to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

20h. Wat Yuan

While the Thaiyanusorn Shrine constructed by the IJA camp guards and Allied POWs was dedicated (in 1944) to the Asian forced laborers (romusha) who died while building the TBR, it remains one of the least known and least visited sites of the TBR story.

Perhaps a more meaningful site exists that is known only to a select few aficionados of the TBR. Immediately adjacent to the Don Rak CWGC POW cemetery is another cemetery that dates back hundreds of years. That sacred piece of land is small; perhaps 2 acres and contains hundreds of family graves in both Thai and Chinese style.

It is owned and maintained by the staff and monks of Wat ThaWorn Wararam. Outwardly, the contemporary buildings are a mixture of traditional Thai and Chinese style architecture. But these are mostly of rather recent construction; all post-WW 2. This temple is locally known as Wat Yuan which is the Thai slang word for people of Vietnamese ethnicity. The Vietnamese name is Kan Taw Ter.

This temple is said to have been established in the early 19th century during the reign of the Thai King Rama III (1824-51) by refugees that had flew to Thailand from today’s Vietnam. These people had established a small settlement on the banks of the Mae Klong River only a few kilometers upstream from the walled city of Kanchanaburi.  Local lore also states that King Rama V (Chulalongkorn 1853-1910) was travelling up the Mae Klong River when his attention was drawn to the chanting of monks on the river bank. He stopped his flotilla and went to visit with them. It was then that he granted them royal patronage and named the temple Wat ThaWorn Wararam.

Fast forward then to the WW2-era. The area immediately to the north of the temple became incorporated into the southern end of the huge POW camp known as ThaMarKam where the Allied POWs were consolidated after completion of the Thai-Burma Railway. At that time the temple grounds extended about a kilometer inland from the river bank. Viewing it today, those grounds would include the current temple proper, the adjacent cemetery and continue across what is now SanChuto Road – the main thoroughfare of the running through the city of Kanchanaburi.

In 1943-45, the Allied POW camp ran from the TBR tracks and bridge eastward almost to the site of the current CWGC cemetery. Directly across the roadway from that cemetery there is currently a large school whose sports field was reportedly the site of one of the many hospitals in the area (see map above). Once the first 50 kilometers of the TBR were completed, the Japanese moved their HQ for the TBR from BanPong to ThaMarKam. So most of their support base was located there from late 1942 until SEP 1945.

The temple grounds adjacent to that sports field was the northwest end of a large section of the camp that housed the multitude of romusha who were also consolidated from their work camps strung along the length of the TBR. That camp extended east to approximately where the Japanese aerodrome was built; that area today is best found as between the current rail line and Sangchuto Rd behind the Red City market. While there were other nationalities present, the vast majority of these romusha were ethnic Tamil-Indians. Records indicate that there were Chinese from Singapore and Javanese at this camp as well as some Vietnamese. Most of the Thai and Burmese slave laborers had simply melted back into the jungles and were never housed to this camp in any large numbers.

The relationship between Wat Yuan and these romusha came to the fore-front in the immediate post-war years. As construction of the current SangChuto Rd proceeded, mass graves were uncovered on what had been temple grounds. Here the story is a bit lacking in detail, but apparently the Abbott took responsibility for those remains and reburied them in the existing cemetery on temple grounds. According to local lore, he had a large obelisk erected over the tomb of as many as 10,000 sets of remains and ashes. So the 3 characters on the obelisk translate to “The Grave of Many People”. The longer inset inscription can be translated as “The Gravesite of Males and Females Who Have Died”, or something similar with the date 1957 (BE 2500) in the right column. There is also an uncertain reference to a Chingshou (or Qingshou) Temple on the left column. [Editor’s note: the only Qingzhou temple reference I can find is in China; so there must be another as yet un-discovered explanation.]

The three characters are 萬–10,000, or all or every, 人–people, 墓–grave. So, it is most likely not exactly 10,000, but many or an unknown number of many people.

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Another interesting, and possibly historically significant, item is that immediately adjacent to the obelisk are two large Bo trees which may very well qualify as witness trees dating back to the POW-TBR era.