Thailand’s Historic Kanchanaburi

Thailand’s historical Kanchanaburi bears witness to the ugly and shocking treatment of POWs during WWII and this is why…

Updating the Kanchanaburi post and splitting it into two parts for your easy reading.

In this Part 2 of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi, I share ‘the bad and the ugly’ of Kanchanaburi’s history during WWII. In Part 1 of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi, I share ‘the good’ of where Kanchanaburi is located in Thailand, how to get there from Bangkok, where to eat, and where to sleep.

Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia

What to see in Kanchanaburi?

Renowned for its untamed jungle but mostly, for the heinous part that it played in the inhumane treatment of Prisoners Of War (POW) during WWII, Kanchanaburi holds many dark and historical memories.

Most travellers visit Kanchanaburi to see the famous Bridge over River Kwai or the Death Railway, although there are several other historical sites.

Kanchanaburi War and Chungkai Cemeteries

Not only is Kanchanaburi a striking town where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers converge, but everyone should visit the Kanchanaburi War and the Chungkai Cemeteries so that this abhorrent and grisly chapter in history is never forgotten.

Chungkai Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia
Entrance

During WWII, the Japanese army force-built the infamous Thailand–Burma Railway along steep river cliffs and cut through virgin dense jungle, at the horrid treatment and sacrifice of thousands of POW lives.

Kanchanaburi, cemetery
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

While at the cemetery, take time to read the heartfelt Epitaphs from remaining family members, which are sure to bring a tear to the eye.

Kanchanaburi, cemetery
Nothing has changed in over 70 years!

During the 2014 visit to the cemetery, a photoshoot was taking place with the model wearing outlandish and vibrant pyjamas. Not only was this bad taste but considering the location, tacky and a lack of respect.

Kanchanaburi, cemetery
In loving memory…

The four people showed no consideration for this cemetery and its history. Instead, laughing loudly and carried on as if this site was similar to a pub and not such a sombre place. I was compelled to say something but refrained. I am not sure whether locals would appreciate foreigners behaving the same in a Thai cemetery.

Tip

For a more private experience, try to visit the Kanchanaburi War cemetery in-between the numerous tour groups and buses, or at least wait until everyone leaves if you can.

Bridge over River Kwai (Khwae Yai Bridge)

Disappointed but also amazed to finally see this bridge over the River Kwai after hearing so much over the years about the bridge.

The bridge’s history is so memorable that Hollywood also made it even more famous and everlasting with the 1957 movie: The Bridge over River Kwai; albeit, the movie is based on the fictitious novel by Pierre Boulle. The novel deals with the plight of World War II British prisoners of war forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to build a bridge for the “Death Railway”. In truth, the captors used the POWs as slaves committing heinous crimes during this bridge and another’s construction, but also the rest of the 400-plus-kilometre railway through hostile jungled terrain.

Kanchanaburi, train, River Kwai, bridge
Bridge over River Kwai

Today, many cheap stalls encroach on the bridge’s surrounding area. If you so desire, you can also indulge in a child-like train ride over the bridge and back – for a cost of course. Be prepared for thousands of local and foreign tourists that frequent this historically important area, which has become over-commercialised; and for me, almost a theme park.

Kanchanaburi, train, River Kwai
Train rides on the River Kwai bridge

It is very hard to even contemplate a photo of the bridge without being confronted by a sea of heads and hats in your shot – not too dissimilar to a swarm of bees. And of course, people are not respectful of you taking a photo. Why should they be as they are making their own memories through their own photos…

Bridge over River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia
Drowned rat! My cape covers a camera gear pack, crucial in Kanchanaburi (Photo credit: Neil Lintern)

Floating restaurants and accommodation abound the riverfront. The ambience is not what I expected but still had to visit just to see this infamous structure.

The Death Railway and Hellfire Pass

Incredibly, this 415-kilometre long railway over the most inhospitable territory as a transport route was mostly built by POW slaves (Australian, British, Dutch, and Americans) from WWII. Around 60,000 allied POWs and later joined by approximately 200,000 conscripted Asian labourers also worked on the link. The historical transport route began in June 1942 and was completed fifteen months later.

Kanchanaburi, Hellfire Pass, railway
Remnants of the original railway

By the time the line was finished, an estimated 16,000 POWs and 100,000 Asian labourers died while working on the railway. This cruel and senseless waste of life is unfathomable, but the resilience of the POWs astounded their captors.

The museum at Hellfire Pass was started by an Australian-Thai group of volunteers and former POWs. The museum is free to enter although a donation is appreciated. The visit is excellent, tastefully delivered, and a preamble to what lay’s ahead. Actually, you can say the same for the whole of this site as it is excellent and memorable.

Kanchanaburi, Hellfire Pass
Infamous Hellfire Pass

Stroll along this incredibly moving and noiseless path, while listening to the haunting real-life stories recounted by the sombre voices of surviving POWs.

Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia

Hearing these emotional voices, you cannot help but be thrown back in time and forced to imagine what it must have been like in this bitter environment. Working for 18-plus hours each day under despicable conditions, negligible food, and sadistic treatment by Japanese and Korean guards, there was no hope for the POWs.

Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia
Lest We Forget

Without a doubt, this experience is both heart-wrenching and while ambling along the path, very eerie. Especially, the memorial walk along the stretch of line known as Hellfire Pass.

This notorious passage forces you to comprehend just how high, deep, and impenetrable the hardened mountain rock-face stands. But mostly, how gruelling the task for the POWs must have been with only dynamite and basic tools such as pick hammers to cut through the rock pass – evidence of the hammer marks still etched in the rock.

Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia
Blasted rock pass

This is a special unique part of Thailand that can never be forgotten once visited and believe that everyone must stop here to learn more about and understand what occurred.

Kanchanaburi, cemetery
Paying respects to the fallen

Attempt to go on the long walk of around a 6-kilometre (round trip) that takes you further out along the remains of the Death Railway, but make sure you take the free headphones provided by staff to listen to more POW stories.

Kanchanaburi, Hellfire Pass
Bittersweet but gorgeous scenery endured by the POWs

This walk brings you up to the fence where you cannot cross further as this is a military zone.

Burma-Thailand Railway Centre

The entry fee has gone up (B120) from what the guidebook advertised in 2014. I no longer believe any prices in the outdated guide books, regardless of their published date.

I am not so sure that you can really “enjoy” a site like this but more acknowledge what occurred.

POWs, Burma-Thailand Railway, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, SE Asia
Australian prisoners of war at a camp on the Burma-Thailand railway near the Burmese border, 1943 (Supplied: Australian War Memorial, George Aspinall)

The history represented regarding the actual construction of the railway is objective, extremely informative, and confronting.

In comparison, the Hellfire Pass Museum is an emotionally different experience as this explains more about the human suffering endured. Both sites are excellent.


Where is Kanchanaburi?

Kanchanaburi location map, Thailand, SE Asia

Western Thailand’s high plains and thick jungle-clad mountains host the town of Kanchanaburi.

An easy two-and-a-half-hour journey from Bangkok makes this town a popular destination for locals.


Do read Part 1 of Kanchanaburi: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly before popping over to my Mae Sot post for the next stint of volunteering while travelling through Thailand.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Thailand.

42 thoughts on “Thailand’s Historic Kanchanaburi

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  1. Ive been to Kanchanaburi a couple of times, but never made it to Hellfire Pass, somewhere Id still like to visit. I went to the Death Railway museum and the Don Rak Cemetery across the road – very sombre place and the photos in the museum nearly made me cry! x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, your Tuesday but my Wednesday. I don’t read posts until the weekend as working full-time on a laptop, the last thing I want to do is work on a laptop at night!
      Is that time working for you?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Haha. You’re way too young to retire, but I understand, Sweden, UK and Italy sound like a good plan. 👍🏻
      Haven’t made plans for this summer yet. getting late.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed it was…
      I think you’re right as I don’t either even though I keep unfollowing/re-following your site – WP is becoming rather tedious.
      Persuade the masses until they’re hooked so it’s too painful to opt-out.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Well, considering that WP hosts about half or more the world’s websites, it’s still no too bad. I think it’s just a matter of keeping an eye open. Just noticed I didn’t receive your posts for more than a week. So just reconnect. Et voilà.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Good point! I only post on a Sunday morning as struggling to keep up with one per week while working full-time.
      Thanks for reconnecting and I’ll try and do this again on your site! Lucky we’re both persistent. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    4. I think I got your post. I too try to clean my inbox – almost – everyday. I use it as my In-basket. Any mail that stays is either unread or unattended. It’s what I did when I was still working. My phone was my E-desk. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    5. It is THE best system. Especially when I was outside a lot for client meetings. My phone was my desk. I could check my mail, forward what could be done by others. Solve some stuff on the spot or mail the client “On it” if it needed office work…
      And I still do it. My goal: no more than 15 mails in the inbox…
      (We should work together…)

      Liked by 1 person

    6. The only difference is that you use your phone and I still use my laptop. I really don’t like using my phone. It’s become an obsession for humanity…read King’s Cell?
      Ha, ha, surely you don’t want to emerge from retirement… 😝

      Liked by 1 person

    7. I did use the laptop in the office. For longer stuff. But just sending short mails? Fine.
      King? As in Stephen. Haven’t read it. I used to be a big King fan, but haven’t read much by him in recent years…
      And no, I don’t think I want to un-retire… 😬

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know if you saw the movie Railway Man? I had read the book long ago (by Eric Lomax) and found it very moving. I don’t think the movie could ever quite have captured the feeling, much as I enjoy Colin Firth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The film was released while my dad was stationed in Saigon, so we saw it there and although I was only 10, I was very affected by it. I’ve seen it countless times since. Later, when we were in Thailand Dad had a colleague whose husband had died on the Burma Road. And very much later, I myself had a colleague who had been in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia. I think it would upset me to see those sites turned into tourist traps. I never went there myself so it was good to read your post and not have to see tourists. Why do we so easily forget? Thank you so much for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Carolyn
      It’s a tragic and brutal part of Thailand’s history and one which shouldn’t be forgotten. But then again, nothing has really changed over the decades. 😦

      The ones that survived were scarred for life. There are so many movies/documentaries about this particular story (and other camps) where POWs tried to meet with their captors much later in life but the request was declined. It was more for an understanding of how a human being could be so cruel towards another and for the POW’s closure. But, it was not to be, so that even later on in life, the captor was still mentally torturing the POW survivor.

      Thank you for your story
      Take care
      Nilla

      Liked by 1 person

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