The 1957 classic movie with Alec Guinness gave us a look at Siam during the war at the time of the Japanese occupation. Although the movie itself is fictional, it’s based on true events, and as any World War II vet will tell you, those were brutal times.

The younger post-war generation may have heard of the movie, but often don’t know the true history of it—and often don’t even realize that there really is a River Kwai, and yes, there is a bridge over it. It’s still there, and you can walk across it.

This is the main focus of your trip to Kanchanaburi, the site of the Khwae Yai and the infamous bridge to Burma the Japanese built using allied slave labor. If you haven’t seen the movie, go rent it and give it a look, it’s a great movie even today, more than 50 years after it was made. Then go see the real thing. It is of course, a much more relaxed town these days, and there is a wonderful little restaurant where you can sit on a deck overlooking the river in full view of the bridge. It’s an enjoyable place to spend a day, and not that far from Bangkok—just a two or three hour bus ride. If you want to spend more than a day, you’ll find plenty of low-cost guesthouses as well as more comfortable hotels all around town.

Where to Stay?

The centrally located River Kwai Hotel is great if you’re looking for accommodation with a pool. The town of Kanchanaburi is rich in history, but once you’ve seen the museums and visited the bridge, there’s still plenty more to do. It is, after all, a big river (“yai” means “big” in Thai language), and you’ll find boating and kayaking activities, and wonderful national parks just outside of town. If you have to choose just one nature activity, pay a visit to the Erawan National Park and see the beautiful Erawan waterfall.

Before you start asking your taxi driver to take you to the “river kwai” though, there’s something you need to know—all Americans pronounce it wrong because of the movie. It’s pronounced as “khwae”; the way they pronounce it in the movie makes it sound like you’re saying “water buffalo river”, which is incorrect.

What Else to See?

Take some time to look around at the JEATH war museum located inside the Wat Chai Chumphon temple. While you’re there, and you can get a first-hand look at the remnants of the war. You can still see the hut where the Japanese commander had his headquarters, an old railcar that was used to carry prisoners to the site, and quite a lot of old war relics.

A replica of the huts used to house the prisoners of war is on display, giving you a look at what life must have been like for the prisoners there. But it’s not all replicas, the museum also has on display a good collection of real photographs that show the conditions of the prison camp and the building of the bridge, and accounts written by people who were there. And if you want to pay tribute to the allied war dead, you can pay a visit to one of the two war cemeteries that hold the remains of allied soldiers who died during the conflict.