Bridge over the River Kwai and the Death Railway

Today I woke up when my phone alarm went off. I am glad I did. The wake up call from the hotel reception never materialised. Once again we are leaving at seven. We are visiting the ‘Bridge over the river Kwai’ today. I try to read up as much as possible before we leave. I’ve watched the film but not in it’s entirety, but enough to know that not all of the story as depicted in the film was true especially the ending.

York tells us that the drive will take over two hours, in the end it was closer to over three. As I said traffic in Bangkok is unpredictable. The first stop was Kanchanaburi, where the bridge is situated. The pronunciation for Kwai is not as we imagined but ‘qua’ as in ‘square’, York tells us.

At Kanchanaburi, we are dropped off at a bustling market place. A short walk takes us to the bridge. We arrive just in time for the train. Tourists line on either side of not only the track, but also on the small standing platform on either side of the track on the bridge. We wonder if it is safe to walk along the track when the train is arriving but the train stops and then when it does start it does so at a slow pace. Like a conductor getting ready for a performance and slowly lifting his baton, the engine gets into gear and gently the tempo rises as the crowd get their cameras ready for action and away it slithers along the bridge over the river Kwai. The original bridge was a wooden one, which didn’t survive, but the metal one built since is the one we see today.

We walk along and around the bridge and take some photos. Next stop is lunch. York gives us a quick geography lesson of the area. Thailand is quite a flat land, but now we can see mountains in the distance and that is where we are headed. The fields turn into farming land. Corn fields give way to sugar cane and tapioca farms. There are also air conditioned melon farms along the way. Soon we are heading into the jungle. Monkeys peer from the trees. Burma is on the other side of the forest. We arrive at our restaurant.

The restaurant is one of the most delightful places I have been to. There is nothing fancy here, just benches and long tables. The terracotta flooring, low ceiling covered with mats and open air setting with cheerful water features give it a cool and peaceful ambience. The buffet is equally pleasing.

One of the elderly gentlemen from the trip who is travelling on his own joins our table. As I start talking to him, he tells me that his dad was a prisoner of war during the Second World War and was one of the few British soldiers who survived the ordeal. He tells me that his dad kept a diary from the time he was deployed till he returned home. The entries were short but described the 250 kilometres that his dad advanced during the period the railway line was built. He has the book with him and I hope I can have a look at it at some point during the trip. His dad never spoke about the trauma he underwent, “only as anecdotes” he tells me. I get the impression that he was a mentally and physically tough person to have survived the torturous journey and he lived till the age of 92. I ask him what his dad thought about the film. The difficulties they endured were much more than what the film could portray.

The train is scheduled to arrive at 1323. We get to the station which is walking distance from the restaurant with plenty of time to spare. The temperature is in the high twenties but the air is humid. The train is late but we don’t mind. York tells us the best position to sit on the train and when to take photos. The Death Railway as it is referred to can be seen clearly from the next stop. We stand poised with our cameras. As the train swivels around the bend on the cliff, York tells us to look down to see the most treacherous part of the railway track. This is where the POWs hammered and drilled on the rocks to loosen them initially before they used explosives to blow up the part of the mountain to make way for about 400 kilometres of track. They then had to transport the rocks and dispose them.

I feel my heart go heavy. I wonder how it would be for those who lost or knew someone who suffered the years of torture at the hands of the Japanese army. We get off after a couple of stops. The train is used by locals and tourists. The track that connects Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand doesn’t exist anymore, only the Thailand part survives.

We join our coach, which then takes us to the cemetery and the War memorial museum in Kanchanaburi. At the museum, we go through the history and details of the building of the rail track. It shows us in graphic details how the POWs were taken to Thailand under false pretences and the conditions that they endured on arrival and throughout their stay. Over hundred thousand men perished during this period. There are memorials for most nationalities apart from the Asians who lost their lives. I look through the information and find that over forty five thousand of those who died were from Malaysia or Malaya as it was known then. Tamil Indians formed a large majority of this group. About 75000 unemployed Tamils, who had previously worked in the rubber plantations in Malaya were sent to Thailand to work on the railway. It seems that they formed a major proportion of the Asians who died working on the railway line and have been forgotten since. Next to the museum is the cemetery to commemorate the fallen soldiers who died whilst building the Thai-Burma railway track. Plaques display the name, rank and age of the soldiers but it seems that it is only the tip of the iceberg and many died with no records.

On the journey back Keith, gives me his dad’s diary to read. He has made it into a book and added information that he has gathered through research so that his family can make sense of what was happening during that period. Keith’s dad it seemed was one of the lucky ones (if you can call it lucky in these circumstances) who worked as a cook and so possibly had a slightly better deal compared to the other prisoners. What I found quite surprising was that his main complaints were regarding the issues surrounding the lack of food supplies. His diary gives the feeling that despite being in the middle of being bombed, shot at, contracting malaria, developing appendicitis and with people dying daily around him there was nothing in the diary to show that he was depressed or had lost hope.

Keith’s dad was a truly incredible person and thousands like him disappeared during the war with no trace or record to show for it. This site and museum are the only markers of their life and although history keeps repeating itself despite the valuable lessons we learn in life, let us hope that their lives were not lost in vain.

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