We weren’t sure what to expect from Kanchanaburi. When we arrived by train a couple of days ago, the town seemed small and utilitarian. So it came as a surprise when our mini bus drove past the train station and kept going for another 5km to the bus station to drop us off in the middle of a bustling regional city. The bus station area was crazy hectic with taxi trucks and motorbike taxis and unmarked “taxis” all vying for our baht. Having just arrived and being fans of walking, we politely declined all offers off “where you want to go?” and set off on foot.
We decided to walk to the Chungkai War Cemetery and a nearby wat that had a cave system underneath it. The 5km walk took us past the city’s old gate where a woman was praying at a shrine. A small wat glistened in the middle of the road where it looked like it had been plopped despite the traffic. We walked across the river where houseboats lined the banks. And then we were out on the open road walking past rice paddies and wild gardens. It was hot on the open road. It made me think about how hard the life of the POWs and local prisoners who built the railway must have been; at least it was dry today.
Chungkai War Cemetery is a moving place. It’s situated between the main road and the river just outside the Kanchanaburi city limits. There were no tourists there when we arrived and the few who turned up later were quiet and reverent. The number of unnamed soldiers buried here was moving. I think that would have been the worst for families who lost loved ones in the war: never knowing what happened.
After leaving the cemetery we continued our walk further away from town towards a wat that had caves under it. The wat’s road entrance is relatively subdued. There is a slightly run down looking temple building and some cute puppies along with an old sign announcing the caves. The entrance from the river side is much more lively, with market stalls, a big gold Buddha statue and new signage. Obviously, this is the preferred entry for many tourists. But don’t be fooled by the low key road entry. The caves are worth a visit. The narrow passageways are dotted with Buddha statues and candles. The smell of incense lingers on the stale and musty air. In places we almost have to crawl through low hanging entrances and squeeze between closely spaced gaps. It’s at once adventurous and spiritual.
Rather than walk the 10km back to the Bridge Over the River Kwai, we hire a longboat. I am sure we paid too much but am not a tough negotiator and he had all the power because we didn’t want to walk all the way. The boats massive motor pushed us quickly down the tree-lined river. It bounced over the small ripply waves that had been blown up by the wind and, at times, felt like a burst of wind would blow it over. It was pretty cool to approach the infamous bridge from the water and see it in its full glory. Sure, it’s not the original bridge (obviously because that was blown up in the war) and it’s not in the original location, but it’s what the bridge symbolises that gives it meaning. We joined the tourist throng on the bridge, walking across and back, before checking out the JEATH museum. The museum is actually in two parts: the war between Thailand and Burma, and the WWII museum. The museum depicting the war between Thailand and Burma is definitely the best part. A mural that covers five floors shows the story of the Kanchanaburi region as the focal point for a conflict that has gone on for centuries. There are painted murals showing Thailand’s kings and an interesting piece about how the Thais originally came down from Mongolia in the Khmer era, always moving further south to find a new land of their own before settling in this area. The JEATH museum itself was okay but seemed to be an eclectic collection of items all dumped into rooms without any real interest shown by the curator. It is a “more is better” approach, rather than a “select the best pieces to tell a story” approach. But it is worth a look if you want to see many artefacts from the war.
Walking through Kanchanaburi’s seedy streets where white men of all ages sat in their drunken stupors, eyes glazed over and voices loud, made me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I can’t imagine what local Thais must think of our countries and people. Just as we in the west judge all Asians by those who live in or visit our countries, so too do the locals in the lands we visit judge our entire nations by the way tourists behave. Especially in places where it is unlikely the locals will ever be able to afford to visit our homes to see that we are not all red-eyed drunk and loud.
After the shock of my first time in a real proper tourist strip, the Commonwealth War Cemetery was almost eerily quiet. The gardens and plaques are immaculate. The gardeners tending the garden worked with a delicacy and reverence that was touching. It was quiet despite the hectic surrounds. It made me sad to see such wasted life, especially given conflict and war continues today. Will we ever learn from our history or are we doomed to repeat it?
After an emotional day, we took our first Thai bus ride back to Lat Ya. The buses here are colourfully decorated and filled with lots of fans to keep the air flowing. It wasn’t as hectic as I expected and, at just 15 baht a person, cost just one tenth of a taxi ride.
We arrived back at Lat Ya just as the sun was setting to walk our final short 500m to the hotel.