On Mosquitoes, Bridges and a POW’s Railway

A main tourists’ attraction near Bangkok, Kanchanaburi offers unusual bridges and railways; but before everything else, it is known as being the mosquitos’ capital of Thailand.


Renaming a River

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 2, 2009



During World War II, the Japanese used war prisoners to build a railway connecting Thailand with Myanmar. It became known as the Death Railway, and one of its bridges – over the River Kwai – became as infamous as the railway.

Access

The bridge is about five kilometers northwest from Kanchanaburi’s downtown; a truck from the bus terminal costs six baht, while from inside the bus terminal tuk-tuk drivers ask for ten times that.

Buses from Bangkok are relatively slow, because they pass through Nakhon Pathom and Ban Pong; they leave at all times from the Southern Terminal and their prices vary between sixty to eighty Baht.

Reaching all the way from Bangkok by train is possible from the Thonburi Railway Terminal.

Books and Movies

The Bridge over the River Kwai is a French novel written by Pierre Boulle in 1952. Despite being fictional it is based on the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-43. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a British film from 1957, based on the novel. In 1997, it was recognized as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and preserved in the US Library of Congress National Film Registry.

Pierre Boulle got right the details of the Death Railway running parallel to the River Kwai but assumed that the bridge just north of Kanchanaburi crossed over that river; however, it was the Mae Klong River.

Once tourists began searching for the famous sight, the river was renamed and the Mae Klong became the Kwai Yai (Big Kwai) north of the confluence with the Kwai Noi (Little Kwai). South of the rivers' junction, the river returns to its ancestral name.

Less known is the fact that events that happened here were mentioned in other books and films. Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards was an Australian soldier that survived sixty-three hours of crucifixion by Japanese soldiers on the Burma Railway. He was the basis for the character named "Joe Harman" in Neville Shute’s novel "A Town like Alice." The Rape of Malaya film from 1956 was based on the book. A television miniseries based in the event was created in the 1980s.

On Trains and Bridges

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway and the Thailand-Burma Railway, was a 415km railway connecting Bangkok, Thailand with Rangoon, Myanmar; it was built by the Empire of Japan to provide support to its forces in the Burma campaign. It was built using forced labor of 180000 Asian workers and 60000 Allied POWs. Of these many died and were buried in nearby cemeteries or repatriated after the war.

However, the story of the railway begins earlier; the route was surveyed at the beginning of the 20th century by the British government of Burma, but it was not implemented due to technical difficulties posed by the mountainous rainforest separating both countries.

In 1942, the Japanese army invaded British Burma from Thailand; to maintain their forces in Burma, they had to bring supplies and troops by sea, through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. The route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines and thus the railway became strategic.

The railway construction began in June 1942; the plan was to connect Ban Pong in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar through the Three Pagodas Pass working in parallel from each end. The construction materials for the line were brought from the dismantled Federated Malay States Railway and from the Netherlands East Indies.

On 17 October 1943, the two sections of the line were connected about eighteen kilometers south of the Three Pagodas Pass. The surviving POWs were then transferred to Japan, except for a small group that was left to maintain the railway.

Bridge 277 over the Kwai Yai River became the most famous part of the work due to Pierre Boulle’s book and the subsequent movie. The bridge was built in two stages. The first wooden bridge was finished in February 1943, and it followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943.

The Allies made several attempts to destroy both, but succeeded failed until on 2 April 1945, Bridge 277 central part was destroyed. After the war, the Japanese donated two squarish central sections (the other are round) and the bridge was repaired to its actual form.

After the war the railway was in bad situation; the Thai side was reconstructed between 1949 and 1958 up to Nam Tok. Beyond this point the railway has been abandoned. There are plans to reconstruct the whole railway.

There are three daily passenger trains from Kanchanaburi’s Railway station, close to the Allied War Cemetery, all of which call at the River Kwai Bridge station. The current terminus is at Nam Tok and after crossing the bridge, it runs along the scenic River Kwai, passing over the equally impressive Wampo Viaduct, also built by prisoners of war. From Nam Tok there is a train back to Kanchanaburi at 1 PM.

Hellfire Pass

A frightening sight is the Konyu Cutting, better known as the Hellfire Pass. It is a 73m long and 25m high rock cutting done by hand by Australian and British POWs. They were forced to work using 3.5kgs hammers up to eighteen hours a day. At night they worked with carbide lamps, bamboo bonfires and torches filled with diesoline.

On November 11th (Armistice Day) every year there is a memorial service held here.

The Rivers

The map of the area shows two meeting streams that create a "Y" shape. However, the semantic reality is more complex.

The River Kwai, more correctly Kwai Noi (Small Tributary) or Kwai Sai Yok, begins at the confluence of the Ranti, Songkalia and Bikhli Rivers. At Kanchanaburi it merges with the Kwai Yai (Big Tributary) River to form the Mae Klong River (Mother Canal), which empties into the Gulf of Thailand at Samut Songkhram. It is near, but not on the border with Myanmar.

Bridge 277 spanned the Mae Klong upper part before the merging point with the Kwai Noi. In the 1960s – as a result of the movie - the upper part of the Mae Klong was renamed the Kwai Yai, so that the book and movie names would be correct. The Kwai Yai River also known as the Si Sawat, flows for about 380 kilometers through Sangkhlaburi and Si Sawat, and then merges with the Kwai Noi to form the Mae Klong River.

JEATH War Museum

Founded in 1977, the JEATH War Museum is located on the grounds of a temple at the junction of the Kwae Yai and Kwae Noi rivers, on the town’s side of the bridge. The acronym stands for the five main nationalities of the workers involved in the construction of the railway: Japanese, English, Australian, Thai and Holland.

Part of the museum shows the quarters used by Allied POWs and gives a very poor background on WWII. Strangely enough it includes a display of prehistoric life in the province and a Miss Thailand contest room.

Art Gallery and War Museum

Fifty meters from the bridge is the Art Gallery and War Museum. As the name implies, the collection is strange; yet, the visit is recommended due to the excellent views of the bridge from the building’s roof.

Other Attractions

With the tourists train it is possible to travel until the Nam Tok Train Station; a beautiful waterfall is nearby, see the Kanchanaburi entry in this journal for details.

Other attractions in the site include coffee shops, souvenir shops and a couple of Japanese steam locomotives on static display.

When the tourists train is not passing, it is possible to walk across the bridge on the wooden planks. On its other side is a large market selling Burmese merchandise from improvised stalls.




Respect, Beauty and the Cross of Sacrifice

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 2, 2009




Most Westerners know quite a lot about the European chapters of World War II, however the Asian parts of it are relegated to a secondary place; yet much of that war, including events related to Western countries, did happen in Asia.

Thailand was home to several dramatic events during that war; probably the best known one was the build up of the Burma Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai by Western POWs, who were captured by the Japanese.

It is estimated than sixteen thousand POWs died during the task and many of them were buried in two war cemeteries located near Kanchanaburi, not far from the place where they died. Another 49000 forced workers died in the construction of the railway.

Location and Access

The Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery is in the northern side of town, on Saeng Chuto Road, three kilometers on the road to Wat Tham Phu Wa.

The Chong-Kai War Cemetery is two kilometers south of Kanchanaburi, on the bank of the Kwai Noi River. It occupies the site of the former Chong-Kai Prisoner-of-War Camp.

Both cemeteries are open daily and do not charge an entry fee, though they do accept donations. They can be reached with tuk-tuks and songtaews (small trucks used as public transport) from town; fees should not exceed twenty baht.

Don Lak Allied War Cemetery

Opposite the Railway Station, this cemetery contains the remains of 6982 Allied POWs. It has graves of British, Australian and Dutch who died during the construction of the bridge.

The cemetery here follows the archetypal design of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The whole area is walled, featuring a main entrance gate. Near it a bronze register box allows studying the names of the buried in the site a plan of the plots and rows.

A Cross of Sacrifice designed by architect Reginald Blomfield as a simple cross embedded with a bronze sword and mounted on an octagonal base, represents the faith of most of the soldiers buried here. A Stone of Remembrance, designed by Edwin Lutyens, commemorate those of other faiths and atheists.

The graves are arranged in straight rows and marked by bronze plaques on low pedestals. This is a deviation of the uniform headstones shaped as rectangles with rounded tops and made of Portland stone that appear in most cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; that’s a result of the specific weather conditions in Thailand.

Unless the soldier was atheist or non-Christian, the headstone features a cross. Other information appearing on it is the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each POW. Sometimes a personal dedication was added by relatives; others, the victim’s name is not known.

The absence of paving between the grave rows contributes to the beautiful simple lines of the cemetery. The floriculture is an integral part of the site design, and features a large grass lawn and many colorful flowers which impart a deep sense of peace. The headstones are surrounded with roses and herbaceous perennials.

Chong-Kai Allied War Cemetery

The smaller war cemetery in Kanchanaburi is the last place of rest of 1750 POW’s and is very similar to the main one. Less visited, it offers a calmer experience.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The two cemeteries are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a body responsible for honoring the 1700000 soldiers of the Commonwealth armies that died during the two world wars. A third one is at Thanbyuzayat, in Myanmar, where 3800 POWs rest.

The commission is formed by representatives from six countries, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa and is responsible for 2500 cemeteries, 200 memorials and twenty-three thousand burial sites worldwide.

Overall, in Kanchanaburi, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission did manage to create a respectful site that beautifully honors the dead.

Prisoner of War Memorial Ceremony

The Prisoner of War Memorial Ceremony takes place on two different dates. The ANZAC Day Ceremony – on April, 25 – honors the Australians and New Zealanders buried here, while Dutch are honored on May, 5.

The ANZAC event includes a Dawn Service at the Hellfire Pass, a Gunfire Breakfast at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and a Memorial Service and Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Don Lak Allied War Cemetery.


Cooler than Bangkok

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 2, 2009




The small town of Kanchanaburi is a bit away from the main highways crisscrossing Thailand, but it is house to two main attractions: the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Death Railway. National parks add green color to the picture; the altitude offers a cooler climate than nearby Bangkok creating thus an important added value after a while in the suffocating metropolis.

Unluckily, the town is usually crowded with tourists, thus planning an early arrival, visiting the main points of interest and then sleeping in Sangkhlaburi or Nakhon Pathom (both reviewed in this journal) is advisable.

Access

Buses from Bangkok are relatively slow, because they pass through Nakhon Pathom and Ban Pong; they leave from the very early morning until well after dark from the Southern Terminal and their prices vary between sixty to eighty baht. The town can be reached by train from the Thonburi Railway Station. Return trains leave at 7:25 AM and 2:48 PM.

However, it is recommended to stop at Nakhon Pathom in the way to or from Bangkok due to several attractions there, see that entry in this journal for details.

Touring the Town

A secondary provincial town, Kanchanaburi was built while keeping open spaces in mind; the result is a tiny city too big for walking around. The main road is called Thanon Saeng Chuto, and connects the River Kwai Bridge with the train station and the bus station.

Between this street and the river is Thanon Mae Nam Kwae where most of the guesthouses and many restaurants catering for tourists can be found. A shopping mall offers western products. Unluckily, the place looks as a rundown version of Khaosan Road.

Another important commercial and cultural center is located next to the Bridge over the River Kwai. See that entry in this journal for details. Reaching the place by foot from downtown is not recommended.

Unluckily, tuk-tuk here are among the most expensive in the country (for tourists), since the drivers take advantage of the endless stream of tourists crossing the area. Songthaews – open trucks working as public transport - charge five baht for a trip within downtown and are thus worth mastering even at the price of a few failed trips. If staying for a few days it is worth considering renting a bike or a motorbike.

Nearby Attractions

Popular attractions nearby Kanchanaburi are offered by many travel agencies in town. The Tiger Temple is one of the many in Thailand where travelers can take their (last?) picture next to a mighty tiger. The expected urban legends abound.

A more sensible pastime is visiting the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall. It is located two kilometers from the Nam Tok Train Station, the last (active) station of the Death Railway.

Further away along the way to Sangkhlaburi is the Sai Yok Yai Waterfall (the similarity in the names of the last two is not casual "noi" means "little," while "yai" means "big" in Thai). This waterfall flows over cliffs into the Kwai Noi River and is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Thailand; as such it has a 400 baht entry fee.

Another waterfall competing for the title is the Erawan. Located about an hour north of Kanchanaburi along road 3199, it is placed amidst untouched rainforest and features seven tiers as well as trekking paths. The admission fee is 200 baht. Buses from the bus terminal of Kanchanaburi reach the park during the mornings and early afternoons. It is possible to swim at the various pools and to rent bicycles, though walking is a better idea in the steep surroundings. Last bus back leaves at 4 PM.

A related attraction is the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries - the largest in South-East Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage site, tours can be booked from any travel agency. Covering more than 600000ha along the Myanmar border, this reserve contains examples of almost all the forest types of continental Southeast Asia. They are also home to 77% of the large mammals (among them elephants and tigers), 50% of the large birds and 33% of the land vertebrates of the region.

Wat Tham Phu Wa is a Buddhist temple five kilometers southeast of the city which includes several grotto shrines with statues of Buddha at different stages of his life within a series of connected limestone caves.

Kanchanaburi
130 Kilometers West Of Bangkok
Kanchanaburi, Thailand, 71000
66 34 511 200; 34 5

A Dead End

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 2, 2009




On the north-west tip of Kanchanaburi Province is Sangkhlaburi, a district where the town of Sangkhla (that’s the meaning of the district name, "buri" – like "chiang" and "nakhon" - is a Thai form of "town") and the Three Pagodas Pass to Myanmar are.

Access

The town can be accessed from Kanchanaburi’s bus terminus or from Nam Tok, the modern end of the Death Railway. The last option is attractive if willing to avoid a night in Kanchanaburi; it allows exploring the attraction in the morning and arriving to Sangkhla in the early evening.

Buses leave from the early morning until the early afternoon. The trip can take up to five hours, thus if taking the last bus, the arrival would be after dark.

For the last leg of the trip, trucks leave from Sangkhlaburi to the Three Pagodas Pass during the light hours; the trip longs about thirty minutes.

A point to appreciate during the trip is that the area – especially the province of Tak, which is nearby – is among the most densely forested in Thailand. In few other places majestic teak trees can still be seen in their full splendor.

Activities and Attractions

The town of Sangkhlaburi is tiny and dilapidated, huge distances were left among many of its buildings. Many of these are of Thai traditional design and built of teakwood. Since the logging of those trees is now forbidden, these buildings are becoming an oddity in modern Thailand.

Wat Wiwekaram - the main temple in the area - is in a Mon refugees village located next to the town and the lake. The lake allows awesome views of the area, including the surrounding hills, and of wood houses built on stilts over the water. In Thailand and Cambodia – especially in the Tonle Sap Lake, near Angkor – refugees sometimes build houses on the water since they are not allowed to purchase land.

The access to the Mon village is through a 400 meters long teakwood bridge – the longest in Thailand and famous enough to feature a coffee shop at one end. One of the reasons for its length is that it isn’t straight, but draws an angle over the lake. Near the lake is a massive, golden chedi. Few chedis in Thailand feature this shape; if looking from far away the fat and narrowing tower resembles a strangely placed residential tower. Next to the chedi is a Burmese market offering goods brought from across the border.

Mon refugees from Myanmar offer attractive ethnic textiles at a shop called Weaving for Women, near downtown.

The night market is next to the bus terminal, on the town’s highest point, and offers good and tasty local food.

Sangkhlaburi is the end of the line: it can be accessed only from Kanchanaburi and is a dead end road. Thus few travelers pass through; the result is rather rustic facilities. Around downtown are various guesthouses, restaurants and coffee shops catering for the travelers passing through town. The menus are of the typical Western-Thai hybrid type.

Three Pagodas Pass - Darn Chedi Sam Ong

Three Pagodas Pass is a border cross between Thailand and Myanmar next to Sangkhlaburi. The name refers to three small chedis on the Thai side.

It is similar to other visa-runs locations I have reviewed in the past. A visa-run is a term used to describe the process in which whenever his Thai visa runs out, the traveler crosses to Myanmar and on his return to Thailand gets a new visa on arrival. Myanmar is not the only option, but it is the friendlier. The Burmese towns offering the service are always dead end locations, leaving the town to enter further into Myanmar is not allowed and the traveler must return to Thailand. In this pass the town on the other side is called Payathonzu.

Unluckily, the Three Pagodas Pass is the most inaccessible point among those reviewed and suffers of another problem: not always it is open due to problems between the Burmese army and Karen and Mon rebels.

Even if it is open, visiting the Burmese town is possible, but the immigration authorities would not stamp the passport. If relying on the Burmese unpredictability and attempting a visa run there with the hope the situation would change, I recommend trying that only if having a few days left on the visa, so that if the passport is not stamped the traveler would be able to reach other visa-run point. I failed twice.

If wanting to see the place despite everything, make sure to bring a brand new $10 note (see here what can happen otherwise), or be ready to pay 500 baht for the pleasure (around fifteen dollars). Note that if entering Myanmar, the passport is always left behind at the immigration and the traveler enters with a stamped photocopy of the page with the picture. Expectedly, the same Burmese souvenirs are offered in Sangkhlaburi.

The pass is also worthy for travelers interested in history since the pass was for many centuries on the main land route between India and Southeast Asia. The Japanese used it during World War II, to pass supplies and troops from Thailand to Myanmar.


World’s Largest Stupa and a Floating Market

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 2, 2009




Nakhon Pathom is the capital of Nakhon Pathom Province, Thailand and the site of the world's largest stupa, named Phra Pathom Chedi (The Holy Chedi of Pathom).

Access

If planning a visit to Nakhon Pathom, it is best to time it just before or after a visit to Kanchanaburi, since Nakhon Pathom is on the way there.

Buses leave from the new Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal, which can be reached with bus 4 from the Victory Monument. Minibuses from the last reach Nakhon Pathom as well. The trip longs up to ninety minutes, depending on the traffic. Buses leave from the very early morning until well after dark.

An interesting way of reaching the town is by train from Thonburi Train Station; the train reaches Kanchanaburi as well.

For the next leg of the trip, buses from Nakhon Pathom terminal to Kanchanaburi are frequent.

On Wats and Chedis

Phra Pathom Chedi is the main attraction in town, and a remarkable one in Thailand. The stupa reaches an impressive 120 meters; being built of bricks that means it also features a very unusual brown color.

Beyond that, it is also amidst the oldest Buddhist structures in the kingdom, dating back to the sixth century AC, and is said – as usual with important temples – to be home to a Buddha relic. It was renovated by king Rama V.

Thai visitors reverently walk around the structure until they reach a huge Buddha statue on its southern side.

On a lighter tone, the Night Market is located nearby and is worth a visit because Nakhon Pathom is famous for its Khao Lam, a Thai snack prepared by cooking together sticky rice and coconut milk within a bamboo stick.

Wat Sisathong is the second most famous temple in town. It is claimed that the god of darkness (phra rahu) lives there; at least he has here his largest statue in the kingdom. Worshippers bring to the temple eight dark offerings: black jelly, black liquor, black rice, black pudding, and other similar items.

Another point of interest is the Sanam Chan Palace, which was the summer residence of King Rama VI. The site consists of five buildings and a Ganesh (the god elephant in the Hindu mythology) temple; it was built from 1907 to 1911 and is located next to the Silpakorn University.

Accomodations

In this journal I am reviewing a trip along a dead-end road connecting three towns. At some point the traveler would need to sleep, or to travel overnight back to Bangkok. The last is a real option since none of these three locations offer good accommodations. The options are rustic guesthouses or the ubiquitous Chinese hotels near the bus terminals. The last are not bad for short stays, though I do recommend checking the hot water before checking in.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

While here, it is good to remember that the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is nearby, about an hour away with bus 78 from Kwaa-Pra Road. The best tactic for enjoying the market is arriving as soon as possible, since the place crowds up really fast.

Eighty kilometers southwest of Bangkok, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market provides much of the better known pictures from Thailand. The canal, in which it is located, was ordered to be built by King Rama IV in 1866 to facilitate travels between Ratchaburi and Samutsakhon. It was opened to the public in 1868 and since then it provides unforgettable views of floating noodle soup stalls and Thai women wearing flat topped bamboo hats.

In the 21st Century its transport and agricultural qualities are secondary to the tourism industry. The fertile adjacent fields provide the needed products to fill up the boats clogging the main canal and to serve tasty meals to the hordes standing by the piers. The traditional Thai boats and the time-honoured garments of the sellers provide an exceptional view into the classical Thai culture. A very unusual sight is the noodle soup boats, in which the soup is prepared in a compact and smart design usually kept for spaceships. There is no better testimony to the authenticity of the sights than the fact that most visitors are Thais.

From there, there are boat trip services for sightseeing smaller canals branching off from the main one. Such a trip would enable seeing Thai wood stilt-houses emerging from the muddy waters.


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