Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Asia Thailand

Why Kanchanaburi is a sombre highlight of Thailand

The unique combination of nature and history make Kanchanaburi holidays a richly rewarding element of any trip to Thailand. Many visitors pay Kanchanaburi a fleeting visit as part of Thailand tour packages, but you can easily spend two or three days absorbing the dark history and lush beauty of the area.

Kanchanaburi is a bustling town only two hours travel away from Bangkok and an easy day trip for tourists in Thailand who come to visit the highly dubious Tiger Temple…

Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple, Thailand
Swim in the beautiful Erewan Falls…

Erewan Falls, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

And play with the elephants…

Elephants, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

But as I’ve always carried a torch for Alec Guinness my first thought when considering places to visit in  Kanchanaburi was that it is the setting for his famous film Bridge Over the River Kwai. But of course it is about so much more than just a bridge, built by Alec and his mates.

Tragic history of Kanchanaburi

Visitors have been coming to Kanchanaburi for decades to pay their respects to the thousands of Australian, British, Dutch and other POWs who died while being forced to work on the Thai-Burma military supply railway between 1942-45. The line was nicknamed the “Death Railway” because over one hundred thousand labourers died during its construction. You can still ride on part of this railway line, crossing the scenic River Kwai, and learn about the construction of the famous bridge at the surrounding museums and memorials.

In 1941 the unexpectedly easy conquest by the Japanese army of British colonial holdings in Malaysia and Singapore resulted in large numbers of prisoners-of-war from the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, the USA, New Zealand and others.

The Japanese also invaded both Thailand and Burma, and hundreds of POW camps were established across east Asia. Japan had not ratified the 1929 Hague Convention on POW rights and were unable or unwilling to supply adequate food to these.

A rail link between Bangkok and Rangoon was deemed essential to supply their forces and so began the infamous Death Railway (or the Thailand-Burma Railway), 415 kilometres of railroad built under brutal conditions by forced POW labour. In round numbers, 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners worked on the Death Railway.

There is a beautiful valley of bamboo forest near Kanchanaburi, where sugar cane and tapioca fields of tapioca give way to market gardens and marigolds. The Burma border lies away behind the high, jungle-covered mountains.

Here is the impressive Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, well laid out and informative. And this is Hellfire Pass, so called because the POWs worked on the railway around the clock and the lights were kept burning in the cutting all night.

Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

For the POW labourers there were a lot of ways to die. One comment I saw in the museum put forward the analogy of a death for every sleeper laid on the Death Railway. For those who’ve ever had a bad case of Traveller’s Diarrhoea, death by “severe enteric dysentery” will tell its own tale. Then there’s malaria and cholera of course, and the diseases of starvation such as Beri Beri and Pellagria.

Death Railway, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

A walk further along the railway line brings you to the Pack of Cards bridge clinging to the cliffside by the river. Many POWs died here from brutal treatment by the guards as the bridge collapsed three times during its construction.

POW Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

The cemetery in Kanchanaburi is simple and serene. The monuments are meticulously kept and decorated with bright tropical flowers.

POW Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Near the end of my day in Kanchanaburi I finally got to cross the famous bridge. I walked over it first and then got the train back from Nantok. The bridge is actually over the Mae Klong River but the railway is along the north-eastern side of the Kwae Noi River. Hollywood was never good on historical accuracy.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

And of course this isn’t the original bridge built by POW labour under hellish conditions. On the sun-drenched train western tourists mix with Thai school children on their way home, leaning out the windows, throwing paper aeroplanes or handmade confetti and skipping down the aisles.

Bridge Over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

For most travellers, Thailand is a supremely warm and happy place. Thinking of the men slaving their lives out in Hellfire Pass left me with a cold feeling inside.

Each year on 25th April a dawn service is held at Hellfire Pass and a wreath-laying ceremony takes place in Kanchanaburi town to mark ANZAC Remembrance Day. The Australia New Zealand Army Corps saw many lives lost on the Death Railway and officials and family members gather to take part in commemorations on Gallipoli Day.

Beautiful surroundings of Kanchanaburi

All this ensures that Bangkok to Kanchanaburi (just 120 kilometres west) is a popular day trip but the beautiful natural environment makes the area well worth spending more time exploring. The Kanchanaburi region is replete with national parks, stunning waterfalls and peaceful riverside resorts reward an extended visit. Take a trip into the hinterland to reveal more of this authentic region, with its traditional villages of the Mon Tribe, and ride the cable car to Wat Tham Sua pagoda.  Hire a guide and visit the Mon Tribe if you are in the Kanchanaburi area.

An essential part of Kanchanaburi holidays is dining out at one or two of the many high-end riverside restaurants, including some attached to elegant Kanchanaburi hotels. With terraces floating on the River Kwai and a serene ambiance, the authentic Thai food served up here will leave your tastebuds more than satisfied.

By Natasha von Geldern

Have you had a sobering experience while travelling, like mine in Kanchanaburi?

By on .


  1. Just goes to show that war can bring out the worst in people. It’s a really sad history. Fortunately it’s now a beautiful place where people go to have a good time and enjoy nature. Good things come back 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.