Through the Valley of the Kwai

Kanchanaburi, 3-6 Februari 2020

After the metropolitan Bangkok we are ready to fill our lungs with some fresh air at the countryside. Kanchanaburi near the Myanmar border seems a good place for it, as this will give us the opportunity to ride a train to the river Kwai.

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, was a 415-km railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). Source: Wikipedia

During its construction, around 90,000 civilian labourers and over 12,000 Allied prisoners died of the effects of forced labour under harsh conditions and tropical diseases. The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later and is still in use today.

Our journey from Bangkok is quite easily put together. At one of the piers we get a ferry to drop us off at the other side of the river where we take the train to Kanchanaburi. The thing with Bangkok ferries is you have to get on and off them quickly because they don’t like to wait around. Even though we are aware of this, when we get to the pier only one passenger manages to jump off in time before the boat takes off again in a hurry, leaving him on the pier, baffled, and taking us and his friend who’s still on the boat with us, by surprise.

Luckily the next stop isn’t far away and we soon make it to the train station where we find the two friends, reunited.

At first it’s a bit of a strange idea to be riding on the tracks of the Death Railway, but the feeling soon fades. After all, it’s just a normal train we’re on. Or rather, normal for Asia, since the side doors are dangerously open and you can smoke there. Before long the scenery changes to a pleasant rural setting, with a few mountains in the background.

Kanchanaburi, a small city of around 32.000 people, lies 123 km west of Bangkok, where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers converge into the Mae Klong River. Though its location at the edge of a mountain range keeps it much cooler than the other provinces of central Thailand, winters here are dry, and very warm. Source: Wikipedia

In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control. It was here that Asian forced labourers and Allied POW’s constructed a railway bridge, an event most famously portrayed in 1957’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Once a year a carnival is set up in the area next to the bridge. At night a small pyrotechnics display is held to re-enacts the wartime bombing of the bridge. Throughout the rest of the year we find, there is a rather bizarre POW prison camp-themed food court located here instead..

The downtown area has part of a city wall, a governor’s mansion, and, surprisingly, a tiny heritage walk with a few buildings dating back to the 20’s and 30’s. One of these buildings is now a gun shop. In Ko Chang we learned that Muay Thai is taught in every school, so what on earth they need guns for? It’s a relief to know the Thai in truth are very friendly!

The riverfront area is mostly dedicated to tourism with restaurants, hotels, travel agents, scooter rental places. During the day it has a wealth of riverfront hangouts to choose from, while at night the place comes alive with an unbelievable amount of bars offering happy hour until midnight, that’s Thailand!

Following the Kwai Noi river upstream, we visit the Tha Krasae Bridge train station, one of the more scenic spots on the line towards Hellfire Pass, where tourists gather to catch one of six trains passing here daily.

While waiting for the train to arrive we hide from the blazing sun at Krasae Cave, which is carved into the rock right next to the track and has an interesting Buddhist shrine built inside it.

After a short while a guy shouts: “Train coming!”. People begin to clear the tracks and then comes the moment we have been waiting for: The train over Tha Krasae Bridge next to River Kwai, something to savour.

While this is the history Kanchanaburi is most famous for, we are delighted to find traces of the Khmer empire on our visit as well. Siem Reap was our favourite stop in Cambodia, and here, 600 km from Angkor Wat, we find an ancient outpost of the empire that ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431.

When we try to get our next journey organised, two Australian guys from the local tourist police division (Slogan: “Your first friend”) advise us to allow ourselves enough time to get across Bangkok to the airport, so I guess we’ll be waking up early. Tomorrow we catch a flight down south where the plan is to cool off in the Andaman Sea.

So it’s one last sunset on the river Kwai for us, next stop Phuket.