Re-live the Past: Bridge on the River Kwai
Sooner or later every city dweller needs a respite from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle. Getting out of the Big Mango can be a refreshing experience, made easy by numerous transport links and plenty of nearby destinations to choose from.
The Bridge on the River Kwai was immortalized in the 1950s movie by David Lean. The story of the World War II prisoners of war (POW) attracts many people to the town of Kanchanaburi, just 2 hours from Bangkok. The irony is that there actually was no bridge on the river Kwai, until 1960. There was however a bridge on the river Mae Khlung built by the allied POW, very near to the Kwai. So when tourists started arriving en masse to view the infamous bridge (that did not exist), Thais decided to re-name Mae Khlung to Kwai Yai (Big Kwai). Problem solved. ‘Farangs’ can now view their bridge, and the tourist industry is flourishing.
Kanchanaburi is worth a visit for its historical connotations, as well as the plethora of natural beauties surrounding it. If your time is limited, a day visit can cover some basic sights. But if you can afford more time, stay longer and squeeze in some waterfalls or museums, as well as marvel at an orgy of ex-pat’s, who still seem to think they have some historical right to be there and some behave as if they saved the place personally.
The town has other strong connections to World War II, as the so called Death Railway passed through here to Burma. The legendary railway was built by forced labourers and prisoners of war under atrocious conditions and with a huge death toll, hence the name. If you arrive by train, you ride on the actual Death Railway and can cross the bridge, which is 5 kilometres from Kanchanaburi. Stay on the train until the last stop in Nam Tok and visit the Hellfire Pass or Konyu Cutting, which is a war memorial (and a jungle walk) funded by the Australian government in memory of the 93,000 people who lost their lives building the tracks. It was dubbed hellfire by the POW’s, who thought the place resembled an inferno when lit by torches at night. For more information you can visit the Thailand-Burma Railways Centre and experience the moving exhibition about the conditions the men endured. There are two cemeteries in and near Kanchanaburi, which are the last resting places of many of the POW’s. Chongkai War Cemetery 2 kilometres out of town has British and Dutch soldiers buried, and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery opposite the railway station contains the graves of British, Dutch, and also Australian soldiers.
If you have the time, why not spend a day exploring the surrounding natural attractions. The most famous sights are the spectacular Erawan falls and Soi Yok Noi falls. The Erawan national park also hides limestone caves and hot water springs. It is easiest to reach by renting a motorbike from Kanchanaburi, or alternatively book a one day tour. Make sure your tour DOES NOT include a visit to the Tiger Temple as this would mean supporting the animal abuse committed there under the pretext of tradition. The tigers are heavily drugged and many reports argue that the great beasts are being maltreated in other ways too. There are also indications of animal trafficking connected with the temple. I hope we all agree that wild animals should roam free, therefore places like the Tiger Temple need to be boycotted.
And finally, some directions for reaching Kanchanaburi from Bangkok. As mentioned above, the most authentic and atmospheric way is to board a train at Bangkok’s Thonburi station. There are only two trains a day (at 7.45 a.m. and 1.55 p.m.).The journey lasts almost 3 hours and costs 100 baht one way. If you travel on Saturday or Sunday there is a special tourist train departing from Hualamphong station at 6.30 a.m. The other option is arriving at Kanchanaburi by bus. You can either take the bus from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal in Thonburi or hop on one of the buses departing from Khao San Road. Or if you don’t mind limited leg and breathing space, take one of the completely full minibuses from BTS Victory Monument. If money is not an obstacle, you can also rent a car or hire a taxi.
Kanchanburi itself is manageable on foot, but a motorbike or tuk-tuk is needed to get to some of the attractions. And if you are lucky, you might arrive in town just on the week when the Bridge on the River Kwai performance is staged (late November – early December). It’s a lightshow and a theatrical production, complete with special effects. A spectacle that might enrich your whole experience, and brings the past to the present.