Kanchanaburi – The River Kwai, Erawan Falls, the Death Railway and Hellfire Pass

With only a handful of days before we had to leave Southeast Asia we took off down south from Northern Thailand via bus for Kanchanaburi. Having taken buses in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and now Thailand we have to say Thai buses (or at least the one we took) was fantastic. Plenty of leg room, also it didn’t eat our Airpod when we dropped it like the one in Vietnam. Taking a night bus, we arrived in Kanchanaburi an hour earlier than we anticipated at 6:30am. Our homestay wasn’t ready, so we walked down to the River Kwai with all our gear and posted up at a restaurant for a little breakfast by the river. Travel days can be exhausting and trying. Despite the ease of transportation and the cooler weather of the morning we were still dripping in sweat and gave big sighs of relief as we set our stuff down.

When we set out for SE Asia, Kanchanaburi was not high on either of our lists, but the town was fantastic and we definitely recommend it as a must see while in Thailand. There is natural beauty, funky bars, tons of ex pats, and a rich history. But man alive, it was HOT! Consistently over 100 degrees it made it hard to do much of anything for too long in the hot sun.

The small big town is set along the River Kwai, famous for being the setting for the famous book and later movie “A Bridge over River Kwai”. Fun fact, the actual name of the river is the Mae Klong but this particular section of the river was renamed Khwae Yai (Because yes, the author misspelled the word and this was continued in the film) to bring the fictional story to geological life on the map for the many tourists who visit the area. Clever marketing Thailand, very clever.

One of the things that caught our eye about the area was the Erawan National Park which had a set of waterfalls. Our affinity to waterfalls has grown a thousand-fold on this trip so we headed out on motorbike to check it out. Probably our longest motorbike trip to date, it was a little over an hour each way to get there and another hour and change coming back. We arrived in the afternoon and stayed until about an hour to sundown so our long motorbike back wouldn’t be in the complete dark.

The sheer volume of people at the falls was a bit of a turn off so we would recommend getting an earlier start to try and beat the crowds. The whole experience felt a bit like a water park as the lower falls were overrun with children and families bathing in the shallow small set of falls. As you moved up the falls the path got a bit more precarious but that didn’t stop people from climbing all the way to the top falls. The falls themselves were cool, but not as great as some of the falls we had seen, like the Kuang Si in Laos.

One of the other main attractions in Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway and Hellfire Pass. There were plenty of tours we could have booked out of Kanchanaburi but elected to go it alone. We were glad we did it this way, especially when we saw a huge tour group come through on the train. Able to go at our own pace we found some truly peaceful moments.

We booked the train to Nam Tok, which is where the train going north out of Kanchanaburi station terminates. Make sure to book a river side seat and be prepared to have tourists in your lap (literally happened to me) when you pass the most famous section of the Death railway. From there we hopped into a red truck with another traveling couple from Australia and headed up to Hellfire Pass.

The history that makes this area famous is not a pretty one. During World War II the Japanese pressed POW’s and local Thai captives into incredible taxing physical labor building the railway to better supply their war efforts in the region. The railway itself is called the Death railway as it is said for every line of train track a man died. Not only because of the precarious path along the river, but also the terrible working conditions that led to malnutrition.

One particularly terrible section is known as Hellfire Pass. Tens of thousands of POW’s and local Thai captives lost their lives forging a path through solid stone and thick jungle. Two-man team’s worked with a hammer, chisel, and dynamite. Once a hole had been created in the rock, dynamite was inserted and lit by the butt of a cigarette. Working day and night the pass received its name from the image of the scene at night. Gaunt men toiling with primitive tool, torches illuminating their tired work, occasional screams, truly, Hell. The men were required to hit a daily quota of rock removed to receive their rations. One third of a small bowl of white rice in exchange for a 10 ft by 10 ft section of rock. Standing in the area where these brave men lost their lives was very powerful, and with little tourists around had a peaceful air to it now so many years removed from the war.

Riding the train back to Kanchanaburi we were humbled and glad to have learned the history that had forged this area.

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