Go to Razzle Dazzle welcome page. Kanchanaburi, Thailand


Kanchanaburi   |   Erawan

September, 2004

Thailand photo.
1. River Kwai Bridge
Thailand photo.
2. Hell Fire Pass
Thailand photo.
3. Riding the rails
Thailand photo.
4. The POW cemetery

— Index —

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Kanchanaburi is a large town of about 60,000 population at the upper end of the Mae Nam Khwae river valley. It is best known to foreigners as the location of the Bridge Over the River Kwai (see photo #1, at left). The town itself is quite pleasant; it seemed to us to be more appealing than most of the cities and towns we have visited during our travels in SE asia. There are a number of tourists who visit here, but only a few places seemed actually over-run. During our rainy season visit there were far more Thai tourists than foreigners. Although the "Death Railway" is the major attraction for foreign tourists, the mountains surrounding Kanchanaburi are very beautiful and include Erawan, the most visited National Park in Thailand.

During World War II, the Japanese had conquered the British colony of Burma, and were supplying their army there by sea. When the allies successfully attacked Japanese supply ships, the Japanese were forced to build a railroad through the mountains between Thailand and Burma to continue supplying their soldiers. They did not have enough machines or man-power to do this, so they turned to using allied POWs and conscripted asian civilian laborers. Working largely by hand, these men blasted their way through mountains (photo #2); built road bed and bridges, and laid cross-ties and rails.

The railroad was completed in about 18 months and remained in service until the end of the war. The allies attempted to interrupt railroad traffic by bombing the bridges — with limited success. The River Kwai steel bridge (there was also a smaller wooden bridge) was damaged twice. The final attack was by AZON bombs, the first American "smart" bombs. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt and is still in service today. Although some of the bridge components were replaced, much of the current bridge is original. The British ripped up much of the track to prevent rail traffic between Thailand and Burma, which they hoped to re-occupy as a colony. Only a small portion of the original railroad is still in service (photo #3).

Building a railroad in tropical mountains, without heavy equipment, and during the rainy season would have been difficult in any event. What created the real tragedy was the miserable treatment given the workers. The Japanese provided inadequate food and no medicine, while working the men long hours without rest breaks. Most of the deaths resulted from malnutrition and tropical diseases. Japanese brutality added to the death toll, and a few of the Japanese guards were prosecuted for war crimes..

The allied governments made a great effort after the war to find the graves of all of the POWs who died during the construction of the railroad. They were mostly British, Australian, and Dutch. It is believed that all of the remains were located and reinterred in two cemeteries in or near Kanchanaburi (photo #4). (The American remains were returned to the United States for burial.) Today there are a number of museums and memorials to those who died building the railroad. The best is at "Hell Fire Pass" and includes a wonderful view of the adjacent valley. (During our visit, 4 bus loads of Thai military officers also visited this museum. Several wanted to have their picture taken with us.)

Although the death toll among allied POWs (about 12,000) was brutally high, the asian civilian laborers suffered even more. Over 100,000 of them died, and their names are mostly unkown. Their death rate was also much higher than the POWs. This is probably because the allied soldiers had the advantage of a pre-existing military organization which helped to protect the weaker POWs, and professional medical officers who could improvise medical care that saved many lives. In any event, this was a truly horrible ordeal for all of the men who labored and died to build this railroad. Many of the surviving POWs return here regularly to reunite with other survivors and to remember their fallen comrades.


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Jim and Jamie Richter, http://gotouring.com/razzledazzle/
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Created 6/2004. All text & photos are © 2004 Jim Richter.