Kanchanaburi – World War, Railways and Waterfalls
Have you ever heard of the River Kwai? Or the Bridge on the River Kwai?
You did? You will like this post!
You didn’t? You will like it too! 🙂 But watch this awesome movie also!
From Bangkok to Kanchanaburi you can get the usual buses or mini-vans, or you can use the train! You should use the train. It’s inexpensive at 100 Baht per person and you will travel on a piece of history. You will be traveling on the Death Railway. However note that there are only 2 trains per day! Check here all info about the schedule of the Death Railway.
Kanchanaburi is a rather small town with over 30 000 inhabitants (2006) located 120 km West of Bangkok. It’s a rather small town but as any other place in Thailand it has been invaded by tourism. There’s no lack of guest houses, hostels, bars, restaurants, etc. Yet, this is still manageable, and the attractions don’t feel overcrowded and the town doesn’t look just like a mega adult’s playground. The river side of the town is still charming and the bridge gives it a definite character, but the main attractions are outside the town.
The Death Railway, also called the Burma Railway, was a 415 Km railway connecting Bangkok (Thailand) to Rangoon (Burma). The project was created by the Japanese to solve their problem of supplying Burma during WW2. To build the railway the Japanese used 60 000 Prisoners of War (POW), 180 000 South East Asian enslaved workers (Romusha) and 12 000 Japanese and Korean Soldiers solders and Engineers. The living and working conditions during the construction were so bad that 90 000 Romusha, 12 000 POWs and even almost 1000 Japanese died. These deaths were caused by diseases (malaria, cholera, dysentery, tropical ulcers…), bad nutrition, work accidents and exhaustion.
The Railway itself is considered an impressive accomplishment. In a very short time, they built 415 km of railway, through dense tropical jungle and mountains, more than 600 bridges and almost without machinery and with very little supply. Although the railway was finished ahead of the original schedule, it was also considered a strategic failure because of the very little cargo transported by the Japanese during the war. However, above all it was a War Crime committed by Japan and once again an example of how far we can go to achieve a goal.
The movie “The bridge on the river Kwai” (and the book its based on) is about the construction of bridge 277 in the Death Railway. Both the film and the book are greatly unrealistic and do not show how bad the conditions were. Anyway, we strongly recommend you to see the film.
Hellfire Pass Museum
The Hellfire Pass is the largest rock cutting of the Death Railway. This combined with its remoteness and the lack of tools available made it the most infamous part of the Railway. The name Hellfire was given by the POWs because of how the pass looked at night, with the torches and fires lit. The pass resembled a burning hell.
In 1998 the Australian Government built the Hellfire Pass Museum to honor the POWs and south-east Asian workers who suffered and died during the construction of the Burma Railway. The museum consists of a group of pictures, explanations, videos and audio captions of the survivors. It is well worth a visit to better understand the Hellfire Pass, the Death Railway and everything that happened during its construction and ultimately the War in the Pacific.
Price: Free, but you are welcomed to contribute to the museum.
Time required: 1 hour.
Getting there: Take the train to Nam Tok (100 baht) and then walk to the main road and catch bus 8203 (35 baht). Ask the driver to drop at Hellfire Museum. You can also take the bus directly from Kanchanaburi, but in our opinion doing the infamous Death Railway is a more interesting option.
Hellfire Pass Trail
The Hellfire Pass trail is a small part of the Death Railway that was converted into a walking memorial and trail. The trail is 4 km long and it goes right through where the railway was. The Hellfire Pass is almost at the beginning of the trail, so if you want you can visit it there and then return, not doing the full trail. As walking fans we decided to do the whole trail and really enjoyed. Note that this is a very rocky path and a bit hilly so it’s more difficult than it seems at first sight. Take good walking shoes and lots of water.
During the trail use the audio guide to learn about the trail, its significance, and the statements of survivors. After reading and hearing about all the terrors and suffering, it is bewildering how peaceful and beautiful it is today. Is it really the same place?
Price of admission: Free; The audio guide is also free but with 200 baht reimbursable deposit;
Time required: 3 / 4 hours;
Getting there: It starts right next to the museum;
Sak Noi waterfalls
We weren’t even going to mention Sak Noi waterfalls, but they are talked about quite a lot, particularly by tourist agents… If they weren’t so easy to reach we would say SKIP IT, at least during the dry season. If you have a few minutes to kill, give it a try. In our experience the Sak Noi waterfalls had virtually no water, the pond was very small and not very clean. Although it was extremely hot we didn’t even think about getting in. Maybe in the rainy season is better. On the upside, there’s an old train there, so check it out! We liked the train much more than the falls…
Price of admission: Free.
Time required: 15 minutes.
Getting there: It’s in Nam Tok, by the road. You can stop there on your way to Hellfire Pass or the way back.
Erawan Falls are a 7-tier waterfall where you can dive, swim and rest by the river enjoying its surroundings. The light turquoise water flowing down the 7 tiers of waterfalls through the middle of the dense tropical forest create an astonishing site. It made us remember of Plitvice Lakes National Park, although Erawan falls are not as impressive. But you can dive and swim here. The climb up the tiers is quite easy with a clear path up to 6th tier. In the last one it’s a bit more difficult but still doable to virtually anyone.
Erawan falls aren’t the most famous attraction in Thailand, or second or third… but they are touristic. Everything in Thailand is touristic. Some people will find it too much, we found it manageable and still within reasonable amounts. It won’t be secluded and you will have to share it with other travelers, however they span through more than 1.5 km and people can spread around it.
Have you ever heard of fish spas? The ones where you put your feet in an aquarium and the fishes eat your dead skin? We saw a few of these in the islands and Bangkok, but it didn’t seem attractive… Well, in Erawan Falls you get a free, natural fish spa! The fish “attack” you to bite of your dead skin. It’s very tickly in the beginning but we get used to it. In the end we were already enjoying it.
You can’t take food past the second tier, only drinks. You pay a deposit of 20 baht per bottle you take. These are marked and you have to show them as you return. If you don’t, you lose the deposit.
All in all, this was our favorite day in Thailand and we advise anyone going to Thailand to take the time to enjoy these unique waterfalls!
Price of admission: 300 baht, for the National Park entry.
Time required: full day trip, including bus transportation, 4 hours in the falls.
Getting there: Take bus 8170 (40 baht) from Kanchanaburi Bus station. Last stop is Erawan Falls.
Bridge on the Kwai (Khwae Yai) River
The bridge over the Kwai (Khwae Yai) is the main attraction of the city of Kanchanaburi. The original bridge was built and destroyed during WW2 as part of the mentioned Death Railway. It was rebuilt after the war and today is used only by the trains to/from Nam Tok. This means that most of the time the bridge is free and you can visit it and walk on it. How often are you allowed to walk on the tracks and cross a historic railway bridge? It’s one those simple pleasures that we enjoy so much and don’t even know why 🙂 .
Price of admission: Free.
Time required: 1 hour.
Getting there: Just walk there from town center, or get a tuk-tuk if you don’t feel like it.
In retrospect the time we spent in Kanchanaburi was our favorite in Thailand. We preferred Kanchanaburi to any of the islands, to Chiang Mai and even to Bangkok. Kanchanaburi is inexpensive, relaxed and has fewer crazy tourists than most of Thailand. Don’t misunderstand us, it still has its share part, but is yet to be overruned by tourists. As unexpected as it can be, Kanchanaburi turned out to be our favorite place in Thailand! Why? History, Trails and Waterfalls… and these are easily accessible through public transports, buses and trains. No need for taxis, tuk-tuks or expensive tours!
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