Tracing Thai war history in Kanchanaburi

In the bright light of day and the charming backdrop of a temple-side river, it’s almost inconceivable that there might have existed a time when that very landscape was bathed in the sacrifice of war-time martyrs. Peaceful as the verdant town of Kanchanaburi is, its World War II relics are a grave reminder of the fact that even the most peaceful parties are forced to take sides in an event of world-changing proportions.

Floating rooms at River Kwai Village Resort, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Floating rooms at River Kwai Village Resort, where I had a peaceful stay

On my second day in Bangkok, we decide to do a two-hour long road trip to Kanchanaburi, literally ‘golden city’. By train, the journey could take up to six hours, our guide cautions. But you would have the privilege of riding along the Death Railway, which owes its macabre name to the thousands of labourers and Prisoners of War (POW) who perished during its construction. Today, the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi is free for locals, which means you’ll be in interesting company during the long ride. Also called the Thai-Burma Railway, it passes through the Sai Yok Waterfall, Tham Krasae Cave Temple and the River Kwae Bridge, which is Kanchanaburi’s biggest claim to fame.

Train carriage at Sai Yok, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Carriage from the original Death Railway train at Sai Yok

Immortalised in Pierre Boulle’s book ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ and the film that came after, ‘kwai’ is actually a mispronunciation. While ‘kwae’ means tributary or branch, ‘kwai’ translates to ‘water buffalo’ in Thai!

River Kwae Bridge, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Bridge over the River Kwae

JEATH War Museum

JEATH War Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

One can perform a ‘war trail’ of sorts through Kanchanaburi, beginning with the JEATH War Museum, nestled in a cool green enclave with a serene waterfront that are in stark contrast to the grim stories within the museum’s corridors. To put things in perspective, Thailand maintained a position of neutrality until it was invaded by Japan in December 1941. Thereafter, the unfortunate chapters in its history unfolded.

Using black and white photographs, newspaper articles, videos and preserved relics spread across three bamboo huts, the JEATH War Museum paints a dark picture of the atrocities the Allied POW suffered while constructing the Death Railway. JEATH is an acronym that stands for the nationalities that participated in the construction work – Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland. What makes this museum more interesting than the larger Thailand-Burma Railway Museum despite its relative state of disrepair is its untouched nature. Looking at the frayed photographs and nearly illegible writings in this museum that was established in 1977, one almost feels like one has travelled back in time. Depicting everything from the sordid living conditions to the skin diseases that the soldiers had to work with, the images can be both disturbing and enlightening.

“They say that every sleeper on the Death Railway train is equal to one lost life,” our guide tells us. And despite the sorry tales of rice without salt for their daily meals and sleeping spaces that were merely 2.5 feet in width, marriages and love affairs between the Allied forces and the Thai locals abounded.

The serene waterfront at JEATH War Museum
The serene waterfront at JEATH War Museum

A map at the entrance to the museum reveals how the two streams of River Kwae (Kwae Noi, the small stream and Kwae Yai, the big stream) join to give shape to the Maeklong River. As you exit this repository of Thai war history, don’t miss the replica of the Three Pagodas that divide Thailand and Myanmar (Burma).

Don Rak War Cemetery

Don Rak War Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

There is something immensely personal about gazing upon someone’s headstone and learning the words that defined their lives. Rows and rows of neatly arranged headstones give Don Rak a peaceful symmetry. With 6982 burials, it is the larger of the two war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi. The smaller Chong Kai War Cemetery contains 1740 burials but these are just a fraction of the 61000 soldiers who died during the war. The headstones are interspersed with trees, flowers and the occasional flag, corresponding to the nationality of the soldier buried there. Established in January 1956, the cemetery is divided into sections based on nationality. The Australian and Dutch soldiers are on one side while the British soldiers are to the other. Only the Americans chose to take their deceased home.

According to our guide, the locals will try to spot shapes resembling numbers in the ‘holy trees’ at the cemetery and use them to buy lottery tickets.

En route to Don Rak Cemetery, you will pass by an older Chinese family cemetery, adjoined by a beautiful Mahayana temple that will tempt you to make a pit-stop.

A Mahayana temple next to Don Rak War Cemetery
A Mahayana temple next to Don Rak War Cemetery

Death Railway

Death Railway, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Beginning at Thonburi station in Bangkok and ending at Nam Tok station in Kanchanaburi, the train along the Death Railway is a must-do while in Kanchanaburi. It doesn’t matter where you alight; the fare is always 100 Baht only and even though seats are all 3rd class, the train is clean and makes for an enjoyable joyride through the countryside.

On my second day in Kanchanaburi, I visit Sai Yok Waterfall, which is just a trickle of water in January but offers an interesting trail along the railway line. There, we are so mesmerised by the carriage from the original Death Railway train that we end up being late for the elephant ride at Muang Singh Elephant Village and we miss our train from Thakilen station! What follows is a mad dash in our coach for the next station.

Elephant riding at Muang Singh Elephant Village
Elephant riding at Muang Singh Elephant Village

As we speed along the roadway, we can see the train snaking along besides us but the driver continues to put the accelerator to good use and we soon leave the train behind, making it to the next station with enough time to spare.

The scramble proves to be a worthwhile exercise when we find window-side seats on the train and watch the countryside and the river go by unhurriedly. It is quite thrilling to realise that we have been walking on these very tracks all this while. All the passengers rush to the right side of the coach to catch a glimpse of Tham Krasae Cave and the Buddha Temple within. On another day, we inspect its stalactites and stalagmites at leisure, also paying homage to the majestic Buddha presiding over the cool interiors of the cavern.

View from the Death Railway train, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

You can also take the train to Thakilen, the station for Muang Singh Historical Park, which once served as the western border of the Khmer in Thailand. The park complex is actually a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and also offers a good view of the Kwae Noi river. Most passengers board the train at the legendary River Kwae Bridge, where you can walk along the tracks with the river on either side and picturesque temples, restaurants and cottages along the way.

Tham Krasae Cave Temple
Tham Krasae Cave Temple

Fact file

How to reach: Drive down from Bangkok (2-2.5 hours) or take a train (5-6 hours).

Where to stay: River Kwai Village Resort, which offers beautiful floating rooms with a veranda that looks on to the river, mineral springs and spa and a host of adventure sports and activities.

What to eat: Keeree Tara, a riverside restaurant with exceptional Pad Thai, dry green chicken curry and prawns topped with tamarind sauce.

Keeree Tara restaurant
Keeree Tara restaurant

What to do: Apart from the war trail and elephant village, you can also go bamboo rafting, check out the organic farms at Tha Makham Agricultural Centre and explore the floating markets of Kanchanaburi.

Tha Makham Agriculture Centre
Tha Makham Agriculture Centre

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