The Bridge over the River Kwai
The real "Bridge on the River Kwai" in Thailand
. Yes, it really exists. It may looks less spectacular than the fictional one in the famous movie, but it makes up for it by being the genuine article – and you can still walk across it, or take the "Death Railway
" over it.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
the bridge is a major tourist attraction these days – and of course that is largely due to the famous film "Bridge on the River Kwai" with Alec Guinness as the valiant British
officer who maintained his stiff upper lip all through the atrocious treatment by the evil Japanese, but who still designed them a bridge much better than they could have done without great old British engineering expertise. Ah, good old Blighty, eh? A few things need to be put right here:
One: the Japanese were well capable of the required engineering themselves. In fact the British had given up a similar plan earlier. But it was the Japanese
who did pull it off – if only through the deadly exploitation of tens of thousands of POW
in the main, but also a small number of Americans
). Even more importantly, nearly 200,000 Asian workers were conscripted from occupied territories by the Japanese too (especially from Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia
Two: the actual brutality of the Japanese towards their POWs and forced labourers was infinitely worse than what's depicted in the movie (that may be an obvious point).
Three: the real heroism of the POWs who managed to survive this hell was of a very different nature to the stubbornly toff Englishness portrayed by Alec Guinness. This is not to say he wasn't brilliant in his role – he was! – it just wasn't very realistic.
Four: the actual bridge is a humdrum concrete-and-steel construction, nothing like the flamboyantly unrealistic little Firth of Forth Bridge bamboo replica in the film.
Five: that defining scene of the film, the sabotage act at the end, blowing the bridge up with the help of American heroes who had fought their way through the jungle for the purpose … well, that never actually happened either. Not at all. That bit is 100% fiction.
Six: the film bridge for the set was built in Sri Lanka
at a much narrower river gorge which, again, looks nothing like the real thing.
Seven: the real Bridge does not go over, nor is it "on", the River Kwai. The author of the story on which the film is based just knew that the Death Railway followed the course of the similarly named river Kwae – and just imagined it must have crossed it at some point. Not the case. The river that the real bridge crosses was the bigger Mae Khlung that the Kwae is a tributary of.
But as the Thais found that tourists were asking for the "Kwai Bridge" they simply readjusted this awkward fault of reality and renamed the river under the bridge Kwae Yai and the name of the old Kwai was augmented to Kwae Noi ('big' and 'little Kwai', respectively). Ingenuity when it comes to milking tourists is not such a recent thing in Thailand
's tourism industry, then …
What there is to see:
the bridge you see is just a pretty standard looking concrete and steel construction. It's slightly irregular in that two of its spans are straight whereas the remainder are curved. That's due to the fact that towards the end of WWII
, the bridge was damaged by bombing (from the air) hitting two of the spans. These were replaced by the straight ones after the war. The rest of the bridge is original – even if it looks nothing like the fictional one in the famous film (see above
). Still, it is in fact the only remaining original river-crossing bridge on the Death Railway
You can walk across the bridge on foot – but be careful not to fall into the river through the many gaps next to the actual single track, and step to the side whenever a train comes. There are several "escape balconies" you could use, or else stand on one of the girders and hold on tight to the steel frame of the bridge's spans.
Yes, so trains still use the bridge and the Death Railway too! That's regular local passenger trains, though only a couple a day, as well as special tourist trains. There's also a special train on weekends that specifically carts visitors to the bridge, but there's also a little open tourist shuttle train that does nothing more than go back and forth across the bridge as long as it's not in use by regular trains. All the trains are slow and give ample warning by sounding horns, so you won't get caught by surprise. But at busy times you may have to look ahead for a place to go to let the train through. It's a popular place and it can indeed get quite crowded.
Apart from the bridge itself, there are also a few related open-air museum pieces, namely a couple of steam locomotives, a rail van, a bomb, plus a few memorial stones, by the station on the Kanchanaburi
side of the river.
The site is very touristy indeed, and the souvenir market at the Kanchanaburi bank of the river is bigger than the bridge itself. At the other end of the bridge a sad looking elephant was tethered, probably for tourist rides, and a violinist hoping to get a few coins for playing the famous whistle theme from the Kwai movie on his fiddle (only he played it so badly, so out of tune that I had to break my principle of always giving to violin playing buskers).
The bridge is also at times used for a dramatic (if a bit kitschy) fireworks and light show on some evenings in the week, in particular in December.
some 3 miles (5 km) from the town centre, to the north of the small town of Kanchanaburi
, about 80 miles (130 km) west of Bangkok
Access and costs: easy and free/cheap.
for getting here by train from Bangkok
see under Death Railway
. If you're already in Kanchanaburi
, you'll have to get to the north of the town to find the bridge – no problem getting a (taxi or cyclo) ride for a few bob, every one offering those rides knows the bridge. It's the No. 1 tourist sight in Kanchanaburi.
Crossing the bridge on foot is free of charge and theoretically open at all times, though I wouldn't recommend it in the dark. Riding the Death Railway over the bridge (and beyond) is cheap.
Combining the bridge with other things can cause extra costs, of course, esp. if you want to get the full package, including car, driver and guide to the other sights of the Death Railway, and especially Hellfire Pass
, which would also mean at least two nights accommodation.
crossing the bridge on foot and back doesn't take long, maybe 10 minutes max. But you can just as well drag it out a bit. The open-air exhibits won't take much longer. But while you're here you may want to take in the other Death Railway
related sites in Kanchanaburi
, and that can take considerably longer. Allocate at least half a day to visiting all of them.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
when in Kanchanaburi
, you should also take in the other sites, at least the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre
. You could also ride the Death Railway
itself. Further afield, Hellfire Pass
provides the best of all the sites on the Death Railway, even if you can't get there by train any more but need a car and driver.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Kanchanaburi
offers the full gamut of temples and touristy money vacs that Thailand
has to offer, but the best is probably boat rides on the river Kwae (Yai or Noi).
Further afield, there's lots of superb scenery – see under Hellfire Pass
. And of course, Thailand's magnificent capital city Bangkok
isn't far either (and you can get to/from there cheaply by train – see Death Railway
- Kwai Bridge 1
- Kwai Bridge 1b - at the train station
- Kwai Bridge 2 - crossing the bridge on foot
- Kwai Bridge 3 - at your own risk
- Kwai Bridge 4 - do not misplace a foot and fall into the river
- Kwai Bridge 5 - making way for tourist-shunting train
- Kwai Bridge 6 - train and pedestrians share the bridge
- Kwai Bridge 7 - crossing the bridge on the regular train
- Kwai Bridge 8 - Kanchanaburi opposite
- Kwai Bridge 9 - train exhibits near the bridge
- Kwai Bridge 9b - train drivers cabin
- Kwai Bridge 9c - rail van