Kanchanaburi lies about 120 km North West of Bangkok at the confluence of the Kwae Noi and Kwae Yai
= big) where they become the Mae Khlong river which flows into the Gulf of Thailand
at Samut Songkhram.
The tourist part of town is laid out along the river (River Kwai Rd.), between the River Kwai Bridge and the Rattanakarn Bridge. Most
of the guesthouses and restaurants are in this area, many fronting on to the river. Guesthouses in this area include: Sam's
House, Apple Guesthouse, V.N. House, River Guesthouse, J. River Guesthouse, Blue Star Guesthouse, and my own favorite
the Jolly Frog, 350 Baht per night last time I stayed (2006): Thai food is excellent, western food acceptable.
Two trains depart for Kanchanaburi every day from Thonburi Railway station
with special excursion trains from Hua Lamphong at weekends. The trip takes almost
3 hours and is not particularly memorable; as Thonburi station is not easily accessible, many
travellers take the bus (about 100 baht and 2 hours) from the Southern Bus Terminal.
Song Thaews abound at the Bus station and the Central and River Kwai Bridge railway stations. Most
of the hotels, restaurants, travel agents and car-hire places are by the river: within that area, most
places are walkable, but Song Thaews also cruise up and down. Motorcycles can be hired for 150-250 Baht per
day, Bicycles for 40 Baht.
Places to Visit in Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi War Cemetary
The main War cemetary (photo at the top of this page) is on Saengchuto Rd., not far from Kanchanaburi Railway Station. It is
located near what was the site of the main POW transit camp. The cemetary contains the remains of more than 5000
Commonwealth and 1800 Dutch POWs, many of them in their early twenties. On the other side of the river, on the site
of Chong Kai POW camp, is a second smaller cemetary. The location is about 2km south west of the town on Lin Chang Bahn
The Thailand Burma Railway Center
On Donrak Rd., on the north west side of the Cemetary is The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. This describes itself as:
"an interactive museum, research and information centre dedicated to presenting the story of the
Jeath War Museum
The Jeath War Museum is located by the river on Song Kwai Rd., near Wat Chaichumphon Chana Songkhram. The building
is a reconstruction of a thatched POW hut, with bamboo bunks. On the wall
are photographs of POW living conditions and various memorabilia.
A private "Art Gallery and War Museum"
is located just down river from the River Kwai Bridge. The main feature
is a Japanese locomotive outside the main door, but the museum has quite a few interesting remnants of the war. Much of the
museum, however, is given over to general Thailand memorobilia, including portraits of Kings and Prime Ministers.
The Way to Burma
At the north end of town is the River Kwai Bridge, still in use more than 60 years after World War II though with 2 spans
replaced after the end of the war. As can be imagined, this is a great tourist attraction, especially at the times when the west-bound
trains are due to crawl over the bridge.
The Railway station nearby is a good place to catch the train westwards towards the end of the line at Nam Tok.
For thousands of years, the Kwae valley has been a route for traders, invaders and missionaries
between the Gulf of Martaban, modern Burma, and the central Plains of Thailand. By this route, between
the high Dawna Range to the North and the Bilauktaung Range to the West and South, caravans travelled
from India to the states of South East Asia. Also by this route came the Buddhist religion, first in its
Theravada form, later in its Mahayana variety.
And of course it has also been the preferred route for Mon, Burman and Thai armies. In 1549 and 1592, for
instance, Burmese armies crossed into Thailand via Kanchanaburi, besieged the
and were eventually repelled by fierce Thai Resistance.
In 1767, however, a three pronged invasion from the Three Pagodas Pass in the West, Chiang Mai
in the North, and Chumphon in the South overran the city, and razed it to the ground. From that event
modern Thailand was born.
Early Kings of the Bangkok dynasty later invaded Burma in the reverse direction, but with no long-term
success, and the Thai-Burmese wars eventually died out with the annexation of Burma by the British in the
mid nineteenth century.
Riding To War
In the 1549 Burmese invasion, the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya relate that the king of Hamsavarti (the Mon
name for Pegu - modern Bago, near Rangoon) led his army from Martaban, a journey of seven days, through
Kanchanaburi, and eventually set up a stockade outside Ayutthaya.
As king Chakkraphat of Ayuthaya made his preparations for battle, Queen
Suriyothai, his Chief Queen, dressed herself as the Uparat [second king], and mounted a huge
male war elephant (its name is recorded as Song Suryia Kasat), fully equipped for battle, with Mahout
and long-bladed axe warrior.
At the height of the battle, seeing that her husband had become isolated from his troops, the
Queen led a foray against the threatening forces, but was cut down by the King of Phrae, one of the opposing
nobles. King Chakkraphat escaped the battle, but the Queen had been mortally wounded. Her sons Prince
(later king) Ramesuan and Prince Rahin forced their way through to her body and bore it from the
field. (The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya, pp 32-33
Queen Suriyothai is still remembered as one of Thailand's greatest heroines, celebrated
most recently in the highly atmospheric Thai movie The Legend of
, which was released in the USA in 2003.
World War II
The Japanese chose a different invasion route. At 2 A.M. on 8th of December 1941, Japanese forces operating out
of the old French Indo China territories, landed at Surat Thani, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Songkla and Patani on the
Gulf of Thailand; a land invasion crossed from Cambodia at Aranya Prathet. From Thailand, the Japanese
army swiftly overran Malaya and on 15th of February 1942, the British garrison at Singapore surrendered
During early 1942, Japanese forces occupied much of British Burma as far as The Indian border. In
June 1942, in order to supply the war effort against India, the Japanese began construction
of a railway from Bahn Pong (Thailand Southern Line) along the Kwae valley, and across the Three
Pagodas Pass, connecting with the Burmese railway network at Thanbyuzayat.
allied P.O.W.'s and a much greater number of Malays and other Asians were used as forced
labour. Most allied P.O.W.'s arrived in Thailand by train from Singapore: British and Australian military jammed 26 to a box car with
rubber planters, traders and colonial administrators, for a journey that even today takes
the best part of three days. From Bahn Pong they were marched up the valley of the Kwae Noi to the construction camps, where
the real misery began.
Conditions were appalling: backbreaking work from dawn to dusk in very difficult terrain, tropical heat or monsoon
rains, and always swarms of insects. Already suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion, thousands
succumbed to Cholera, Dysentery, Cerebral Malaria and the the casual thuggery of their
Japanese and Korean captors. It is estimated that over 100,000 Asians and more than 16,000 allied P.O.W.'s died
during the construction.
Bridge 277 today
The original length of the railway was about 415 km but it operated only for a few months. By the end of the war, much
of the railway was in poor condition, with many of the bridges bombed by the allied airforces. The most
famous of the bridges, Bridge 277, was destroyed on April 2nd 1945 by the US Air Force.
Most of the original railway has by now been re-claimed by the jungle, much of the track re-cycled, but the
first section from Bahn Pong to Nam Tok (about 115 km) re-opened in 1958. Other parts of the railway, such as Hellfire
Pass, can be visited fairly easily from Kanchanaburi.
Riding the Death Railway
The best place from which to ride the Death Railway is the River Kwai Bridge Railway Station (for timetable see
). A rail trip from Bangkok takes an extra three hours and the scenery is
not very interesting. On the excursion trains, air-conditioning is also available, but if you want to take photographs through
the window, this is probably not a good option.
Beyond Kanchanaburi, however, the scenery is spectacular. The line crosses and re-crosses the river, sometimes slowing to a crawl in
dangerous places like Wang Pho viaduct, and if you want to stop and explore, this is quite a good place to get
off (at Tham Krasae Station). Once the train has departed, many people walk along the line by the cliff side, as
can be seen in the photograph
earlier in the page. At the station itself is a restaurant and a small market, and just down river is the
Bahn Mae Rim resort. Make sure you do not miss the return train.
Also at Tham Krasae, just by the station, is Krasae Cave. The cave houses several Buddha images and is
a popular pilgrimage site for Thai people.
Another possible stop is Tha Kilen station
, fairly near to Muang Singh Historical Park
(Prasat Muang Singh).
Prasat Muang Singh
Central Prasat Muang Singh
Muang Singh is an old Khmer site, dating from some time in the 9th to 13th centuries, most probably in
the time of Jayarvarman VII (ca. 1181-1218). The site is located some 40km West of Kanchanaburi
Town, on the banks of the Kwae Noi. It was probably of some importance, sitting as it does on the western border
of the Khmer empire and on one of the main land routes from Burma to Thailand.
It was also once not as isolated as it is now. Mrs. Charuwan
Culture - Relationship through Arts
) refers to another currently unexcavated Khmer site, Muang Krut a few
kilometres east of Muang Singh.
Muang Singh is quite large (around 80 acres) with many beautiful old trees, but
little remains of most of the buildings, except laterite foundation blocks.
Head of Shiva
Near the small modern museum, a model of the site is laid out on the grass, showing that it was once a city of
some size, roughly quadrilatral in shape, oriented N-S and E-W, with walls, ramparts and the added protection
of a loop of the river to the south; a gate
bisects each of the four boundary walls, and from each gate, a straight road leads to the central Prasat (a Khmer
palace and shrine).
The Prasat is better preserved than the rest of the site, a typical Khmer cruciform structure of laterite. Four
doorways, one each side, lead to the inner shrine and to a statue of the Boddhisatva
Avalokiteshvara - center of the Prasat, and of Muang Singh itself, a place much visited by Thais wishing to pay respect and
to make merit.
The small museum houses some of the artefacts
found in recent excavations: stone figures representing Hindu deities, such as Shiva, and Mahayana Buddhist figures such as
Avalokiteshvara and Prajnaparamita. These suggest a late 12th century date for the site.
The site is open daily from 9 a.m.-4.30 p.m., admission fee in June 2006 was 40 baht.
Nearby is the Bahn Kao Prehistoric Museum, also worth a visit.