Kanchanaburi – The bridge on the river Kwai

Has anyone seen the Academy Award-winning 1957 film The bridge on the river Kwai? It’s one of those classic war films that I loved so much as a child.

The film is apparently a fairly inaccurate depiction of the construction of the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, or the Thailand-Burma Railway – a 415 km (258 mile) railway between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan during World War II, to support its forces in the Burma campaign.

The living and working conditions on the railway were horrific. The estimated total number of civilian labourers and POWs who died during construction is about 160,000. About 25% of the POW workers died because of overwork, malnutrition, and diseases like cholera, malaria, and dysentery. The death rate of the Asian civilian workers was even higher; the number who died is unknown, as the Japanese did not count them.

The most famous portion of the railway is probably bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, immortalized by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

I visited Kanchanaburi for the first time in 1991 whilst backpacking in Thailand, and we had a rather bizarre experience staying in a house boat with an apparently psychotic English traveler who was utterly convinced he was being tailed by the CIA. This time around was a rather more civil affair, but no less interesting.

What to do in and around Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is a town in the west of Thailand, about 2-3 hours from Bangkok. It is the capital of Kanchanaburi province.

Apart from a trip to the bridge, also in Kanchanaburi are a war memorial and two museums: The Thailand-Burma Railway Museum (opened in March 2003) and the JEATH War Museum about the bridge and the Death Railway. The city is also home to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. It is the easiest access point to the nearby Tiger Temple, and Erawan National park and its spectacular Erawan falls.