The valley stretches approximately 190km north west from Kanchanaburi to the Burmese border at Three Pagodas Pass, with the mountainous Sai Yok, Erawan and Khao Laem national parks to the east and the 6000 ft Bilauktaung mountain range of Burma to the west.
No longer debatable, the Kwae valley is an area of outstanding natural beauty, of rivers and lakes, mountains and jungle, and has recently become a destination for adventure holidays including trekking and elephant trekking, mountain byking, canoing and rafting. The main center for adventure holidays is Kanchanaburi town.
There are also many resorts along the river, some, such as the Bahn Rim Kwae Jungle House and River Kwai Cabin, in quite spectacular locations.
A. Bridge 277
B. Kwai Bridge Station
C. Private War Museum
D. Riverside Hotels
E. Kanchanaburi Station
F. War Cemetary
G. Bus Station
The tourist part of town is laid out along the river (River Kwai Rd.), between the River Kwai Bridge and the Rattanakarn Bridge. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants are in this area, many fronting on to the river. Guesthouses in this area include: Sam's House, Apple Guesthouse, V.N. House, River Guesthouse, J. River Guesthouse, Blue Star Guesthouse, and my own favorite the Jolly Frog, 350 Baht per night last time I stayed (2006): Thai food is excellent, western food acceptable.
The main War cemetary (photo at the top of this page) is on Saengchuto Rd., not far from Kanchanaburi Railway Station. It is located near what was the site of the main POW transit camp. The cemetary contains the remains of more than 5000 Commonwealth and 1800 Dutch POWs, many of them in their early twenties. On the other side of the river, on the site of Chong Kai POW camp, is a second smaller cemetary. The location is about 2km south west of the town on Lin Chang Bahn Kao Rd.
On Donrak Rd., on the north west side of the Cemetary is The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. This describes itself as: "an interactive museum, research and information centre dedicated to presenting the story of the Thailand-Burma Railway."
The Jeath War Museum is located by the river on Song Kwai Rd., near Wat Chaichumphon Chana Songkhram. The building is a reconstruction of a thatched POW hut, with bamboo bunks. On the wall are photographs of POW living conditions and various memorabilia.
A private "Art Gallery and War Museum" is located just down river from the River Kwai Bridge. The main feature is a Japanese locomotive outside the main door, but the museum has quite a few interesting remnants of the war. Much of the museum, however, is given over to general Thailand memorobilia, including portraits of Kings and Prime Ministers.
The Way to Burma
At the north end of town is the River Kwai Bridge, still in use more than 60 years after World War II though with 2 spans replaced after the end of the war. As can be imagined, this is a great tourist attraction, especially at the times when the west-bound trains are due to crawl over the bridge.
The Railway station nearby is a good place to catch the train westwards towards the end of the line at Nam Tok.
And of course it has also been the preferred route for Mon, Burman and Thai armies. In 1549 and 1592, for instance, Burmese armies crossed into Thailand via Kanchanaburi, besieged the capital Ayutthaya and were eventually repelled by fierce Thai Resistance.
In 1767, however, a three pronged invasion from the Three Pagodas Pass in the West, Chiang Mai in the North, and Chumphon in the South overran the city, and razed it to the ground. From that event modern Thailand was born.
Early Kings of the Bangkok dynasty later invaded Burma in the reverse direction, but with no long-term success, and the Thai-Burmese wars eventually died out with the annexation of Burma by the British in the mid nineteenth century.
As king Chakkraphat of Ayuthaya made his preparations for battle, Queen Suriyothai, his Chief Queen, dressed herself as the Uparat [second king], and mounted a huge male war elephant (its name is recorded as Song Suryia Kasat), fully equipped for battle, with Mahout and long-bladed axe warrior.
At the height of the battle, seeing that her husband had become isolated from his troops, the Queen led a foray against the threatening forces, but was cut down by the King of Phrae, one of the opposing nobles. King Chakkraphat escaped the battle, but the Queen had been mortally wounded. Her sons Prince (later king) Ramesuan and Prince Rahin forced their way through to her body and bore it from the field. (The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya, pp 32-33).
Queen Suriyothai is still remembered as one of Thailand's greatest heroines, celebrated most recently in the highly atmospheric Thai movie The Legend of Suriyothai, which was released in the USA in 2003.
During early 1942, Japanese forces occupied much of British Burma as far as The Indian border. In June 1942, in order to supply the war effort against India, the Japanese began construction of a railway from Bahn Pong (Thailand Southern Line) along the Kwae valley, and across the Three Pagodas Pass, connecting with the Burmese railway network at Thanbyuzayat.
About 60,000 allied P.O.W.'s and a much greater number of Malays and other Asians were used as forced labour. Most allied P.O.W.'s arrived in Thailand by train from Singapore: British and Australian military jammed 26 to a box car with rubber planters, traders and colonial administrators, for a journey that even today takes the best part of three days. From Bahn Pong they were marched up the valley of the Kwae Noi to the construction camps, where the real misery began.
Conditions were appalling: backbreaking work from dawn to dusk in very difficult terrain, tropical heat or monsoon rains, and always swarms of insects. Already suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion, thousands succumbed to Cholera, Dysentery, Cerebral Malaria and the the casual thuggery of their Japanese and Korean captors. It is estimated that over 100,000 Asians and more than 16,000 allied P.O.W.'s died during the construction.
Most of the original railway has by now been re-claimed by the jungle, much of the track re-cycled, but the first section from Bahn Pong to Nam Tok (about 115 km) re-opened in 1958. Other parts of the railway, such as Hellfire Pass, can be visited fairly easily from Kanchanaburi.
Beyond Kanchanaburi, however, the scenery is spectacular. The line crosses and re-crosses the river, sometimes slowing to a crawl in dangerous places like Wang Pho viaduct, and if you want to stop and explore, this is quite a good place to get off (at Tham Krasae Station). Once the train has departed, many people walk along the line by the cliff side, as can be seen in the photograph earlier in the page. At the station itself is a restaurant and a small market, and just down river is the Bahn Mae Rim resort. Make sure you do not miss the return train.
Also at Tham Krasae, just by the station, is Krasae Cave. The cave houses several Buddha images and is a popular pilgrimage site for Thai people.
Another possible stop is Tha Kilen station, fairly near to Muang Singh Historical Park (Prasat Muang Singh).
Central Prasat Muang Singh
It was also once not as isolated as it is now. Mrs. Charuwan Phungtian (Thai-Cambodian Culture - Relationship through Arts) refers to another currently unexcavated Khmer site, Muang Krut a few kilometres east of Muang Singh.
Muang Singh is quite large (around 80 acres) with many beautiful old trees, but little remains of most of the buildings, except laterite foundation blocks.
Head of Shiva
The Prasat is better preserved than the rest of the site, a typical Khmer cruciform structure of laterite. Four doorways, one each side, lead to the inner shrine and to a statue of the Boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara - center of the Prasat, and of Muang Singh itself, a place much visited by Thais wishing to pay respect and to make merit.
The small museum houses some of the artefacts found in recent excavations: stone figures representing Hindu deities, such as Shiva, and Mahayana Buddhist figures such as Avalokiteshvara and Prajnaparamita. These suggest a late 12th century date for the site.
The site is open daily from 9 a.m.-4.30 p.m., admission fee in June 2006 was 40 baht.
Nearby is the Bahn Kao Prehistoric Museum, also worth a visit.