With just 49 hours to go before my flight out of Thailand, I find myself at one of the most famous bridges in the world.
While the Humber Bridge might just be the closest bridge to my heart, with us sharing the same birthday give or take a couple of hours, it isn’t a patch on the Bridge over the River Kwai in terms of historical significance.
I’m in Kanchanaburi, about 150km northwest of Bangkok and close to the border with Burma. It’s the proximity to the secretive country which saw the area become a vital supply line for the Japanese army during the Second World War.
Having endured a tiring 25-hour journey from the south, the overnight delays and sleeping rough on a bench had taken its toll, but there was no time for a snooze in the little floating room I’d found on the river.
With just two hours to see the main sights before sunset there was only one thing I could do to squeeze them all in, so I hired a motorbike and at 4pm set off around the town taking in as many sights as I could, starting with the famous bridge.
It was built to carry the Thailand – Burma railway as a way for the Japanese empire to get supplies into the north, and to help keep pressure off the sea routes, which until the railway’s construction were the only way of getting supplies through. It followed on from the occupation of Singapore and Malaysia, and the consequent surrender of thousands of British and allied troops that were unable to keep the enemy troops at bay.
As a result, thousands of allied soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by Japan, and forced to work on construction projects that would help their own war effort. Years of hard labour, under nourishment, disease, torture and beatings by the Japanese took their toll, especially in the construction of the railway. It had been dismissed years earlier by British experts as an impossible task, mainly because of the dense jungle which covered much of the route, mountains, marshes and countless rivers which would have to be crossed. But they wouldn’t have had the manpower that Japan now had control of, and set upon the huge project. More than 16,000 allied troops lost their lives in the process, mainly British and Australian – and as a result, it became known as the Death Railway.
In total, about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the 415km railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers died, along with 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.
They are staggering numbers, and mainly due to the forced labour conditions – brutal treatment by the Japanese, malnourishment, injuries and falls in construction and disease, which was rife throughout the POW camps, made worse by a lack of medicine and treatment.
As a bridge, its fairly unremarkable but instantly recognisable, its curved black steel spans joining two angular stretches across the river. Of course, the bridge was made famous by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s a long time since I’d seen it. Besides, there are many people who say its completely unrealistic, and infact fails to portray the true horrific treatment of the prisoners by their captors during the construction period.
Arriving on my scooter, I found a bridge swarming with tourists, mainly European and Japanese tour groups who had arrived on a fleet of coaches from Bangkok. Surprisingly, despite it still being an operational railway bridge, you are free to walk across and spend time on the tracks. While it has got a solid appearance, it still feels rickety, with huge gaps between the wooden planks holding up the rails, the scores of bright t-shirt-wearing tour groups and their umbrella touting guides, me, and the occasional train.
I spent time looking at its construction, thinking of the prisoners who had tightened up the thousands of bolts and the conditions they must have been working under. I know the bridge was also bombed by the US and RAF air forces during and after its construction, which also led to the deaths of many POWs. It was a long way down to the fast flowing river below, and records show many fell to their deaths while trying to build the bridge. The fact it still stands now, and in full use, is probably the best tribute to their horrendous work.
I walked to the far side of the bridge and was looking at a guard post when suddenly I heard a familiar horn in the distance. It was a train – and I was slap-bang in the middle of the track. Thankfully, I knew the trains slow to a crawl to pass over the bridge, but sure enough the locomotive appeared behind me. I ran down the track back to the main spans of the bridge so I could get some photos, and dived into a refuge area.
The safe area still left you dangerously close to hundreds of tonnes of train as it slowly made its way over the river on its way to Bangkok, complete with yet more tourists hanging out of the windows, pointing cameras and smiling as they pass. I’m hoping to make the journey myself the following day, but even now I’m still unsure whether I will have time.
I followed the train back off the bridge and made my way towards a nearby museum, right next to the bridge and at the site of the first wooden bridge that was built across the river before the main metal construction was finished. It was called the World War II and Jeath War Museum, for which I paid 40 Baht to enter (80p). It was possibly the most surreal museum I have ever been into, and when it comes to first impressions, an exhibit of televisions through the years just didn’t seem to fit somehow.
It wasn’t the only quirky addition to the exhibits. The models of people were bizarre, most of the displays were covered in layers and layers of dust, there was no particular link or explanation for most of the things you could look at, and a set of ‘life size’ main characters from the war were actually laughable…
If it wasn’t such an awful subject to be trying to educate myself about, most of the museum was laughable.
There was a scene depicting one of the bombings of the bridge, complete with cartoon-style paintings of aircraft, and possibly one of the best Thai-English ‘Tinglish’ translations I’ll ever see. ‘Bodies were laying higgledy piggledy’ apparently. I guess it helps to paint a picture of the scene.
Needless to say, I didn’t stay for long – not just because it was slightly disappointing, but mainly because the sun was beginning to set.
I still had one more place to visit, the cemetery where some 6,000 British and Australian troops were buried after succumbing to their treatment in the construction of the Death Railway. Row upon row of headstones with familiar names – Smiths, Hills, McCalls, Norths – complete with their regiment badges and ages, mainly in their 20s or early 30s, who had once been in southeast Asia but were never to return home.
The grounds are well manicured and clearly looked after and regarded highly by the Thai community around here. Infact, my cyclo rider who had found me accommodation on the river just a few hours earlier even gave the cemetery a nod as he cycled past earlier. He didn’t know much English, but he did say “Brave men” as we passed. Brave men indeed.
With night falling, I headed back to my accommodation on the river and watched as the sky went the most amazing red as the sun set behind the distant mountains. My room was an experience in itself – its actually a floating bedroom, with the river Kwai flowing underneath. Every now and then, a boat will go past causing the whole place to gently sway as it bobs over its wake. Its actually quite relaxing, if slightly strange – and feels like you’re on a boat rather than in a hotel room.
Back in the restaurant, and being near Burma, I decided to sample a Burmese chicken curry that I found on the menu. The owner, and cook, it has to be said, did warn me its quite hot, but it was too late. Most of the people around me had heard me order it, so I couldn’t chicken out now (no pun intended) and then spent approximately half an hour trying to consume what was by far one of the hottest curries I’ve ever had to tackle. I managed it – just - but at least the time between mouthfuls of iced Coke and curry gave me time to think about my next move.
I know I have to be in Bangkok in 24 hours time, as I really want to spend one last night taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the Khao San Road. I also want to make it to Hellfire Pass, another famous part of the Death Railway. I also want to travel across the Kwai bridge on a train, adding to my railway themed trip so far. It seemed an impossible task. I spoke to the owner and cook, who had a bit of a smirk on her face after making me a chilli fest for tea, and asked if it was possible.
“You’ll need to be up early,” she said
“You can get to Hellfire Pass in time for an hour there before the last direct train back to Bangkok leaves,” she explained.
My first thought was ‘how early’.
“There’s a group leaving here at 5.45am on a taxi to the bus station. Then theres a bus around 6.30am that goes north to the Burma border. It passes Hellfire Pass. It’s the only way.”
Its early, but a necessity. With a basic calculation of two hours for the journey, it should get me to the Hellfire memorial centre for about 9am, giving me a few hours to take it in before somehow making my way back to Nam Tok and catching the 1.15pm train. It would, however, mean taking all my rucksack, backpack and belongings with me.
Trying desperately not to press snooze, I dragged myself out of my floating bed and into the floating shower at about 5.30am. Outside, dawn was breaking and a tuk tuk was waiting. I was joined by three women heading back to Bangkok for their flights home, but we were all too tired to talk properly. At the main bus station, I was ushered onto one of the local buses – it’s a no frills affair, but at least I’ll be moving soon.
After 20 minutes of waiting on an empty bus, I leaned on my bag and fell asleep. I woke up again at 8am – and we still hadn’t moved. There were a few more people onboard, but there were no signs of us heading anywhere. Back to sleep again, having now mastered the art of grabbing sleep wherever and whenever you can, and another hour later the engine started.
The bus was packed – it had been waiting for a full load, as is often the case in Thailand, rendering my early start pointless. After three hours of being asleep on the bus in a station, it was finally on the move, but my time at Hellfire Pass had been drastically cut short.
The other slight problem was the language barrier on the bus. It might have only cost me the equivalent of 50p, but the conductor had no idea what I had asked for. I also had no idea where I was heading or what to look for. I was the only foreigner on the bus, packed with families and kids heading to various parts of north west Thailand. Completely off the beaten track, I was on my own and battled to keep my eyes open on the swelteringly hot bus as it rocked its way along the mountainous roads north. I noticed that when people want to get off, they simply shout out and they get dropped at the side of the road. A conductor then bellows a weird noise to the driver when he’s clear to get going again, before he does a little run alongside the bus and jumps on the steps at the back.
I passed through Nam Tok, a town where I need to be later to catch my train, so I knew I was near. We were cruising along and I was taking in the scenery when we passed a military post with some flags flying. Then I saw a small sign with something written in English on it. I quickly looked back – was that the Hellfire Pass centre?
I suddenly woke up from my half dozing trance and called back to the conductor.
“Hellfire pass?” I asked, quizzically, knowing he wouldn’t understand. He just made his weird noise, and suddenly the packed bus came to a halt. If it wasn’t my final destination, all this was about to become very embarrassing, but it was too late. My bag had already been thrown into the dirt at the side of the road, and whether I was right or wrong, I was getting off the bus!
Thankfully, it was the right place, albeit with a sweaty bag-laden hike around some military outpost to the memorial behind. Its actually run and part funded by the Australian government in memory of all the allied soldiers who lost their lives here. I stumbled in to the blissfully airconditioned reception amid strange looks from tour visitors who wondered whether I had somehow walked all the way here with my bags.
The lady at reception was nice enough to look after all my belongings for me, but warned me I only had an hour, or an hour and a half tops, if I wanted to make the 1.15pm train.
The museum was brilliantly laid out. A video on entry shows some of the horrendous work that went on during the war in the Asia Pacific region, including footage of the railway being laid by emaciated prisoners. Gradually, with the help of a great audio guide featuring some of the soldiers who were forced to work in the area, the story about the Death Railway, and in particular, Hellfire Pass, is explained.
Amid the details of how earth and rock were broken by shovels and picks, of how embankments of stone and soil were heaped up by human hands, and how bridges were formed using wood from the surrounding jungles, there is one site that stands out – and I am at it.
Konyu Cutting was the hardest, most difficult part of the railway to construct. It was effectively a solid rock mountainside – a mountain the railway somehow had to negotiate. Of course, trains can’t go up or down steep gradients, and so they had to go through the mountain. In peacetime, a tunnel would be dug – but the Japanese realised that there would only be two points of construction at either end if that was the method of negotiating the mountain. Instead, they realised they could force prisoners to chisel their way down through the rock, making a passageway for the trains to pass through.
The brutal conditions, the backbreaking work, the lack of any form of power tools meant that this point of construction was quickly feared by prisoners. But it got even worse, as from April 1943, and with a summer deadline looming, the Japanese needed to step up the pace. They introduced the ‘Speedo’ period – forcing prisoners to work 16 hour shifts, even at night, with the whole area lit by flickering bonfires and under the watching gaze of Japanese soldiers.
It was widely regarded by POWs as a living hell, and therefore acquiring the name Hellfire Pass.
The Speedo period at Hellfire Pass coincided with the wet season, meaning disease was at its worst and outbreaks of Cholera claimed thousands of lives. Some 70-90,000 civilian labourers are also thought to have died on the railway, many at Konyu Cutting.
After the war, Hellfire Pass was largely forgotten about, although not by those who witnessed the horror during its construction. Largely consumed by jungle, it was rediscovered in 1984 by Tom Morris, one of the thousands of POWs who had helped to construct it.
Today, it is a tasteful and thought provoking memorial. The sides to the deep cutting clearly show the manual work that took place to remove the thousands of tonnes of rock. Close to the bottom at one part, a broken drill bit remains stuck fast in the rock. Scrapes and drill marks in the rock face are a permanent reminder to future generations of days of unimaginable horror and suffering by those who had inflicted them on the mountain.
Its hard to picture just what those prisoners and labourers had to go through in order to construct what is actually an incredible engineering feat, the cutting completed in just a matter of months. It enabled around 220,000 tonnes of supplies to be carried along the railway by the Japanese before the end of the war.
It was time for me to head to the nearest town and catch a train to Bangkok, and complete my own journey along the Death Railway. Somehow I had to get there though, a distance of 20km, and so I headed to the main road in the hope of flagging down a bus or taxi heading in the direction of Nam Tok.
After 20 minutes, there was nothing. With my bags at the side of the road, hitchhiking was pretty much the only option left, when a silver minibus pulled over.
“Where are you heading,” shouted a man from inside.
“Nam Tok,” I shouted back.
“Jump in buddy, unless you’re British,” he seemingly half joked.
I put my bags in the boot and climbed in.
“Hello, we’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we’re Mormons, and delighted to help you,” said a fair-haired lady I sat myself next to.
There was another half joke about converting me along the way before we began chatting about our reasons for being in this part of Thailand. Her name was Sister Katherine Noorda, a humanitarian worker. It turns out they had travelled from America and have been helping with the flood relief operation, delivering goods and supplies to those in need. They had been in Thailand for many months, and we enjoyed chatting about our love of the country. At one point, home made cookies were handed out which we all enjoyed.
It took around 20 minutes to reach Nam Tok, where I offered a donation for fuel and for the church, in gratitude for their help in getting me to the end of the railway line in plenty of time for my afternoon train.
“No, there’s no need for that, just promise us that if you ever see anyone in need, you’ll do as we do and give them some help,” Sister Noorda said. Of course, I agreed, and we had some photos taken outside together.
The train to Bangkok was late, as usual, but at 2pm we pulled out of Nam Tok and followed the route of the Death Railway, as was laid out and constructed during the Second World War.
It includes some breathtaking bridges and viaducts, including the wooden Wampo Viaduct that runs alongside a mountain and beside the river Kwai.
The beauty of Thailand’s railways, especially on a third class carriage like this one, is that all the windows open for some fantastic photograph opportunities. I went one step further, and clinging onto a handle on the side of the train, stood on the steps to the carriage for some great photos of the route.
It included the moment we reached the Bridge over the River Kwai, which just 24 hours before I had been scampering along to take photos of the same train making the crossing. Now it was me that was hanging out of the train and smiling at those who were in the safe spots on the bridge.
Originally scheduled to arrive into Bangkok at about 5.30pm, we were already horrendously late when suddenly one of the train guards ran through the carriage shouting.
The train shuddered to a halt. Incredibly, the Death Railway nearly lived up to its name, as somehow a teenage girl had been thrown out of one of the carriages. Somehow, she escaped with some cuts and a bang to the head, and was retrieved from the tracks by the train crew and sat back down with her friends.
As she continued her journey, and we pulled in to Bangkok some three hours late, it was yet another moment that makes travelling in this brilliant country so fun. You really never know what is going to happen next.
I hailed a cab with two Dutch tourists and we headed to the Khao San Road. Against all the odds in my head, I’d managed to see everything I wanted to see, and probably in record time. A thought provoking pilgrimage to remember those who helped fight for us, but a fascinating look at some of the most historical parts of the country.