Of Rivers and Railways: Exploring Kanchanaburi’s Torturous Past

After the stifling humidity and polluted streets of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is quite literally a breath of fresh air. It’s 130km west of Thailand’s capital city, in the fertile valley of the Mae Nam Klong, amid lush green hills and sugar cane plantations. Along the length of the Mae Nam Kwae, colourful wooden houses rest gently upon the water’s edge, and in the town itself you will find children playing on dusty street corners, and dogs lazing carelessly in the afternoon sun. The unmatched natural beauty of the area and relaxed pace of life, has made Kanchanaburi a popular destination for those seeking some solace from the hectic and overwhelming nature of city life in Bangkok.

However, this sleepy little town has history.

A history that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 men.

Whilst Asia remained largely unaffected during World War 1, the rise of the Japanese empire during the 1940’s plunged Thailand into a period of history for which Kanchanaburi would play a central role. Having entered World War 2 in December 1941, Japan swiftly occupied Singapore and large parts of the Malay Peninsula, and subsequently set about constructing a 145km railway through the mountainous jungle of Kanchanaburi,in order to transport supplies to Japanese soldiers in Myanmar – then known as Burma.

One of the first major obstacles in the railway’s construction was how to cross the Mae Nam Kwae (also known as the river Kwai; ‘Nam’ is Thai for ‘river’), and so the building of a bridge began, and that bridge – although having been destroyed and rebuilt since its original conception – still exists to this day, and is now an instantly recognisable icon from WWII history.

The Japanese army utilised Asian labourers (the majority of whom were Thai), as well as Allied Prisoners of War originating from the U.K, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S.A, in order to effectuate the construction of – what would later become known as – the “Death Railway.” A combination of appalling working conditions, brutal treatment by their captors, and the sheer difficulty level of the task in hand, gave the railway its name.

There were no motorised tools back then: 3 million cubic metres of rock were shifted and 14km of bridges built with little else but picks, shovels, pulleys and dynamite. The men were being forced to work 18-hour shifts, followed by night marches to the next camp and food rations were meagre. Many contracted diseases as a result, and died from dysentery-induced starvation, Malaria or Cholera. It is said that one man died for every sleeper that was laid on the track. There’s no firm evidence to substantiate this claim, but it’s a very poignant thought about a very harrowing section of history.

Kanchanaburi Today

Many stark reminders remain here, of the hardships these men endured, and the sheer number of lives the construction of the railway consumed.

The Jeath War Museum (an Acronym of Japan, England, America and Australia, Thailand, and Holland – the 6 countries involved in the construction of the railway) is a sobering place to visit.  It features a bamboo hut (built in the same style as the kind of accommodation the prisoners of war were housed in), which contains stories, eye-witness accounts, and newspaper clippings pertaining to the conditions the men were forced to work in, the horrific treatment of these men, and the enormous physical challenges they endured on a daily basis.  Due to the museum’s focus being on individual accounts as opposed to generalisations, a visit here takes you so much further than the flimsy walls of the building in which you stand.  It transports you to those harrowing moments of history; it grabs you, absorbs you, and moves you emotionally.

There are also two cemeteries in Kanchanaburi: the Allied War Cemetery (by the town’s train station) and Chungkai War Cemetery (a little out of town.)  I visited the former, where row upon row of immaculately tended headstones can be found.  Each grave is numbered,  giving a solemn perspective to the incredible loss of life that this project incurred.  However, with the knowledge that the construction of the railway claimed over 100,00 lives, comes the harsh realisation that the total number of graves here (of which there are 6982) account for less than 7% of those who died.

Thirdly there is of course the bridge itself.  Although the present day bridge is not the same one built by the prisoners of war and conscripted locals (that was was blown to pieces by the Allies towards the end of the war), it is still a bold and iconic reminder of Kanchanaburi’s painful history.

Whilst exploring the town’s history is a vital part of any visit to Kanchanaburi, it can be emotionally difficult and draining, and does detract from the spectacular beauty of the province.  A great way to appreciate Kanchanaburi’s present beauty, whilst at the same time learning about its harrowing past, is to take a tour of the area.  These can be booked through a number of travel agents in town, but I chose Toi Tours based upon a recommendation in my guidebook.

It was a full day tour, which ran from 8am until 6pm, and on the agenda was Hellfire Pass, Erawan National Park, Krasae Cave, Death Railway, and a train journey on said railway to reach the Bridge over the River Kwai in time to watch the sunset.

Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass is the name the Prisoners of War gave to the cutting at Konya, the largest of a 1km series of mountain cuttings, accomplished with only minimal equipment and by men working 16-18 hour shifts for 12 solid weeks.   Hellfire Pass is so named because of the way the flickering bonfire light lit up the faces of the emaciated workers.   An initial wander around the museum helps to set the scene for the subsequent walk along the pass itself.  The scenery that surrounds the path is nothing short of spectacular, in stark contrast to the sobering knowledge of what happened here several decades beforehand.

Erawan National Park

Erawan National Park is one of the most visited and most beautiful national parks in Thailand.  There are 7 tiered waterfalls, all of which feed into the Mae Nam Kwae Yai.  The top pool is a 2km hike from the base, and the last stretch is a difficult climb in the wet season, but so totally and utterly worth it.  The park gets its name from the fact that the uppermost pool is said to resemble Airvata (Erawan in Thai), who is the three-headed elephant of Hindu mythology.

It is possible to bathe is 5 out of the 7 pools.  Whilst bathing in the top pool is not very relaxing, it is a lot of fun.  Little fish nibble at your feet as soon you enter the water, and whilst it’s very good for your skin (they give you a natural exfoliation by removing the dead skin), it is extremely ticklish.  If you stay still in the water for long enough, you’ll quickly find these fish attaching themselves to your skin and sticking around until they’ve finished their meal.  It’s surreal and almost disturbing to look down at your legs through the surface of the water, and realise that you can’t actually see your legs through the mass of nibbling creatures upon them.

As well as bathing here, the Erawan National Park is a haven for wildlife.  Colourful butterflies flit around from tree to tree, and wild monkeys climb along the branches.  As long as you keep your distance from them, and keep any food you have locked away in your backpack, generally these monkeys will leave you alone.  They’re incredibly entertaining to watch and almost impossible to photograph.

Krasae Cave

This cave is located beside the surviving remnants of the railway, and was once where Prisoners of War rested to escape the stifling heat outside.  The cave now houses a shrine containing sacred Buddha images, and is regarded as a place of worship by visiting locals.

Death Railway

Putting its history aside, my journey along the Death Railway was one of my favourite parts of the day.  We boarded the train at Thamkra Sae, and travelled past countless sunflower fields and sugar cane plantations.  Unlike train travel in countries where there are strict health and safety regulations, here we could open the windows and admire the scenery whilst the cool breeze swept across our faces.  We stopped at tiny rural stations, where we watched small groups of school children disembark the train, their yellow and blue uniforms creating beautiful dots of colour along the dusty streets of the village through which they walked.

Bridge over the River Kwai

Without a doubt, this iconic bridge is the main tourist attraction in the town of Kanchanaburi.  The track has been developed to encompass walkways at either side, and viewing platforms, which are also useful for stepping into in order to avoid the tourist train which runs back and forth across the bridge at regular intervals.  There is also a small market nearby, and street vendors selling fresh coconuts, which they will slice open for you with a machete, and drop a straw in the top for your drinking pleasure.  I’m a huge fan of fresh, chilled coconut water on a swelteringly hot day.

One of the best spots to capture the bridge in all its glory is from the rooftops of the World War II Museum.  Whilst the museum itself is not really worth the entrance fee (it’s an odd mix of wartime artefacts and general bric-a-brac), the view from the rooftops most certainly is.

Having spent my first day in Kanchanaburi educating myself about the role the town played in the second world war, and attempting to come to terms with the suffering and loss that happened here, it was refreshing and uplifting to be able to break away from the boundaries of the past and to truly appreciate what the present-day province has to offer.

Beyond the darkness of the railway’s past you’ll behold a dense jungle of fertile vegetation interspersed with rivers and waterfalls.

Beyond the dark imposing rock faces of Hellfire Pass,  you’ll see miles upon miles of lush green vistas stretching out before you.  You’ll notice the beauty of the sunlight as it peers through the tall trees, and the shadows that it creates on the gravel beneath your feet.

Beyond the tracks of the ‘Death Railway’, you’ll witness scenes of rural life as they pass you through the open window, and whilst the cool breeze lifts your spirits and the warm sun touches your skin,  you’ll consider the bittersweet irony of how alive this makes you feel.

Kanchanaburi is so much more than the history that runs through its veins: a combination of the lazy character of the town, the attractive riverside setting, and the stunning landscapes that surround it in every direction, make it one of those places that you’ll find difficult to leave.

Footnotes

Kanchanaburi has a wealth of good quality cafes and restaurants, and no shortage of budget-priced accommodation for travellers.  The majority of this accommodation is in raft houses along the river.  On my first visit to Kanchanaburi I was travelling long-term and chose the slightly cheaper option of a bamboo hut on dry land at the picturesque, peacefully-located Sugar Cane 2 Guest House. However on my second visit I slept in a raft house at VN Guest House. It was a lovely sensation being rocked to sleep at night, and you can catch some beautiful sunsets over the river from the privacy of your own terrace.

The majority of eating and drinking establishments are located along Thannon Mae Nam Kwae, the ‘main’ road that runs parallel to the river.  Our favourites were Mangosteen Cafe (who serve some delicious, beautifully presented fruit-smoothies),  Sri Rung Reung (for some good quality, tasty, reasonably-priced Thai cuisine, as well as a good selection of local dishes), and the Buddha Bar, which is a laid-back, alternative kinda place, where you can laze amongst cushions scattered on rattan mats, and form new friendships over a nice cold beer.

There is also the night market, located near to the main train station, where you’ll be spoilt for choice with a vast array of tasty culinary options at rock-bottom prices.

**This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel**

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6 Responses to Of Rivers and Railways: Exploring Kanchanaburi’s Torturous Past

  1. Lauren March 14, 2014 at 3:34 AM #

    What an incredible journey! Thank you for the history lesson as well! I love that we can learn so much about the world’s past and present through traveling!

    • Kiara Gallop March 14, 2014 at 7:16 AM #

      Yeah, I probably know more about the history of the places I’ve travelled to than I do about my own country! I always like to learn a bit of background about the towns/cities/countries I choose to visit. Like you say as well, you learn so much about the world through travelling 🙂

  2. Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy March 21, 2014 at 6:01 PM #

    This place was already on my list but I didn’t know as much about it until now. Love the photos as usual! Can’t wait to be here myself in November. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler! 🙂

  3. Stefania - The Italian Backpacker March 22, 2014 at 11:54 AM #

    I’d love to explore this part of Thailand, it looks really relaxed!

  4. Jess March 23, 2014 at 4:21 AM #

    I’ve heard of the bridge, but somehow I’ve never really learned anything about the region’s history – it definitely sounds worth exploring, even though it’s a heavy subject. And the area is beautiful.

  5. seo July 26, 2014 at 4:49 AM #

    Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful post.
    Thank you for supplying these details.

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