to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

0.2 Existing sites

There are a fair number of TBR-related sites still in existence. Of these, only a handful are regularly visited by tourists and then one is forced to query if those day-trippers even know why they are there.

As a way of documenting and preserving them, I present here a list of TBR-related sites in geographical order of their alignment. All but three are in the Province of Kanchanaburi and most are in the immediate area of Kanchanaburi City.

We begin at the beginning! Labelled as Nong Pla Duk Junction on maps, this SRT station is still a major maintenance center as it was in the TBR-era. One aspect that differentiates it from other TBR-sites is that it has a memorial stone erected by the Japanese to commemorate the beginning of the TBR in SEP 1942. Era recon photos clearly show the POW camp location to the immediate north of the rails. Just to the east is the location of the POW cemetery (next to the recently built fly-over).

Post-construction, a second POW camp was formed here but its location is uncertain. Just to the south, in the area behind the local temple, are scatter remnants and artifacts of the TBR, all located on private land.

About three Kms west is one of the most poignant of all the TBR sites. Wat Dom Toom is located on the east side of the small city of Ban Pong. Here is the point at which the trains from the south carrying the POWs from Changi or the romusha from Malaya stopped to discharge their cargo. The open field in the middle of the temple grounds was the site of the transit camp. All new arrivals passed through the “gate to hell” to begin their TBR horror story.

Today, nothing denotes the location or the significance of this site. Among all the others, IMHO, this is the single site deserving of development as a major new tourist attraction. [see Section 11.7 for a more complete description of this site]

Simply because it is on the main road in line with the famous Bridge, the CWGC war cemetery at Don Rak is one of the most visited TBR sites. The signage describes the layout and contents of the cemetery but offers little more concerning its linkage to the events of 1942-45. [Section 11.4 describes this location]

Next to the cemetery is the Thai-Burma Railway Centre and museum. For anyone interested in the story of the TBR, this is a must visit! This is the single-most effective effort to relate the full story in its most realistic aspects. It requires a minimum of an hour (likely somewhat more) to try to absorb the huge amount of information imparted here.

Immediately adjacent to this cemetery to the east is a typical Thai-Chinese family cemetery belonging to Wat Yuan. Located in its center is a most unique memorial obelisk labeled (in Chinese) as “Grave of 10,000 souls”. These are mainly Malay-Tamils who died in the immediate post-construction time (1943-46). There are currently plans to further develop this site to explain its true relationship to the TBR. Hopefully, it can become a regularly visited location.

The primary destination of almost all tourists is the actual Bridge over the River Kwai. Despite the mis-labelling and general lack of knowledge of how this iron bridge is connected to history, it is visited by millions. Only a few know WHY they came! It is undoubtedly the focus of all TBR-related activity. The adjacent markets stalls, jewelry shops and restaurants draw huge amounts of revenue from the pockets of visitors.  

TBR-era displays are located near the railway station where one can board the train and ride the restored portion of the TBR. Again, neither the display nor the railway provide much in the way of background information as to the TBR connection. There are, however, two tiny memorial markers that harken back to the TBR. One, to the left of the bridge, maps the path of the TBR and relates some basic statistics. The other was erected in 1997 to commemorate the contribution of the US POWs who labored and died on the TBR. [see Section 14.1]

A short walk east of the bridge is perhaps the most unique and most enigmatic of all the existing structures. This is the Thai-anusorn shrine dedicated in 1944, conceived by the IJA but built by POW ‘volunteers’. It is dedicated to the POWs and romusha who gave their lives in ‘service of the emperor’. Here, too, in this park-like setting opposite the City Hotel, nothing is displayed to make the link to the TBR and since the inscription is written in Chinese, the casual visitor usually fails to appreciate its meaning. This is another site that IMHO is ripe for future development – however ‘sanitized’ that story my need to be. Its story can be found in Section 14.3.

A bit to the southeast, next to Wat Chai Chumphon, is a museum named JEATH. This was actually the first and for many years the only site that attempted to link to the TBR history. It, too, is a must visit for anyone seeking a fuller understanding of history. [see Section 14.4]

Just a short distance from the original JEATH museum is a WW2-era site that is only indirectly associated with the TBR. The now-derelict Paper Factory was built in 1938 to make paper for the printing of Thai currency. It operated into the early 1950s, so it is contemporary with the TBR but is a site of historical interest in and of itself. (see Section 11.3] Similarly, near the current Railway Station is a display of a WW2-era locomotive. This, however, is not of a style that operated on the TBR itself.

Located not far from the preserved walled city gate, is the BoonPong house. This is a family-run museum that preserves the memory of Khun BoonPong and the smuggling operation he ran to provided vital items to the POWs. Not much English is spoken here and few visitors find their way to this unique place. His story is related in Section 11.2.

Nearer the bridge is a second site that had adopted (stolen?) the name JEATH museum. This is a third-rate attempt to separate tourists from their pocket money and is best avoided. Its only saving grace is that it preserves a tiny portion of the original wooded bridge. This is more than offset but the display of a glass case of human remains in a for-profit establishment! Most of the other displays have little or nothing to do with the TBR.  

Those who chose to ‘ride the rails’ of the restored portion of the TBR often detrain at the west end of the WangPo trestle. This is the second-most photographed portion of the actual TBR. There is a small market that caters to the tourists as they await the return of the train from Nam Tok (aka Tarso) to ferry them back to the Bridge.

The second site overseen by the CWGC is the cemetery at ChungKai. This is located across the river from the other sites near the point where the Kwae Noi River joins the Kwae Yai, opposite the old walled city. This cemetery marks the eastern boundary of a large POW camp that served many purposes over the course of the TBR build period.

Proceeding west beyond ChungKai one can enter Wat Khao Poon. At the river’s edge one can descend a rickety set of steps to the level of the railway. You will find yourself standing between the first two of many ‘cuttings’ that were chopped and blasted through limestone that blocked the path of the TBR. These are the most accessible of any. [Section 8.5]

The most infamous of these ‘cuttings’ is HellFire Pass. Located some 80 kilometers west of the Bridge, this is not as well-known nor as oft visited. It is however quite unique in that it is operated by the Australian government as a memorial to those who labored and died to build it. While the POW contingent that labored here were almost exclusively Australian, their numbers were dwarfed by the romusha workers. [Section 8.7]. Although the rails no longer exist, a portion of the TBR trace has been reclaimed from the jungle as a hiking trail.

Fifty kms farther on, is Wat PuThaKhian. On the grounds of this small temple are preserved a short section of the TBR. It is thought that this is the only place where any original sections of the rails exist although this is disputed by some.

Between these two sites is the Sai Yok waterfall park. Here, too, a WW2-era (not directly TBR) locomotive is on display. If one looks carefully it is not hard to find the remains of the trace as it curves out of the park, crosses the current highway and swings westward.

The last TBR-related site in Thailand is an ancient one. It was historically one of the main crossing points of armies and merchants between Siam and Burma. This is Three Pagodas Pass. This was the point of highest elevation of the TBR and where it crossed into Burma. Only a small section of preserved rails marks any association with the TBR.

Apparently the only site in Burma that has a preserved association with the TBR is the CWGC cemetery at Thanbuzayat. It near the site of the Burma-side start point of the project. Uniquely for CWGC sites, it also houses a small museum that makes an attempt (however feeble) to relate the story of the TBR. Unfortunately, due to political issues and lack of infrastructure, this site is inaccessible to even the most hardcore TBR aficionado.  

In summary, there are roughly two dozen sites that a true aficionado may seek to visit to gain a better appreciation of the complete story of the TBR. But no physical site can convey the horror and inhumanity of the journey that the builders endured.