Travel Report: Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
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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Thanks for reading!
Such a thorough review of a poignant piece of history Leighton. I’m glad you were able to view Kanchanaburi without swarms of tourists destroying its peace and solitude . I recall watching The Railway Man on board a flight somewhere. Marion
Thanks for your kind words Marion. I have such fond memories of traveling through this region of Thailand. Have a great week!
Hi mate, we also visited Kanchanaburi, last year – with real poignancy as I was able to visit the grave of a family member who died in those appalling conditions. You can find it on the link below, scroll down to where we leave Bangkok and you’ll find our thoughts too.
That’s amazing! I can’t even imagine how moving that visit must have been for you. I think it’s fantastic that you got to see Roland’s grave, a very special experience.
Much more emotional than I expected! But the mock-up POW camp down by the bridge is one of the most tasteless ideas/ tourist attractions I’ve ever seen.
Oh right, I didn’t see that, thankfully. I thought some of the cafes and their pumping dance music was bad enough.
A sobering place to visit for sure. So much death and suffering due to the greed and ego of mankind. Glad you were able to find a relaxing hike along the falls. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Thank god for the falls Allan, they gave the experience some balance. Thanks for reading!
I have wanted to visit the bridge on the river Kwai for a few years now, thank you for sharing such a beautiful report on it. Kanchanaburi seems utterly fascinating – and those waterfalls! Great article, I really enjoyed reading you.
Hey Francesca, thanks for this lovely feedback, I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. This is my favourite region of Thailand, this I’m just as excited about putting out my next Thai location on Wednesday. Thanks again.
What a day of contrasts – war cemeteries and waterfalls. Personally, I prefer the beauty of the falls. The tree shrine with women’s dresses was a new one for me.
Yeah, I’d never seen a dress tree shrine, that was a first!
I have watched the old movie about the building of that bridge but to watch the movie while by the river must have been a very moving experience. I’m glad that you balanced the historical heaviness with the uplifting beauty of the park. Such beautiful pictures of the many waterfalls!
Yeah, I think the day at the park exploring those waterfalls was much needed after all that grim history. Thanks for getting in touch again, really appreciate your readership.
I am struck by how beautiful it is, contrasted to the horrors that took place there. It must have been a very ‘mixed emotions’ visit, and a very special place to see.
I think that contrast between present day beautiful and the horrors of the past has always been a tough one to reconcile with. From The Killing Fields in Cambodia to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial in China and beyond it always seems to be like this. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, it means a lot.
It does, you’re right. It is terrifying what people have done to each other over the years – and sadly still continue to do. But it’s part of the reason to travel – to see the bad, not just the good. Of course, your blog is amazing and I learn so much from it 🙂 Have a good week!
I love that you always incorporate the rich history of the place in your travel stories. Great read and beautiful photos! I love the bridge and the place overall! Thank you for sharing, Leighton!
Appreciate that Marron, glad you liked the article.
From the picturesque VN Guesthouse (although the stench and mosquitos certainly don’t sound appealing!) to the milky pool of the waterfalls, you covered a TON during your time in Kanchanaburi! Looks like it was an enriching blend of nature and history, the latter which is sadly tragic…Bridge 277 reminds me of a more-austere Sanxiantai Dragon Bridge in Taiwan and the Chinese graveyard is a colorful, rather quirky sight to the eye. This appears to be a fruitful time there, and I’d be keen on checking out this part of Thailand someday!
Just had a look at Sanxiantai Dragon Bridge. That’s quite a structure and actually reminds me of the so-called Dragon Bridge in Danang, Vietnam. Glad you enjoyed Kanchanaburi!
Awesome read! I love the fact that you are watching the film, Bridge Over The River Kwai and then looking at the actual river, that must have been a great experience. BTW, your photo’s are great! Especially the cemetery and waterfall ones.
That’s some very kind feedback, thanks. It was hard work getting those old photos into shape, but worth the effort in the end.
Too true. Photos I’ve taken before 2014 need extra work as they are so low quality due to lack of pixels 🙂
A very thorough review of this historical and lovely spot. If I ever get back to Kanchanaburi, I will have to check out the place where you can get drunk for 10 baht (about 30 cents US). Oh and Erawan National Park would be great to see, too.
I’m sure there’s a free bar stool with your name on it! Thanks for catching up with my recent Thai installments.
I love your pictures so much. It is something about the quality. I feel like I am looking through a personal photo album. What kind of camera do you use?
Aw, thank you so much. During this period I was using a Sony Cybershot. If truth be told I didn’t know how to use it properly and those original shots were pretty average. It’s only now, as I go back and put these articles out, that I have managed to clean them up by adding brightness, a warm filter (usually) and a bit of touching/cropping.
Well, I really like the effect and feel of them. I mostly noticed it in your Kep series! I loved the photo quality in all those posts.
Ahhhh, now that’s a different kettle of fish. And you may be disappointed with my answer ha ha! I use… a… -dramatic pause- iPhone Max. Disappointed? Seriously, I love the photos my iPhone takes and in truth it’s a lot less work for my editing process.
Hey!!! Whatever works, works! I also use my phone so no dissapointment here!
A terribly sad story of the bridge and the almost countless deaths involved in its construction. Kudos to you for visiting the cemeteries. The sadness was washed away in those gorgeous waterfalls. Glad you got a swim in!
Thanks for catching up with my Thai reports Ruth!
You’re very welcome! I enjoy your stories.
Beautiful waterfalls and nature….💕💕
Thanks for reading!
This is such an amazing place rich with interesting background. Only if travel restrictions are lessened, will definitely put Thailand on the place I will visit next. Anyway, for now, big thanks for giving us a virtual tour of this beautiful paradise.
Thanks for reading and following!
Brilliant work my friend, glad I discover your blog.
Thanks for getting in touch!
Awesome article and fantastic pictures, especially the last two from the waterfalls.
Kanchanaburi has been a place I’ve been itching to visit as well, just haven’t made my way yet. Hopefully once COVID is over.
What, for you, was the highlight of your trip in Kanchanaburi? And I’m eager to hear about Sangkhlaburi.
P.S. Thanks for the tip about Hellfire Pass, I’ll be including that in my itinerary.
Hey Kyle, thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. My favourite thing about Kanchanaburi is definitely all the war history, even though much of it is gruesome. Everything about the town seems to revolve around the river and its famous bridge, both of which are very handsome.
Thanks for reading!