Two days in Kanchanaburi wasn’t really enough, but we did as much as we could with the time we had. Like most visitors, we were here to explore the Death Railway (also known as the Thailand/Burma Railway) and learn a bit about the horrors that went on here during WWII. In a nutshell, Kanchanaburi was captured by the Japanese during the War. The Japanese decided to build a railway connecting Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand, so that supplies could be transported more directly and avoid the dangerous sea passage. The Japanese used hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and forced labourers from throughout Asia to build the railway and, in doing so, subjected them to horrific treatment. Almost half the labourers working on the project (well into the hundreds of thousands) died from malnutrition, disease or accidents during construction. At the end of the War a number of Japanese were tried for war crimes and committed to death.
Kanchanburi is home to the most famous section of the Railway – the Bridge over the River Kwai, three separate POW cemeteries and a variety of museums and memorials. It’s not really a trip here without a ride on Death Railway, so we were up bright and early on our first full day to get amongst the action. The ride itself is scenic, but fairly uneventful. It’s only when you think about the people who built the Railway and the conditions they endured, that you really appreciate its significance. We rode the train to the end of the line at Nam Tok and then opted for the quicker bus ride home, so that we had time to visit the Railway Museum and the biggest of the POW cemeteries back in town. Both were fairly sombre, but pretty essential to understanding everything.
To round out the history lesson, we hired bikes on our second day in Kanchanaburi and made our way to the Jeath War Museum (not worth the effort, but not to worry) and onwards to the Bridge over the River Kwai. The Bridge is part of the operating train line, so photos have to be taken while keeping an eye out for trains. Our original plan was to be in town for the annual River Kwai Festival, which commemorates the POWs and others who suffered during the war by way of a great big fireworks display and sound and light show at the Bridge. Unfortunately, the manager from our guest house told us that the Festival had been postponed (due to the King’s death) and wouldn’t start until we had left town. We were a bit disappointed when she told us, but not nearly as disappointed as we were when we were sitting having our dinner on our last night in town only to hear what sounded a lot like a massive fireworks display going on down the other end of the river. Such is life.
With everybody off riding the train during the day, Kanachanaburi felt like a bit of ghost town. That all changed in the evening. Almost on cue, every night at about 5 pm hordes of middle-aged men in stonewash Levi 501s, wearing leather belts with “statement” buckles (think eagles, Harley Davidson logos etc), novelty t.shirts and “Jesus Jandals” complete with 50 million velcro straps, would descend on the main street and pull up a pew at one of the many seedy bars. The “Easy Bar” and the “Betty Boop Bar” seemed to be particular favourites. There, lots of lovely Asian ladies would wrap themselves around said middle-aged men pretending to be engaged by their sparkling wit, all the while sneakily checking Facebook on their phones at every chance. In addition to those establishments, Kanchanaburi had plenty of other watering holes and a pretty good live music scene. We even bumped into Mr Miyagi, the jazz singer that we first saw in action in Ayutthaya. Because we’re both old and boring, we rounded out both nights of our stay with a foot massage instead of a ten baht jagerbomb.
Our time in Thailand is rapidly coming to an end. We’re closing things off with a bit of beach time in Koh Lanta. From there, it’s on to Cambodia, back to Vietnam for a bit, and then onwards to NZ!