Did you know that Kanchanaburi in Thailand was an essential place in the East during World War II? If you remember the hit movie, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, you already know some of the histories of Thailand’s involvement with the Japanese forces in the Second World War.
Most people wrongly assume that World War II was mainly a war between Britain and a few Western nations against Adolf Hitler’s Nazis with cameo appearances from Russia and the USA. The war did encompass the whole world with Japan siding with the Nazis in East Asia after the infamous Pearl Harbor incident that propelled America into the war.
Kanchanaburi is located approximately 150km north-west of Bangkok and has a population of nearly 52,000. The town today is scenic and pleasant and shows no visible evidence of the horrors that took place in the region between 1942 and 1945 apart from some landmarks that still stand today.
The area was the main Japanese base for the failed construction of what is known today as the Burma Railway, which is also more succinctly known as the Death Railway. The Japanese forced local workers and allied prisoners to construct the final Bangkok leg of the railway between China and Burma. Over 100,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 allied troops turned prisoners of war died to build the railway.
There are many tourist attractions and museums in the Kanchanaburi region to commemorate the tragedy. Here we can tell you a bit more about the places and their significance in the historical tale of Kanchanaburi and World War II.
Bridge Over The River Kwai
When we talk about the Japanese occupation of Thailand during World War II, the construction of the Burma Railway and the Bridge Over the River Kwai are the most famous stories.
The 1957 movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai” gained much critical acclaim, but as with any film, artistic creativity took over to drive the plot instead of the whole truth. Many parts of the film were fictitious.
The Japanese planned that the bridge, which was part of the larger plan to complete the final leg of Burma Railway would take 5-years to construct. But they did it in 16-months between 1942 and 1943 with a source of free labour that included local prisoners and Allied POWs.
The inhumane practices that the Japanese pioneered when building the bridge are still widely condemned today and are not the ways to treat human beings, even amidst a war campaign. Work on the bridge took place 24-hours per day, seven days per week resulting in the deaths of almost 120,000 people.
The deaths came from starvation, being overworked and beaten, lack of sanitation and so forth. The viciousness of the Korean and Japanese guards is legendary. They beat the ‘workers’ continuously and worked them hard from 12 to 18 hours per day in scorching hot temperatures that were over 30-degrees.
The disease also played a massive part in the death toll, as malaria, dysentery, cholera, and beriberi were common. As the Japanese needed the schedule to go for 24-hours per day, oil pot lamps and bamboo fires raged into the night, which led to the name “Hellfire Pass”, which is also another site in the Kanchanaburi region.
The bridge today stands as a monument for the people who lost their lives in its construction, although the original bridge was blown up in the war. The Bridge Over the River Kwai today is a renovated version of the original bridge. Around the River Kwai Bridge, you will find lots of souvenir stall and food vendors. It is still an exciting and historic place to visit.
Jeath War Museum
As with any genocidal act, lessons should be learned from the experience, and we should never forget the deaths of innocent people, so they are not in vain. The Jeath War Museum was created to commemorate those who lost their lives during the construction of the Death Railway.
Located within the grounds of the Wat Chai Temple in Kanchanaburi, the Jeath War Museum and its stories will bring a tear to your eye.
The museum shows what life was like for the prisoners who were forced, whipped and beaten to construct the Death Railway. The word ‘JEATH’ derived from the first letters of the nations of the people were from who built the bridge: Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, and Holland.
The museum is home to a myriad of photos and illustrations that show the appalling conditions of the POWs, during the construction of the railway. The images were mostly donated by those who survived the ordeal. You can only imagine how the horrific experience affected the remaining years of their lives.
One of the most ironic things about the location of the Jeath Museum is that it was formally used as a detention centre at the time of World War II to house the prisoners of war and has since turned into a museum, so we never forget the tragedies that happen at the hands of the Japanese and Koreans.
Today you can visit the museum between 8:30 am and 6 pm, pay a small admission fee of 30 THB and get to learn more about the conditions of the prisoners. It is something every person should see to remind themselves what happens when we let tyranny into the world.
Jeath Museum GPS: 13.992841, 99.526364
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
As you can see from the Jeath Museum, one of the main reasons to visit Kanchanaburi is to remember what happened so we can make the world a better place. One of the main tourist sites in the region is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. It is merely one of the saddest places you will ever visit.
The cemetery, also known locally as Don-Rak War Cemetery is located near to the Jeath Museum and is the main cemetery for the victims of the Japanese in the construction of the Death Railway. There are almost 7,000 graves at the cemetery. Most of the people who died there, especially the Allied POWs, were extremely young as you would expect with soldiers. It is not uncommon to see lines of gravestone where all the soldiers are under 20-years old.
Of the 7,000 people buried at the cemetery, 1,896 of them were Dutch soldiers. It is the most significant amount of deaths outside the local Thai populace who died when constructing the railway. Aside from the Dutch, most of the other nationalities buried there are British and Australian. The bodies of the American soldiers were mostly repatriated and sent back home. It indeed is a humble affair to walk the grounds of the cemetery. It makes you feel lucky to be alive.
Across the road from the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, you will also find a Dutch Roman Catholic church called Beata Mundi Regina. Today, the cemetery is run and funded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
If you ever get the chance to visit the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, you should, because it’s something everyone should see to remind us about the worst aspects of humankind that we need to curtail.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery: 14.031335, 99.52536
River Kwai Bridge Resort
The River Kwai Bridge Resort is a good place to stay and discover the city, JEATH museums and River Kwai Bridge. Just a few steps from the JEATH Museum