For years I’ve been adding flags to my Google map whenever I read about a place we might want to visit. Bangkok is hot and dirty and wasn’t piquing our interest so we cast about for someplace to get away from the crowds and pollution.
There’s a mark on my map at the River Kwai bridge because who doesn’t love Alec Guinness and William Holden? And who doesn’t wish they could whistle the theme song from the movie? (My dad could. He was as good a whistler as Der Bingle.)
The bridge is in a small town called Kanchanaburi, and it took a few days to learn how to pronounce that. You get there on the Death Railway and to get to the train you take a ferry, which may or may not come in time to catch the train, or you take a taxi. We went for the taxi.
The train was slow and bumpy but it was nice to get away from the Big Mango. In about three hours we were checked in to a rustic cabin on stilts on the River Kwai. A cold shower and a couple of beers later and we felt good enough for the hot mile walk to see the famous bridge.
It’s important to point out at this juncture that the book the movie was based on is a novel, and while the basic underpinnings of the story are true, the plot is completely fiction and the author took some serious historical license in crafting his tale. For example, the wooden bridge depicted in the movie isn’t the actual bridge over the River Kwai that we’re about to walk over. In fact, there were more than 600 bridges on the Thai-Burma Railway. Let’s back up a little.
By 1942 Japan had invaded Thailand, then Burma. To supply their troops in Burma and prepare to invade India, they relied on the shipping lanes through the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea. But after their defeat at Midway the sea route was too dangerous, as it was patrolled by Allied submarines. A railway connecting Bangkok with Burma was the answer, despite the fact that the British had surveyed the land decades before and rejected the route, through mountainous, mosquito-infested jungle terrain, as impossible.
The Japanese were undaunted and in June 1942 began transporting about 200,000 Southeast Asian slave laborers and about 60,000 British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners of war to start work. The conditions by all accounts were much worse than what was depicted in the movie. By the time the railway was completed, it’s estimated that about 100,000 civilians and 12,000 prisoners of war died from the inhumane treatment and severe tropical conditions. After the war many of the Japanese commanders were tried and convicted of war crimes, some sentenced to death.
Of the more than 600 bridges on the railway only a few were built of concrete and steel. The real bridge over the River Kwai is one of them, and while it was bombed by the Allies, it was rebuilt and stands today as the original. The magnificent wooden bridge at the center of the movie plot is likely based on one of the long wooden trestles elsewhere along the route.
The existing bridge is a tourist destination and why we’re here too. People walk along the tracks over the bridge until one of the two daily trains signals its approach.
Kanchanaburi is also the site of a museum about the death railway, as well as the War Cemetery, containing nearly 7000 graves of personnel whose remains were moved from various POW camps and other lone graves along the railway route. What’s striking about this war cemetery is that these are not the young men barely out of their teens we usually think of, but older men, mostly in their 30s and 40s, probably with wives and children. The thought of all these broken families brought me to tears.
The museum is moving and well presented, covering the history of the conflict, the engineering of the railway, the treatment of the workers and the conditions they endured, as well as the aftermath of the ordeal. There are effective graphic displays of the death toll by group, and art work by prisoners determined to record the hell they barely survived.
We got quite the education on the day, and at the museum cafe we were amazed at all the histories and memoirs written about this brutal chapter of World War II. But even this isn’t the whole story. That will come when we travel the last remaining bit of the Death Railway to Hellfire Pass. But that’s a story for another day.
(For a realistic depiction of the conditions of the Death railway construction, watch The Railway Man on Netflix, starring Colin Firth.)