The Bridge Over the River Kwai

Following a few days of blissful escapism in Pai, I headed out west of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, to engage with some of Thailand’s heavier history. This town was the site of the bridge over the river Kwai (of eponymous movie fame), one of the many engineering feats of the Thailand Burma ‘Death’ railway built by Japan’s prisoners of war in WW2. I have to admit I’d remained, up to this point, shamefully ignorant of the Asian aspect of this conflict, and the concentration camp standard injustices endured in this part of the world by not only British, ANZAC and US captives, but innumerable captured Asian workers too, at the hands of the conquering Japanese. Kanchanaburi’s fantastic Thailand and Burma Railway Centre museum was an ideal place to get to grips with the historical context, and I whiled away a few air conditioned hours there learning of the Asian course of the conflict, the life of the railway from inception to Japanese surrender, and the shocking work camp conditions endured by the captives. The death toll from the rail project, standing at some 12,400 for Allied forces and estimated beyond 90,000 for Asian workers, was touchingly commemorated here, and across the road in the carefully maintained Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, too. Walking up and down the rows here reading the countless Western names laid to rest is as powerful an experience as any European war cemetery I’ve visited, augmented by awareness of the anonymity of so many wasted local lives, likely always to be unacknowledged.

The Thailand Burma Railway Museum

The Thailand and Burma Railway Centre Museum

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Constant maintenance of the Allied war graves

Haunting rows of Allied war graves

The bridge over the river itself was no spectacular site- and has been uncomfortably swamped by tacky tourism (like much of the town as a whole, in fact). It made for a moving place to watch the sun set, but it was hard to ignore the sprawling jewellery emporium, souvenir stalls and floating restaurants dominating the structure’s surroundings. The Death Railway has been in part re-opened by Thailand for the sake of tourism, running a couple of trains a day, though at all other times it is possible to walk the length of the bridge which I duly did, surrounded by tourists smiling in selfies along the way- most bizarre…The following day, when I rode a section of the track myself, I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable about enjoying the scenery of such a tragic journey. Winding through dense mountainous surroundings, the scale of the human feat and its misery was most powerfully demonstrated by a visit to the Hellfire Pass- this was one of the deepest cuttings of the track (now preserved by an Australian-managed museum and visitor centre), which was worked on night and day by captives in the accelerated ‘Speedo’ phase of rail construction. Without the assistance of heavy machinery, and only the most basic tools, the endurance involved in such crude engineering is nigh on impossible to imagine…

The bridge over the River Kwai

The bridge over the River Kwai

Twilight walk on the bridge

Twilight walk on the tracks

The Hellfire Pass cutting

The Hellfire Pass cutting

The Hellfire Pass surroundings- visual wonder, engineering nightmare

The Western Thai mountains- visual wonder, engineering nightmare

Winding tracks of the Death Railway

Winding tracks of the Death Railway

Aside from a heavy dose of history, Kanchanaburi town itself offered little in the way of traveller stimulation, and I didn’t hang around too long. The surrounding areas were well served with natural wonders, however, and before leaving I took a trip out to the prized Erawan Falls, a marvel of a 7-tiered waterfall which wouldn’t look out of place in Middle Earth. Stretched over a few jungle kilometres, I spent a morning hiking up its levels to the breathtaking top, and swimming in the crystal blue pools on descent. In almost unbearable humidity, the cold water was divine, though overrun by very unnerving skin nibbling fish which took some time getting used to… I won’t be signing up for a fish foot spa any time soon. (Waterfall chasing, on the other hand, could be an underrated hobby- watch this space…)

Paradise pools

Paradise pools

Weird nibbling fish...

Weird nibbling fish…

And seven levels of this- paradise...

And seven levels of this. Thailand does a good national park.












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