The Bridge over the River Kwai – the Death Railway
(This article was first published in January 2016 and has been reissued with updated content)
Let me first clarify – the bridge which crosses the River Kwai is not the same bridge that appears in the film of the same name. It is however a part of the Death Railway. If you are coming to see the river and the bridge over the River Kwai from the film you are in the wrong place!
Where is the Bridge over the River Kwai?
This bridge is in the south west of Thailand close to the border with Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known. However, this is the site of the bridge that was built using forced labour by the Japanese: although at that time the river was not called the River Kwai.
This river was a tributary of the River Kwai but following increased visits and interest from tourists, the canny Thais renamed the river the Kwai. And I suppose really it’s not even the actual bridge because that fell into disrepair and it has subsequently been rebuilt, but don’t let any of the above put you off. The bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi and the surrounding region certainly does deserve a visit – and there is enough to keep you here for a couple of days, and I would certainly recommend booking a guest house or a hostel.
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Kanchanaburi town is long and thin and it stretches from the busy commercial centre around the market and the bus station along the river bank and up towards the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. Don’t be deceived by the scale of the map – when I say long I mean it is long – you would do well to hop on the back of one of the little mototaxis (motorbikes) that scoot around the town.
I met my friend and fellow travel blogger Jessica in the town and after checking in to our guesthouse we went up to the railway and walked across the bridge – timing it just as a train trundled across.
Standing to the side of the bridge on one of the little piers as the train rumbled past I thought back to another time when the river was so important and the countryside was fought over.
There is an immaculately kept war cemetery at Kanchanaburi to remember and honour the men who died in the area during the war but now the town is home to guesthouses, restaurants and museums and is also a good base to explore the area to the north and west towards the border with Myanmar.
Accommodation in Kanchanaburi
Jessica and I spent a couple of nights onboard one of the raft hotels that float on the river. The Tara Raft is like a giant pontoon with rooms that are built out onto a little wooden veranda which runs around the outside. You walk across a tiny gangplank to the reception and dining area and you climb the steep stairs to a large metal decked area where swings and rocking chairs are the perfect place to watch the sun go down behind the mountains across the river.
Sitting on the little terrace at night we watched a local man who lived in his floating house next door, gently scull his canoe around the boats and check his fishing baskets.
Jessica and I had the sweetest little room at the Tara Raft. It was ensuite and had large patio doors which let in the light and let us out onto the tiny little wooden balcony. The water gently shucked around the wooden pontoons outside and when a speed boat zoomed past and up the river the room slowly danced. Get up to date prices and details on accommodation in Kanchanaburi at this link: Accomodation in Kanchanaburi
The Erewan Waterfalls
Hiring a scooter Jessica and I set off to explore for a couple of days. We drove an hour up into the hills to the Erewan waterfalls. This nature reserve is popular with tourists and Thais. After parking the scooter we hiked slowly up the mountainside, stopping to look at the different pools.
The water cascades down and through nine falls and pools, each with a distinct feel and personality. The furthermost waterfall was the smallest but the climb up through the jungle was great – with the jungle smells and sounds all around.
We swam in two of the larger lower pools – with tee-shirts over our bikinis so as not to offend the many locals who were more or less fully dressed in the water. These pools had fish. Big black nosy fish that made the water bubble like a cauldron on the boil when they found a part of a discarded sandwich.
Have you seen the fish spas which have gained in popularity over recent years? These originated in South East Asia and these fish were in this river. Jessica and I tentatively dipped toes in and out of the cool water, giggling as masses of fish swarmed to our feet each time, and then just as we were plucking up the courage to put a whole leg in – I slipped off the rock and I was in up to my neck.
The locals were laughing and pointing and I shrugged and tried to look like I had meant to go in – being all super cool and then bimp, bimp, bimp – I was attacked all over by the fish who were determined to slough as much as my skin off me as they could whilst I was in effect a sitting target. No matter that I was wearing a tee-shirt, they tickled and bumped me all over – but you must remember that these fish are substantially bigger than the ones in the little tanks in the fish spas. It was freaky and nice all at the same time.
Jessica swam across the deeper pool and climbed up to sit on the ledge under the waterfall while I sat on a log and played around in the shallows. Jessica was far brave than me and wasn’t put off by the deep, dark water – well she does blog as MissAdventureTravels! (click here for one of Jessica’s reports on Thailand). We then bought coffees and sat on a rock watching the children play and families picnic on the grassy banks.
Hellfire Pass and the Death Railway
On our second day with the scooter we headed away from the Bridge over the River Kwai we went a bit further afield and heading west we went to the Hellfire Pass. After the commercialism and tourism which surrounds the bridge at Kanchanaburi the museum at Hellfire Pass was a sobering place.
Relatively new, and constructed thanks to the efforts of an Australian man to recognise the part played the prisoners of war and the forced labourers from S E Asia, this excellent museum tells why Hellfire Pass was so named and sombrely notes that one man died for every railway sleeper which was laid on this line.
Graphic pictures and excellent informative text boards kept all of the visitors spellbound and there was almost a total silence as people read and digested the horrible information that they were given.
I like to think that I am relatively well informed about the Second World War and I already knew about the short rations, the tortures and the abuse that the prisoners of war were subjected to, but I wasn’t aware that the people of South East Asia were also an expendable labour force who were worked to their death.
Hellfire Pass was so named because the Japanese became fixated on completing the railway from Burma to Thailand in record time despite the totally unsuitable terrain and they worked the men around the clock, forcing them to cut a pass through the mountains with not much more than pickaxes.
A wooden platform juts out over the jungle at the back of the museum and people stand here and look out over the glorious views while they quietly reflect on what they have just read.
Jessica and I also chose to hike along some of the railway into Hellfire Pass which really helped to understand the massive task which faced the men. We continued to trek deeper along the path and got eaten alive by mosquitoes – a reminder of the malaria and dengue fever that claimed many of the workforce, but the beauty of the place also helped us to understand how many of the men refused to give up and die – they found a strength and a solace in the place despite the horrors and the torture.
After leaving Kanchanaburi behind I read the book The Railway Man by Eric Lomax which documents the daily struggle for life at that time by a man who was held captive and a subsequent meeting with one of his captors. If you would like to read the book by Eric Lomax, click on this link:
To sum up
- For a better understanding of this region during the war, visit Kanchanaburi and the Bridge over the River Kwai.
- Visit the museum at Hellfire Pass and explore the surrounding countryside (take insect repellent!)
- Climb to the top of the Erewan waterfalls (you can hire a scooter to get there or take an organised trip)
- Stay at the Tara Raft Guesthouse
- Read the book or watch the film The Railway Man
- I got to Kanchanaburi by bus from Bangkok
- If you don’t feel brave enough to tackle Thailand and S E Asia alone, or you don’t have the time to do everything yourself then I recommend that you take a small group tour with Explore. Whilst I haven’t travelled to Thailand with Explore I have been on 4 trips with them and I can highly recommend them – Get the latest tours here
- And I KNOW that I am always banging on about travel insurance but it is so important. I use Alpha Travel Insurance – get your own quote here