The bridge over the river Kwai

Since our Thai visa is valid for only 30 days, we decided on a route through some of the main and easy to travel sights and cities in Thailand. We want to spend at least one week on a beautiful tropical island on the east coast of Thailand to relax and dive, but first: off to Kanchanaburi.

A beautiful 2,5 hour train journey took us from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. A pretty ride with a far less pretty history. The railway was constructed between 1942 and 1943 by prisoners of war under command  of the Japanese occupiers. Thousands of Australians, British, Americans and Dutch and tens of thousands of locals worked and died during the construction of the railway between Ban Pong and Burma, the Death Railway. Famous for its book and especially its movie in 1956: The bridge over the river Kwai. The bridge in Kanchanaburi does not look like the bridge in the movie (which was shot in Sri Lanka), but it did make Kanchanaburi an important place in the history of the second world war in the pacific.

Just outside the center of Kanchanaburi, we got ourselves a room, charmingly located on the banks of the river. The same evening we walked to the other side of town to view the famous bridge and take some beautiful pictures. In and around Kanchanaburi there are several monuments, museums and war cemeteries and we realize that we actually know very little about this part of the Second World War and the involvement of the Netherlands in it. We visit the Death Railway Museum that provides us with a simple but clear picture of the war in this part of the world and the construction of the Death Railway.

More than 16,000 prisoners of war or PoWs and more than 100,000 slaves were killed during the construction of the railway, most of which were buried in the three war cemeteries in and around Kanchanaburi. We visit the cemetery next to the Death Railway Museum, where besides Americans and Britons 1600 Dutch heroes have been buried. Fortunately, there are few day-trippers who seem to find the way to the cemeteries, so the respectful and impressive atmosphere is preserved and they do not turn into tourist attractions.

The region around Kanchanaburi has much more to offer than war monuments, so one day later we jump on a bus towards the Erawan Falls. According to many the most beautiful waterfalls in Thailand, which of course we want to check. In seven levels the water winds through elegantly shaped rocks in the rainforest and fills up several small lakes and pools and … swimming is allowed!

The two lowest stages are full of Thai day-trippers who flee the cities with large coolers, but the higher stages are quieter and at least as beautiful. We visit all seven of them and take a refreshing dive at the fifth and seventh waterfall in an absolutely picturesque setting. Even before we get even knee-deep in the water dozens of hungry fish are hanging on our feet and calves. The fish are quite a bit larger than the ones you’ll find in the spas and nibble away happily. Every now and then somebody cannot suppress a scream, followed by laughter. As the ticket for the falls is valid for two days, we decide to use the camping facilities at the main entrance of the park.

Our plan to sleep under our mosquito net in the open air unfortunately fails, we cannot find a suitable place to fix the mosquito net and invest three euros in the rental of a tent. The grass on the camping field is high enough, so a sleeping mattress is not necessary. The next morning we enter the park early and are alone in the main pools. We enjoy a few hours of different beautiful locations along the trail and return to Kanchanaburi in the evening.

Before we continue to Ayutthaya, a visit to the Hellfire Pass on our wish list. This part of the Death Railway was one of the most labour-intensive passages of the entire railway and received its name due to the image of the fire-lit pass with shadows of soaring PoW’s and dreaded Japanese guards. Australian veterans and survivors have opened a museum with the help of various authorities and turned the Hellfire Pass into a worthy monument for the atrocities that took place here between 1942 and 1945.

We decide to laze a day at the River Kwai to recover from the impressive images and stories around the Death Railway, of which about 100 km from Ban Pong (direction Bangkok) to Nam Tok (near the Hellfire Pass) are still used by the Thai railway company. The next stop on our trip through Thailand is Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam.