Our Kanchanaburi Travel Guide
Until a friend told us about it, we’d certainly never heard of Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
But when they mentioned The Bridge over the River Kwai my mind immediately envisioned those old World War 2 movies.
Most of us have heard and think we know something about that bleak time in history when thousands of prisoners of war were forced to build a railway bridge over the infamous River Kwai by the Japanese army but we had no idea that the River Kwai is in Kanchanaburi.
It sounded like a great learning opportunity and we had a spare week between being in Hanoi, Vietnam and travelling to Kathmandu, Nepal so it was as good a time as any to educate ourselves on these events in history and to explore this area of Thailand.
Bridge Over The River Kwai
Getting to Kanchanaburi by the Death Railway
The Bridge over the River Kwai was not the only thing built by WW11 prisoners of war.
They built what’s known as the Death Railway that ran from Thailand to Burma ( Myanmar ).
The best way to get a true insight into the history is to ride the railway from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi.
Finding the Thon Buri Railway Station in Bangkok is no easy feat.
We decided to get a taxi from our hostel to the station and negotiated a price with a driver.
Driving along in the taxi it soon became apparent that he didn’t actually know where we wanted to go and was heading in the direction of the main Bangkok Railway Station which is actually a long way from the Thon Buri Station.
There are only two trains a day from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi so if we missed our afternoon train we’d be stuck in Bangkok for the night.
Thinking quickly we asked our taxi driver to go to the Grand Palace, which was the nearest spot we could think of that is near to the Chao Phraya River.
The Thon Buri station is on the opposite side of the river to where we were.
We jumped out of the taxi near the Grand Palace and had to find our way to the river.
Managing to negotiate our way through the streets around the Grand Palace, we arrived at the ferry pier at the river just in time to board the next ferry.
Once on the opposite bank, we approached a tuk-tuk driver who had to ask his friends where the railway station was.
He agreed to take us but we seemed to go on a very strange route through underground car parks, then we drove right through the middle of some hospital grounds where patients where being stretchered across the street.
With only minutes left before the train was due to depart, we saw the railway line and knew we were close.
Indeed a couple of minutes later he dropped us outside the tiny station and we rushed in to buy our tickets.
We made it with only five minutes to spare.
Talk about cutting it fine.
We’d left the hostel two hours beforehand which should have been more than plenty.
Finding some seats we settled down, ready for the journey.
The train is very simple and basic with no air-conditioning apart from opening the windows or some ceiling fans that didn’t seem to work.
The seats are padded so that would make the 2.5 hours ride a bit more comfortable.
Thon Buri Railway Station
On Board The Train To Kanchanaburi
In 1942 the second World War was raging and the Japanese army had occupied Burma after defeating the British army there.
They needed to supply their troops and the sea route from Japan around the Malay peninsula was very susceptible to attack by allied submarines so they looked at other options.
Thailand was neutral in the war but Japan used its infrastructure as it pleased as Thailand was helpless.
The British had once drawn up plans for a railway from Thailand to Burma but decided the task was too difficult and scrapped the idea.
It was a very ambitious task as the Thai landscape was difficult terrain to build through.
Apart from the sweltering heat, mountains, jungles and rivers needed to be crossed.
The Japanese answer to this was to use labour in the form of over 250,000 South East Asians and 60,000 Prisoners of war ( POW’s ) from European countries and Australia to build it.
In September 1942 work started from the Burmese end and in November of the same year in Ban Pong, the Thai end.
Labour camps had been put in place and POW’s captured in the invasion of Singapore were transported North to work on the railway.
258 miles of track needed to be laid as well as 600 bridges built.
Conditions for the labour force were horrific.
Not only did they face malnutrition and physical abuse but the conditions were ripe for tropical disease to spread with Malaria, Cholera, Dysentery and tropical ulcers commonplace.
Leaving Thon Buri Railway Station
Our train rolled out of Thon Buri Station and through the outskirts of Bangkok.
It wasn’t long before we were travelling through the countryside passing small towns and villages.
Although we’d booked accommodation in Kanchanaburi we decided to get off the train at the next stop on which was the Bridge on the River Kwai station.
It was late afternoon as we stepped off the train and saw the infamous bridge down the line a bit further.
There are no restrictions about being on the bridge as a pedestrian so lots of tourists, Thai and foreigners alike were walking and taking pictures on the bridge.
There was even a wedding photo shoot going on right on the train tracks.
There aren’t many trains each day so its pretty safe to be on the bridge even when a train is crossing, it slows right down and you can stand in one of the safe areas.
We walked along the tracks and crossed the bridge.
Although the history is horrific many Thai tourists come here for the beauty of the area and not for the macabre events of the past.
The River Kwai Bridge
On The Bridge Over The River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai
A bridge needed to be built over part of the river that was then known as the Mae Klong River.
The river followed the valley of the Khwae Noi River.
This was most often mispronounced by the foreign labourers as Kwai so became wrongly named the River Kwai.
In Thail, Kwai actually means buffalo.
In 1960 because of the misunderstandings, the section of river that runs underneath the bridge was renamed as the Khwae Yai.
The bridge was first constructed of timber but soon replaced by a more modern concrete and steels bridge that still remains until this day.
Allied forces tried to bomb the bridge from the air many times but even when it was damaged, it was soon repaired again.
The bridge became world famous due to the book written by Pierre Boulle and the subsequent movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The Bridge On The River Kwai
After watching the sun go down over the Thai countryside we made our way to our accommodation.
We’d booked in at the Aajam Riverfront Resort, which sounded rather upmarket but wasn’t in the slightest.
It’s a simple and basic hotel with rooms set out on two levels but it does have a gorgeous location right on the river with a nice pontoon deck to have a meal or drink on, overlooking the water.
Sunset Over The Bridge
At Aajam River Front Resort With The River Kwai Behind Us
We left our hotel very early the next morning to catch the first train from Kanchanaburi Station at 6 am to Nam Tok which lies at the Northern end of the line.
As we walked through the dark side streets a pack of dogs ran out from the darkness and growled and snarled at us.
Luckily they didn’t attack us but it scared all three of us.
The train station was pretty deserted but a coach load of tourists soon turned up to break the quietness.
Right on time, the train pulled in and we boarded and found some seats in a nice quiet carriage.
There weren’t many people on the train despite the tourist group.
We set off through the countryside toward Nam Tok, 2.5 hours away.
The sun rose over the surrounding fields and the heat steadily climbed.
Annabel and I walked to the back of the train where we could get good photos out of the open back door.
Train To Nam Tok
View From The Back Of Train
The train ride to Nam Tok is a great journey.
The line follows the river and in one point the train has to slow to a crawl to traverse a cliff-hugging timber bridge with a steep drop to the river on one side.
You really get a feel of what an astonishing engineering feat this whole project was but at the cost of so many lives.
The Line To Nam Tok
The section of the line built through the Tenasserim Hills was particularly difficult to complete.
It was remote and the labour force didn’t have the proper equipment to cut through the rock.
The 4 km cutting was completed in an astonishing twelve weeks but with heavy loses.
Sixty-nine men were beaten to death by their Japanese guards and many more died from disease and malnutrition.
Men were made to work 18 hrs a day and the name Hellfire Pass came from the site of so many emaciated men working by torchlight which resembled a scene from Hell.
Today the pass is a walking trail and memorial to the men who lost their lives there.
The area had been almost lost and overgrown but when a former Australian POW., J G ( Tom ) Morris toured the area, he convinced the Australian government that a portion of the Death Railway should be preserved as a historical site.
Crossing One Of The Timber Tressel Bridges
Our train pulled into Nam Tok station and we stepped off into the blazing heat of the day.
After the war, the line was ripped up so it’s no longer possible to go all the way to Burma with Nam Tok being the last station.
Hellfire Pass was a short bus ride away so we made our way to the main road and waited by some local stalls selling handicrafts.
A stall owner assured us the bus would come soon.
After waiting what seemed like an eternity a friend of the stall owner came by and offered us a drive to the pass.
We gladly took him up on his offer and we drove off toward Hellfire Pass.
On the way, he stopped and bought us some fresh strawberries to share which was such a nice thing to do.
He dropped us nearby the entrance and we walked the rest of the way.
The Town Of Nam Tok
The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
The museum at the Hellfire Pass is a very modern building that houses images and stories about the experiences of men set to work on the Death Railway.
It gave us an idea of what went on and the conditions the men had to work in.
Outside the museum, a pathway drops down to the Pass itself and we started to walk along the trail.
The day was blisteringly hot and we got an idea of the conditions the men had to work in although the worst conditions they faced were actually in the wet season because it bought disease with it.
Is was a quiet day there with hardly anyone else on the trail.
As we approached the cutting itself we saw many British and Australian flags and small messages and memorials from relatives who had lost loved ones there.
The fact that men cut their way through this rock by hand with the simplest of tools, is staggering.
The heat was killing us and we weren’t doing anything other than walking.
It’s a sombre scene and you do get a sense of what the men who worked there had to go through during that horrific time.
The Peace Vessel At Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
Hammer And Tap Cutting
We planned to walk the whole trail but it was just to hot with the sun burning down so we turned around and made our way back to the museum.
We left the museum and made our way to the bus shelter out on the road, for the bus back to town.
Time went past and we continued to wait in the welcome shade.
At last a bus came along and we boarded for the short ride back to town and the train station.
A film crew were recording some sort of travel show at the station with two young guys as the show’s hosts, who continued filming all the way back on the train.
The carriages were much more crowded on the return journey.
About midway on the return journey the train came to a halt to change locomotives.
We had to wait for the train coming from Bangkok to pass as there are only certain points where the trains can pass as it’s a single track railway.
It gave us a chance to get off the train and stretch our legs.
We were actually there for well over an hour in the end.
On Board, The Train Back To Kanchanaburi
Arriving back at The Bridge on the River Kwai ( there is a station right by the bridge ), we walked the bridge again and were on it when another train passed over it.
It’s quite an experience being on the bridge with the locomotive and carriages passing within a few feet of you.
Back at the hotel, we sat out on the floating pontoon beside the tranquil river.
It really was a lovely spot with the odd longboat speeding past.
In the distance, we heard the thump, thump of music which gradually got louder.
We soon realised that a barge was coming up the river with loud party music blaring out.
Kanchanaburi is an odd place because on one hand you have the horrific history and the emotion of the place but then it’s also a Thai holiday destination in its own right so people come here to party and have a good time.
So sometimes you’ll see these party barges along the river with people dancing and partying hard which seem so out of context to the surroundings.
The barge passed and glided down the river with the thumping music fading into the distance.
The River Kwai
Thailand – Burma Railway Centre
In Kanchanaburi town, we found the Thailand – Burma Railway Centre.
The centre opened in 2003 to provide an unbiased, accurate account of the story behind the Thailand – Burma railway.
We actually found it much more interesting than the museum at Hellfire pass as it contained more information about the events and struggles of the period.
There are individual stories of survival as well as personal artefacts.
It really brings the struggle for survival alive in the stories and images.
It was surprising for us to learn that it wasn’t only POW’s that were used to build the railway.
In fact, they only made up a small percentage of the workforce.
South East Asian labour or rōmusha as they were known were mostly coerced into hard labour by the Japanese.
At first, the Japanese asked for volunteers but when it became obvious they would not get the number they needed to complete the railway, they used stronger tactics.
No one knows the true numbers of rōmusha but estimates are that maybe 250,000 or even up to 300,000 were put to work on the line.
They included Javanese, Malays of Indian origin, Burmese, Thai, Chinese and other nationalities.
We all know how badly the British, Australian and US POW’s were treated but even by their accounts, the rōmusha were much worse off.
Whereas the POW’s very often had doctors and other medical staff amongst there numbers to help with disease, the rōmusha had no one to help them fight illness.
Their living conditions were terrible, with no latrines what so ever and disease was rife.
These were the forgotten casualties of that dark period in history.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Also in town, the War cemetery stands testament to the lives that were lost in this area.
It’s the biggest of several cemeteries that were built to bury the men who lost their lives on the railway.
There are 6,982 graves containing the remains of British, Australian and Dutch POW’s.
Two of the graves contain the ashes of over 300 men who were cremated.
The numbers of men who died working on the railway and at the hands of the Japanese is staggering.
The railway took just over a year to build but in that time more than 12,000 Allied prisoners of war died.
And if you think that’s a lot then just think about this.
Approximately 90,000 civilian labourers (rōmusha ) also lost their lives.
But let’s not forget that out of the 12,000 Japanese ( including 800 Koreans ) that were there as guards, supervisors and engineers, 1000 of them also died.
The War Cemetary
Our time in this beautiful area of Thailand had come to an end as we boarded the train back to Bangkok.
Arriving late in the afternoon we made our way back to Pan Pan Hostel for one night before travelling to the airport for our flight to Kuala Lumpur and on to Kathmandu, Nepal for a whole new adventure.
Sunrise Over The Thai Countryside
We found our visit to Kanchanaburi a mixed experience.
It’s a lovely area to explore and if we’d had more time, there’s lots more to do in the surrounding countryside.
The history of the Death Railway is horrific but at the same time we learnt so much about the events of that time.
We think it’s important to have an idea of the past and what went on, however bad it may have been.
It can be difficult to read about the stories of what went on but it’s coming to places like this that brings history and the people who played a part, alive.
Riding the Death Railway is a great experience with it’s rickety old bridges, river views and basic conditions.
The Nitty Gritty
Getting to Kanchanaburi
We caught the train from Thon Buri station, Bangkok.
There are two trains a day from Bangkok to Nam Tok stopping at Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai station.
You could do a day trip but it would be pretty rushed.
Hellfire pass is another two hours train journey on from Kanchanaburi and once there you need to catch the bus to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum.
Kanchanaburi is very walkable and easy to navigate.
We stayed at the Aajam Riverfront Resort which is in a lovely position right on the riverbank and you can actually see the Bridge on the River Kwai from the property.
There are lots of places to eat in town.
Kanchanaburi has a main strip with most restaurants and cafes along it’s length.
Bridge Over The River Kwai