Today visitors come to pay their respects to fallen Allied soldiers or to discover for themselves more about the town’s dark past. But Kan, as locals call it, is also a great place to relax at riverside guesthouses or venture to nearby natural attractions.
THAILAND-BURMA RAILWAY CENTRE
Before you head out to the Kwai River Bridge, get a little history under your belt at this museum (%0 3451 0067; 73 Jaokannun; adult/child 60/30B; h9am-5pm). Professional exhibits outline Japan’s aggression in Southeast Asia during WWII and its plan to connect Yangon (in Burma) with Bangkok via rail for transport of military supplies. Captured Allied soldiers as well as Burmese and Malay captives were transported to the jungles of Kanchanaburi to build 415km of rail – known today as the Death Railway because of the many lives (more than 100,000 men) the project claimed.
KANCHANABURI ALLIED WAR CEMETERY
Across the street from the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, the Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery (Th Saengchuto; admission free; h7am-6pm) is a touching gift from the Thai people to remember the POWs, mainly from Britain and Holland, who died on their soil.
KWAI RIVER BRIDGE (DEATH RAILWAY BRIDGE)
While the story made famous by the film The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of endurance, heroism and suffering, the span itself is just an ordinary bridge with an extraordinary history. A bit of imagination and some historical context will help to enliven a visit to the bridge, which was a small but strategic part of the Death Railway to Burma. Engineers estimated that construction would take five years, but the human labourers were forced to complete the railway in 16 months. Allied planes destroyed the bridge in 1945 but later repairs restored the span; the bomb damage is still apparent in the pylons closest to the riverbanks.
During the first week of December there’s a nightly sound-and-light show put on at the bridge. It’s a pretty impressive scene, with simulations of bombers and explosions and fantastic bursts of light. The town gets a lot of tourists during this week, so book early. The bridge is roughly 3km from the town centre and the best way for you to reach it is by bicycle. You can also catch a sÇZwngthÇZew (5B) going north along Saengchuto, but it isn’t obvious when to get off; if you get to the Castle Mall, you’ve gone too far. There are also three daily departures across the bridge on the Kanchanaburi-Nam Tok train
WORLD WAR II MUSEUM
Near the bridge is a privately owned museum (Mae Nam Khwae; admission 30B; h9am-6pm), a veritable temple to kitsch, sometimes also known as the JEATH War Museum to capitalise on the popularity of another museum by the same name in town. The collection might be the oddest assortment of memorabilia under one roof, but the building does afford picture postcard views of the bridge.
JEATH WAR MUSEUM
This outdoor museum (Pak Phraek; admission 30B; h8.30am-6pm), the original JEATH, is run by monks as a testament to the atrocities of war. The displays of historic photographs are housed in a bamboo hut, much like the ones the POWs used. More a photo gallery than museum, it isn’t very informative, but it is heartfelt, especially the fading pictures of surviving POWs who returned to Thailand for a memorial service.