Running the River Kwai

Located two hours northwest of Bangkok sits Kanchanaburi.  Straddling the convergence of the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers, which form the  Mae Klong river, this small town is a regular stop for anyone traveling into the Tenasserim Hills and scattered national parks within, and place of great importance to history buffs and some living World War 2 veterans. The city was founded in the seventeen hundreds as a defensive post against the marauding Burmese, but the city is best known for the building of the Burmese Railroad during World War 2 and the enormous human toll paid by conscripts and Allied forces. Last weekend Ashley, myself and five members of our running “street-team” were in Kanchanaburi to visit these sites and to run 32nd Annual Mizuno River Kwai International Half Marathon and 10km race.

The building of the Burmese Railway, also known as the Death Railway, happened late during the Japanese World War 2 occupation of Thailand. The purpose for building the railway was to support the Japanese war efforts advancing into then Burma and the Indian Ocean beyond. To facilitate the construction of the railroad Allied soldiers from Singapore and many times more conscripts taken from across Asia and forced to labor in appalling circumstances. Death by disease, construction accidents and accidental bombing by Allied Forces were common and more than 100,000 people lost their life over the four years of construction.

Today visitors can walk across a stretch of the railroad made famous by the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The bridge is one of Kanchanaburi’s main tourist attractions and you can expect a steady flow of tour groups after 8:30. Most visitors stop at the entrance to take pictures of the bridge or “selfies” and are satisfied with  walking just a couple meters on the bridge. If you’re willing to work your way through the mass of people you will find the second half of the bridge has much fewer people and better photography opportunities. There is also a temple on the other side of the river, and while it looks interesting from afar upon closer inspection I thought it lacked the character you can find in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Unless you are determined I would recommend skipping it. One word of warning, the railroad is active and trains of various shapes and sizes do pass over.

After visiting the bridge we headed back into town to visit the Thailand–Burma Railway Museum, which does a good job describing the conditions faced by laborers forced to work on the railway, and a cemetery dedicated to the Allied Forces who lost their life along the river. Photography inside the museum is prohibited and judging by how the security guard floated by my side as I walked through (my camera was still in my hand from taking pictures at the bridge) they try to enforce the rule. Inside there are photographs from the construction of the bridge, recreations of the trains used to herd the labors to the sites and a hospital. But the most striking image from the museum is the statue of two malnourished allied soldiers supporting a third, who, by the witness’ account that served as inspiration for the statue, was so wrecked by disease he could not pull up his shorts that lay hanging around his ankles. Then there is the final art installment in which the number of dead are represented using railroad spikes. The loss of Allied nationals is well documented but was a much smaller number when compared to the Asian conscripts who are largely overlooked by Westerners historians.

After the museum and cemetery we were in need of cheering up so piled into a van and headed to Erawan National Park. The park is about a hour from Kanchanaburi deep in the Tenasserim Hills. The main attraction of the park are seven  waterfalls that travel down the twists and turns of, what I assume is, the Erawan River. The first two waterfalls are very easy to walk to because of the well worn concrete path.  to walk along, and by the look of things some visitors are satisfied to stop and picnic here.  The more intrepid wanderer can continue above the second falls but appropriate footwear is recommended as dirt paths quickly turn into slippery and muddy messes once the concrete ends.. The path up is less than 2 km and will take you no longer than two hours round trip.  The entrance fee for tourists is a couple hundred baht per person, but if you have a Thai drivers license there is a substantial discount.

Then there was the race – the reason for our second trip to Kanchanaburi. Races fortunately start early in Thailand and allow the participants to finish before the heat of the day. Unfortunately that makes for really early mornings. The gun goes off at 6:00 (semi-sharp) so to be at the starting line in time we left our hotel at 4:30. The races is about a hour outside of Kanchanaburi so if you’re reading this before you register just be aware you’ll have an early morning ahead of you (our food and hotel recommendations follow below). The race itself is one of Ashley and my favorites. The course is along a single lane road that winds its way up the Tenasserim Hills. The first half of the race is 5 km more or less straight up and once the adrenaline wears off becomes significantly less enjoyable. Because of the early start it is common to see monks in saffron robes and an alms bowl walking along the road. Because of the “elevation” clouds from the plains below are pushed up the valley which cools off the run with occasional rains. After hitting the fifth kilometer marker it’s a quick u-turn and back down the same road. Repeating the same path might sound less than interesting but you are rewarded with panoramic views of the lush jungle below. Continue down the hill,  turn right at the giant shoe and continue down the 200 m stretch of road to the finish line. Humble brag here – I was able to complete the run under my target time.

Recommendations and Information:

There are two restaurants in Kanchanaburi that we would strongly recommend – Blue Rice Restaurant and Jukkru.

Both times to Kanchanaburi we stayed at the Bai Sabi
General Information:
To read more about Kanchanaburi’s sites, the Burma Railway and the Mizuno River Kwai International Half Marathon click the links below.
Burmese Railroad
Mizuno River Kwai International Half Marathon


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