Not merely a high point for history buffs of the Second World War, Kanchanaburi also appeals to a growing number of visitors seeking outdoor adventure, a vibrant local culture and a pristine natural environment. Although nearby Myanmar’s rapid development could transform parts of the province and bring industrialisation, the area around Kanchanaburi holds a special appeal to many Thais. The city has given Thailand some of its most eminent businessmen and politicians, who still maintain strong connections. “You cannot understand me without having been to the peace and tranquillity of the jungle and rivers of Kanchanaburi,” Vikrom Kromadit, the chairman of Amata Corporation and one of Thailand’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, told OBG.
COOL & SCENIC: Situated where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers converge into the Mae Khlong river 130 km west of Bangkok, the city on the northern bank of the river has a sleepy feel with only around 50,000 inhabitants. Accessible in around two and a half hours from Bangkok by car or regular bus and train services, Kanchanaburi is a refreshing alternative to the jungles of Khao Yai national park, to the north-east of Bangkok.
The surrounding mountain range keeps the province cooler than the rest of the central plains, a major appeal to domestic tourists, traditionally the majority of travellers to the region, and to a growing number of foreign tourists too. The numerous waterfalls, the most well known being in the Erawan national park, form a key outdoor attraction. The winding river Kwai offers many opportunities for kayaking trips, which can span several days given the many facilities that have developed to meet growing tourist demand.
TURBULENT PAST: Although impressive for its natural splendour alone, the river has grown (in)famous for its role in the Second World War. By 1942 the Japanese Army had effectively occupied the Malay Peninsula and were massing for an invasion of then-Burma.
The goal was to branch off of the existing rail line running through neighbouring Ratchaburi province at the town of Ban Pong, and then build an extension into Burma through Kanchanaburi and the Three Pagoda Pass. The most significant challenge for the Japanese was passing the River Kwai.
The construction of the rail line and bridge over the River Kwai are now famous, popularised in a number of fictionalised Hollywood adaptations. In all, over 100,000 prisoners of war, 16,000 allies and 90,000 Asian labourers – half of all prisoners working on the project – died from maltreatment, accidents and disease. The city and surrounding regions are thus dotted with memorial sites. Kanchanaburi hosts its own War Museum and opened the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum and the JEATH War Museum in 2003.
The bridge over the river remains a key attraction itself as well. Meanwhile the Wat Tham Phu Wa pays tribute to the Chong Khai allied forces cemetery, 3 km from the city. Meanwhile a yearly carnival takes place next to the bridge, with night-time pyrotechnics recreating the bridge’s wartime bombing.
OLDER STILL: A number of older sites from the Neolithic period have also been found in the area, with shrines and artefacts displayed in small museums. The finds date back to the fourth century and document the ancient trade with neighbouring countries.
Although little is known of the Khmer influence in Thailand’s western provinces, the Prasat Muang Singh site, since turned into a historical park, is one of the kingdom’s best-known Khmer sites. An important outpost of Angkor, the site was built in the 13th century under King Jayavarman VII. The vestiges of the site include several layers of rectangular walls, dotted with a number of Mahayana Buddhist images, with Prasat Muang Sing at the centre. Three other lesser monuments are left in the surrounding area.
A growing number of foreign tourists are discovering what has long been an attraction for domestic travellers. Whether it is for history, nature, tranquillity or any of the region’s other attractions such as floating markets, elephants and tiger temples, many are beginning to rediscover Thailand’s western central plains.
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