Bridge on the River Kwai
Travellers always seem to score points off one another by comparing how remote the places they have been are, the further away from the crowd the more you can lord it over other travellers you meet in the bar. In any travellers bar when you hear someone mention they went to Ankor Wat sure enough a pretentious voice will put them down for going to a tourist mecca and proudly proclaiming they gave Ankor a miss and went to Two Bricks in a pile of Buffalo Dung Temple instead located in the middle of nowhere and without another tourist in sight.
Occasionally being guilty of this myself one thing I’ve noticed is there’s a reason tourists go to the popular sites, because the remote ones you visit as an alternative are often pretty crap compared to them. So over the last few years I’ve increasingly become a blip amongst the crowd of package tourists on the beaten track once again.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Kanchanaburi is the beaten track, well the bulldozed, tarred, luxury hotels built and a Bazillion package tourists already visited track to be more precise. It was also the first place in Thailand outside Bangkok I ever visited so holds fond memories. Back then they were still bussing in Japanese tourists in on day trips by the sushi cart load, so there’s never exactly been an unspoilt image for me to get spoilt, hence the fact on all my subsequent visits I’ve never done anything else but continued to like the place.
Think of Kanchanaburi and what most people think of first is The Bridge on the River Kwai made famous by the film. What tourists don’t realise is just about everything they know of the place is not true.
For starters the name of the river is River Kwai, Erm no……… River Kwai, meaning Water Buffalo River is a fine name for any river in Thailand, and there are many throughout the country, unfortunately it isn’t the name of the one that flows through Kanchanaburi. The Kanchanburi river is called the River Khwae, and pronounced like the English word “Square” but with the “S” taken off “quare”.
So the bridge that crosses over the River Khwae not Kwai, Um no…………. In fact no WWII bridge crosses the River Khwae at all. The bridge actually crosses a different river, the River Maeklong which is the main river and the River Khwae is just a tributary of it and doesn’t even do that for a few kilometres upstream.
So the river the bridge goes over is the famous River Mekong! Uh no!…………. The Kanchanaburi River Maeklong shouldn’t be confused with the famous River Mekong that flows between Lao and Thailand and in fact isn’t called Mekong at all but the Namkong.
So when lots of tourists started turning up in the sixties looking to see the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Thai authorities quickly realised the movie’s blunder and publicised the real name was Bridge on the River Maeklong! Oh No………. The authorities instead decided to change the name of the stretch of the Maeklong near the bridge.
So they changed the name of the stretch of the Maeklong to the mistaken name of River Kwai all tourists thought it was called to avoid confusion! Duh no!………. They changed it to Khwae Yai.
So the bridge the prisoners built crosses the River Maeklong which isn’t the famous river Mekong and which actually isn’t called the Mekong at all but the Namkong but instead another river Maeklong which actually is called the Maeklong, which had a small section of its name changed near the bridge to Khwae Yai because tourists mistakenly thought it to be the river Kwai which actually isn’t called the River Kwai but River Khwae and is several kilometres away and doesn’t have a WWII bridge over it! Erm kind of………. There were actually two bridges built, a wooden one that doesn’t exist now and the current one. The current one already spanned a river in Java and was shipped to Thailand. Only the curved spans of the bridge are WWII originals the rest are repairs made to the bridge after the war.
The Wooden and Steel Bridges during WWII
At the bridge these days it is a tourist plaza, restaurants, ice cream shops, tacky souvenir market, boat hire and everything you’ve seen in all the other tourist places. But the bridge still does offer some stunning views of the river and a lengthy stroll on the other bank amongst the locals who will try and frighten you with tales of crocodiles in the water is still possible. Actually there are plenty of 4 foot long Water Monitor Lizards if you keep your eyes peeled.
The town of Kanchanaburi has some excellent value floating guest houses, remarkably few good eats for any Thai town I’ve been to and plenty of attractions from elephant rides and rafting, to Death Railway history and waterfalls all in a pleasant laid back provincial town where the policemen don’t often kill the tourists.
The bridges were part of the Death Railway which was built to supply the war in Burma by the Japanese and is still in use today. 90,000 civilian forced labourers and 16,000 POWs died building the railway. The trains still runs today from Thonburi train station in Bangkok and actually goes across the bridge. Trains run twice a day 7:15 and 13:45 taking around two and half hours offering a stunning view for the last 30min as the train hugs cliffs while winding through the jungle. A pricy steam train makes the journey on weekends for the full on authentic experience.
The curved spans are the originals