Bridge over the Mae Nam Kwai

Kanchanaburi Travel Blog

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Leaving Bangkok made me nervous. I don't buy this line of thinking that says Bangkok isn't the 'real Asia', cos it's real enough for those millions of people who live in the city - they're not there for my benefit. But somehow the trip didn't seem real until I left the place.

Left my room, bought some chicken for breakfast from a really half-assed ladyboy, discarded the pink bits, and lugged my bag out to the train station. The train from Kanchanaburi goes along some minor branch line from a commuter station out in the suburbs; a quid fifty it cost for the three-hour trip, on an unpadded seat. Pity me. The countryside for the first couple of hours was uniformly flat and bright green, almost always inhabited - sometimes passing behind large white houses and wats, sometimes corrugated iron shacks in the middle of sugar cane fields. Near the end of the trip there was a hill in the distance - the first one I'd seen since I left the UK.

Kanchanaburi was an interesting town with a horrible history. It's the home of the Bridge over the River Kwai - the bridge over the River Kwai, reconstructed in the fifties after Allied bombing in 1944. Still used by trains, but you can walk across it too. Which I did, along with thirty thousand other people. There's a little Burmese market on the other side, with an elephant in the middle chained to a post. It looked pretty unhappy. Back across the bridge I went.

In 1941 the Japanese were looking for a way to bring supplies to their newly-acquired territory in south-east Asia. Their solution was to use prisoners of war - sixty thousand of them - and two hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers to build a 260-mile railway between Thailand and Burma. A quarter of the PoWs and half of the conscripts died in the process; all endured horrendous conditions under guards who believed that suicide was preferable to surrendur and that all PoWs had forfeited any right to life. There are huge great Allied war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi. I didn't go in; wouldn't have felt right.

I did go to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, a seriously sombre affair that gave a lot of detail on the history of the place. Apparently the labourers were treated humanely at first, but as Japanese high command started to apply pressure to get the railway finished that pressure was passed on to the prisoners. Then the rainy season started, and disease spread through everyone. The guards didn't issue food rations to the sick, in the apparent belief that not feeding them would motivate them to get up and working again faster, and the hospitals were woefully underequipped. Doctors risked beatings scavenging for rubbish to make surgical equipment with. It must have been very, very bad.

Modern-day Kanchanaburi isn't quite so grim. It's a bit ropey after dark, when all the bars seem to fall into two categories: those with only two patrons (a fat middle-aged white bloke and an uncomfortably young Thai girl) and those with lots of people inside, most of them prostitutes. I went into one of these places looking for somewhere to watch a game of football. I didn't last long.

There's a nice cave temple a half-hour bike-ride away from the town, though. And my guest house - the LP-recommended Sugar Cane, was one of the finest places I stayed anywhere in Asia. All set around a little garden and with a restaurant on a terrace jutting out over the River Kwai. You'd go to sleep to the sound of frogs and crickets. I love night-time in the tropics.

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photo by: wbboy29