Visit the Second World War Museums and Cemeteries in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

thailand burma railway centre

One of the most popular places to visit in Thailand is the Bridge over the River Kwai. Located in Kanchanaburi, about an hour north of Bangkok, the Bridge over the River Kwai was made famous by the war movie of the same name. If you visit Kanchanaburi to see the bridge though, make sure you visit all the other Second World War related places, as it’s not just the bridge that is worth seeing.

The Kanchanaburi Death Railway – now known as the Death Railway, this is the railway that is blamed for the deaths of over 100,000 people during the Second World War. Allied soldiers (Dutch, Australian and British) as well as Burmese, Malaysians, Thai and Cambodians worked building this railway for the Japanese. The railway was intended to stretch from Thailand to Burma, and was supposed to be used to carry supplies for the Japanese war effort. After the war, the railway lines were taken up and the railway dismantled as the Thais felt it was not a positive thing for their country.

Today, you can actually take the Death Railway into Kanchanaburi. The trip takes about 20 minutes and runs along part of the route of the old railway and here you can see rice fields, jungle and other beautiful scenery around Kanchanaburi. The train is an old renovated train still with the wooden bench seats and open windows (no air conditioning). It’s an interesting train to take and you’ll even get chance to buy souvenirs of Kanchanaburi and the Bridge over the River Kwai, as Thai vendors will jump on the train and ride it to its destination.

The JEATH War Museum is a fascinating place to visit. It’s an old museum on the grounds of a temple, Wat Chaichumpol, in Kanchanaburi and is built in the style of the bamboo huts the prisoners of war who built the railway would have lived in. JEATH stands for Japanese, English, Australian, Thai and Dutch (Holland) as these were the five main nationalities who built the Death Railway. The JEATH museum is small and only takes a few minutes to go around but because of its quirky, old-fashioned feel and simplicity it’s a must-see. Entrance fee is only 30 baht too.

The War Museum is in Kanchanaburi town center and is easily found as there is a train outside it. It has some nice exhibits of old war uniforms, guns, fighting equipment, digging tools for the railway, and photographs as well as old paintings of battle scenes between the Thais and the Burmese. On the third floor, there is a good exhibit of Thai history including paintings of political figures, woodcarvings and more. This museum is privately owned but is very well kept up and worth the 60 baht ($2) entrance fee.

The Thai-Burmese Railway Centre is the newest museum in Kanchanaburi and is dedicated to the Death Railway. It’s next to the Don Rak war cemetery and has some quite extensive exhibits of the Thai-Burmese railway and the prisoners of war involved in building it. They also have a database of many of the prisoners of war who worked on (and died on) the railway. Video and soundtrack as well as some incredible sculptures make this an incredibly sad place to visit but truly one of the best museums in Kanchanaburi.

The Don-Rak War Cemetery is opposite the Railway Station in Kanchanaburi and is the burial site for almost 7,000 prisoners of war from Britain, Australia and Holland. It’s a beautifully kept cemetery and is very moving and sad to walk around as you see where all these men came from and how far away from home they were when they died. The ages of many of the men who died here too make it a very poignant place – many of them being younger than the age of twenty.

Chonk-Kai War Cemetery is further out of town and can be reached primarily by boat. It was the site of a hospital and camp that was built by the prisoners of war. Almost 2,000 men are buried here and most of them died in the hospital that used to be located here. This is a peaceful cemetery and less visited than the Don-Rak War Cemetery. It’s a lovely place to just sit and think about all the men who died and the inhumanity of the Japanese during World War Two.

Lastly, don’t forget to visit Hellfire Pass. Hellfire Pass is only 500 metres long but it took prisoners of war more than three months to dig this pass out of the solid rock. One thousand Australian and British soldiers worked on the digging and more than 700 of them died. There is a trail that leads to the pass and then on to the Hell Fire Pass Museum which is particularly moving for Australians, as many died here. The museum has excellent exhibits as well as some fascinating (and very sad) documentaries and video exhibits.

If you decide on a trip to Kanchanaburi to see the historical World War Two sites, you should probably allow at least two days to visit.

There are many small budget hotels and guest houses, and some very lovely resorts available to stay in, which you can either book online or through a travel agent. Kanchanaburi also has some quaint but good restaurants and bars, so it’s an interesting and lovely little place to spend a couple of days and to learn more about World War Two as well as present day Thai culture.