Kanchanaburi and its WWII Memorials
Kanchanaburi is a small province found to the west of Bangkok. It is perhaps most famous for the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ which is found at the north end of the town. However, it also has a number of other very good memorials which are well worth a visit. We really wanted to go here having just started reading ‘The Railway Man’. We loved it so much we ended up staying much longer than we planned!
A (Very) Brief Background
During the Japanese invasion of Asia in WWII they needed a way to transport troops and supplies between Thailand and Burma. Despite the Allies rejecting a similar project earlier it was decided that the best way to do this was build a railway through the treacherous terrain starting at Bangkok and finishing at Rangoon in Burma. A total distance of around 415km.
The Japanese used forced labour to complete the project – 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 POW’s were put to work on building the railway. The workers suffered through appalling work and camp conditions, backbreaking labour, extremely harsh treatment and over-zealous punishment from the Japanese captors. As a result around 90,000 Asian labourers and over 12,000 Allied POW’s lost their lives as a direct result of the project. The dead POWs included 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and about 20 POWs from other British Commonwealth countries.
The Bridge over The River Kwai
The Bridge over The River Kwai can be reached fairly easily from the center of Kanchanaburi. We walked from our hotel to the bridge which took around 30 minutes. The bridge itself is still in use by trains but is open for you to walk across, with viewing platforms at regular intervals. The trains are limited to 10km/h when going over the bridge and you have plenty of warning of one approaching! It is a must-see if you’re in Kanchanaburi but it can be very busy. If you’re hoping to take some photos you might struggle to get any that aren’t full of tourists… I did manage to take the header photo of Lisa here which is one my favourites from our travels so far.
The Thailand – Burma Railway Center Museum
The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is located in the centre of Kanchanaburi. It’s found just over the road from the War Cemetery, close to the train station. It is a really interesting and well laid-out museum, small enough to make everything well worth a look. The exhibits include letters and first-hand accounts from the POW’s which are very moving. It’s only 120 baht to enter which includes a free coffee in the cafe at the end. It’s a must-see if you have any interest at all in the history of Kanchanaburi and its part in WWII.
The War Cemetery
Just over the road from the Museum is the War Cemetery. An impeccably kept and very respectful place to honour some of the soldiers who lost their lives in the construction of the railway. Walking around here and reading the dedications on the headstones is again a very moving experience.
Hellfire pass is located in Nam Tok which is (or should be) around a 2 hour train journey from Kanchanaburi along the Thailand – Burma railway itself. On the journey you’ll go over the River Kwai Bridge and the Wang Pho viaduct which is a piece of the original track built by the POW’s during the war.
Unfortunately when we went our train was delayed by 90 minutes then took an additional 30 minutes to reach Nam Tok. Sadly this is by no means an uncommon occurrence in Thailand. This meant instead of arriving in Nam Tok around 12:30 we actually arrived closer to 2:30 and hardly had any time left to visit Hellfire Pass.
Once in Nam Tok you’ll need to get a short taxi ride to the bus stop – we paid 20 baht – then wait for the local bus to get to Hellfire Pass for 30 baht. Alternatively you can get a taxi directly from Nam Tok station but I’m not sure how much extra you would pay for this. It may be a good option if you have limited time and can get a reasonable price though. We ended up with about 45 minutes to see the pass which was enough time to have a quick look around the museum and then walk down to the first part of the pass itself. Unfortunately you really need more time to get the most out of your visit here so it was hard to really soak up the atmosphere of the place.
I would say that it is worth the trip if you can get the train on time or take another more punctual mode of transport there. If you’re planning on taking the train have a backup plan if there’s a significant delay as you’ll struggle to get the most out of the experience.
Once you’ve finished viewing the museum there is a bus back to Kanchanaburi you can catch from just over the road from the entrance, we caught the last one which should arrive 5pm but arrived about 5:25pm. It’s 50 baht and takes just over an hour to get back to Kanchanaburi.
We loved the town of Kanchanburi and really enjoyed our time here, the only downside was the transport for Hellfire Pass which was a shame. We also visited the Erawan National Park and Elephant Sanctuary whilst here which we’ll write about soon so keep an eye out!