Having been to Thailand before, I knew what to expect upon arriving in Kanchanaburi. Still, after three weeks in Myanmar, a country with traditional values, I felt slightly dazed by ladies shouting “massage” to me as I passed their shops, ladyboys winking at me, and sixty-something Westerners walking hand-in-hand with their twenty-something Thai girlfriends. Some travel pundits have speculated that Myanmar is poised to become the next Thailand–I hope not! Myanmar will undoubtedly change as it’s discovered by increasing numbers of travelers, but I hope that the simple way of life in Myanmar endures.
Despite how it sounds, I really like Thailand. I never grow tired of eating delicious Thai food, and my first meal of Panang curry was tastier than most of my meals in Myanmar. Aided by Thailand’s strong backpacking culture, I met a group of friendly travelers during dinner and joined them afterward at an Aussie bar. The transition from Myanmar Beer to Chang and Singha was seamless, although by this stage of the trip I was craving a craft IPA instead of boring, macro-brewed lagers. The owner of the bar was an Aussie in his late sixties with a pregnant wife in her twenties working behind the bar. I drank with the travelers and bar owner late into the evening, which would become the norm for this stage of the trip.
The top attraction in Kanchanaburi for tourists is the Bridge Over the River Kwai, also known as the Death Railway Bridge. During World War II, the Death Railway was constructed by slave laborers and POWs while the area was under Japanese occupation. The railway is known as the Death Railway because around 90,000 civilian laborers and 12,000 Allied prisoners died during its construction. Completed in 1943, the railway was an important supply route between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma. The bridge became famous after the publication of the book “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the movie based on the book, which won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Picture. The 300m railway bridge was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1945, so only the outer curved spans are original. The Bridge Over the River Kwai is still in use by trains, but no trains appeared while I was roaming over the infamous bridge.
After seeing the Bridge Over the River Kwai, I visited the nearby JEATH War Museum. JEATH is an acronym for the primary, warring nations involved in the construction of the railway: Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, and Holland. The small museum contains some impressive war relics, including a train, a section of the original rail, and an Allied bomb that didn’t explode when dropped on the bridge. The museum also contains some exhibits which seem bizarrely out of place, such as the Miss Thailand Directory, which presents the former Miss Thailand’s from the 1930s to modern times. The JEATH War Museum has been criticized as being “tatty and amateurish” by Wikivoyage, but personally I’m drawn to places with some character. Wikivoyage recommends the “far superior” Death Railway Museum, which I visited next.
The Death Railway Museum is a modern museum with galleries that tell the tragic history of the Death Railway. The museum displays some wartime artifacts, but text, photos, and video are the primary means of delivering the history lesson. I spent an hour wandering around the museum. While the museum must be seen while in Kanchanaburi, the treatment of the forced laborers is obviously depressing and I left the museum in a somber mood. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, located next to the museum, is the largest cemetery for POWs who died while constructing the Death Railway. Almost 7000 POWs are buried in the cemetery, primarily the Australian, British, and Dutch POWs. The remains of the Americans were repatriated.
After visiting Kanchanaburi’s World War II attractions, I departed for Bangkok. I had been in Bangkok two years earlier and was looking forward to my return.