I was looking forward to spending a few days along the River Kwai but was not prepared to see such a beautiful part of the world so deeply scarred by the ugliness of war and human depravity.
We had a 6am pick-up time from our hotel to join a larger tourist bus to take us about two hours west of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, home to the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Death Railway Museum, and Hellfire Pass Memorial. The area is also known for the many eco-friendly river camps along the river, which attempt to show tourists the natural beauty of the area as well as how the native tribes live. The bus was comfortably huge and less than half full, so many of us napped for a while. I did wake in enough time to see glimpses of rural Thai life but there's really not a whole lot going on along that route. Upon arriving near town, we were given the option of either being dropped off at a local pier to take a small boat ride up the river, to the infamous bridge, or we could stay on the bus and arrive at the bridge by boat. I think we all opted for the boat ride, which was beautiful, and disembarked at a pier just beside the bridge.
The museums and educational tours on this leg of our journey were incredibly well done. It all made me realize how Euro-centrically skewed my history education in a public Georgia school had been. In one year – 1942 to 1943 – the Japanese army forced some 200,000 Asian laborers taken from all over southeast Asia and about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war to build the Thai-Burma Railway, commonly called the Death Railway, including the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass. Nearly half of the Asian laborers died and about 12,000 POWs perished – the vast majority of them British, Dutch, and Australian. It’s worth noting that the Thai government surrendered to the Japanese, thereby saving Thai citizens from becoming prisoners of war or being taken as part of the ‘romusha,’ the Asians forced to work as slaves to build the railway. The current incarnation of the steel bridge seen today was installed by the Thai government, after the British sold the bridge to them. I have uploaded a large photo of the historical marker on the River Kwai site, so you can click here to see it and zoom to read the history. The Thai government has conveniently omitted the part about Japan being forced to pay for the bridge repairs after the war. Scars run deep and history is written by the victors.
We re-boarded our bus and continued our WWII education at the Death Railway Museum and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The exhibits at the Death Railway Museum are thorough and immersive. The museum is by no means large but there is so much information and it is all so moving that I wanted to read every single plaque in its entirety - not just to learn more about these tragedies but because I would have felt like an ungrateful ass if I had passed over any of it. No photos are allowed inside the museum but if you go, give yourself plenty of time to absorb all of the exhibits. We then spent some time walking around the cemetery, which appears to be meticulously groomed on a daily basis.
Back to the bus and we were taken next to a rural bus depot not far away, where a pickup truck with a covered bed was waiting to take us to the Float House, our accommodation for the next two days. Apparently this is THE way to travel in rural Thailand, since this was not the first or last journey of our holiday in a Thai truck bed. Being raised in rural south Georgia means that I have made many journeys while seated in the back of a pickup truck, holding on for dear life. It's a basic survival skill that I took for granted until I realized that my other half's British upbringing did not prepare him for this part of the trip.
We were dropped off at a riverside pier and hopped a long tail boat to the floating hotel after the pickup truck. During my pre-trip research, I realized that our suitcases, which could be mistaken for transporting dead bodies because they were so ridiculously awkward and heavy, would need to be left at our hotel in Bangkok. We had packed our necessities for two days into backpacks and checked our luggage with the Banyan Tree before leaving. I'm glad we did - we saw some other guests who were either not privy to the same intel or who were not going back from whence they came, so they were clumsily dragging huge bags down a rickety wooden plank between dry land and the pier, before attempting to heave them onto a small boat - all the while trying not to end up in the river.
We had a fairly short boat ride to The Float House, an amazingly tranquil oasis built on pontoons and tethered to land with ropes. It was about 12:30pm by now and we were famished. We'd packed an incredible amount of activities and travel into our morning, so the Float House staff immediately served us lunch. It was a pre-set menu of Massaman curry, whole fried fish, and stir-fried vegetables, and all of it was delicious. We were then shown to our floating room, complete with outdoor shower, patio, and dock. We decided that we never wanted to leave.
The Float House
The Float House
Our arrival at the tranquil Float House on the River Kwai.
Every bungalow has a view
Our own floating deck
Our own floating deck outside of our room.
Float House Bed - with mosquito net!
Our enormously comfy bed, complete with mosquito net.
River Kwai Jungle Rafts - the first eco hotel
No electricity but it's beautiful
Mon tribe Buddhas
Mon tribe shrine
We were lured out of our room by the promise of another adventure, to visit the local Mon village. We were taken by boat a little further up the river, past a beach full of grazing water buffalo, and disembarked at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. This eco-friendly tourist destination was built by an environmental visionary in 1976 in an effort to merge environmental and cultural education. The Mon are thought to have founded one of the oldest civilizations in Indochina. They have their own language, alphabet, and culture that is completely different from those of the Thai or Burmese people. Like most indigenous peoples around the world, their way of life is under threat of dying out with the older generations, as the young people move away for educational and employment opportunities. The founder of the River Kwai Jungle rafts did not keep the hotel long enough to see the eco-friendly movement grow across the globe but the current owners have stayed true to his vision. The hotel still does not have electricity, it and the other hotels belonging to the same group employ the local tribespeople, and the tourists are encouraged to visit the village and watch the nightly cultural dances. We attended one of the Mon dances the same evening at another of the river resorts. Besides enjoying some peaceful relaxation on our room's deck, the one activity to be enjoyed at the hotel is to borrow one of the many life jackets and jump in the cool, fast-moving river (for those of us who can swim). We were in room #1, at the very end of the floating hotel, so after a particularly warm day, I didn't need to be convinced to jump in right from our private dock and float leisurely down the river. The hotel staff have been clever enough to anchor a long rope at the other end of the property, so that you can pull yourself out onto the beach, walk back to your room, and do it again.
Day two on the River Kwai was just as jam-packed - a visit to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a ride on the Death Railway, then the long haul back to Bangkok. We, along with a few other guests, were taken by boat back to the pier, then loaded back into the covered pickup truck for our short drive to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. The facility was built and opened in 1998 by the Australian government, who continue to maintain it. The atrocities of war are not sugar-coated in the exhibits but nothing explains the ridiculous demands of the Japanese railway dream like a walk through the massive cutting in the earth for which the museum is named. We were then taken to the rail depot for a short ride on the Death Railway. Riding on the railroad that so many people perished trying to build is reassuring that their memories will live on in the beautiful countryside that is there now.
Hellfire Pass Museum
Hopeful that the world will not forget what happened here.
Hellfire Pass Railbed History - click here to read
History of the cutting - click here to read plaque
The cutting 'Hellfire Pass'
Kwae Noi (Kwai) Valley view from Hellfire Pass
Wooden Bridge of Death Railway
First class doesn't get you windows, doors, or a/c
Health & safety feature so we don't fall out
Death Railway View
Death Railway scenery is beautiful