Kanchanaburi, Thailand is the location of the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by the 1957 film of the same name, widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, now preserved in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. I saw the movie when I was a kid and it made quite an impression upon me, feeling like I was actually there with the POW's.
Although a fantastic film, it and the 1952 book by Pierre Boulle it was based upon, were works of fiction. There was a much bigger true story that happened in that area during World War II. Fortunately the real story is now mostly told there, without simply trading on the excellence and fame of the film. Paula had visited the bridge with the Gang, but had not seen nor heard of the film.
Notice that in the book, it was a bridge over a river; whereas in the film, it was a bridge on a river. That's a bit of trivia that might win you a small wager in a bar one day.
See the previous two articles in this series to read more about the wartime events in Kanchanaburi. I recommend reading them in the order we actually visited their sites: first the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and then the Death Railway Museum.
When I began to write about the bridge, my first impulse was to pull up a Google map of the area, to get everything properly oriented in my mind. To my major surprise, none of these three important locations are properly labeled by Google on their map of the area!!! I kid you not!
First go to Google maps and enter the search term "Death Railway" and Google will offer several choices. Click on the one that also says "Mueang Kanchanaburi District, Kanchanaburi, Thailand" and hit enter. You will be taken to a map with a red pin pointing to a small circle labeled "Death Railway." You have arrived in a parking lot for the bridge. Go to street view and you can see part of the bridge behind the parking lot. Go back to the map, so I can give you an overview of the area.
Zoom in a couple of "+" clicks, and you will see a faint line that passes just to the right of the pin, crossing the river just to the south of the pin. That is the railway line and where it crosses the blue river it is on the famous bridge! You see, it is not labeled. But you'll notice there is a small white circle in the middle of the railway line in the middle of the river. It is labeled in Thai script. Click on it, so the red pin moves there and you'll see that street view is now showing bigger images of the bridge. Click on "Photo Tours" and you'll get a slick 16 second series of close-up images of the bridge. These are some of the best images of the bridge I've seen. [Sorry, this doesn't work in the Opera browser.] If you don't see the Photo Tours option, click on the Photos option, to the right of the Street View option. This will let you click through individual images of the bridge and surrounding area, 100 of them at the time of this writing (May 2014).
Now let me show you where the other two locations are that we visited. Go back to the map and zoom out a few "-" clicks, so you can see a larger area on the map. Look just to the north of the Death Railway label and you'll see a street called "Kwaiyai Rd." Follow it with your eye, zooming out as needed, and you'll see that it goes in a sweeping arc to the right, soon connecting with Sangchuro Rd, which is Highway 323, which runs from southeast to northwest on the map. Zoom out a bit and follow 323 down toward the southeast. Soon you will see a blue rectangle labeled as "Kanchanaburi Railway" and just past that you will see two large green rectangular areas. The lower of those two is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Zoom in there and you will see that it is not labeled. If you zoom in far enough, you will see the cross street on the northwest side is called "Chao Khun Nen Rd." The Death Railway Museum is in the middle of that block, facing out onto the cemetery. If you look further up toward Highway 323, you'll see a label for "Thailand-Burma Railway Centre," which is the official name of the Death Railway Museum. You could click there and follow a link to three reviews, but it's a wild goose chase, taking you to a useless description on Google+. So skip that, as that label is in the wrong place. It should be in the middle of that city block.
Instead, look for the red fork and knife in a small circle just above the C in Chao Khun Nen Rd. Click on that label, then on the street view it offers you. The white building to the far right is the museum. Two clicks in the middle of the road pointing to the right and you will be standing in the middle of the road in front of the museum! Rotate your view to the right and you will see the cemetery in front of you, the large white structure in the middle being the entrance archway.
Now go back to the map. You'll see that there are three white circles in the green area just below Chao Khun Nen Rd. If you click on any of those three, you will also be offered street view images of the cemetery. The far right one of the three also offers a look at the logo for the museum. So there you have it. You've been oriented to the location of these three important sites, none of which are labeled properly on the Google map!
Now go back to the inverted U near the red pin and zoom in. You'll see that the river coming down from the north that flows into the Mae Klong is called the Khwae Yai River, which means the "big tributary." So we have a big and a small tributary, which are meeting to feed the much larger Mae Klong River. The only definition I have found for "Mae Klong" is that it is a river in Western Thailand. So the full name of the River Kwai passing through Kanchanaburi is the Khwae Yai River, or Mae Nam Kwae Yai, as Yahoo maps has it. Kwai, Khwae and Kwae seem to be interchangeable spellings.
Now for a bit of history. During the war, our now famous bridge was crossing a river that was then called the Mae Klong River. It was NOT called the big tributary at that time! It was just the Mae Klong River, which would soon meet the little tributary as it headed south on its way to the Gulf of Thailand. So during the war it was The Bridge on the Mae Klong River, or just bridge 277 to the Allied bombers.
Apparently Pierre Boulle, who wrote the book that eventually became the 1957 film, was confused about the names of all these rivers. For some reason he chose the name of the little tributary, the Kwae Noi River, as the one under the bridge, which he shortened and misspelled to be called the River Kwai. Some say he picked that one because the railway line follows that river after it crosses the famous bridge. Or maybe he made it all up and was writing about a fictional bridge on a fictional river! In any case, the tourists wanted a bridge to visit, so the Thai people seemed to have accomodated them.
To sum up, pretty much everything I "knew" about this bridge was wrong. At this point, I'm inclined to just call it The Bridge in Kanchanaburi!