed the middle of the bridge toward the end of the war to disrupt Japanese supply lines, so two of the spans had to be replaced.
And it’s very much a “hands on” experience, as you can walk across the entire bridge and there’s no safety rails or other protection as you might expect to find in the west. In fact in many places the floor of the bridge is open and you can see down to the river below. The center of the bridge is steel-covered for safety and there are some platforms here and there across the bridge where you can stand aside to take photos or just take in the view.
Across the fair side of the bridge, you can drop down some metal stairs to a little market area where there’s an elephant you can hand feed with supplies bought from the conveniently located stall holders. The elephant is pretty friendly but I’m not sure why, because it’s freedom to roam is limited to about a metre radius.
There used to be a little steam train that ran across the bridge at intervals during the day, but that’s no longer operating.
Commonwealth War Cemetery
For me, at least, this was a sobering introduction to Kanchanaburi and the history it represents.
Known locally as Don Rak, here lie the remains of some 5000 young Commonwealth (mostly Australian and British) soldiers plus some 1800 Dutch soldiers who died in the building of the Thai-Burma railway. It is at once an emotional roller-coaster and a peaceful memorial to those who never made it home.
Reading the memorial markers around the cemetery brought me to quiet tears, and apparently had a similar sobering effect on my teenage daughters who were around the same age as many of those who died here.
Designed by Colin St-Clair Oakes, the war cemetery is situated in the north-western part of Kanchanaburi on Saeng Chuto Road, opposite the Kanchanaburi Railway Station (which seems kind of appropriate, under the circumstances).
Admission is free. Take the time to read the long list of names in the rotunda as you enter or leave.
There is another war cemetery called Chong Kai, about 2km south of Kanchanaburi town centre, on the site of the former Conk-Kai Prisoner of War Camp. This cemetery contains the remains of about 1740 mainly British, Dutch, Malay and Indian prisoners, most of whom died in the POW camp hospital nearby.
The term “Death Railway” was coined to describe the Thai-Burma railway built by prisoners of war under the harsh direction of Japanese soldiers in 1943. The entire railway ran for over 400 km and was built to move troops and supplies through the high mountains and deep valleys of the Thai-Burma border area.
Originally, the line ran to within 50 metres of Three Pagoda Pass, the current border point between Burma and Thailand, but much of it is not gone because it was either too geologically unstable to be made safe or too expensive to maintain.
These days, a commemorative steam train ferries tourists from Kanchanaburi along the Kwai River to a place known as “Hellfire Pass” (a name coined by those who worked on it), where Commonwealth and Dutch prisoners and Asian “coolies” were forced to blast away huge amounts of rock to clear a path for the railway to cross the massive gorge of the Kwai Noi Valley.
Every Anzac Day (25th of April) there’s a very moving memorial service held at Hellfire Pass to remember the men who died there.
The train leaves from just next to the River Kwai Bridge and runs to Nam Tok station, these days the end of the Death Railway. Along the way it crosses a long wooden viaduct that doesn’t look like it should support a party of monkeys, let alone a train, but seems to manage it OK.
Speaking of monkeys, I’ve heard (but not seen) that not far from Nam Tok station there’s a place where you can see literally thousands of wild monkeys! I plan to check it out if we get back there again, but I’d love to hear from anyone who has been there!
Just back a little from the bridge is a cluster of buildings containing a small food hall, a war museum, a viewing platform for the bridge itself, a museum of old jewellery and stamps, some rusty old trains that may or may not have run on the original Death Railway and, downstairs, a recreation of the original wooden rail bridge and some POW camp buildings.
Not much here unless you’re hungry, thirsty, or desperate for a film for your camera. Hardly worth the 30B entry fee (for the museum section anyway), but I guess it is an attempt to put the River Kwai Bridge into some appropriate historical context – and for that I applaud it.
- Erawan Falls – one of the biggest and most spectacular waterfalls in Thailand. While you’re there, have a swim!
- Taweechai Elephant Camp – one of many in the area, but one of the better places to have an elephant ride. It’s on the way to Erawan Falls.
- Amphoe Sri Sawat – visit the hill tribe people and buy some lovely handicrafts … and while you’re there, drop by Lumnam Jone, the head of the River Kwai
Places to stay around Kanchanaburi
If you’d like to spend a bit more time exploring Kanchanaburi and all the amazing historical and cultural places nearby, there are some good local hotels: