Step back in time in Thailand

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 31, 2018.

Memorabilia placed on a cliff face in tribute to PoWs at Hellfire Pass.

Dipping in the cool waters of a waterfall in Erawan National Park is a must.

The bridge on the River Kwai is often packed with tourists.

Another awesome sight at a stopover of our cruise on the River Kwai.

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Our trip to the historical World War II (WWII) site in Kanchanaburi, Thailand was a revelation involving planes, trains, automobiles and more. A train ride was the highlight, where we experienced the romance of old-world travels. It also proffered us unique sights of the countryside.

Our adventure began on arriving at Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. We took a public bus to Khao San Road, followed by a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River to Sathorn pier.

Then it was a short walk to Thonburi railway station on the busy southern line, arriving in good time to take the first of two train rides available for the day to our final destination: River Kwae Bridge station in Kanchanaburi in west Thailand.

Travelling in the clean, comfortable and often not crowded third-class coach was pleasant.

It also has a rustic charm, brought on by gazing out of the window at lush landscapes, small townships, village settlements, workers tending to farms, and railway crossings where a railway line and a road meet, not separated by a bridge or a tunnel.

Occasionally, we popped our heads out of the windows for the fun of it while the train regularly blared its horns for safety reasons.

During the three-hour journey, vendors came on board at certain stations to sell local food, drinks and fruits to passengers — it was all very nostalgic.

During WWII, the Japanese used Allied prisoners of war (PoWs) to build a railway from Thailand to Burma to supply their army, avoiding the dangers of doing so by sea. The rail line is known as the “Death Railway” after many prisoners died under appalling conditions.

David Lean’s renowned 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai highlights the bridge across the Kwae Yai river, a great engineering feat back then. Despite the film being shot in Sri Lanka, the bridge on the River Kwai actually exists, accessible by regular train services from Bangkok to Nam Tok.

To immerse in the area’s history, start at the bridge on the River Kwai, of course, before exploring other parts of Kanchanaburi, surrounded by cafes, shops, small museums and two steam locomotives prominently displayed.

You can walk across the bridge on wooden planks, but move aside when the passenger trains come along at a 10km per hour speed restriction.

The PoWs actually built two bridges here — the first, a wooden bridge, was completed in February 1943, and the steel bridge a few months later.

The curved steel bridge spans were sourced from Java by the Japanese. The two straight-sided spans from Japan were installed after the war to replace the spans destroyed by Allied bombings in 1945.

More attractions are located outside of the town, and the following are worth checking out:


Wampo Viaduct (Wang Po)

Regular passenger trains still use this viaduct, built by the PoWs.

Besides crossing the famous bridge on the River Kwai, the trains will slowly run along the beautifully scenic River Kwae, over the unique Wampo Viaduct with wooden trestles nestled against the cliff side.

You must explore the viaduct on foot to take in the breathtaking views.


Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting)

Hellfire Pass, also known as Konyu Cutting, is 80km north of Kanchanaburi on the disused rail line beyond Nam Tok.

The Australian government has cleared 7km of the old track as a memorial to 13,000 Allied prisoners and 80,000 Asian labourers who died building the railway.

However, only 4km of the stretch is open to the public. This includes Konyu Cutting; the PoWs called it “Hellfire Pass” going by how the place looked in the evenings when they lit torches.

We took a leisurely walk, starting at the visitors centre, towards an area where memorabilia were placed on cliff faces as a tribute to the PoWs.

Further ahead is the Kwae Noi Valley Lookout. You can look across the valley, west towards Burma and at the centre right is the wartime Konyu River camp, where supplies and rations landed and were often carried on men’s backs to the work camps surrounding the Konyu-Hintok area.

Hire a taxi driver to take you there for a half-day visit, and tell the driver to drop you at Nam Tok to take a train back to Kanchanaburi — this journey itself is memorable.


Erawan National Park

Make sure to spend at least half a day to explore this 550 sq km park, where the main highlights are the waterfalls cascading to seven levels, forming cerulean pools with large nibbling fish. We enjoyed dipping in some of them — a great respite from the enervating humidity.

Reaching the first three levels is easy; thereafter, walking shoes and endurance are required. On level four, there is a natural rock slide for added fun and level six has the least fish in the waters.

Bring a swimming outfit; however, bikinis and skimpy trunks are not allowed. If you are carrying bottles of drinking water, you must register the bottles and leave a 20 baht (RM2.44) deposit. This is to prevent littering.

Over 80% of the park — named after Erawan, a three-headed elephant in Hindu mythology — is covered by a mixed deciduous forest. Dry evergreen and dry dipterocarp forests as well as bamboo groves form the remaining parts.

The wildlife consists of tigers, elephants, sambar deer, gibbons, red giant flying squirrels, king cobras and hornbills, among others, but it is difficult to spot them along the park’s limited trails.


Srinagarind Dam

After leaving Erawan National Park, make sure to visit the Srinagarind Dam, an embankment dam on the River Kwai in Si Sawat in Kanchanaburi.

Built in 1974 and completed in 1980, the dam’s main purpose is river regulation and hydroelectric power generation.

At the top of the dam, you will enjoy a panorama of mountainous terrains in the distance and lush valleys below. Make sure to take lots of pictures.