Kanchanaburi's signature landmark gets a lot of hype thanks to the 1957 film, Bridge Over the River Kwai, but many are a tad disappointed as it's not really that spectacular to look at.
Even so, the history makes it special and it's the centre of tourism in Kanchanaburi -- you'll see its simple dark iron arches painted on walls, samlors and T-shirts all around town.
The original iron bridge was brought from Java by Japanese armed forces during World War II and reassembled by POW labour (mostly British and Australian though others were involved as well) a few kilometres to the north of Kanchanaburi town over the Kwai Yai River. It consisted of 11 steel spans, with the remainder made of wood. Three of the spans were destroyed by Allied bombing and, after the end of the war in 1945, were replaced with two angular steel spans. The wooden spans were also replaced by steel.
The bridge was a vital part of the Death Railway, which linked Burma and Thailand by rail to form a supply route for the Japanese. The length of the Death Railway to the Burma Base Camp is 415 kilometres, with 294 kilometres in Thailand. Sixty thousand men were forced to build it in atrocious conditions between October 1942 and October 1943. The workers included Allied POWs and Indian, Burmese, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese and Thai forced labourers.
At the end of the war, four kilometres of track on the Thai-Burma border was dismantled. The State Railway of Thailand was handed the Thai section and ordered to dismantle it as far back as Nam Tok by the Thai government. To learn more on the history of the Death Railway, be sure to visit the Death Railway Museum and Hellfire Pass.
Perhaps because of the bridge's lack of visual drama, most people seem unsure of how to actually appreciate it. Tourists dutifully march out onto the bridge and back, bothered the whole time by postcard and T-shirt sellers. People hire longtail boats to zip them under it, and several times a day, a tiny tram waddles out over the bridge, giving people a highly manufactured 'Bridge over the River Kwai' experience.
Since the bridge is still in use today, the best way to experience it may be to take a train journey across it. Trains pick up passengers from the tiny station just east of the bridge at 06:00, 11:00 and 16:30. The ticket to Nam Tok costs 100 baht and can be paid on the train. The scenery is splendid, and a handful of sights such as Tham Krasae and Sai Yok Noi Waterfall can be reached directly by the train. For updated schedule info, check in at the tourist info booth opposite the bridge.
A sound and light display is held at the bridge every year in late November or early December, during which a voice-over in Thai, with English translation available, narrates the bridge history. Although a little bizarre, the fireworks are very impressive and this is well worth seeing. It's a very popular event, so if you want good seats, buy tickets at least a few hours before the show.
How to get there
The bridge is at the northern end of town, about a 20-minute walk from centre.