Travel Report: Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
April 2015. The minibus from Ayutthaya to Kanchanaburi took just over two and a half hours. For the most part the journey played out on a featureless motorway, with little in the way of picturesque landscapes. Hence I opted to switch off for a while with back-to-back episodes of Breaking Bad.
By the time I arrived it was mid afternoon and the weather was overcast and warm, but with little of the usual humidity. Thus I was happy enough to map out a walking route to VN Guesthouse, my Kanchanaburi digs. Sat right on the Khwae Yai River, better known as The River Kwai, I’d been excited about the guesthouse ever since I’d seen it online.
Unfortunately, my double room with ensuite bathroom didn’t quite match the romance of the location. Rather, I found myself uninspired by the stench of fetid water and a couple of buzzing mosquitoes.
Not that it was going to spoil my mood! After all, I had come to Kanchanaburi for the history connected to its famous river. So I freshened up, grabbed my Mac and made tracks for VN’s waterside restaurant.
I’d planned that first night in Kanchanaburi months before my arrival in Thailand. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to see and cross the town’s infamous Death Railway Bridge, situated forty minutes downstream on foot. Built by the Japanese during World War II using prisoners of war and Asian slaves, the bridge stands as a fascinating albeit macabre piece of history.
But that, I decided, could wait for the following morning. First, I was going to chill out on the restaurant balcony and soak in those river views. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, I ordered dinner, turned on my Mac and began watching the 1957 Oscar-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Starring Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins, director David Lean’s film is a fictionalised account of the bridge’s construction. In the movie, the POWs do their best to slow down and sabotage the building of the bridge. At the same time, a British Commando mission unfolds to blow the bridge up, unbeknown to both the Japanese and their prisoners.
I cannot overstate what a cool experience it was watching the movie that evening at VN Guesthouse. Every now and then I’d hit pause, take a swig of my beer and gaze out across The River Kwai. It was a truly calming scene, especially during sunset when the pervading gloom found itself suddenly lit up with streaming bars of reflected orange.
The River Kwai.
The next morning I set off towards Kanchanaburi’s real life bridge on the River Kwai. Known in its day as Bridge 277, construction began in September 1942 over the town’s Mae Klong River. In fact, the only reason it’s now called The Kwai is because the Thai government renamed the river as a result of the film’s huge popularity.
Using steel and concrete (not timber and stone as depicted in the movie), it took the construction team around eight months to finish the bridge. It’s hard to know how many POWs worked on the bridge, as the number seems to vary greatly from source to source.
However, historians estimate the Japanese employed around three hundred and thirty thousand forced labourers across the so-called Death Railway, a 415km supply line between Bangkok and Rangoon in Burma.
Most of these workers were actually Asian slaves. Of those, they reckon ninety thousand died, in addition to around thirteen thousand POWs. That’s roughly one life for every rail laid according to local Thai information.
Despite suffering considerable damage, the bridge managed to survive numerous air raids throughout 1945. And then it fell into Allied hands, shortly before the end of the war. In 1947 the rail network closed, while the bridge underwent some much needed restoration in the mid 1950s.
Today it stands fully restored, complete with original curved spans imported by the Japanese from Indonesia. What’s more, there are even passenger trains that pass through several times a day on the way from Bangkok to the town of Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi.
I was lucky in that it was pretty quiet on the day of my visit. So much so that I was able to get a photograph without people lingering in the background. Moreover, I could drink in the views peacefully, including a handsome, Chinese style Buddhist temple on one of the riverbanks.
From the bridge I set off on the thirty five minute walk to Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, an allied forces graveyard maintained by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The route took me right through the town’s main drag, a familiar setup of dubious hostels and 7-Elevens. Passing one of the street’s many bars, I caught sight of a chalkboard sign promising patrons they could “get drunk for ten Baht!”
Shortly before reaching the cemetery, I came across a somewhat wild and sprawling Chinese graveyard. There was no English and little in the way of online info regarding its history. Nevertheless, I took the time to saunter between the litter-strewn tombs, many of which were set around a series of grassy mounds.
In stark contrast, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery was immaculate. Designed by the renowned British architect Colin St Clair Oakes, it opened in 1957 as a final resting place for 6,982 prisoners of war.
Nearly half of those interred here are British, many of whom were found buried along the south section of The Death Railway.
The British section takes up the entire right side of the cemetery. There’s also a Dutch area (around 1900 graves) and a smaller number of Australian headstones.
The front left area houses two graves containing the ashes of three hundred cremated men. They died of Cholera during an epidemic that spread among the rail workers in May and June of 1943. Interestingly, the cemetery doesn’t contain any American graves. This is due to the fact that all identified US prisoners were returned home.
As with the bridge, I was mostly alone that afternoon in the cemetery, which definitely added to the overall poignancy. In that perfect silence, it was hard to imagine a better tribute to those who had died here.
Strolling across the manicured lawn with its fabulous trees and trimmed hedges, I concluded my visit at the marble memorial, with its promise that “Their glory shall not be blotted out”.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
Just across the road, literally under a dozen steps from the cemetery, stands The Death Railway Museum. Privately funded and managed by an Australian historian by the name of Rod Beattie, this is where one discovers just how awful conditions were for Kanchanaburi’s prisoners of war.
Through archive video footage, black and white photos and dioramas, I realised The Bridge on the River Kwai had spectacularly failed to address the true misery of the times. How Japanese guards routinely tortured their workers. That their rations included spoiled meat and rat droppings. How malaria, cholera and tropical ulcers were rampant throughout cramped living quarters.
In this regard, the 2013 film The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, does a better job of depicting the harsh reality of life as a Death Railway prisoner.
The next day I felt I needed a change of tone. Sometimes there’s only so much human tragedy one can inhale before it begins to sour the mood. So I opted to jump on a local bus and make the one hour journey to Erawan National Park.
Named after Erawan, the three-headed elephant of Hindu mythology, the park boasts 550 square kilometres of mixed deciduous forest. I had come to negotiate a key part of it, namely an ascending walking trail that passes through seven tiers of stunning waterfalls.
It was a scorching hot day and yet cool beneath the jungle’s canopy as I began my hike. Within just ten minutes I’d reached the first waterfall, an idyllic scene of cloudy water, huddled fish and frolicking children.
The trail, although testing and wild at times, clearly marks the route, so I had no trouble getting from fall to fall. The second waterfall sat empty, not a person or sound to be heard, except of course for the gushing water. This was the calm I’d been anticipating after my day taking in the Death Railway sights.
Waterfall three was a bit crazy, with over a dozen Thai tourists splashing and whooping. Their voices reverberating across the lagoon and up into the treetops, I decided to push on.
It turned out to be a wise decision. Waterfall 4, with its natural rock slide, sat largely deserted, except for myself and an American hiker. So we hung out for a bit, sharing travel stories and trying out the slide.
The journey down the waterfall took just a few seconds but was nothing short of exhilarating. I remember feeling the mossy slime on my back as I sat down and then an almighty splash as I crashed into the cool water.
Erawan National Park.
The hike soon got steeper and steeper, while the signs became less frequent. Scrambling up a muddy slope, we crossed a creaking wooden bridge, before eventually arriving at Waterfall 5. But it was crowded, and perhaps the least impressive of the falls thus far, so we kept on going.
Just before arriving at Waterfall 6, we stopped at a sacral tree shrine decorated with a variety of women’s dresses and scarves. A bit of online digging revealed there are several such shrines throughout the forest, which stand in tribute to a tree goddess called Ta Kien Tong.
Waterfall 6 was absolutely gorgeous. A tiny thing with clouds of water quietly bubbling into the perfectly clear, aquamarine pool. For me, perhaps the best Kodak moment of the day.
I was exhausted by the time… at long long last… we reached the seventh and final waterfall. It had been tricky to find, but in the end we simply followed the sound of voices. For those last few yards we really had to fight our way through an overgrown path of wild bushes and invasive branches.
The waterfall itself was somewhat modest. But it was the deep pool, covered by thick greenery, that stole the show. Dripping with sweat, I lowered myself in and let out a deep sigh.
Inhabited by just a few pockets of whispering hikers, the pool experience was magnificent. Particularly when I swam over to the small limestone cave with its slimy walls trickling with water.
I recall being back at VN Guesthouse that night tucking into a bowl of seafood noodle soup. It was deliciously eggy, served in a rich tomato sauce. I’d had an amazing time in Kanchanaburi, but was simply itching with impatience to hit my next destination, the isolated reservoir outpost of Sangkhlaburi.
As I wrap up this report, six years later, I’m left regretting my decision not to stay an extra day. There are a few more World War II sights I should have ticked off. Particularly Hellfire Pass, a rugged four kilometre trench on the Death Railway that the POWs somehow carved out by hand. A solid reason, I guess, to go back one day.
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