Located right next to the infamous “Bridge over the River Kwai“, with signs pointing to it suggesting its the JEATH Museum (it isn’t) this place probably confuses a lot of tourists – even TripAdvisor and gives the incorrect address. Not really sure of the name of it, though Google Maps is now calling it the “Prisoner of War Museum”.
So the question is, when is a museum, not a museum? And why was this place the strangest museum I’ve ever been to – even weirder than the one that had siamese twins and giant testicles in formaldehyde?
I’m not really sure of the background story to this place, but I’m guessing that it started its life as a private temple/museum and grew over time. Its literally the strangest “museum” and I use the term very loosely that I’ve ever been to.
There are lots of interesting museum exhibits dotted around the place, along side some very strange and kitchy exhibits that have no place in a “war museum”. There is literally no concept of curation here at all. The museum has a lot of out of context information on the history of World War II, but absolutely zero reference to anything that the Thais did during the war, not even a mention of the Free Thai Movement for instance – and definitely nothing on what Thais did during the war time years in Kanchanaburi.
There is absolutely zero logic to the layout of this place. In the basement you have exhibits featuring POWs, remnants of the bridge, WWII era captured vehicles (including some pretty sweet Royal Enfield motorbikes), prison trains, and then on the roof you’ve got strange poetry which you can only see by tilting your head back.
Moving up to the ground floor you have a collection of weapons, including antique flintlocks that are labelled as weapons used by allied soldiers during the second world war and what appears to be copies of a WWII book on soldiers covering the wall.
And of course, after checking out the Miss Thailand exhibit the next logical thing to add would be a room dedicated to watches and stamps, only that, well the exhibit dedicated to watches was nowhere to be found, and the stamp exhibit appeared not to have been maintained in years, and was mainly just empty stamp albums up on the walls behind glass. We kept going up the stairs but no matter where we looked we couldn’t find the Museum of Archeology either.
Next on the list of completely out of context exhibits was this one, which we believe was to do with the Red Shirts protests in 2010, but of course there were no explanations in English, so we had to take our best guess. There were glass cases with all sorts of weird things, such as mobile phones from the 1990s, empty cans of beer, shoes, clothing, rubbish – its hard to tell what it was there for. If there was a message behind it, it was hard to tell what it was.
How deep does the rabbit hole go we wondered as we went up the next lot of stairs. Here we found a wall with half naked Thai pinups. Again I’m not really sure what this has to do with a war museum, but things just kept getting more and more surreal.
Upstairs we found a room with framed newspapers from various coups and uprisings during the countries history. Again they were just hung up on the wall without any proper context, making it hard for a foreigner to really get an understanding of what its all about. What made this room even stranger was the massive glass cabinet in the centre which was filled with 1980s era encyclopaedias and subscriptions to the Thai edition of Vogue magazine of all things.
They clearly don’t know the difference between a museum, curation and just plain hoarding. The place is full of interesting items, but without any proper historical context or explanation it really loses its value as a museum and just becomes a curiosity. It would be very interesting to visit this museum with someone who speaks Thai and understands Thai history in the last century to explain the importance (and lack of importance) of the various exhibits.
The sad thing is that Thailand really needs a stronger understanding of its history, especially recent history and places like this, which claim to be museums should be leading the way in helping to explain it to the next generation. Otherwise you’ll end up with places like this that are less a museum and more a P.T. Barnum curiosity.
How to Find it:
The War Museum is located near the Bridge Over the River Kwai and is signposted as if its the JEATH Museum (which it isn’t)