Drinking by the ‘Death Railway’ in Thailand
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a remarkable place to remember … or forget.
Chang Beer is no one’s favorite, but on everyone’s budget, and at dusk at the Floating Raft Restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, its high alcohol by volume and crisp finish soften even the most nauseating buffet-style selection. But people don’t come to this town — over 80 miles northwest of Bangkok, with its floating hotels and thatched-roof restaurants that line the calm waters of the rivers Kwai Yai, Kwai Noi and Mae Klong — for the service or even the food. Here, patrons have a front-row seat for the most sought-after view in town: the bridge on the River Kwai, an impressive structure of steel trusses that harbors a morbid past.
As soon as the rumble of the slow-moving train signals a photo opportunity, restaurant-goers in the open-air eatery drop their curry-filled spoons for their phones to record the creaky locomotive lurching over the river. (Don’t ever worry about missing the train — its blasting horn will surely startle you, perhaps causing you to spill your hibiscus-decorated cocktail.)
Locals are rumored to be haunted by the atrocities, and some suggest that Thai tour guides refuse to stay overnight in town.
Known around the world largely because of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 fictional story and David Lean’s drama (both named TheBridge on the River Kwai), the bridge is part of the “Death Railway” — one aspect of World War II history in Kanchanaburi where the off-screen version is far less romantic and devastatingly more inhumane.
With so much lively chatter in the breezy floating restaurant, it’s hard to imagine the grueling, sadistic work conditions that led to the deaths of 105,000 Allied prisoners of war and Asian laborers (romusha) in Japan’s attempt to connect Burma and Thailand for easy transfer of supplies and troops. The famous bridge looming over the Floating Raft Restaurant is actually a replica — the original was destroyed in 1944-45 Allied bombings, but a few slivers of the original 160-mile track still exist.
It was about this river that Nicole Kidman (who stars in The Railway Man about the POW experience) said you can “still feel the ghosts.” To be fair, the only thing you might feel is humidity and a hangover. Locals are rumored to be haunted by the atrocities, and some suggest that Thai tour guides refuse to stay overnight in town. Which is bad news for drunk backpackers hanging out along the river, who according to Meredith Metz, a disaster relief social worker who lived in Thailand for a year, “don’t seem to know much about it [Kanchanaburi and its World War II history] before getting there.”
For Australian chef and veteran Joe Ward, Kanchanaburi’s POW-heavy tourism was an emotional experience, but he relaxed at the Floating Raft Restaurant. “The staff were amazing. They will let you pay your respects to the fallen, and then they will show you the best of their bridge,” he says.
Kanchanaburi’s tourism largely increased after the release of the book and film and has continued to hold importance in the Allied forces’ World War II memory. But when I attempted to ask the Floating Raft Restaurant’s owner about its subsequent rise in popularity, there was no response to repeated calls and emails. (I can only assume they had bigger fish to fry — literally.)
Some come to this location, where thousands of deaths occurred, to remember. For those who come here to forget (so, party), there’s plenty of Top 40s music and booze on tap, which might also help to distract from the itch of their elephant pants, the fullness in their bellies and the irritating pinch of mosquitoes biting their sunburned skin.
Go There: Floating Raft Restaurant
- Directions: 85 Thanon Sangchuto, Tambon Ban Tai, Amphoe Mueang Kanchanaburi, Chang Wat Kanchanaburi 71000, Thailand
- Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.
- Prices: Buffet 250 Baht ($8) per person and drinks around $1-$3
- Pro-tip: You’ll find a range of average food at the restaurant, but make the experience more meaningful by first reading memoirs of a Japanese torturer and POWs. Grab a copy of Alister Urquhart’s The Forgotten Highlander, Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man or Nagase Takashi’s Crosses and Tigers.