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Kanchanaburi
Celebrate life as you muse over death


"So many people died in the Kanchanaburi area under administration of the Japanese command that you owe it to yourself and the rest of humanity to enjoy yourself as best you can here. Honor the fallen whilst here by avoiding Japanese restaurants and romances with Japanese individuals.  If married to a Japanese person, at least go celibate during your time in Kanchanaburi like the imprisoned did."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


Kanchanaburi has secured a place for itself on the map by being an administrative center for Japanese railway designs.  Had the railway been the world's first high speed train, no one would have bothered making a movie in 1957 called The Bridge On The River Kwai and Thailand would now be the beneficiary of high speed rail links that would get one from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in a couple of hours instead of, at worst case, a couple days. 

Kanchanaburi River Kwai

It's a lot more fun to ride the railway as a passenger than build it as a prisoner

This was a different kind of railway design and no less ambitious for its time.  The Japanese had wrested control of Burma from the British, and they had also taken over Thailand.   Not officially, mind you.  Officially, Thailand had let the Japanese waltz on in and set up bilateral relations most favorable to the Japanese. 

KanchanaburiThe Japanese forces in Burma needed sushi, sashimi, salmon skin hand rolls, sake, Japanese furniture, the latest pop novel, and whatever else it is Japanese soldiers in Burma back then wanted.   Up to 1942, the resupply had to be done by sea, making Japanese ships vulnerable to allied submarine attacks.  The Japanese, ever the innovators well before the Sony era to come later, hatched a plan to build a railway from Rangoon (Burma's capital) to Bangkok.  It's a task more easier said than done, as the railway would have to journey through mountainous jungle terrain. 

But the Japanese ain't quitters, no sirree.  Executing ambitious engineering projects is made that much more feasible when you've got not cheap, but free Asian laborers (Chinese, Tamil, Indonesian) plus allied prisoners of war, mainly British, Dutch, and Australians, whose salaries could be rounded down to 0 yen per hour.  Extraneous costs could be kept ultra low by barely feeding the construction workers and providing almost nil in the way of medicine.  Those who lacked the vigor and vim to build were introduced to the Reaper.   In a way, you can see the formation of the outsourcing model we use today:  find cheap, preferably free, labor wherever you can and if they're not performing or performing at too high a cost, make those workers redundant and set up shop with a new labor pool.   

Many of Kanchanaburi's current attractions are echoes of the Japanese presence in Kanchanaburi during the war.  Hellfire Pass, one of the most treacherous cuttings on the Death Railway, remains a helluva place to go have a picnic.  No one cares nowadays if you're picnicking with a Japanese or drive here in a Toyota.  The Allied War Cemetery is full of Dutch, British, and Australian graves, the result of a Japanese customer service promise to the prisoners of war to take care of them, all right   The JEATH War Museum is an acronym of Japan, England, America, Thailand, and Holland.  JAUNT would've been technically more accurate, standing for Japan, America, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Thailand.  With the JEATH name, England gets full credit while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are ignored; Holland likewise steals the show as the other ten provinces of the Netherlands are assumed not to exist.  The museum isn't too kind in describing the Japanese attention to medical details, which amounted to using the prisoners as free laboratory experiments.    

 
So Is Kanchanaburi All About Death?

Mourn for the dead.  They did not die pleasurably of a cocaine overdose.  These were soldiers drafted to fight a war in circumstances they had no control over.  Politicians start wars.  Average citizens are the ones who die in them.

But after your moment of silence, LIVE IT UP.  You're still alive.  Revel in it and enjoy the rest of Kanchanaburi's attractions like I did. 

The River Kwai, known as the Khwae Noi in Thailand, is famous.  We all know that.  The greatest variety and most economical tourist accommodation is located here.  River houses, sort of house rafts on water, are a common sight in these parts.  Sleep in one.  Let the calming influences of the water nurse you to sleep. 

At the time I visited the area, over a 10-day period in late 2006 and early 2007, the place wasn't even well touristed.  The main street near the river was bare, bars empty.   A few scaliwags and moochers of both sexes plied the streets looking to make themselves of service without providing any.  My brother went back in 2009 and said the place had undergone further construction, much like the rest of the country, destroying some of the charm the town had possessed.  The town of Kanchanaburi away from the street near the river was very much a local Thai town in every respect in those days and likely still is.   

I rented a motorbike and drove the 215 km to Sangkhla Buri on the border of Burma.  That's as far as the road goes, to Three Pagodas Pass.  At that time, the border was open.  You passed a USD 10 or THB 500 note to the border guard, and you were allowed to cross over the border to the cowtown of Payathonzu for the day.   No passport stamps, no bureaucratic b.s.  

Allied War Cemetary  Hellfire Pass  Hindad Hot Springs  raft house  Sai Yok Waterfall 
Doug grasping some of the best Kanchanaburi and its environs have to offer (from l to r):  The Allied War Cemetery; Doug hiking around Hellfire Pass; the Hindad Hot Springs 130 km from Kanchanaburi, discovered by a Japanese soldier during the Second World War -- too bad the POWs never got to dip in; a typical river raft house hotel where rooms were to be had in 2007 for THB 400; Doug acting cool at the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall 60 km from Kanchanaburi.  Don't be shy.  Click on a picture to enlarge it!!!   

There were plenty of exciting places to stop at along the way.   I visited a monastery that dopes up tigers and then lets you get snuggly with them for a free.  The Sai Yok Noi Waterfall is seen from the main road.  It's not big, it won't rank as one of the greatest waterfalls you've ever seen, but for a quick dip and run, you'll be glad you stopped. The contrast of the natural beauty of these falls and the larger and more famous ones at Sai Yok Yai with the hellishness of life for the prisoners of war at Hellfire Pass during the war is extraordinary.  It's as if Gilligan and the other castaways on Gilligan's Island were stuck on an isle that was just a short ferry ride away from Koh Samui.  

You couldn't ask for a better setting for the Hindad Hot Springs.  It is rather unfortunate that Thais do their laundry, with non biodegradable soap, in the river next to the springs.  I enjoyed Hindad so much that I went twice.  I stopped there once on the way back by motorbike from Sangkhla Buri.  I met a Thai girl there and a week or so later, she, I, and two Australian buds who showed up in Thailand for a short vacation drove her car back to the springs for a day trip. 

I did go on another bike trip circuit with the two Australian friends, traveling to the tiny down of Dan Chang and to the smallish town of Suphanburi, a unique experience for all of us at the time in that the town lacked any sort of foreign-friendly tourism infrastructure. I don't think much has changed.  The province of Suphanburi has a web site but it's entirely in Thai.    

In and around Kanchanaburi is a difficult place to get bored. The locale offers a nice balance of Thailand jungle scenery, Burmese border flavor, and historical cultural attractions that non-Thais can appreciate.  Elsewhere in Thailand are magnificent chedis and temples and Buddhas, things non Thais can gaze at in beauty but which strike no chord of familiarity for them to care beyond a short visit.  Kanchanaburi's intersection with the Japanese and the Second World War should draw interest from even the most museum-wary traveler.


 

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