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