The small city of Kanchanaburi sits at the base of the Tenasserim Hills on the edge of the flood plains of the Chao Phyra, the River of Kings, in what was once jungle. The hills border Myanmar and shelter the Kingdom of Smiles from the typhoons of the Andaman Sea. They also provide a physical barrier between the two countries, long-time rivals and dynastic adversaries and have played a part in putting this small regional centre in western Thailand on the map.
Kanchanaburi has been famous in contemporary times for its war history, the river Kwai and a movie named after it about the aptly named ‘Death Railway’. The effort to connect one country with the other by rail by Japan for the purposes of empire and warfare is what gave the bridge on the River Kwai its infamy. But there’s more to Kanchanburi. It also has a decades-old reputation as a laidback backpacker destination on the Thailand circuit, like a Thai island but without a beach. These days it rather more gentrified with a small resident expat community and close enough for anyone to make it over from Bangkok.
My first memories of Kanchanaburi was years ago and of floating bungalows, a jungle curry so hot I couldn’t taste let alone eat, and a police officer in brown, sporting a handgun with a barrel so long it resembled artillery. The town had rows of traditional wooden shophouses, and still does. The town was small enough to walk around or cycle and I’m pleased to say that can be done today. There are now shopping malls and ring roads, but Kanchanaburi has charm and visible history, and one of the best little museums I’ve seen.
You can get a bus to Kanchanaburi from Sai Tai Mai, the Southern Bus Terminal, in western Bangkok. The options are the high-speed mini buses that leave from the front of the terminal, or the larger public buses departing from around the corner to the left of the main building. Tickets can be bought downstairs outside in the bay where the bus departs for 120 baht (about USD4) from a couple of uniformed woman sitting at a wooden desk in the Bangkok heat.
Sai Tai Mai looks like a bland department store. Inside, upstairs there are stalls selling clothes and food dwarfed in the cavernous interior. There are ticket booths advertising destinations in the Muslim south and tourist-plagued islands of Thailand. The booth for Kanchanaburi was empty. Staff told me to go downstairs. Staff downstairs told me to go upstairs. Buying a bus ticket was like trying to order food at Fawlty Towers. In the end one of the upstairs staffers walked me over to the concourse and pointed to the big public buses lined up outside like two-tone crocodiles on a river bank.
The bus heads out west on national route 4 from Bangkok, before branching off onto provincial route 323 towards Myanmar. It’s 143kms to Kanchanaburi. The blue and white public buses make good time and are there in downtown Kanchanaburi in two-and-a-half hours. En route the bus stops to pick up passengers and let others off. Some are school kids going from home in one town to school in the next. A bevy of tickets inspectors check tickets at various stops, each inspecting what has gone before. The bus driver, a guy in his sixties, had adorned the inside of the vehicle with an array of symbols, ornaments and colour. There’s a television, which looks like it hasn’t worked in a while, so we’re not assailed visually or aurally by karaoke or some shoot ‘em up flick, origins unclear.
We drove past a road side garage displaying Jaguar classic motor cars. I saw factories with hundreds of motor scooters lined up, their owners toiling away inside. Farmers walked through fields wearing wide-brimmed hats. There were roadside imitation animals several meters tall, prehistoric dinosaurs and those seen more recently. There were fish farms across the fields, there being few actual fish left in the sea hereabouts, so most served up are freshwater. There were car yards selling the latest in Japanese and European vehicles; Volvo, Nissan and BMW. There were also junk yards; there’s your new vehicle, next to the wrecked one. Thai roads and drivers wreck lots of vehicles every year on the world’s second-most lethal roads. A good reason then, to travel in the larger public buses as they’re safer than the mini buses which are driven at high speed, often weaving in and out of traffic and as close to other vehicles as possible whilst the drivers are distracted on cell phones.
Thailand’s highways fan out like spokes from the central hub that is Bangkok. Road distance across Thailand is measured from a single marker on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road, one of the capital’s main boulevards, near the post office in Banglamphu. Many of the country’s highways, developed during America’s war in Vietnam to move war materiel to air bases in Isaan from where the US bombed the rest of Southeast Asia, are made from poured concrete. The sections laid one after the other, with inevitable gaps between pours. At motorway speed this produces a cyclic thumping sound through any vehicle, testing the suspension and shaking every nut and bolt. The noise can either be irritating or soporific. Aside from the noise from the road, the bus had wheezing brakes, every stop was like a last gasp.
Kanchanaburi was established under the rule of the first Chakri king, Rama I, as a defensive outpost during the Burmese–Siamese War of 1785–1786, known as the Nine Armies' Wars because the Burmese of the expansionist Konbaung Dynasty came at Siam as it then was, with nine armies. Conflict between Burma and Siam raged for three centuries, from the 1500s to the mid to late 1800s, probably only ending with the British annexation of Burma, and involved various kingdoms, successive dynasties, and an area covering what are now: Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, with implications for Cambodia and likely as far as Vietnam. Remnants of the Kanchanaburi’s military role can still be seen in the defensive walls west of the town centre between the main bus station and the river. King Rama I successor, Rama II, moved the town to its present site in 1833, for reasons which are unclear.
There are tuk-tuks of the Bangkok variety in Kanchanaburi, like those in the tourist posters. But like other regions in the country, transport comes in local forms. Kanchanaburi’s contribution is the side car tuk-tuk, where passengers step into a covered add-on with L-shaped seating. One I went on was adapted for a stick shift. Another ride on a local tuk-tuk, from the guest house to the central market in the midday heat, was driven by a Thai with good English. He asked how old I was and when I told him he said I looked 15 years younger. That he said was worth 100 baht. He asked where I was from. I said it was now winter there. He told me there were three seasons in Kanchanaburi, “hot, very hot, and fucking hot.”
The Khwae Yai River, begins in the Tenasserim Hills – 1,700kms long, which separate Thailand from Myanmar, and runs for 380kms, before joining the Mae Klong (Mae Khlong or Meklong) at the confluence of the Khwae Noi, and emptying into the Gulf of Thailand. At Kanachanaburi the river meanders past floating hotels, house boats and a variety of riverboats ferrying tourists up and downriver, all thankfully low key. Water, in monsoonal countries, is life, and rivers were an important part of that fabric until overtaken by roads, but much activity in this part of the world focusses on water, in all its cycles.
The hills only allow for two border crossing with Myanmar between Chumphon in the south and Tak to the north, a distance of 700kms; Three Pagodas Pass and Mae Sot, both north of Kanchanaburi. Three Pagodas Pass is almost at the extreme western edge of the widest part of the Thailand, where the Burmese isthmus is conversely, at its narrowest. Parts of the border are still disputed, are highly porous and hard to police, with much uncontrolled cross-border movement of people and the constant flow of various goods, illicit and otherwise. This is largely due to the world's longest ongoing civil war in Myanmar, from independence as Burma in 1948 until the present, and with seemingly no end in sight. Thailand is home to many thousands of refugees from the conflict zones in Myanmar: Tanintharyi, Mon, Kayah (Karenni), Shan, Kayin (the Karen) and Kachin states, ethnically diverse and distinct from the lowland Burmese, who make up the government and Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces, which uses scorched earth tactics.
Many of the guesthouses, hotels and resorts in Kanachanaburi are along River Kwai Road, or in the many soi running from it. You get an instant feeling of being at ease in town. At the main bus station, a songthaew driver said he knew my guesthouse and drove me straight there though I was the only passenger. He dropped me at the front desk for 80 baht. From Pat Ta Na Kari road, the main drag, we turned left at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, past the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, worth the trip if you do nothing else in Kanchanaburi.
You could say Kanachanaburi is war cemetery city, they being a feature, immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which manages 23,000 cemeteries and memorials in 150 countries, including four in Thailand. The buildings are pristine, the flowers fresh, and the grass mowed. They are a place of pilgrimage for many farang to see the graves of relatives, the plots recorded.
Kanachanaburi War Cemetery hold 6982 casualties and Chungkai war cemetery, just out of town across the river, holds 1739 casualties. While 61,000 Allied POWs worked on the railway to Burma, as many as 250,000 civilian labourers were also co-opted, coerced or press-ganged into service for the Japanese; of whom an estimated 90,000 died. There appears to be no memorials to those deaths.
The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is an interactive museum, information and research facility dedicated to presenting the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway. The museum tells the story of the Thailand-Burma Railway in ‘a respectful, factual and non-partisan way by using state-of the art display techniques’ and is one of the best little museums I’ve seen. There are eight main galleries. One of the things the museum highlights is that while conditions for the Allied POWs were harsh they can’t have been that good for the Japanese either. An Allied POW got 650g of rice per man daily, while the guards got only slightly more at 700g. Another matter they identified is that no army uses its best soldiers as camp guards. The Japanese had also conscripted Koreans as soldiers. Given Japan’s colonial rule in Korea was brutal, relations between the two groups was uneasy at best. In the Japanese army it was permissible to strike a subordinate. Every army uses a blame culture down through the ranks. For the camp guards, at the bottom of the pecking order, this inevitably led to them “passing it on” to the only people they could, the POWs.
The museum also highlights Japanese railway engineering abilities. Most engineers were civilian, not soldiers and had built railways all over Asia. The Japanese had strategically stockpiled rolling stock in advance of expanding their military reach. After all, Japanese forces had just defeated the British Empire in Asia, despite being outgunned, outnumbered, and with that high-tech feature of modern warfare, the bicycle. Contrary to the suggestion in David Lean’s classic film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, that Japanese engineers were incompetent, many had been trained earlier that century in the UK, so had the same training as any British engineer.
You can walk the rail bridge, though this isn’t the one built by forced labour. The replacement is near today’s railway station still used by the State Railways of Thailand. Tickets from Bangkok are fixed at 100 baht (3 USD) and there are two services a day from Thonburi Station on the west side of the Chao Phraya river near the Siriraj Hospital. The Death War Museum isn’t in the same league as the railway centre, an eclectic collection of war paraphernalia and artefacts, but good for a wander.
Nearby Kanchanaburi is the Buddhist temple Wat Tham Phu Wa which features a series of grotto shrines within a large limestone cave system. Each grotto features a statue of the Buddha at a different stage of his life. Once people came to see the tiger temple where saffron-robed monks walking about with some of Asia’s biggest cats, until evidence finally caught up with some of their practices and confirmed what many had suspected, that not everything was above board.
The Jolly Frog restaurant and guesthouse has become the Happy Frog, sometimes the Smiley Frog. Lunch was to the sound of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. I was the only customer and the three staff sat about chatting. Whatever state the frog is in, the place has been a home away from home for a few expats. A mate’s mother used to come every year from the UK for three months. She’d park up on the porch and talk to anyone who was passing. Kanchanaburi seems a great place to sit back and watch the world go by. Like the River Kwai it’s easy going and calm, like an oasis some foreigners call home. The locals like it too.