Death Railway: Kanchanaburi

river kwai title

To recap, a group of 14 and I left Bangkok on a bus aiming for Kanchanaburi on a Saturday at 7 a.m. When we arrived two hours later we immediately boarded a bus headed for Erawan National Park and its famous seven falls. After hours of fun there we found ourselves without transport back to town—with no seats left the last bus was obviously full. We were forced to squeeze onto that bus and stand in the aisle all the way back.

Learning our lesson and following the advice of fellow students met at the falls we aimed for a set of guest houses called Sugar Cane and Jelly Frog as soon as we disembarked from the bus in Kanchanaburi. Our party swept into a two-bench taxi called a songthaew and we haggled for a ten baht per person price.

Songthaew are really fun to ride in. I wasn’t new to the idea of riding in the bed of a pick-up because I’d done it at home a number of times. But zipping down a road in full sight and on a public road without fear of repercussions made the act feel oddly invigorating indeed.

Arriving at the Sugar Cane guest house we spilled out and passed our ten baht into the waiting hands of the driver. As a group we crowded around the open window and settled into a battle for a good price.

our room

We’d been told of rooms with bedding for three people available at 300 baht (so 100 baht per person). Eventually we reached that price and managed to settle all 14 of us into rooms of two and three. Only one room had hot water but to be honest in the heat of Thailand the water feels warm anyway so we weren’t troubled. Each room was a separate small house. Dumping our bags we set out for the famous Kanchanaburi night market and some food.

food stand and german ju

With tourism books in hand we attempted to navigate our way to the market on foot. We’d heard it was close by. For some reason of course we wandered off into the opposite direction. The group began to fracture into smaller clusters as people searched for food. After an hour of walking my group and I stumbled upon a food market and—since we still hadn’t found the night market—we settled in to accomplish at least one goal. My meal cost about 60 baht with sticky rice, sausages and a coca cola drink.

late supper Kanchanaburi

Finally, admitting to ourselves that we were inexplicably lost we spoke to a woman who kindly directed us to the bus station we had arrived at. Since the terminal is a transportation hub we had no trouble finding a songthaew taxi to drop us at the night market (10 baht). We never saw any car taxis in our entire trip there. It seemed the town only ran on songthaew, tuk tuks, scooters, boats and minibuses.

To our dismay we arrived as the market was packing up for the night. After a quick look at the disappearing goods we decided to set off down a road that we’d seen another group of students pass down. It turns out the market was in fact walking distance from Sugar Cane. We’d simply taken the wrong turn at the fork in a road.

I found a store selling genie pants on the way back. I’d seen people wearing them and their loose appearance looked like an excellent way to keep cool. Plus they made me feel local (although they in fact do the opposite because for the most part foreigners wear them). At 250 baht for my first set I ended up going back for another pair. Down by the famous River Kwai the pants would have cost 350 baht. I’ve heard they can be found for about 200 baht at Khaosan Road in Bangkok (and if you like these pants then Khaosan is the place for you because the whole street has stall after stall of these loose colourful pants!). I of course thought the pants were rare but they are popular among tourists… Go figure. 

sugar cane guest house

I don’t know if it was the hours of climbing stairs, the cool river breeze or the deep darkness of the room but I slept better than I had in weeks at Sugar Cane that night.

a place called sugar cane

The next morning we tracked down breakfast quickly (no cost for me because I ate the food I had left over from the previous night). Racing to the train station we discovered that the train would be delayed, possibly for hours, because there had been a car accident at one of the train crossings. We were hoping to catch a ride on the famous Death Railway.

where to next_

Cobbled together by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and 180,000 Asian labourers for the Empire of Japan in 1943 the railway’s construction was a nightmare. Around 90,000 Asian labourers and 12,399 POWs died building it. They died from being beaten, succumbing to cholera and dysentery and wasting away from exhaustion and starvation.

death bridge tier

Ever flexible my group and I settled on getting to the famous River Kwai and the local Death Railway bridge by a songthaew taxi.

train coming3

Looking at the railway today it was hard to picture it being a source of such grief and torture. And yet, the bridge’s cold metal had a foreboding atmosphere as tourists clambered across it—like ants on a molding fruit. That’s the brilliant thing about humans though. We have this ability to use monuments and structures to remember, but we also recycle the acts that created the structure for the pleasure of future generations. Crossing that bridge was lovely despite its horrendous history. The bridge had successfully moved from war crime to a delight for tourists.

death bridge_death railway Kanchanaburi

I apologize if there is anyone who is offended by this thought. I know some pretty defensive people with a long line of ancestors who had encountered war.

But it makes my heart dance remembering a man with a smile on his lips as he strummed a gleeful tune on that fateful bridge.

It seemed like the area was collecting the positivity of the present to heal the wounds of the past. 

siam _land of smiles_

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