Wanting to skip the usual and touristy Bangkok-Pattaya-Phuket itinerary, our plan to drive through the country led us to the western Thai town of Kanchanaburi. The town is a gateway to historical attractions, national parks and the infamous Death Railway.
If you are fond of classic movies, you may recall having watched The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is based on the novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai by Pierre Boulle, which in turn is based on the historical events of the construction of the 400 odd km Thailand-Burma Railway line. It is believed that the Japanese wanted to invade Burma (now Myanmar) and take control of the region from the British. Hence, the Japanese built it to support its forces during World War II. More than three lakh labourers and prisoners of war were put to work under inhuman conditions. More than a lakh died during the construction of the railway line.
One of the most famous sections was the bridge built on the river. The original name of the river was known as Maeklong river. It ran through the Kwai Noi River valley. The author of the book, Pierre Boulle mistook it as Kwae river. Thus was born River Kwai.
The first bridge constructed was wooden and completed around 1943. Soon a more modern concrete-and-steel railroad bridge was built. Parts of the bridge remain, and trains still run from Bangkok to Nam Tok station, mainly for tourists and a few regular local passengers. The super slow moving train provides breathtaking views of the valley and flowing river. Running on a hilly terrain, it is a stark reminder of the efforts and sacrifices of the workers who built the track in harsh conditions.
The renovated bridge also includes a walkway and viewing platforms for enthusiastic visitors. The bridge can be crossed on foot to go to the other side. During our evening stroll on the bridge, we were treated to lovely views of the river and also, unexpectedly the train! A hooter was sounded off informing people on the bridge of the oncoming train and a cue to move away from the tracks to either sides or the platforms.
A pretty and colourful train lazily passed by us, its occupants jutting out their heads and waving back. The crowd soon dispersed as the sun slowly began to set. Walking towards the numerous restaurants lined up on the river-front, we chose The Floating Restaurant which provided a stunning view of the bridge. Witnessing the setting sun and the bridge beautifully lit up, along with some authentic Thai drinks for company, we retired to our hostel looking forward to our next day in this quaint little town.
Train: Two trains leave daily from Bangkok Noi station and you can directly go to the station and pay for a ticket. The train is clean but slow moving. There is a special tourist coach which is a little expensive but provides a more comfortable seating option.
Car: We had hired a rental car in Bangkok and planned to drive down to Kanchanaburi. Though the time taken is approximately 2 hours, it took us more than 5 hours to reach the destination, thanks to no proper sign boards in English and lack of English speaking skills among local people. If you are comfortable with the local language and have decent internet connection or GPS in your vehicle, the roads are a treat to drive. There is parking available a little walk down the road.
Day Trips: There are countless travel operators in Bangkok who provide day trips to the Death Railway. Pick any one of them that suits your pocket.
Kanchanaburi has a plethora of options to stay, right from luxurious suites to cheap bunks. Many aggregator sites like Booking.com and Airbnb offer accommodation for all budget types.
There are many restaurants and hawkers serving Thai cuisine near the bridge. For an authentic experience, visit the night market on the main road. Traditional, local food is best served at roadside stalls. Vegetarians will have to take extra effort to find anything that does not include seafood. Restaurants serving international cuisine (veg too) are also available.