Ever since I first saw the movie “Bridge over the River Kwai,” I had dreamed of visiting that infamous bridge. Only later did I discover that the film was actually made in Sri Lanka, miles away from Thailand and the River Kwai. The actual bridge is not wooden, as in the movie, but it is made of concrete and steel and stands to this day despite repeated Allied booming raids that severely damaged it. In February of 2015, I journeyed to Kanchanaburi, Thailand to see this famous bridge for myself.
The bridge is about 90 miles from Bangkok and is the starting point for the railroad that, during WWII, would continue to Rangoon, Burma. The Japanese used Allied POWs (including a few Americans) to build this railway so they could supply their armies in Burma, where they were fighting the British, without the dangers of sending supplies by sea. Many prisoners died under appalling conditions during the construction of this railroad appropriately dubbed the “Death Railway.”
In Bangkok I bought a $3 ticket and began my journey on this infamous railroad to Kanchanaburi–a section that existed before WWII. The train had incredibly hard wooden seats and the cars were not air-conditioned. The journey took three hours; the carriages were not crowded, and so I opened the windows and hung out for “natural” air conditioning. The views were wonderful to be sure.
Arriving in Kanchanaburi I prepared to visit sites along the section which was built by Allied POWs that stretches from here to Burma (180 miles). I began by walking across the Bridge over the River Kwai. Yes, the bridge exists, and yes, it spans the River Kwai. Located near Kanchanaburi, it draws many tourists expecting to view the remains of the amazing wood and bamboo structure built by Allied prisoners, and later blown up by a demolition squad according to the movie. Even though the 1957 movie is fiction, there really is a bridge that was built by Allied prisoners and forced, local laborers under horrific conditions just as the film suggests. The actual Bridge over the River Kwai is a concrete and steel structure, low to the water, nothing like the one shown in the film. In fact, it is not at all imposing and kinda’ ugly. As in the movie, the Allies did heavily damage the bridge, but not because someone swam up the river and blew it up, but because it was hit repeatedly by Allied war planes.
The bridge still carries regular passenger trains from Bangkok as far as Nam Tok where the line ends today. The curved spans on the bridge are 1943 originals; the two straight spans are replacements for those damaged by Allied bombs in 1945. Despite suffering repeated air attacks, the Thai Burma railway operated as a fully-functioning line between November 1943 and March 1944. The line delivered over 50,000 tons of food and ammunition to Burma, as well as two complete divisions of troops for the Japanese offensive into India. In this attack, one of their last, the Japanese were defeated by British and Indian forces.
The Death Railway traveled through a region containing many rivers, streams, and gullies. Several hundred bridges were constructed along its length, amounting to about nine miles of the route’s overall length. Only eight bridges were constructed from steel, one being the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. The remainder of these bridges were constructed from local wood, hence the idea for depicting the River Kwai Bridge in the movie as wooden and bamboo. The terrain the railway crossed made its construction very difficult. However, its route was not entirely the dense and inhospitable jungle of popular imagination. At either end, in Thailand and Burma, the rail track traveled through gentle landscapes before entering the rugged and mountainous jungle on the border between the two countries. When the track reached Wampo, about 15 miles from Kanchananburi, it started to meet jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. This posed problems for construction, as well as for transport and supply. The Wampo Viaduct remains today as a testimony to the engineering skill at work on the Death Railway.
The construction of the Death Railway was carried out under the most extreme conditions imaginable. More than 12,500 enslaved British, Dutch, Australian, and American POWs perished along this rail line. More than 80,000 Asians also died from starvation and disease. Sadistic punishments were handed out while building the Death Railway. Executions of prisoners and laborers were common. The laborers also had to contend with heat, humidity, and mosquitoes.
Together, these sites make this corner of jungle in Thailand one of the most sobering and evocative places on the planet for those who are interested in this area and the horrifying events which took place here during WWII. One army medical doctor recorded in his diary in October 1945: “On one occasion a party of 60 men, mostly stretcher cases, were thrown off a train into a paddy field at 3 a.m. in a pouring rain. As an example, one man was so thin that be could be lifted easily with one arm. His hair was growing down his back and he was covered with maggots. His clothing consisted of a ragged pair of shorts soaked with dysentery excreta . . . he was covered with flies and was so weak he could not lift his hand to brush them away.”
The men worked from dawn until after dark, trudging many miles through the jungle to return to base camp where Allied doctors tended the injured and diseased. After the war, the dead were collectively re-buried in the War Cemeteries that will remain forever a witness to a brutal and tragic ordeal.
Japanese army engineers selected the route which traversed deep valleys and hills. All the heavy work was done manually, either by hand or by elephant because earth moving equipment could not be spared from the war effort. The prisoners lived in filthy squalor on a near starvation diet and were subjected to brutality beyond belief.
Perhaps the most notorious of all is Hell Fire Pass, located about 50 miles from Kanchanaburi. The pass itself is a carved passage through rock sometimes known as the Konyu cutting. The rock was cut by hand using slave labor. Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum offers videos, photographs, drawings, tools, and testimony; you can listen to the voices of survivors who describe atrocities they endured. From the museum, I followed a walking trail of a few hundred yards into Hellfire Pass. To do this, I descended 167 steps (going down was fairly easy–coming back up was the kicker!). This spot was used in the film “Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Here POWs and forced laborers painstakingly hacked open the mass of solid rock using hand tools, making it wide enough for the train to slide through.
On my next to last day, I boarded the Death Railway train in Kanchanaburi for the ride to the end of the line at Nam Tok, Thailand. It is one of Thailand’s most scenic and popular train rides. The Bridge over the River Kwai is less than two miles from the Kanchanaburi station, and as the train inched across, I took many photos and videos. Then the train chugged through the Kwai Noi valley, stopping frequently at country stations decked with frangipani and jasmine. Before long, the train slowed to a crawl as it approached the Wampo Viaduct, where a 1,000 foot-long trestle clings to the cliff face as it follows the curves of the Kwai River. Almost every man who worked on this part of the railway died here. The station at the northern end of the trestle bridge is called Tham Krasae, after the cave that is hollowed out of the rock face beside the bridge. You can see the cave’s resident, Buddha, from the train. North of Tham Krasae, the train continued past a particularly lovely stretch of the Kwai River, its banks thick with jungle–and not a raft house in sight–the whole vista framed by distant tree-clad peaks. Though the views are lovely on this route, it is the history that makes the ride so memorable.
Before long, the train began its return trip, and after more than six hours of riding on a hard wooden seat, my long legs cramped by the lack of space, I returned to the station at Kanchanaburi, but I would do it again because it is a truly incredible experience. The images of this journey forever imprinted in my memory are reward enough.
Next time: “The Greatest Waterfalls in the World”