Long ago I read a couple of articles by Keith Summers, a.k.a. John Galt on his blog NOTStickmanBangkok.com, not that he likes being called a blogger, that put me off visiting one location that I won't name because I don't want to put anybody else off. There was a childish disagreement between two falang and because on previous occasion I had some communication with the real Stickman Bangkok a.k.a. Paul Owen who I knew as someone who provided useful titbits of information, I felt naturally defensive of him. Then one day I had to return to Sticks website for a second reading of an article of his only to feel a sense of depravity and disappointment at the ridiculous number of adBanners on his blog. Gone is the info' on how to get a visa and in its place are banners for visa agencies. Thus confirming Keith's point of view and so I started to read both sides of each story. The strange thing is that if you go to The StickmanSyndicate and have a look at both their photos there is a remarkable similarity. The problem for the reader trying to get an idea of what to plan for when travelling to Thailand is that each has contradictory perceptions. Paul Owen loves Thailand, Keith Summers endures it. They each tear apart their common desires like the redshirts and yellowshirts tear apart politics and the mafia tear apart the tourism industry and Kanchanburi is tearing its self apart to keep the money coming in. Keith and Paul are not to blame for Thailand's ills but they represent it. But don't be put off, go as soon as you can, go before they start slapping it on the sides of lunchboxes. Go while the markets are still selling silk and traditional dresses and not 'all I got was this lousy' T-shirts. Go while you're still allowed to and before the 'You Dont Wanna Do That' foreigners discover the next fixation to pick fault over.
Quick find# | Accommodation? | Food? | Shopping? | Bridge on the River Kwai? | Hellfire Pass? | Tiger Temple? | Other things to do? | Location?
Getting there is easy enough with regular train services and if you're coming from Bangkok you need to go to Bangkok Noi station. There are buses that run out of the Southern Bus Terminal as well as the Northern and North Eastern but if you're in a hotel just ask them to book you a tour. The problem with Kanchanaburi is that it is very widespread so you need a car and for the same money you can hire one and drive there. When you get to Kanchanaburi City things take a weird turn for the nonsensical compounded by a superfluous supply of misinformation. I did not have cause to use local public transport so I tried to look it up to verify my recollection of what I saw there. I know there are songthaew (song [sorng]taow) a kind of open back taxi that has fixed routes and are very cheap to use and can also be hired for personal use. To stop one you hold out your hand. When you want to get off you ring the bell like a bus and give the driver 5 Baht p.p.. There are always a couple of these and a taximeter at the railway station but according to Lonely Planet the local transport is samloht, which means three wheels. A lot of things have three wheels in Thailand and Kanchanaburi has Tuk Tuks but presumably they mean jakayaan samloht which is a bicycle and not much bloody use when you have luggage and want a taxi. amazing Thailand produced by Tourism Authority of Thailand tells you nothing at all and neither does the other guide 'Unforgettable Thailand'. But the first prize has to go to Trip Advisor for telling you the town is compact so you can easily walk around it. I don't think they had been there because the town is about 7km from the district office to the bridge. Khao Pun train station is a couple of miles from the town and Lonely Planet point you in the direction of the resorts on Mae Nam Kwai Road. A street best described as having been displaced from Pattaya. They then drift into the ridiculous with info' like the river ferry that crosses Mae Nam Mae Klong that costs 8 Baht. Mae Nam Mae Klong is the road 'Route 3429' that takes you Southwest out of the city and there is a bridge over the Maeklong River. Pedantic I may be, but if you ask a local where the Mae Nam Mae Klong Ferry is they might think you want to go to a lake, or you want a water hole or well, which is why you should do your research first. I have no idea if there is a ferry that crosses the river but there are plenty of passenger ferries that do short trips up and down the Kwae Yai and there are longtails (as featured in a James Bond movie with Roger Moore) but don't be fooled by their appearance, these boats skim across the water at a fearsome pace. There are motorbike rents in the city if you don't like driving too far and go to Kanchanaburi by train but to summarise the transport situation, use a tour operator for a day trip or rent a car!.
in Kanchanaburi is above average and there are plenty to choose from. Yet there are many websites where hotels in this city get panned and I don't know if that is indicative of the never-satisfied falang or if I am the accidental tourist who never books the poor quality rooms they manage to find. The last time we went we stayed at the River Kwai Hotel on Route 323 (the main road that runs through the city) and for the first time outside the UK when it said 4 star, for my money, it almost was. We had decided to just drive there and take what comes. The rainy season was almost upon us and everywhere we went the resorts were having a quiet, out-of-season, time. We hadn't planned this trip too well and having driven for a lot more than 7 hours from Aran Yaprathet we were going to grab the first hotel we found. It was full (dem), and so was the next, and the next, and that's when we realised Kanchanburi doesn't have a tourist season. Out came the map and hotel list and there were a bunch of offerings along the same road, Pak Praek. It is a boisterous street so we didn't fancy there either. We sat and ate at a crowded open air restaurant on the main drag and got into a conversation with a Police officer who recommended the River Kwai Hotel and if I ever see that officer again I shall make a contribution to his gratuity fund because the hotel excelled in every facet of hotelliery (I really hope there is such a word). There is a nightclub next door and I could hear the music but it wasn't loud enough to keep me awake. Between the nightclub and hotel is a bar/restaurant and that didn't spoil my night's sleep either. Behind the hotel is a railway line and the early train blasted its horn not long after sunrise. I lay on the bed in a semi-slumber and listened to the bogie wheels clacking over the rail gaps. Maybe you don't want to be woken to feint sounds of railway but for me it had a perverse romance that reminded me how Kanchanaburi came to be. We had a cheap room but it was turned down beautifully. The bed wasn't hard, but it was huge, the linen was crisp, the room temperature just right. The shower was perfect, the room service spot on and reasonably priced, the staff present themselves accordingly and I would definitely stay here again, but next time I shall ask for a room at the front and higher up where it is a little quieter.
One late afternoon early evening, sat in a more modest bar drinking a very cool and refreshing Heineken khuad next to a young chap who seemed to be travelling alone, I overheard him ask for another beer with an Australian accent. We started chatting and the weather doesn't take long to discuss in Thailand so he soon asked where I was staying. I explained that I was en-route back to Bangkok and how about you? He was here for the memorial and I like that Australian kids are taught about the war and the men and women who gave their lives. Whilst the British government dismiss it from our schools curriculum because it offends immigrants. It is our history and our ancestry. It happened and if we don't want it to happen again we should never let the perpetrators forget it. The Aussies are patriotic and know what ANZACS day is and we are shamed for allowing political correctness (of which the Aussies have no understanding whatsoever) to eradicate the memories. He was en-route to Melbourne and I couldn't outdo that but in between was staying in the heart of Hellfire Pass at a place called Hintok River Camp and his room was a tent. I couldn't outdo that either and considered it a ridiculous length to go to in order to empathise yourself with your antecedent suffering but he really liked it and it does look and sound great, especially for a family.
The same company owns River Kwai Jungle Rafts and I plan to try out there as well even though the incongruous photo of Erewan Falls looks remarkably like mine. I came accidentally across a forum where a chap was describing the Floatel and as usual with the overbloated information highway I cannot find it again which is annoying because he loved it so much he resided there. Then there is the Resotel that is also part of the same group and might not be to everyone's taste but I stayed just one night and really liked it. It is in stark contrast to the bungalows I accidentally used in Ayutthaya. I swear I am not being sponsored by this company but they do hospitality in a unique and thoughtful way and if you want somewhere out of the city then this is it.
Someone I met through work in the UK told me about Mom Chailai where he had just spent two weeks with his wife and two nearly teenage kids. He described it as back to nature without taking your clothes off. He says it felt safe and the kids could go wild without being a nuisance and could go on activity trips for the day while he and his wife went off sightseeing. The food was good, rooms and beds were good, they were made to feel at home and he is going back again.
Kanchanaburihotels.com have a half decent list to choose from and if you're looking for cheap try River Inn on Saeng Chuto Road for about 300 Baht and a few doors up is Prasopsuk Hotel and further along is Luxury Hotel. If you want some real luxury however go to Comsaed.
Where would I stay next time? - Ploy River Kwai in Mae Naam Kwai Road.
Sadly the same can't be said for eating as for the hotels in Kanchanaburi. At best it is absolutely average and at worst a bit below par. Everywhere we ate was either disappointing or poor value for money so expect to have to survive rather than eat haute cuisine.
Amongst those recommended by Unforgettable Thailand and possibly they will be unforgettable: Sabai Chit in Saengchuto Road, chit is misspelt I suspect. River Kwai Floats, absolutely average. River Kwai Restaurant, exactly the right place for the river and bridge view and there is no charge for using their balcony, good job too 'cos even the coffee is below par.
There are a few places that reach above the bar such as Sian Khao Tomfree night market but only if you like spicy. Also the market just along from the River Kwai Hotel wasn't too bad but if you want a restaurant I'm afraid you have to pick one and hope for the best. As a for instance we tried the Chinese/Japanese restaurant which if I recall was called Alfredo's or something like that. The food was described as authentic and five star and the service was excellent. The woman who was singing I wanted to shut up but that is incidental. The food was very nice and beautifully presented though we didn't bother with drinks or side dishes and I was then presented with a bill for 2200 baht. The cost of living is about one third that of the UK so this bill equalled about £120.00 which was outrageous for what we'd had. This included a service charge so for the first time ever I didn't leave a tip. The next night we ate in our four star hotel and the bill was only 800 baht.
If you are driving and in a hotel up north then go to Wang Pho Station Restaurant behind the Sai Yok Elephant Village. It is fantastic food and reasonably priced. If you are to the southern end of the city toward Tha Muang there are plenty of street sellers with the moo yang etc but best of all if you are out toward the northeast go to Suphan Buri where there is a wide selection of top notch restaurants along Thanon Suphan Buri-Bang Bua Thong and also is a Ruen Thep restaurant with traditional Thai dancing.
If shopping is the purpose of your visit then really, don't. The one thing Kanchanaburi should never do is disappoint and if you come to shop then it will commit the cardinal sin. This is a problem because when you visit a place of notoriety you want mementoes and whilst you might find tacky little die cast models of Japanese steam locomotives you are looking for the wrong thing. In New Zealand Road just before the bridge is an indoor market that my missus loved. It is filled with Thai jewellery like arm bands and headsets and home made preserves and sweets. From there cross Mae Nam Kwai Road to a smaller talat where a guy is painting those Thai glittery style images on foil. He offered us King Bhumibol for 1000 baht and Che Guevara with whom the Thais have an affinity without knowing why for a lot less.
On the other side of New Zealand is a row of street traders selling ghai pot (see the Food Page), moo thawt, Luuk Chin Neuua and lots of other tasty nibbles that you can fill up on. At the end as you approach the bridge there are a few gift shops and on the right a little market selling proper Thai ladies clothes that kept my other half occupied while I went for a beer.
S.A.P. Mine Co. in a tiny place called Ban Hin Dat where there is also a central market is worth going to but only if you are visiting Sai Yok. If you choose to take a trip out then go to Hin Dat early then continue on north about 25km to the Thong Pha Phum Market which is to the left on Route 323 before the Khao Laem Lake. You could finish off by continuing on north to Sangkhla Buri where there is plenty to see and do.
Bridge on the River Kwai?
My mate and I had three days of our three week trip to Thailand left and a good way to close your holiday is to book a couple of tours. We booked a day trip to Kanchanburi through our hotel back in Bangkok and we were quite keen to see this infamous bridge and have our photos taken on it because we didn't know it was in Thailand.
For some unknown to me reason I thought it was in Burma and my mate never gave it a thought and strangely, when I returned home and told my mum who knows everything trivia, it transpired she thought it was in Burma too.
One thing you don't notice until you are standing there yourself is that any photos you may have seen of people on the bridge having been on the tour around the museums is that they are not smiling. It is a sobering experience and if you're on a pleasure trip to Thailand then give it a miss. But if this is a one off trip to Thailand then it is an absolute must and an important education for youngsters.
We decided to do a day trip with a tour bus which turned out to be really comfortable and air conditioned and there was a drinks hostess and the guide, who spoke English very well, had a good script that was very informative as well as light hearted. First stop was the War Graves, which the Thais call Don Rak. My other half can't tell me what that means but Don is tendering to flowers or a flower bed and Rak is usually used to convey love or call them beloved. You sort of expect it to be bigger but it is nowhere near full of the contingent that was lost. To give it some perspective, what remains of this railway is 248 miles long and the Thais estimate there is one dead man for every sleeper that was laid. The forced labour brought in by the Japanese was 1000 men for every mile of track. Half of them lost their lives through starvation, mal-nutrition, disease, accidents, and many were put out of their misery by the Japanese guards. The Japanese insisted the fallen were buried where they worked or they were just left to rot in the surrounding jungle and if they fell in the river they were left to the Pla Phueang, a member of the Piranha family. 6982 are buried at Don Rak, almost 5000 of them are British, and 7 of them bear my surname. I have yet to research the descendancy and I'm not sure I want to but it was enough to move me. Meanwhile my friend came over to me with tear-filled eyes and said he had to leave. Afterward when I asked him if he was ok he said there was a grave with his name on and it struck him how fortunate he is to be here whilst his 21 year old namesake was not.
Sadly this gross human sacrifice is disrespectfully articled on some web sites. Tripadvisor says "visitors should get a sense of the days of the past as they were experienced by the people of the area". Today the food is plentiful, the jungle has been cleared, there are hospitals and Doctors and the Tigers have all but disappeared. In 1943 there would have been the sounds of occasional gunfire, of distant dynamite rock blasting and twin hammers slamming in the line spikes. Elephants would have been groaning and trumpeting as they dragged logs and pushed over trees. The sound of gunboats chugging down the river and logging and sawmills and hundreds of voices chattering away in several unknown languages. Almost weekly the sound of aircraft and the whistle of falling bombs. The smells of death and decay and open log fires and boiling rice and fish. The smells of grease and oil and body odour and unwashed clothing. You would need a magnificent imagination to compose all of this in your head and this comment is irreverent rubbish that belies the anguish of our tormented predecessors who hadn't the most basic of luxuries such as footwear, soap, and disinfectant. This is followed with "Bridge Over the River Kwai, known alternatively as the Death Bridge". I cannot recall seeing anywhere on location where it said that. I have since scoured the web and asked the British Legion and the only two references that call this the Death Bridge are Trip Advisor and Travelpod whose information source is Trip Advisor and I wish Keith Summers would turn his attentions to them. I have no doubt it is a faux pas on the part of a contributor but Trip Advisor is responsible for the material posted on their website. The correct name is the Burma Railway though it is sometimes called the Thailand/Burma Railway and the bridge in Kanchanaburi, which does not have an official name, crosses the Mae Nam Khwae Yai.
Before the war this stretch of river was known as the Mae Nam Mae Klong and the British work detail brought in by the Japanese mistakenly thought it was the Mae Kwae. With the exception of the RAF Bomber Command, the bridge was not given a title until the French author Pierre Boulle penned his novel, Bridge Over The River Kwai, creating the story from his own experience as a POW in Thailand having been an active member of the Free French Movement based in Singapore. He also wrote Planet of the Apes, which seems ridiculous until you draw the parallels with the Japanese Imperial Army. The French pronunciation of the spelling 'Kwai' is kway, (thank you mum) which I am assuming is about as close as he could get to pronouncing Kwae and no one had heard of the bridge on which he based his novel until David Lean made the movie The Bridge On The River Kwai in 1957. This resulted in the British changing the name of the river for a second time. This is the only movie that is entirely fictitious that has been added to the Library of Congress National Archives because of its significant contribution to recording a historically important wartime event.
In 1960 the Thai government officially changed the name of the river because visitors could not find the bridge or the cemetery. Meanwhile the account on Trip Advisor continues its ignominious depiction with "This bridge was constructed during World War II by area prisoners of war and marks an important era in the history of American invasion in the area". This statement goes beyond inaccurate as there were no prisoners in the area. The armed forces that were in that part of the World were busy trying to escape the Japanese invasion further west. The Americans were fighting their way across the Pacific only weeks after entering the war when the railway construction began and this comment seems to suggest the Yanks built the bridge.
This railway became a necessity to the Japanese war machine because British submarines were sinking the cargo ships that were needed to supply forces on the front in Burma. Japan wanted to extend its empire to Central Asia as pre-agreed with the Nazis who had their eye on Russia and this railway was part of a long planned operation. Japan knew that if they invaded China to gain control of their much needed coal reserves the US would impose trade sanctions including oil supply. Burma had oil, in abundance, and the next stage was to get control of that but it was under British Rule. The route to Burma was across China and the threats from America grew as they proceeded not least because of horrendous stories of atrocities as the Japanese assaulted each key city. Churchill meanwhile was mounting pressure on Roosevelt who himself wanted to declare war in Europe while Japan knew it was only a matter of time before they would have a Pacific war.
In 1887 Messrs Punchard and Co. had carried out a feasibility study to link the not yet existent Burma Railway to Siam's not yet existent railway network. The idea was considered too costly and the terrain too difficult but the Japanese were ignorant of this and borrowed Punchards survey maps under the misapprehension the Victorians were too cowardly to continue the construction.
Japan had a non-aggression agreement with America and decided that, as war was inevitable, to strike without declaration and cripple the essential Pacific Fleet. At the same time as attacking Pearl Harbor the Japanese invaded Thailand. The battle lasted six hours and as is customary with Thai politics there was a coup and within days the Thai government declared war on Britain and America. This gave way to a pact with Japan who could now build their railway link. They were miserably short of labour for the project but the fall of Singapore solved the problem of construction skills in an unskilled country with a surrendering abundance of westerners who knew how. Management was needed and the job of guarding was not as important as the war effort nor would it be considered honourable. Both Toosey and Dunlop thought the enemy they had succumbed to were inept and poorly equipped and on the Burma Railway would be no better. The Japanese officers mistook surrender for cowardice and thought it suitable to abuse them. The Japanese engineers had no idea about construction and where the two ends of the railway was to join up at Takanum would have missed by a kilometer because they could not read the British made maps properly. Most of the overseers were young men from Korea who also had no idea about man management, treatment of Pows, or construction.
The bridge at Kanburi was built by British POWs led by Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Virtually none of the American POWs who worked on the railway from Chung Kai to Hintok survived the horrors. Of the 646 Americans on the railway 356 lost their lives, and there are still questions about where some came from, some of whom have never been identified. Some were rescued from the Sunda Straight and some picked up in Java after the sinking of USS Houston that had been patrolling there. Of her 1061 crew, 368 survivors were all accounted for and sent to the Burma Railway where 131 of them lost their lives. The rest were mostly members of the Burma Frontier Force (BFF) and the 131st Field Artillery who were racing to escape the rapid Japanese advance toward the Last Out Of Burma, another story of infamy and where the Japanese got their supply of English and Indian POWs to send to the various points along the railway from Thanbyuzayat downward. A journey that took up to 5 days in steel railroad grain trucks with only one bowl of rice each day and was followed with a 100km march. Some of the Americans were known to be volunteers who joined the allied forces in the UK and were therefore British Forces but the Japanese singled them out because of the anti-American propaganda of how America was trying to starve the Japanese and how historically the US had restricted sales of Japanese cars and electrical products. The American Pows to the south came from Singapore, Hong Kong, Java, Malaya, Borneo and many of the Philipino islands.
The Americans did not take part in the allied Burma Campaign spearheaded by the Chindits who remained and worked entirely behind enemy lines with the exception of the US 5307th Composite Unit. A collection of renegade Yanks who volunteered for a mission in India and would likely have been charged with disobeying orders or something if it were not for their successes and determination to take their private war to the Japs more than a thousand miles east of India. They quickly earned the nickname Merrill's Marauders and I have to be honest and say I was amazed to discover they were not fictional characters because the Americans were very aware that if they were caught by the Japanese they would be mistreated in the most abhorrent ways. It doesn't help that Hollywood has an appalling history of destroying the truth and what's more, the American incursion back into Central Burma didn't happen until the autumn of 1944, almost 5 months after the Allied India Forces retook northern Burma. There was no requirement for the Allies to continue the push into the heart of Thailand who true to political form unconditionally surrendered on the same day the Japanese retreated. Both the SOE (special operations executive) and the OSS (US special ops) were freely using Bangkok and the Free Thai Movement to counter Japanese operations and the surrender was made diplomatically to them. Unbeknown to the Japanese Military, Prime Minister Pibul Songkram was also part of the Free Thai Movement, which meant the surrender was more a change of allegiance. There was no invasion in the area. The few Americans who were unfortunate enough to have been captured and made to dig through solid rock with hammers and chisels and makeshift drills are done a disservice with Trip Advisors unhistorical drivel.
My friend and I walked around to the Burmese Railway Centre and nosed around the stalls set up by locals to sell little ornaments and trinkets while others in our tour were still examining the nameplates and reading the epitaphs. It gave us both time to compose ourselves and how I wished the pain behind my eyes would cease. I could not quell the emptiness. The hollowness of witnessing a funeral. Left is the Research Centre and I confess to borrowing both the thumbnail from Kanchanaburi Info who I hope anyone reading this will go and read their account too because it is correct, and the larger image (if you click on the thumb) is from Thailand Burma Railway Centre Online. This research centre has grown into the Death Railway Museum and the images on the right of the new facility are my own but more importantly is to recognise the sterling work they do voluntarily. They are responsible for having recovered Hellfire Pass, for mapping the entire length of the railway. For recovering important material and creating the displays for the artefacts and most of all, for recovering the remains of lost soldiers, finding out who they are, and giving them a place to rest in peace.
We returned to our tour and we were taken just a little way down the road to some longtail boats beside a bamboo jetty for a white knuckle-ride up the river. The guide continued his dialogue with a James Bond story and the driver took us along the route used for the final cut providing some excitement as he squeezed dangerously by the pillars of the Mae Kwae Bridge. It is really difficult to get photos at speed but in a boat gets ridiculous. But for 20 minutes or so I was a little boy once again and forgot the horrors of Don Rak as we cooled in the river spray, grinning madly, spitting out the murky water and wiping it from our eyes. Passengers were all squinting and women hung on tightly to their blouses with hair billowing wildly. This was great fun. This boat ride alone was worth the thirty quid we'd paid, and the view as we approached the bridge had everything you could wish for. The local train lumbered slowly across on its way to Bangkok while people waited in the safe areas before they continued their crossing on foot. Floating restaurants put out aromas that could be assented across the river and distant music could be heard from bars and I was so glad I had come on this tour. In Kanchanburi station stood the locomotive and Thais were haggling loudly as they disembarked amid others trying to get on. I was sure we had stepped back in time as we wandered around the small bazaar next to the railway halt. Strangely all that would have been here in the past was jungle and Kanchanaburi today is a fusion of different cultures previously brought together by the Japanese solely to build the railway.
The Japanese called the location of the bridge Kanburi, Kan meaning to bring together, and encouraged a huge migration into the area of Thai, Burmese and Malay by promising them well paid jobs. These were intentionally empty promises and no one suffered more than the Asians who the Japanese government had made a pact with. After the war the Thais renamed the halt Kanchanaburi, chana meaning to overcome or defeat. It is also a play on words which is commonplace in Thailand as Kanchana is a name and the province was called Kanchanaburi during the reign of King Rama I when he installed a massive army base further north to defend against the Burmese after having defeated their invasion in 1804. The railway quickly fell into disuse as post war Military controlled Burma put the borders back in place, which meant the line led nowhere until work began on recovering soldiers from graves along the route in 1947.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission were given plots of land in Don Rak and Chung Kai in Kanchanaburi, and Thanbyuzayat in Burma by the respective authorities. Don Rak had been donated because many of the fallen had already been buried in a makeshift cemetery there. Chung Kai because it was one of the camp locations. Other nations who had been dragged into this sordid affair with the exception of Japan were invited to coalesce in this huge task and so the plots are separated into nationalities but the overall maintenance is continued by the Australians and the British. America has a long tradition of not leaving anyone behind on foreign soil and their dead were all repatriated.
We took photos on the bridge and then moved on again to the Jeath War Museum. I thought maybe Asians couldn't pronounce death or that was how they spelled it but that's not it. JEATH stands for Japan, England, Australia, Thailand & Holland and I see no mention of either a death bridge or Americans. I digress, but nothing we had witnessed so far could have prepared me for what I was about to learn. The museum is constructed from photos of the original camp that the Japanese named Tamarkan. It is hot and humid and smells of stale body odour and offers no comfort or rest area. The exhibits are the original photos and implements. The beds are constructed how they were back then out of bamboo and one man asked quietly "How did they get 300 men in here?". It was the only utterance I heard as people stared vacantly at the photos and read the stories in silence. It must have been unbearably overcrowded as the prisoners tried to sleep side by side. The floor was muddy and the roof wasn't sealed. No doors or nets to keep out the mosquitoes. When the food was short the Thais amongst the prisoners were not allowed to eat. Sometimes there was no food at all and you have to ask yourself, how much can a man take before he loses the will to live? There are stories of wounds that would become infected and the only cure was to stand in the river and let the Pla Phueang eat the rotting flesh. Of how Thais were rounded up and set to work but were not fed or rested. They were worked until they died and then the Japanese would round up more villagers.
The men in the photos look frail and malnourished and there are stories of Thais being able to survive because the meagre supply of rice was their staple diet. Whilst the English and Dutch became more sick each day. The longer you survived working on this railway, the more likely you were to die. Some refused to work and were shot. Some would be so tired when they woke up that they needed more rest, so they were shot. Some got Malaria and were shot. And so it went on, and on, month after month constructing the railway and bridges according to the Japanese engineers orders. Then the rains came and all they could do was take shelter in their near useless billets and go hungry while they waited for it to stop. When they returned to the bridge it had been washed away. Completely destroyed. By now the men were broken and distraught at the thought of starting all over again. Their water came from fresh streams and with the monsoon came cholera. The Japanese wouldn't go near those who fell ill and the Pows were left to fend for themselves with no medicines or food. As more men became a liability the Japanese were finding new ways to cure their boredom and they took to running them through with their ceremonial swords. Americans were deemed unworthy of this honourable ending so they were beaten to death with bamboo canes whilst avoiding the head to ensure a slow and painful ending. A punishment regularly meted out to the coolies if they tried to leave.
The Japanese decided to hand over the construction management of the bridge to the British in the knowledge that they were civil engineers (maybe the Japs were realising how incompetent they were) though there is disagreement over whether the Japanese intended to build the bridge out of concrete and steel before this setback and it is too easy to confuse the truth with the movie. But the fears of having to start over again were not unfounded and the Japanese increased the working day to 16 hours. Hundreds more died building it for a second time. The bridge was completed in the summer of 1943 and the soldiers were still on site as a maintenance crew when the only American intervention came.
First Lieutenant Charles F. Linamen and his crew from the 436th Bomb Squadron in their B-24 Liberator flew on their own with no fighter support from India. They were followed 30 minutes later by six B-24 support bombers taking off at ten minute intervals and at 9.00am on 3rd April 1945 they made their first bomb run passing over the steel bridge and dropping two bombs on the wooden reserve and destroyed about 50 feet of the centre. They circled over the southern ack ack battery and came in for a second run flying low following the river as it twists and winds and dropped their next two 1000Lb bombs as they neared the steel arches They released the load too soon and dropped one bomb into the river which failed to explode and the second was stuck in the release gear. They stuck to the task of making a third run despite the overwhelming flack from the two anti-aircraft batteries and released all the remaining bombs and to their relief the rogue dropped with them. They struck the third bridge support blowing the two centre sections off and demolishing the pillar.
As they made their getaway climbing steeply and banking to the left they were badly damaged by the flack and 'Curly' Linamen with a missing aileron, broken right stabiliser, a metre of his right wing shot off, and the bomb bay doors missing flew them to Akyab in northern Burma that had by now been reoccupied by British forces. Eight hours of flying an aircraft that was slowly disintegrating he realised he could not land on the runway with a dozen or more B-24s parked either side and had to crash land in a flooded field writing off the new aircraft, but saving the lives of all the crew.
Back in Kanburi the contingent was now heartbroken and angry because all this meant was they would have to start over again. And yet the American heavy bombers could have flown along the track in the undefended jungles on the Burmese side of the track laying, which would have been an easier target or even the border line at Three Pagodas Pass where there was no tree cover. Maybe they thought they were doing the soldiers on the ground a favour. Maybe they wanted to punish them for helping the enemy with their war effort. The fact is, blowing bridges was standard practice to slow down any enemy advance, but it was the wrong action to take for the workforce on the ground as the Japanese rounded up the remaining American Pows and executed them in retribution.
I keep finding sites that claim the R.A.F. blew the spans but they do not cite any reference. Francis Mellersh Air Commodore and Air Commander of Strategic Air Force stationed in India wrote in a memo to the CO at 7th Bomb Group HQ that RAF Liberators flew a bombing mission on 24th April but this was to destroy the entire use of the line and does not mention the steel bridge (see The Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1946 - Paul H. Kratoska) suggesting that it was at that time still damaged and it was unlikely the Japanese could have effected repairs in three weeks. According to the author 159 Squadron lead by Squadron Leader Watson with Flight Officers Dowding and Haycock flew on 24th June and destroyed the bridge for the final time but none of the officers involved report this in their logbooks (see Robert Quirk or National Archives) and although a mission is listed in 159 Squadrons flight log for 24/6 it was a night raid and their target was more likely to have been the railway yards. That doesn't mean the bridge bombing didn't happen but the author doesn't cite where the notation can be found and often there is confusion during aerial bombardment.
After repairing the bridge the Liberators came back and to try to protect the bridge the Pows were lined up on it and ordered to wave so the pilots will know they are Allies. Those who refused to comply were shot. It didn't stop the raid and dozens were killed.
The camps were not marked as Pow camps, nor hospitals, to inflict as much harm as possible and previously in November 1944 during a raid on the Ack Ack Battery one of the Liberators over-ran and blew the NW corner of Tamarkan killing nineteen and wounding sixty-eight (see centre image below). The next raid saw prisoners being deliberately moved from Chung Kai to Tamarkan as punishment for the constant bombing. Valentines Day 1945 saw a reversal of this and they were moved to relative safety at Chung Kai. It is not clear why and though Colonel Toosey had regular interviews to the annoyance of Lieutenant Kosakata, though Toosey says he got on better with Sergeant Major Saito who was second in command, this move may have been a Japanese decision. This decision would not have been made out of compassion and at his trial Kosakata denied abuse and claimed that bombing was a contributory factor to the Kanburi fatalities. It made no difference and he was executed while Saito was not indicted because of Toosey's evidence.
The Japanese Government repaired the bridge after the war as a gesture of friendship according to the commemorative plaque pinned to it but sadly even that is false penitence and cynically it was repaired as part of an agreement because they needed to sell the railway to the Thailand National Railway to raise funds for War reparations. There was no apology. The official explanation being "The allied soldiers were not used to the rice and fish diet and lost a lot of weight" and "those who died committed suicide" and I find it astonishing that a warrior nation so contemptuous of their surrendering subservients could suddenly become so cowardly even claiming that the Pows were paid wages. To date, the Japanese Government and more importantly, Emperor Hirohito or his son Akihito have not made amends to the victims or offered any sort of compensation and one can only assume, that means they are not sorry. A publicity stunt Premier's apology before going into discussions about trade is worthless when as recently as 2007 the Japanese Premier was in denial of wrong-doings. In 1944 the Japanese allowed the British Pows to build a memorial to remember the dead. Later the Japanese Association in Thailand added a plaque to the monument proclaiming 'This monument was erected by the Japanese Army during World War II in memory of the personnel of the Allied forces and the nationals of the many countries who had helped in the construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway and had died through illness during the course of the construction'. Soldiers' accounts such as Fred Taylor contradict claims of death by illness. Having been taken prisoner in Singapore Fred, as he feared for his life, remembered stories he had heard of atrocities in China. But these were not stories, it was the stuff of nightmares and very real and Japan needs to educate its children about what their forefathers did just as much as Britain should.
Perhaps I sound angry. I'm not, I just feel so sad that this event, which whilst not on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust, was even more intense and horrific, and yet it is off-handedly discarded into the annals of history. Hardly remembered and often misinterpreted. I am saddened that I did not know about Kanchanburi. Sad that brave young men such as Linamen who was awarded the DFC should be overlooked in the story of Bridge 277. Sad because the world does not teach it's children about what their great-grandads did. This is not an anti-Japanese story though there is no room for political correctness and if we allow nations to tell lies about these atrocities they will happen again through ignorance.
Back in the glaring sunshine and the modern world we stared down into the embankment where the men were assembled daily in Kanburi. The landscape looks just like the movie even though it was filmed in Sri Lanka but I could almost hear Alec Guiness yelling at the men to stay in the ranks over the whistling of Colonel Bogey.
We were hustled back on the bus and no one spoke. Everyone sat in silence. The tour guide held the microphone in his lap and didn't speak and I thought to myself 'he knows what effect this has on tourists'. I am unable to recall the route we took but by now there were two other buses following us and as we rounded a corner into what looked like jungle the uncomfortable stillness was broken with a startling "We're going to stop for some lunch now". We had been taken to the tiniest of villages called Wang Pho and possibly the only thing there was a restaurant. And what a restaurant. The buffet they had provided was stunning and each and every individual dish tasted fantastic and I should know because my appetite was suddenly and unexpectedly restored to normality. But for some inexplicable reason we had been joined by an annoyance in the form of a Welsh couple. I wish I had a photo of them to warn the world to avoid them. The only photo I have is of this chap with a red face that he obtained from eating tom yum goong and not from the sun as we are exiting the restaurant. I was never going to get a photo of the Welsh because they were so bloody annoying I made damn sure I stayed well clear of them. The museum had upset her so she couldn't possibly eat. We had to wait a few minutes because our buffet wasn't yet ready and that really wasn't good enough (for someone who couldn't possibly eat). Thailand is so uncomfortably hot, the water had upset her tummy, the food was too spicy. They complained quietly the whole time we ate until my mate turned on the wooden bench and leant over to suggest next time they holiday they should try Aberystwyth.
Once suitably stuffed, and by now enjoying some peace and serenity devoid of the annoying South Wales whining, off we went again. This time on foot, which I'm sure must have been really annoying for the Welsh couple who I am glad to say are not representative of the Welsh Nation, but only a short way to the Wang Pho Railway Station. We didn't have to wait long for the train to come and we crowded on. The carriage was basic and outdated. It needed new seating and more of it and the window panes were missing and it squealed as it was dragged reluctantly along and I was a little boy again. Twice in one whole day, the excitement was getting too much as I thought all my Christmases had come at once. Then the guide explained about yet another Hollywood blockbuster filmed on location in Kanchanburi. This time it was Platoon and Tom Berenger who has completely lost it kills a Vietnamese girl on a railway line that is on timber stilts along the edge of a river. The location was the Wampo Viaduct, a stretch given the label 'the dangerous curve'. Weary Dunlop wrote that soldiers being taken back and forth during the construction held their breath and lit cigarettes, if they had any left, every time they were transported over it because they had no idea if it was safe or not. And Fred Taylor (June 1943) wrote "made mostly of tree trunks and sleepers held together with spikes. They see-sawed as we passed over them". The image on the left was taken on the train. Top right you can see the trestle supporting the track and to its left is a Japanese design outpost that is Tham Krasae. In the river, the Chinese are moving their houses upstream and behind are the tree covered mountain ranges of Kanchanaburi that had to be cut through inch by inch to make way for the line.
Our next stop was the Kanchanburi War Museum and strangely I kept to the rules and took no photos. I wish I had now and will have to go back and get some of the old Japanese locomotive left behind and cars, anti-aircraft guns, shells and exhibits and models of the layout as it was in 1943. There are some good pictures at FEPow.org but turn off your speakers.
This tour was extraordinary and one that I would do again. The tour company was Tour Asia and they were faultless. If you want to book a tour like this then book it at your hotel. Do not book it in advance. I am not suggesting that operators using websites are not to be trusted but I have pre-booked sat-navs and cars in the past and while I didn't lose any money, I was let down. If you search Google Images for Kanchanaburi you get an astonishing number of repeat images that are being used by dot coms. Some of these images are mine and I have not been asked for permission to use them and when you contact them about it they do not want to discuss the matter. Bangkok Picture pretends to be a gallery but I recognise many of the images and the owner of one of them has not given his permission for use. I can't fathom what Awsome Asia are up to apart from making money out of advertising but again they are using the same images as Bangkok Picture. But the Arthur Daley of them all has to be Hellfire Pass.com who goes by the name Tony Bangkok, can only be contacted by gmail or a mobile number and is charging an astonishing double the amount any hotel or tour guide will ask. His site does look good but is made up entirely of other peoples work.
You might think 'so what?' but genuine businesses in Thailand have a .co.th website address like Educational Travel Center. They have an official address and a company registration number. To find these safe sites go to google.co.uk and search for: (examples) 'hotel .co.th' or 'tour .co.th' or better still, book your holiday through a reputable agent and then use the hotel lobby. They or your rep' will arrange a tour with someone like Win tours.
endured some of the most brutal mistreatment of the entire rail link. 65km North of the bridge on route 323 in Sai Yok is a memorial and museum constructed by the Australian War Graves Commission. It took only six weeks to dig the cutting through solid rock with no mechanical equipment and not enough rations. An estimated 568 Allies died and how pitiful that the number is not exactly known. So many Thai, Malay, and Chinese died that no one knows how many that was. The Japanese held them in such contempt they didn't consider it necessary to keep records...
The death toll was so vast that disposing of the bodies was a bigger problem than completing the cutting on time. To begin work the Japanese brought in 393 Australian and 7 New Zealanders to Hintok Road Camp and their first job was to build another camp to be called Lower Konyu. They started work at 6am on the 25th of April 1942 and did not have a rest day until September 1945. The senior officer was Colonel Ernest Edward Dunlop, a surgeon and scholar and by no means a soldier, but he earned the respect of every man in the ranks. The workgang was named Dunlop Force and became the backbone of Konyu and one of these men named it Hellfire Pass. Two weeks into digging the cutting and Weary Dunlop was moved to the hospital at Tarsau and was replaced by Colonel McEachern, a man who was also respected but when the men were in need they still turned to Weary. The Japanese calculated the amount of rations that would be required to feed 400 men for the scheduled twelve-week construction and shipped in a quarter of what would have been only essential and basic rations. More men were quickly brought in as injuries, sickness, and sores came on fast because of the working conditions. Japanese poor planning had resulted in the pass being constructed during one of the worst monsoons on record. They were given only a quarter of their daily ration and within a month, already emaciated and disease ridden, they were surviving on boiled chili water and rice paste made from the dust in the sacks.
Women were brought in as enforced prostitutes for the soldiers to boost morale. The Japanese government deny this happened but the truth is they were called 'Jugun Ianfu' or Comfort Women. Jan Ruff-O'Herne, an Australian imprisoned as a Pow in Indonesia and then moved to Asia to satisfy dozens of Officers every day, has since 1992 worked tirelessly for compensation for the 200,000 victims who survived and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Japans stance is that all the women volunteered and were paid for their services but this is also not true. Some in today's government claim the women never existed even though books with documented evidence of pre-pubescent girls like Maria Rosa Henson whose claim against the Japanese Imperial Army was found proven by a Japanese Court in 1992. Or that a 1940 Ministry of War document sanctioned by Hirohito and his war ministers stated "the psychological effects that the soldiers receive at comfort stations are immediate and profound and therefore it is believed that troop morale is dependent on these". Japanese lower ranks went on rampages raping whichever child or young woman they suddenly fancied and with no lower age limit. Often they would murder them after for no other reason than they had been used. Red Cross parcels and gifts were plundered as were banks, shops, and farms. The Pows watches, jewellery, money, cigarettes and even their footwear were taken and nothing was given back.
Horrific accounts witnessed by some of the men are related over a tannoy as you walk around the museum. They are narrated by the men who were there, including Weary. Of how the records of soldiers who paid the ultimate price were made by their colleagues. The Japanese were not going to and sometimes punished officers who did. Finding heartbreaking stories on the web is not difficult such as " Uncle Reg was fed by an eyedropper by his wife for 6 months before he died" and yet in the same passage is typical Aussie humour of a battered soldier being carried to camp on a stretcher who having been dropped said "Bugger this I'll walk." The Aussies weren't alone in this episode and accounts such as Fredrick Taylor who tells of bored guards that would drop stones from the top of the Konyu cutting and see if they could knock out a worker or Fred Seiker who was expecting to be executed for taking a tin of Red Cross fruit from the stores to feed the men in his hut and made the mistake of arguing with the commander about whose fruit it was. The Japanese knew no bounds. They stole the food parcels meant for the soldiers. They stole the lives of the workers. They stole the minds of the Pows who went home as broken men who could not bring themselves to talk about it. The cutting opens out to the side of the mountain that had to be excavated to level and more than a hundred more died from falls and more unmerited torture. Only one statistic is known to the last man. That sixty-nine were beaten to death by Japanese and Korean guards in the six weeks it took to build the cutting. Offences deemed punishable included not bowing to anyone Japanese, not working hard, making a complaint, or telling a guard or Japanese soldier he is wrong. More serious was defending your self, answering back, and obtaining anything without permission. But my words cannot convey the reality as the story of Alfred 'Pop' Nellis manages when he describes the hospital conditions or the spitefulness of the Koreans who were later found not responsible for their actions because they were following Japanese orders. Really they were enjoying the emancipation they had been afforded by occupation and to quote Pop's record "Hiromura (Korean Guard) was another brutal bastard who dragged the sick out to work knowing full well he would see them die". Hiromura was later sentenced to hang but like many of his countrymen had that commuted to twenty years because the blame was laid firmly on the Japanese and he was only an accessory. In 1956 Hiromura was released on parole and publicly refuted any wrong-doing and said he did not know why he had been sent to prison. On the third week the camp commander, Captain Eiji Hirota, introduced 'speedo': no work no food. And that included the sick and wounded and the dying. The Japanese were unable to see the relationship between well fed men and productivity or that the injured would recover with better care and the railway could have been built quicker without the need to keep bringing in replacements or releasing men for burial detail. The working day was 18 hours and Weary wrote that he saw men come back on their hands and knees because they hadn't the strength left or had callouses on their bare feet from the sun-baked rocks.
There was 109 camps just like this one up and down the railway line. There were no cameras to record the insanity at Hintok or Konyu but many of the soldiers were exceptional artists and made images out of the most unlikely of materials. Some of these images are on the walls of the cuttings. At Tamuang on 31st December 1944, Major Mizutani Totare shot dead Fusilier 4272350 DW Wanty for fun. At Hintok Road was a contingent of Sikhs who were kept seperated from the westerners and were being groomed to work as guards or overseers. The Sikh tradition of no mercy showed with their treatment of the prisoners but some of them refused to do the Nips bidding and were subsequently executed, or to be more accurate, used as rifle-range targets. Major Hazelton had a reputation at Tarsao and was moved to Konyu Hospital Camp to sort out a horror of a problem. When he arrived he found 800 men hospitalised, more than was working on the railway the hospital serviced, many of them were unable to seperate themselves from their bamboo beds. In the Cholera wing 10 were dying every day. The Japanese knew that what they were doing was wrong. For instance Hazelton did over 40 post mortems and when the Japs discovered what he was doing they banned autopsies and destroyed his specimens.
Today Hellfire Pass is a very quiet and serene place to be. There is a feeling of being at peace. But every year on the 25th April (ANZACS Day) a group of Australians and New Zealanders hold a memorial service to remember the suffering that started here as well as to remember the ANZACS at Gallipoli. It isn't about Hellfire Pass, it's about the quarter of a million men and women who suffered terribly because of a Japanese military obsession. Just a small part of the thirty million people the Japanese Imperial Army murdered during WWII. Hellfire Pass is about the thirty-six thousand allied prisoners of war each one of whom have a story to tell. A combined story that put back to back would have a longer timeline than mankind has been on planet Earth. A story that cannot be undone with political correctness or lies.
The Tiger Temple?
Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery is just another safari park. But when the monks arrive walking with tigers you are taken to an unimaginable world of serenity. It is a theme park but it's a great experience.
There is a lot of adverse publicity about the Tiger Temple and I have been studying both the arguments against the temple and tiger conservation and the impact zoos and parks have on tiger welfare and or survival. I do not make any conclusions apart from those submitted to appropriate bodies but have published arguments to the many papers and website accusations at tiger temple for public use.
By car it is exactly 38km from the traffic lights on route 323 north in Kanchanaburi city. Do not follow the sign to turn left to Sai Yok, this turns out to be an elephant come holiday camp and if you see this sign post you have passed Luangta Bua by about 5km which is on the opposite side of the highway. Strangely this elephant camp is listed in the amazing Thailand guide which doesn't mention the wonderful restaurant behind Wang Pho train station only a few hundred yards away and the rest of the village is boring because it is a holiday camp for falang according to one of the residents who explained directions to Sai Yok to us. There is a big sign on the right that says Tiger Temple and if you mistakenly turn here just keep going, take the next left and then right again to put you on the correct driveway. On the day we went the grounds didn't open until 1pm because they do private tours in the mornings during temple mealtime.
Tony the Tiger reappears from hellfirepass.com in his pseudonym suit and Spiv website which I would not recommend.
If you are a real wildlife fanatic you might want to look at Tell Tale Travel who come highly recommended, have been around a while and whilst they're not cheap, they pretty much have Kanchanaburi worked out and their suggested itinerary takes you to each place for one day. That sums up Kanchanaburi, you only need one day in each place.
Other things to do?
We arrived at the Tiger Temple before noon and waiting in a car in Thailand for an hour and a half is just impossible. There were Asia Tours silver minibuses already there along with a couple of taxis sidelining as tour guides and the heat bordered on the unbearable. The little shop that sells Tiger Temple Tee shirts was open and the open-air cafe would let us escape from the sun but it offered no service, only vending machines, and no fan. We weren't going to sit in this so we went for a drive to Sai Yok town to do some shopping but Kanchanaburi isn't like anywhere else in Thailand. There are no roadside stalls or little chicken fryers and Sai Yok doesn't have any talat or raan (market stalls and shops). You wouldn't even describe Kanchanaburi as rural. It is a collection of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries the size of East Anglia and if the wild frontier is your choice of holiday you're going to love it.
Namtok Kateng Cheng
is a beautiful waterfall with 23 individual falls. You can't see them all in a single view but the view from the top is breathtaking. It is 4km from the carpark to the top and is not suitable for invalids. The trail is clearly marked and there are park wardens so you won't get lost and although it is open all year round it is often closed during the rainy season because the trail becomes slippery, which is a shame because I suspect the forests would be really aromatic in the rain. Despite that each level has a different forest from Bamboo to Banana to Rainforest and three quarters of the way up are some of the biggest and oldest trees on earth. This isn't the easiest place to find either but you can book a tour with one of the tour operators see Links page or get the train to Namtok and local taxi from there. If you're driving you're going to need a decent map. It is located on the right on Route 323 and if you cross the Ranti Bridge at Khao Laem Lake you have passed it.
A bit nearer but by car only on Route 3199 unless you book a tour. From the city head north up Saeng Chuto Road and keep going straight and eventually you will see signs for Erewan National Park. The falls has seven levels and when you get near the top there are huge hardwood trees filled with exotic birds. The falls are fed from the Mong Lai Creek through mineral rock which turns the water an emerald colour providing the most stunning photographic effects (see the photo at the top of this page). In the Himavarna Forest lives a mythological elephant called Erewan. The top falls of Namtok Erewan rush over a huge Limestone rock in the shape of Erewan's head which is how the park got its' name.
There are lots of other waterfalls like Sai Yok Yai and Huai Mae Khamin and in the city plenty of boat trips that will take you to see them. See the Links page.
If you are tour in a car as you get to the border of Myanmar you come to Khao Laem National Park, home to the Krateng Cheng waterfall, which is a nice place to stop. There is eating available and they can offer accommodation. A little further on on the left is Sangkhla Buri. Home to Mon and Karen hill tribes who continue the traditions in the local village of Moo Ban Mon. The Mon village also has a morning market where you can get real treasures as souvenirs for very small prices. Everyone goes to see the Mon bridge being the soul surviving wooden bridge but take a bamboo punt along the river and try the Burmese Inn for a meal and go to Baan Unrak in Thanon Nongkluu to buy some groceries and take away food. Sangkhla Buri is not a big place but there is a lot to see including the Three Pagodas Pass which you have to go through so you can say you have been to Burma so it needs more than one day there. Next time I shall book us a room at the P Guesthouse in Moo 1.