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Published: January 29th 2012
Allied War Cemetery
Over 7500 soldiers, many of whom helped build the Thai-Burmese railway, now lie in this plot of land.
Leaving Bangkok on New Year’s Day, we made an uneventful journey to Kanchanaburi. A little history lesson is required to understand why we desired to explore this mall, out-of-the-way city. As the Japanese empire was expanding during WWII, a route was required to supply the westernmost front lines and to support the troop’s colonies along the way. As Thailand had not resisted Japanese occupation and was still safe from allied attack, a supply line could safely come through the country. With a weakening naval force, the seaward route around the southern tip of Malaysia was much too vulnerable. Likewise, a rail route along Thailand’s northern border traversed too close to allied territory. A rail link connecting Thailand to Burma through the interior had been considered previously by the Thai and the Japanese, however on both occasions it was determined to be too difficult due to the mountainous terrain and the lack of passes through the range. With no other visible options the Japanese decided to go ahead with the arduous task and enlisted allied PoWs as well as ‘volunteers’ from Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, and Malaysia. They were forced to work in horrible conditions and a massive number died as a result
One of Many
The note from the family offered a reminder that each of these soldiers was a person with a story.
of malnutrition, overexertion, and poor-to-non-existent medical care. Kanchanaburi stands as the base for remembering the plight of these PoWs, and it was for this reason that we made our way there.
We rented bikes on our first morning to take the sights in more efficiently. Our first stop was the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. Very well put together and presented, it told the story of why the railway was deemed necessary, put into perspective the magnitude of the task, and showed using anecdotes and statistics the toil that the project had on the PoWs. Across the road from the museum was the Allied War Cemetery which acts as a final resting place of over 7500 allied soldiers from WWII. After paying our respects we hopped on our bikes and made our way out of town. A little more than 2 km southwest of town we ended up at the Chung Kai Allied War Cemetery. Situated in the vicinity of a former PoW camp, this cemetery is less frequented by tourists due to its distance from town. We spent a little while wandering through the grounds, looking at the names and nationalities on the gravestones before continuing down
the road on our bikes. A kilometre past the cemetery we found Wat Tham Khao Pun, a temple built in a cave. We descended down into the cavern and meandered from rooms to room, pausing to see the various Buddha and shrines in each. The temple also had significance in WWII as the Japanese used some of the rooms in the cave as a hospital during the allied invasion. We departed the caves and made our way back into the city. As the sun was going down we managed to take in our last, and most well known attraction in Kanchanaburi, the Kwai bridge. Cast in the spotlight in the 70s was film Bridge Over the River Kwai
, the Kwai Bridge was built by PoWs during the construction of the railroad. Originally built out of wood due to time constraints, the Japanese built an iron bridge adjacent to it realizing the importance of the only river crossing of the railways and the vulnerability of the wooden bridge. Nonetheless, both bridges were eventually destroyed during allied bombing missions. The iron bridge was repaired following the conclusion of the war, and according to signs in the Thai-Burma Railway Centre, “near the bridge
damage from the bombs can still be seen on one of the concrete pillars”. We couldn’t tell. We watched a beautiful sunset with the bridge in the foreground and the surrounding mountains in behind before biking back to our guesthouse and closing the book on a wonderful day.
Our plan for the following day was to visit the Erawan Waterfalls. The falls are situated about an hour and a half from Kanchanaburi but are easily accessible by local bus from many stops around the city. We headed for the bus station around 8:30am to try and catch the early bus so as to miss the crowds of people that would be arriving close to noon as parts of tours. Unfortunately the bus schedule was wrong so we ended up arriving at the waterfalls only shortly before noon. Neither of us were really aware of what to expect – except to bring a bathing suit for swimming and a camera for pictures. Erawan Falls is part of a national park, so after paying the customary tourist entry fee (usually 3 to 4 times the amount charged for a local) we made our way into the park. The path
In the Falls
Braving the feet-chomping fish to get a sweet picture.
for the waterfalls seemed much more like an entrance to a water park, rather than the natural feature it really is. The waterfall is comprised of 7 tiers, each anywhere from 100m to 400m from the previous tier. We began walking the trail to the first tier, expecting it to be busy but manageable. Boy were we wrong. It seemed as though everyone in Thailand had decided to check out the falls that day. The mass of people was close to what the opening day of Canada’s Wonderland looks like, except that no one spoke English. The crowds populating the first tier were primarily locals – families of 10 or more having picnics by the pools, swimming under the falls, and just generally enjoying what nature had to offer. As we were slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people we opted to skip swimming in the first few pools and continue on the path to the next tiers. The 2nd
tiers had a very similar crowd of people and gave no break in numbers as we continued to climb. We moved along towards the 4th
tier but were stopped at a check-point. Security was in place to
One of the seven levels that make up the falls.
stop people from bringing food up to the top tiers. This security measure was not so that local vendors could capitalize on tourists - vendors were not allowed past either – but because the monkeys in the jungle would steal your stuff. As we trekked higher and higher up the tiers, we came across monkeys just hangin’ out. Had we had any food on us I’m sure they would have jumped us. As we approached the 5th
tier, the numbers of locals almost disappeared and the tourist numbers were dwindling, making the experience much more enjoyable. We finally made it to the 7th
tier almost an hour after entering the park and walking well over 1 km up rock terrain – in flip flops! We were VERY ready for a swim. The pools of water were a beautiful turquoise colour with water cascading into them from up high. We jumped in with ease but soon turned squeamish when we felt things biting our feet. Little did we know, the pools were filled with the same fish that you can fins at a fish spa. They are attracted to – and eat! – the dead skin on your feet. Not the
Around the Bend
One of the only original remaining sections of the railway.
most pleasant experience to come across by chance. We braved a few more minutes in the water and then made the trek back down to the entrance, with a brief stop at the 4th
tier so Matt could give the natural rock slides a go. We made it back to the parking lot just in time for the 3pm bus back to town, which didn’t actually leave until 4. We were some of the first people to get a spot on the bust, which later turned out to be quite the stroke of good fortune. As 4pm neared, we realized we were on the final public bus leaving the park for the day. People kept packing onto the bust, seats disappeared, standing room vanished and passengers (mainly locals) were literally hanging out the doors of the bus. Oh, and of course we stopped to pick up more passengers en route. We finally made it back to town and walked from the bus stop to our guesthouse, glad to regain our personal space.
Riding the Thai-Burma Railroad
The next morning (Jan 4th
) we awoke and chose to spend Liza’s birthday on the train – taking the historic railway over the
After School Activities
Everywhere we go in Asia, kids are finding ways to have fun.
bridge and through many previously impassable spots, had it not been for the resilience of the PoWs. We caught the train at 10am and took a very scenic 3 hour ride north west towards the town of Nam Tok. We arrived and explored the area and nearby waterfalls, where we spent the majority of our time watching young school kids ‘cliff’ jump from the falls, despite the barley wait height water depth. Not what we would advise, but the ear to ear grins on the children’s faces as they played was well worth it. We walked through several villages on our way back to the train station and caught the 3pm train ride home. The 3 hour ride however turned into 4.5 hours as the train unexpectedly stopped for 1.5 hours at a random station, detached the control car, and waited for another control car to show up to take us the last leg home. Just another bonus for public transit in Thailand. We made it back to the guesthouse around 8pm, enjoyed a nice dinner and some drinks overlooking the river and then called it a night.
The next day we were scheduled for a 5pm minibus
View from the Train
Taking the railway offered us views of the fields and countryside that we did not get to see from the highways.
back to Bangkok in order to hop on an overnight bus to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. Despite being cramped for space on the minibus, the insane driving that seems necessary to get anywhere, and arriving at the bus station only minutes before our departure time, we made it in one piece. This was mostly due to the lovely Thai lady we met on our minibus, who took us from the minibus to the proper ticket station, got us our tickets and pointed us in the right direction for our bus platform. We hopped on the bus close to 11pm, tired, but excited for our upcoming adventures in Chiang Mai.
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