Rivers, bridges and dragon-mouth temples in Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi is one of our favourite towns in Thailand, and we’ve been several times. It’s got fascinating history and beautiful scenery and is a lovely place to hang out for a few days to escape the intensity of Bangkok. When my parents came over in October, it was one of the places we wanted to show them. In our opinion, it’s a must include on anyone’s South East Asian Itinerary
Kanchanaburi and the Thai-Burma Railway.
While you may not have heard of Kanchanaburi, you’re more likely to know of its famous landmark – the Bridge on the River Kwai. During the 2nd World War, both Thailand and Burma were invaded by Japan, and the occupiers wanted to build a railway to transport supplies and troops between the two countries. The proposed railway passed through mountains and jungle and crossed several rivers, so was considered nearly impossible to build. However, build it they did, with the enforced labour of many allied prisoners of war and recruited South East Asian labourers.
The railway is now known as the Death Railway, because of the sheer number of deaths during its construction. Many construction camps were set up along the railway’s route and conditions were harsh. It was hot and humid, there was not enough food, disease was rife and the workers were badly treated by the guards.
Around 12,000 prisoners of war died building the railway. However, it is not known exactly how many local workers died. It’s thought that it could be as many as 90,000. While some of these Asian labourers offered to work on the project, many were forced into it and sometimes kidnapped.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The bridge from the film was built to cross one of the many rivers along the route, and was apparently quite a feat of engineering. However, there are a few facts about it that are not so well-known.
It’s not the original bridge
The original bridge, which was made of wood, was bombed by the allied powers and the replaced the current iron construction.
The bridge doesn’t cross the River Kwai
The river that the bridge crosses was actually called the Mae Klong (not to be confused with the Mekong). The River Kwae (see below) was a separate tributary of the Mae Klong. In the 1960s, after the popularity of the film, the two rivers in Kanchanaburi were renamed River Kwae Noi and River Kwae Yai (big and little River Kwae).
It’s not called the River Kwai
‘Kwai’ is apparently a mistake in pronunciation. In Thai it’s pronounced ‘Kwae’ like in ‘care’.
None of this takes away from the fact that the bridge that is there now, over the renamed River, popularly known as the River Kwai by foreigners, is a spectacular site.
You can walk across the bridge. When we first visited, there were no barriers to stop you falling off and into the water, which was quite disconcerting. Now there are barriers it feels much safer. A couple of times a day, a train crossed the bridge, meaning you have to get off (although it’s not very fast so there’s plenty of time) and it’s packed with tourists all trying to get a photo of the train crossing the bridge.
Riding a train on the Death Railway
As I said above, some of the railway is open and you can travel by train along it. The stretch between Bangkok and Nam Tok (‘waterfall’ in Thai) is working, although the track north of that and over into Burma has been closed. This means you can actually travel from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and beyond by train. The Man in Seat 61 website gives information about how to do this.
We traveled on the train as part of a day trip from Kanchanaburi. We got on the train at Tham Krasae (Krasae Cave), where there is a cave with Buddha statues inside. Here the railway passed over the Wang Pho Viaduct, a wooden bridge which clings to the side of a cliff. You can walk along the viaduct, but the reason for getting the train from here is to actually travel across the viaduct, with the river below. It’s really amazing.
The train itself is old-fashioned, with wooden seats and slide-down windows to lean out of. It’s cooled by fans and women wander through, selling various snacks and drinks. We only stayed on the train for a couple of stops, before getting off and back into our tour minibus.
Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi
We drove to the end of the line – Nam Tok. As I said, it means ‘waterfall’ in Thai, because it’s the location of the Sai Yok waterfalls. Photos suggest that this is quite spectacular during the wet season. However, when we visited in October, it was quite dry and not very impressive. The blues and greens of the water and surrounding vegetation were lovely, but it would have been nice to see a bit more water.
The first time we went to Kanchanaburi, we visited Erawan falls as part of a day trip. This seven-tiered waterfall has pools at each level which we swan in and got our feet nibbled by little fish.
Both waterfalls are national parks, so if you go independently, you need to pay entry fees. We got that as part of the tour.
The Death Railway and Hellfire Pass
Past Nam Tok, the railway passed through mountainous areas which required the construction of rock cuttings. Holes were made in the rock faces so explosives could be put in to blow up the sections. This was known as ‘hammer and tap’ and work went on day and night. Lit by candles, hot and noisy, this led to the name ‘Hellfire Pass’ to describe the hell-like conditions for those working there.
The railway going through Hellfire Pass has now been taken up and there is a visitors centre there, partly funded by the Australian government, because of the large numbers of Australian prisoners of war who worked on, and died on, the building of the railway.
Inside the building, there are interesting displays on the Death Railway and Hellfire pass. You get an audio tour which takes you around (if you give your passport, or a copy of it, with a deposit). After this, it takes you outside and down to the Pass itself. The cutting is high (17 meters apparently) and as we walked through, looking up at the top, it was hard to imagine how they had built it more or less by hand. Along it, you can see holes in the rock from the ‘hammer and tap’, and various memorials to those who died.
There are several walking routes through the jungle, but as we were on a tour with limited time, we could only do the shortest one. We did opt to walk back along the route the workers would have used, rather than back through the Pass. This steep climb was hot and humid and it was humbling to think of how the workers would have felt. We imagined them after a 16-18 hour shift of hard, manual labour, after the minimum amount of food, exhausted and often sick.
Jeath War Museum in Kanchanaburi
As well as the Hellfire Pass museum, there are two more museums in Kanchanaburi town, dedicated to the memory of those who died on the Death Railway. The nearest to the Bridge is the Jeath War Museum, which stands for Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland, the five nationalities mainly involved in the railway’s construction.
The museum is built in the grounds of a Buddhist temple and was created by local Thais. It’s quite an eclectic collection, with a display of archeological finds, life-sized statues of figures from history such as Hitler and Mussolini opposite similar statues of Thai Kings, a helicopter and plane, and photos and documents from the building of the railway. There are trucks used to transport prisoners to the camps, clocks found near the camps, weapons and bombs and oddly, a display of alcohol with a warning against drinking.
At the entrance, there’s a locomotive that was used in the original railway.
Thai-Burma Railway Museum and Research Centre in Kanchanaburi
Towards the south of the Bridge and overlooking a cemetery is the Thai-Burma Railway Museum. After the war, the whole area was full of mass graves of those who had lost their lives during the building. Individuals from various countries returned to the area to work on digging up the graves, identifying the dead and reburying them in one of several war cemeteries. One of these cemeteries is in front of this museum. Privately funded researchers into the railway and its dead have set up the museum to tell the story.
We had visited this museum the first time we went to Kanchanaburi, but it was no less interesting the second time. This museum is more modern than the Jeath War Museum and has a lot of interactive displays and films explaining what happened during the building of the railway. Families of those who died, and some who survived, have donated things such as uniforms, photos, letters, and possessions. It’s very powerful and sombre. The tour of the museum ends overlooking the cemetery, and when you imagine that the very people described in the museum are lying below you, it’s very sad.
Buddhist Temples in Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi is not all about the war. As I said above, there are some beautiful waterfalls and the setting next to the river is beautiful. There are also a couple of cool temples in the area which are worth a visit. I’d read about them on the One Step 4Ward travelblog and wanted to check them out. We got a songthaew (an open-sided truck, common in Thailand. Songthaew basically means ‘two benches’) for 800 baht from the hotel to take us to both temples and wait for us to bring us back.
The first stop was Wat Tham Khao Noi and Wat Tham Sua, set on the top of a hill. There seems to be a selection of different temples and shrines on the site, including a large golden Buddha statue and a tower which you climb up, with images of Buddha and various wars painted on the sides on each floor.
We climbed the stairs to the temples, as there was a huge queue for the cable car and we were feeling fit. The view from the top was amazing, over the green fields and forests, and it was full of Thais making offerings of incense and flowers to the Buddha image, and buying and adding thin strips of gold to the statue.
There was more stair-climbing at the second temple, Wat Ban Tham – also known as the Dragon Temple, for pretty obvious reasons. The bottom of the temple is a huge dragon’s mouth, which you walk into and up steps in its body. It’s really cool. The steps go up and up to the top of the mountain. There are various shrines and caves on the way up, to take a rest and get your breath back.
Kanchanaburi can be done on a daytrip from Bangkok, but it’s well-worth spending more time in. We spent a lovely couple of days exploring the area and enjoying dinner and drinks by the river at night. It was the third or maybe even fourth time we’ve been there, and we’d still go back for more.
Nuts and Bolts
Travel to Kanchanaburi
We were on a trip with my parents, so we splashed out and got a private minibus to drive us from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. We paid 1100 baht and it was worth it for four of us, given the space and comfort we got. It took about 3 hours, including a toilet break.
The first two times we went to Kanchanaburi, we went by bus. Buses go from the Southern Bus Station- Sai Tai Mai, which is in Pinklao, on the other side of the river from the city centre. It’s easy to get a taxi out there, but it does take a while. Minibuses also go from there. They don’t go from Victory Monument anymore. Buses are less than 150 baht. You can get buses from a variety of other places around Thailand. Travelfish has more details.
As I said above, you can also get the train to Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok beyond, from Thonburi railway station, which is again on the other side of the river. There are only two trains a day, at 7.50am and 13.55.
Getting around Kanchanaburi
To get to the temples, our hotel arranged for a songthaew – an open sided truck with seats – to take us. You can also hire an air-conditioned minibus if you want a bit more comfort, but that’s more expensive. When we were going out at night, the hotel arranged for a Kanchanaburi-style tuk-tuk to take us. This was basically a motorbike with a cage on the side with seats.
It’s easy to hire a motorbike or bicycle to tour the area, but if you do hire a motorbike, check the conditions of your insurance. If you have an accident and you don’t have a license and/or you’ve been drinking, you may not be insured. For more on this, read our post on travel insurance.
Accommodation in Kanchanaburi
We stayed at the Sabai@Kaan resort because it was recommended by a friend. We had a big double room with en-suite bathroom, TV, and air-conditioning on the second floor, overlooking the garden. The ground floor rooms have terraces too. There’s a swimming pool in the garden, which was great to chill out after climbing up to see all those temples. Agoda.com. We paid 4,500 baht for three nights.
We’ve stayed in a couple of other places when we’ve been before. There are some cool floating guesthouses on the river, where you can stay on a raft. We also stayed at another place in the countryside next to the river. If you’re a backpacker, there are plenty of cheap hostels as well.
Eating and Drinking in Kanchanaburi
The main road running parallel to the river has lots of eating and drinking places. There are also some lovely places next to the river. We had dinner one night at Blue Rice by Apple and Noi, at the other side of the river. The views were lovely and the staff looked after us really well, even recommending some different dishes to try. And yes, the rice was blue.
We also had drinks at Good View Resort, which lived up to its name. One night we fancied a break from Thai food and ate in Bell’s Pizzeria, which was also very good.
Tours in Kanchanaburi
We organised a one day tour visiting Sai Yok waterfalls, Hellfire Pass and a ride on the Death Railway through our hotel. There are travel agents all over the town selling similar tours, so we just booked through our hotel. We paid 800 baht each.
What to read before you go to Kanchanaburi
The Railway Man is an account of a British prisoner of war working on the Death Railway. It’s also been made into a film. Although the Bridge on the River Kwai film has been heavily criticised for its telling of the story, e.g. it doesn’t make the horrific conditions of the prisoners clear at all, it’s worth watching.
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