Welcome to Kanchanaburi Town. In it, you’ll find the Allied War Cemetary, and a number of museums.
KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETARY
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetary is the site of the POW camp that the Allied forces lived in. They were required to build their own accommodation out of bamboo and palm leaves.
Colonel Philip Toosey – the man depicted by Alec Guiness in the movie – was placed in charge of the Allied camp that supplied the bridge with labour. Toosey insisted on cleanliness in his camp. There were to be no beards. There was no special officers’ mess or sleeping quarters, so that they could better share their meagre rations. He successfully lobbied the Japanese for better food by claiming it would allow the workers to be more industrious. He also established a canteen where the men could use their salaries to buy certain foods to supplement their diet. He taxed transactions, and used the funds to buy better medical supplies. Compared to the 27% death rate at the other camps along the railway line, only 11 men died at the Camp at Tamakan at the nearby Kanchanaburi War Cemetary.
So what explains all the gravestones in the cemetary? When the bridge was completed, Colonel Toosey was ordered by the Japanese to set up a hospital at the Tamakan camp. Cholera, dissentry, and Beri-Beri was rife further up the rail line, deeper into the jungle and further from fresh water. The sick men were taken down the river on barges to this hospital, where Toosey lost around 6 men every day to preventable diseases. Toosey eventually had 9 doctors and 45 orderlies, but with so little medicines, the situation was often futile. However, a few months after the hospital was set up, a Red Cross delegation visited the camp and connected Toosey to a Thai civilian clandestine group called “The V Organisation”. A Mr. Boon Pong arranged for the smuggling of medicines and money from Bangok. This risky operation resulted in the death rate falling from 6 per day to 3 per week.
The history of the Thai–Burma railway is explored in of a number of museums in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, the town in which the famous ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ is located.
Three museums are privately owned and managed by Thais. These include the JEATH museum (Japan–England–Australia–Thailand–Holland) situated on the river bank just below the junction of the Kwae Noi and Mae Khlong/Kwae Yai rivers. Managed by a Buddhist temple, Wat Chaichumpol, the museum was created in 1977 to provide information about the railway for early tourists. Taking the form of a POW hut, with bamboo platforms on either side of a long aisle, it houses POW accounts, paintings, newspaper cuttings and objects donated by the local community who during the war traded food for watches, forks and spoons.
The World War II and JEATH Museum located fifty metres from the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ on Maenamkwai Road, was created by a local businessman Prythong Chansiri in memory of his father who died during the Allied bombing of 1944–45. Using the horrors of war to make a case for peace, this museum combines Thai history and art with an eclectic collection of war weapons and memorabilia.
The third among the Thai museums is a small exhibit in the house of the Thai merchant and member of the Thai underground movement, Boonpong Sirivejjabhand.
The most comprehensive introduction to the building of the railway is offered by the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre, (TBRC) located across the road from the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Jaokunnen Road, Kanchanaburi. The TBRC was established in 2003 as the result of several years of passionate research and exploration of the railway by an Australian ex-patriot, Rod Beattie. Beattie has lived in Thailand for over eighteen years and been employed for more than fourteen years by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as Manager of the Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries. In these years he has acquired an unrivalled knowledge of the Thai–Burma railway: including its route, camp locations and original cemetery sites in Thailand. In the early 1990s Beattie also played a role in the development of Hellfire Pass and personally cleared the rail track that now forms the walking trail below Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. The museum provides information on all aspects of the railway’s construction and the multinational workforce used by the Japanese. Its displays include artefacts excavated from POW camps, a three-dimensional representation of the full length railway (with camps sites identified by lights), a recreation of a deep railway cutting, a graphic POW hospital, and a statue of Australian POW Ray Parkin’s famous sketch of two malaria victims supporting a man dying of cholera. The Research Centre is dedicated to researching the history of the railway and individual prisoners of war. It provides information and personal tours for family members seeking answers about the experiences and deaths of their relatives. Its data base is progressively accumulating information on prisoners from the Thai–Burma railway but also from other regions of the Asia–Pacific during World War II. As of 2012, its records cover 105 000 individuals, including more than 25 000 Australians, 55 000 British and 22 000 Dutch, as well as Americans, Canadians, Indians and New Zealanders. Data includes personal information about the prisoner, his period of captivity, where he worked and with which workforce, and, if the POW died, the place, date of recovery of the remains and any known subsequent information. All information is provided to family members on request to the TBRC.
NEW ZEALAND ALLEY
Throughout Kanchanaburi, there are many roads named after the nationalities of those who worked and suffered here. If you have a chance to walk through town, you might see roads named after the Allied nations: England, Australia, Holland, America, and France. But also for those labourers brought in from across Asia: Sri Lanka, Singapore, Nepal, Taiwan, The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Pakistan, and even Japan.