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Japanese War Museum

War scene

It is a little known fact that many units of the Japanese Army were active in northern Thailand during the Second World War Like any military force, they inevitably left reminders of their presence, the roads and bridges that their engineers built, pieces of abandoned military hardware and the graves of their dead. All along.the western border of Thailand with Burma, Japanese forces determinedly expanded their influence in the Thai frontier around the allied troops they faced in Burma. The so-called "Death Railway" in Karnchanaburi is the most poignant reminder of those dark days, but there are many others.

When traveling in the hills of western Chiangmai province, or in neighbouring Mae Hong Sorn, many of the places of especial interest were either on the routes used by Japanese troops or still retain some reminder of their passing. (Refer to our map on page 8) About 40 kms west of Mae Taeng is beautiful Huay Naam Dung, "the roaring stream." Here can be found the lovely palace of Princess Galyani Wattana, the King's elder sister, and nearby is the Forestry Department's Water Source Development Project, with charming guesthouses that the Department makes available for visitors. Over 50 years ago this present magical spot resounded to the tramp of marching feet. There is an iron bridge on the road from Mae Malai to Pai, shortly before reaching Pai town itself. One of the main river bridging points, this was used frequently by the Japanese army who had a camp to the west and a cemetery to the east. The Mae Hong Sorn provincial administration have plans to construct an outdoor museum here to highlight the involvement of the province in the war Just 7 km from Pai is Gong Laen. Its meaning, in northern Thai is a path so narrow only a specimen of a lizard called "Laen" could possibly travel. This treacherous path winds over high, eroded cliffs and was a naturally camouflaged infantry pathway. Although it can still be traversed, it is high, narrow and dangerous.

Pai Cottage, near Wat Paa Kham on the Pai River was once an army graveyard for the Japanese forces. Though the graveyard itself has been washed away by flooding, it remains a focal spot for Japanese visitors wishing to pay their respects to their ancestors who perished there, far from hearth and home. At the temple nearby was a military field hospital and close by was a logistical supply centre.

State highway 1095 follows, and largely incorporates, the road built by the Japanese army engineers, using conscripted Thai workers, from Mae Taeng right through to Baan Huay Ton Noon close to the Burmese border. Sections of the road, not used by its modern successor, are easy to see, and in many places are junkyards of abandoned Japanese military vehicles. The road passes Mae Laang Jaan Cave, a refuge for troops on foot. It has been suggested that this cave may have been a burial site of ancient inhabitants over 4,000 - 5,000 years ago. Fronting the cave is a very old tamarind tree, one of the oldest of its kind, and the cave remains easy and interesting to visit. Located 26 kms from Mae Hong Sorn, on the road to Paang Tong Palace is the exquisite and dramatic waterfall called Pha Zeua.

Passing through the sleepy provincial town of Mae Hong Sorn, the Japanese troops would have become familiar with many famous local landmarks. These are mat Pra Thart Doi Gong Moo, with its two beautiful pagodas dating back many years; Wat Hua Wieng (or Glang Muang) in the city centre which houses a Buddha image copied from the original Pra Maha Munee from Mandalay; Wat Jong Come, a Thai Yai temple with a castellated roof, symbolizing the elevated status of the occupants, leading to the Burmese-built Luang Por Dtow Buddha image being placed there; Wat Jong Lang, famous for its collection of carved dolls, Which has a replica of the image Pra Buddha Sihing, standing on a mountain-shaped altar; and Wat Pra Norn with its huge reclining Buddha statue and a pair of remarkable stylised lions.

One of the most important staging points of the Japanese offensive against British-occupied Burma was Baan Huay Pong, close to the provincial capital of Mae Hong Sorn. Here many of the fatalities from the fighting were buried. Numerous graves now lie under state highway 108 and the Eh Dtoh Zai Dan Foundation from Japan is presently negotiating to re bury the fallen at a more appropriate site.

Khun Yuam Cultural Centre houses a World War II Japanese Military Museum with a display of wartime artifacts and personal possessions. There is also another army cemetery which includes the body of an officer who committed suicide to atone for his failure on the battlefield Nearby is Wat Muay Taw, where a field hospital was situated. With 30 doctors attending, this was the largest Japanese medical facility in northern Thailand. Those who succumbed to their wounds or the depredations of disease were buried in the vicinity or at the nearby military airfield. The descendants of the dead have built two altars at the temple where they pay their respects to their deceased forebears. The temple also once housed the Japanese army's field mint for producing bank notes and was the major communications centre for the forces stationed in the North.

Wat Taw Pae is 7 kms from Khun Yuam. Originally a collection point for the logging trade in olden days, the temple and pagoda are built in the Burmese Pagan style. As one of the final staging points before entering hostile Burma, the Japanese troops reportedly had friendly relations with the Thai inhabitants of the time, and the altars to the war dead are amongst the most visited.

A leisurely trip from Mae Taeng to the Burmese border can take in many of these sites. Whether the trip is made to remember the past and respect the fallen, or just to enjoy northern Thai history and bountiful nature, the adventure will be well worthwhile.

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