When most people think of Kanchanaburi, the first images to pop into their mind are of lazy days by the riverside, a few waterfalls and perhaps a jungle trek with an elephant thrown in. Bangkok resident Mark Fenn visited Kanchanaburi in late 2005 for the River Kwai Bridge Festival and found attractions and a festival well worth searching out.
In typical Thai style, the River Kwai Bridge Festival serves up a sombre slice of history alongside a large dose of sanuk (fun). The annual event is held in Kanchanaburi, where the famous bridge is located, and tells the story of the construction of the notorious Death Railway. in 2005 it also celebrated 60 years since the end of World War Two.
I must admit to feeling a little uneasy before I went. I'd read about the spectacular sound and light show held each year, the fireworks and fairground rides, and wondered if more sober commemorations might be appropriate for such a tragic chapter in the relatively recent past. The idea of history as light entertainment seemed in poor taste.
But I needn't have worried. The tragic story was told in an interesting and informative way to an audience of both Thais and foreigners. Most people I spoke to agreed, including a holidaymaker from England whose father had worked on the railway as a Japanese prisoner-of-war.
During World War Two, Kanchanaburi was the site of a major PoW camp. From here thousands of Allied prisoners and conscripted Asian labourers were forced to construct the Burma-Siam railway. In the harsh tropical conditions, with starvation rations, diseases running rife and brutal treatment by Japanese guards, more that 100,000 men are believed to have died. These included 16,000 Western PoWs, mostly from Britain, Australia and the Netherlands.
Their plight was immortalised in Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge On The River Kwai and the same-named classic 1957 movie. The bridge was a key part of the railway line and while the original was bombed by the Allies in 1945, the reconstruction is now Kanchanaburi's biggest tourist attraction and the focus of the festival, which is held in late November and early December each year.
The highlight was a spectacular nightly sound-and-light show which featured a replica PoW camp on the opposite bank of the river, searchlights, fireworks, and a old-fashioned train steaming across the bridge in a blaze of colour. I also enjoyed the Sixty Years of Peace display. This featured a short documentary on the Death Railway, accompanied by miniature props including a train and a model of the bridge. It was of limited educational value to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the events described, but was nonetheless well-presented.
After the serious business of learning about the Death Railway and paying tribute to those who died and those who survived, there was all the fun of the fair to enjoy. Even amid the rides, sideshows, and numerous stalls selling food and fake goods was a moving exhibition of works by Jack Chalker, an English PoW and artist. Many of these - which can usually be seen at a nearby resort - depicted scenes of torture and brutality in the camps.
Although Kanchanaburi is blessed with beautiful natural surroundings, the shadow of the Death Railway is apparent at almost every turn. Two Allied war cemeteries contain the graves of some of the PoWs who died there. The town is also home to several museums, of varying quality. The excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre contains many interesting displays and exhibits.
The museum at the Hellfire Pass Memorial, about 80km from Kanchanaburi, is also well worth a visit. It was established by the Australian government at the site of a rock cutting on the Death Railway where PoWs were forced to work -- their gaunt shadows in the light from bonfires inspired the site's eerie name.
A number of travel agencies in Kanchanaburi organise tours to Hellfire Pass and other places of interest, usually including a train ride on a section of the railway which is still in use. I paid 490 baht for a day tour which also included visits to a waterfall and nearby hot springs.
This was my second trip to Kanchanaburi, though the first time I'd been to the festival. This time I had a personal interest. Among the British PoWs in Thailand was my grandmother's first husband, who later died on board a hell ship transporting prisoners from Manila to Japan, when it was bombed by US planes. He was 25 years old.
When my grandmother died last year I came into possession of some of her old papers, including several heartbreaking Red Cross postcards sent from Thailand, his death certificate and a letter of condolence from King George VI. The name of Corporal Leonard Charles Bridge - husband of Lilian Doris Bridge - is etched on a memorial in Singapore. I have seen it, and there paid my own small tribute to a man who was not part of my family, but was certainly part of the wider picture. In Kanchanaburi, at the River Kwai Bridge Festival, I paid respects once more to Cpl Bridge of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, 6th Battalion, and the many others like him.
By Mark Fenn
Last updated on 23rd May, 2015.