Allied POWs first built the Death Railway Bridge, or Saphan Mae Nam Khwae Yai, in the early 1940s as part of the Second World War, and while not all that amazing to look at, it stands as one of the most famous bridges in Thailand and an important reminder of the thousands who gave their lives.
The bridge was a crucial part of the Thai-Burma Railway, which carted Japanese military supplies between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat on the Andaman Sea coast in Burma from 1942-45. During the 414-kilometre railway's construction, in harsh tropical conditions with starvation rations, diseases running rife and brutal treatment by Japanese guards, an estimated 13,000 out of some 60,000 POWs died along with an additional estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilian workers who were brought from then-Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Thailand and Burma, out of a total of some 200,000. The POWs were immortalised in Pierre Boulle’s novel, The Bridge On The River Kwai, and the classic 1957 film of the same name.
Consisting of 11 steel spans with the remainder made of wood, the original bridge was brought from Java by Japanese armed forces and reassembled by POWs. Three of the spans were destroyed by Allied bombing and, after the war ended in 1945, replaced with two angular steel spans. Evidence of the bombings can still be seen on the thick cement support beams. You will not however find any trace of the 1957 film, which was shot in Sri Lanka.
From a purely visual standpoint the bridge is not all that spectacular, explaining why many visitors seem unsure of how to appreciate it. Tourists dutifully march out onto the bridge and back, pausing on side perches to snap selfies or gaze at the river. People hire longtail boats to zip them under it or hop on a train to cruise over it (See Exploring Kanchanaburi by train for info on catching a train).
In addition to being a major tourist trap, the bridge is a symbol of Kanchanaburi—you’ll see images of it plastered all over town. The area to the east hosts loads of souvenir markets, gem shops, a longtail boat pier and massive riverside restaurants. This is also where you’ll find the bizarre War Museum and Art Gallery, worth a peek for the eclectic displays but with information that’s best ignored. While a brief overview of the bridge’s history is engraved on a wall to the east, you should really visit Hellfire Pass Memorial and the Thai-Burma Railway Centre for a full and accurate spread of historical details.
To approach the bridge from a different perspective, cross the River Khwae Yai via Sud Jai Bridge, located further south, and then take a right (north). After cruising for about two kilometres, look for a blue sign hidden by corn stalks on the right; the turn leads to a dirt lane that emerges at the undeveloped west end of the Death Railway Bridge after a half-kilometre. This western bank also hosts a huge statue of Kuan Yin, the feminine bodhisattva of compassion in Chinese Buddhism.
How to get there
The bridge is at the northern end of town, about a 20-minute walk from centre.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 11th February, 2017.
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