FOOTLOSE WITH ANJALY
The 1957 Oscar for David Lean’s The Bridge on River Kwai, catapulted the hitherto unknown remnant of WW II into limelight. Since then The Bridge has become the soul of Kanchanaburi in Thailand’s western region writes Anjaly Thomas
The Bridge on the River Kwai is as charming as the town of Kanchanaburi itself but with a more distasteful history. Though the evidence of the historical violence and suffering attached to it is long gone, the past clings to it in mysterious ways – tugging at your heartstrings each time you stare down into the dark river and visualize thousands of WWII POWs battling for their lives in the process of erecting a bridge commissioned by the Japanese Army.
The Bridge on the River Kwai, (the starting point of the Death Railway to Myanmar) attracts scores of visitors every year, but that is not all. Kanchanaburi, like Ayutthaya, the erstwhile capital of Thailand, is definitely a centre for disaster tourism with pretty much everything here, like the war cemeteries and museums, connected to World War II.
You can easily walk over the Bridge or stop over the little steel platforms with fantastic views of the river on either side. The bridge is now surrounded by cafes and restaurants, floating hotels and you can even hire a speedboat for a ride on the river. The present bridge is however an incarnation (part of the original is in the War Museum), though the two central ‘boxy’ spans were rebuilt after the war to replace three sections destroyed by Allied bombing.
Kanchanaburi, I found out, is a very chilled-out little town, with one central road called Saeng Chuto Road, catering both to the young and old alike, with advantages of lodging ranging from extremely cheap, backpacker style to luxury stays. What keep the long-term visitor hooked to the place are the cheap food beer bars and numerous massage parlours. Food lovers may find this place particularly interesting for the sheer choice of food on offer, but those whose appetite is not satiated with just the food, find the neighbourhood just as exciting as the local restaurant. From local to Continental and exotic (read insects and such like), Kanchanaburi is a haven for the intrepid.
Plus, it is also the gateway to the nearby provinces, including waterfalls (Erawan) and national parks in the area. A minimum of three days would make the difference between a great and a rushed holiday. If you are not looking for history, then there are plenty of adventure opportunities for the brave hearts – like bamboo raft rides (it is not as romantic as you think) or simply roll on an elephant back as it plunges through the thick forests. If none of this appeals to you, pack a lunch box and simply wander into the nearby jungles.
Alternatively you could go on a spiritual tour. Kanchanaburi is the also the birthplace of Phrabhavanaviriyakhum the Buddhist monk and a temple (Wat Tham Phu Wa) dedicated to him can be found within the limestone caves nearby.
Another interesting sight near Kanchanaburi is the Tiger Temple – this is the best chance of cradling a tiger in your lap for your million dollar photograph and living to tell the tale. The Tiger Temple gives you the amazing opportunity to feed and walk the cubs or play with the deer roaming freely around. The animals are a friendly here – something to do with the Buddhist way of life I suppose but being here even you are bound to lose some of the concerns about the wild.
Kanchanaburi is a great place to buy souvenir. Bargaining is of absolute importance though – do not be fazed by the fast-taking vendors, hold your ground and whittle down the price, baht by baht till you feel satisfied. One word of caution for those looking for “antiques”. It is not uncommon to be led into believing that a piece of rock, steel or currency notes is the “authentic” war remnant. It pays to remember that anything related to WW II can be found only in museums and they are NOT for sale.
Lesser known facts
1. The film Bridge on the River Kwai was shot in Sri Lanka
2. The Bridge is built over Mae Khlung which was changed to River Kwai (1960) after David Lean’s film proved that the original book about the Bridge was wrong.
Things to know
1. Bangkok has a visa on arrival policy
2. Thai’s are very friendly people. Return the courtesy
3. It is acceptable to bargain when shopping
4. If in doubt, visit the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) offices. They are most reliable source of tourist info.
Getting to Kanchanaburi
Train: Board the train from Thonburi Station (ticket costs 100 THB)
Bus: Southern Bus Terminal, Thonburi
Bus: Private cars/tours are other options – takes 3-4 hours to complete the distance
Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua): Perhaps the only place where you can cradle a tiger in your lap
Kanchanaburi War Cemetry: Over 6000 POW from Commonwealth Nations are buried here
Hellfire Pass: Asian labourers cut and blasted through rock by hand to clear this pass for the Death Railway during WWII
Erawan Waterfalls: The 7- tiered waterfalls are an absolute must visit place. Be prepared for some serious trekking though.
Elephant camps: Many in the area, however Taweechai Elephant Camp is the biggest and better organized.