The Thai-Burma Death Railway: Remembering WW2 in Kanchanaburi
The famous *novel, Bridge on the River Kwai, and the *film of the same name tell the true story of the Allied POWs who were captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and brought to Thailand to work on the infamous "Death Railway". Most of the POW camps and historical sites marking it are located in and around Kanchanaburi, and visiting them is a powerful and somber reminder of the Second World War in Thailand.
Remembering the Second World War in Kanchanaburi
The Thai-Burma Death Railway
Allied War Cemetery (Kanchanaburi War Cemetery)
The Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery is located right in the center of town, near the train station and across from the town's old Catholic church. The remains of 6,982 allied soldiers, mostly Australian, British, and Dutch (remains of Americans were repatriated after the war) are buried in this beautifully maintained and peaceful cemetery.
Allied War Cemetery
There is no admission fee to enter. Spend a few quiet moments reflecting on history and remembering those who were lost during the war.
Thai-Burma Railway Centre
Next to the cemetery in the town's center, you'll find the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum. Entry costs 80 baht, and is well worth it.
The two-floor museum is full of interesting displays and artifacts from the workers on the Death Railway. Particularly moving are the letters and diaries of the prisoners, that have been donated by the veterans themselves and their families.
The second-floor has a small cafe and beautiful views looking out over the cemetery. Pay special attention to the magnificent stained-glass windows depicting the lives of the POWs and laborers on the railway. These windows are an ongoing project by artists who volunteer their time to preserve the history of the Death Railway.
inside the museum
Due to its subject, it's a very sad museum, and incredibly moving. The museum is small, but well laid out with excellent educational exhibits all about the Death Railway. This is one of the best museums I've ever been to. It's also very quiet and peaceful, especially as you sit and look out over the war cemetery. Entry to the museum comes with a voucher to redeem for a cup of tea or coffee at the little cafe. The museum also has a very good bookstore with lots of books and DVDs about the railroad and Second World War in Thailand.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
During the Second World War, Allied prisoners of war, mostly British, Australian, and Dutch, along with captured Asian laborers from Singapore, were forced under extremely brutal conditions to construct a railway across Thailand to Burma, which the Japanese occupied.
The bridge still stands, although two sections of it were destroyed in an Allied bombing during the war. Those two sections are constructed with straight spans, rather than curved, to differentiate between the original bridge and the sections that have been rebuilt.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Visitors are free to walk along the bridge, which spans the infamous River Kwai (pronounced "kwae", despite what the movie may have you believe). If you have watched either Bridge on the River Kwai or Colin Firth's *The Railway Man (or read the true *memoirs upon which the film is based), you will be especially moved by seeing the bridge in person. Knowing a bit about the hardships and terrible conditions of the prisoners makes it feel much more real when you step onto the old bridge.
Wang Po Viaduct (Wampo or Wang Pho)
Another amazing site outside of the town is the Wang Po Viaduct, the most scenic stretch of the Death Railway. The Viaduct is a rail built on wooden trestles on the cliff side above the River Kwai.
train on the Death Railway
There is no entrance fee, and visitors may walk along the tracks. Be careful! There are no railings.
Wang Po is located 55km outside of the town in the Sai Yok District of Kanchanaburi Province. To get there, you can either drive a car or motorbike, hire a songtaew or taxi for the day (around 1,000-1,500 baht), or take one of the infrequent trains that runs between Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok Station, the furthest operational stop on the remaining stretch of the Death Railway. This train still travels along the cliff-side rail.
Wang Po, Kanchanaburi
Tham Krasae Cave
Krasae (Kra Sae) Cave is a small natural cavern in the cliff along the Wang Po wooden trestle rail. During the war this cave served as an emergency field hospital for the prisoners working on the Death Railway.
shrine inside the cave
Today, it's the site of a Buddhist shrine and something of a memorial site to those who died there at Wang Po.
The most brutal and deadly stretch of the Death Railway was at Hellfire Pass, specifically Konyu Cutting, a dangerous and remote camp where the POWs and captured Asian (mostly Indian and Malayan) laborers were forced to carve for up to 18-hours a day straight through a mountain for the construction of the rail. The sight of emaciated prisoners illuminated only by torchlight digging through the mountain with only hand tools gave Konyu Cutting it's name.
memorial at Hellfire Pass
Today, there is another excellent museum, run and operated by the Australian government. Admission to the museum is free. You can follow a map provided at the museum to several different cuttings, but Konyu, the most infamous cutting, is just a short walk down some steps and a few hundred meters along a path from the museum building.
It's the site of several annual remembrance services, and all along the cliff walls, people have left flags, medals, pins, and old photographs of loved ones who worked on the Death Railway.
remembering the Allied prisoners
If you have time, pick up one of the audio guides available at the museum and listen to the recordings as you visit the museum and Konyu Cutting. The audio is compiled from interviews of survivors of the Death Railway. It's incredibly sad to listen to the true stories of life as a POW along the River Kwai, but it's also extremely important to remember this tragic part of history. Hellfire Pass is one of the most upsetting, but also strangely peaceful sites to visit. It's an important reminder of the brutality of war, but also of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of such atrocity.
WW2 POW memorial