Thailand: On the Death Railway

By Peter Feeney

A trip to the bridge that cost so many prisoners of war their lives is a poignant experience, writes Peter Feeney

Tourists cross the bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. Below: Peter Feeney and his children visit the Death Railway.
Tourists cross the bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. Below: Peter Feeney and his children visit the Death Railway.

A dozen years ago when I was an unemployed actor in Sydney - before I was an unemployed actor in Auckland - I worked as a waiter at an Anzac Day lunch at Tattersalls Club. It was for surviving prisoners of war who had worked on the 415km Death Railway from Rangoon to Bangkok.

During World War II, in 1942 and 1943, the Japanese forced 120,00 Asians and 60,000 Allied POWs to construct it to support Japan's Burma and India campaigns.

Dignified and reserved, and accompanied by rather more raucous Aussie wives, the aged war vets just looked grateful to be alive. As well they should as, for every sleeper laid along the railway, almost one life was lost - 120,000 sleepers and 106,000 lives, including 6318 British 2815 Australians, 2490 Dutch and a small number of New Zealanders.

The memory of this lunch, and the special reverence accorded the Death Railway survivors in Australia, has stayed with me. However, when my wife was casting around for a place to visit in Thailand and she mentioned Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai, I didn't immediately make the connection with the Death Railway, only the classic 1957 David Lean film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

I was quickly disabused on arrival.

Kanchanaburi, a four-hour drive northwest of the capital, Bangkok, is home to two excellent Australian-sponsored museums, memorials, war cemeteries, and the curious local "Jeath" Museum on the river ("the real one" its sign proclaims). And here as well, of course, is the bridge - not the rickety bamboo structure of the film but, as it turns out, a large iron bridge still taking a train to and from Bangkok every day.

Tourists first started arriving here in numbers after Pierre Boulle's book The Bridge Over the River Kwai and the film of almost the same name came out in the 1950s. But the bridge the tourists were looking for ran over a river called the Mae Klong, creating confusion as to whether this was the actual bridge. It is, but Boulle had never visited and he'd assumed the bridge must cross the Kwai since the railway followed the river. Local authorities swiftly renamed this section of the Mae Klong "Kwai Yai". Allied planes bombed the bridge near the end of the war and the distinctive square-shaped centre spans are post-war. You can walk over it, so long as you don't mind dodging the occasional slow-moving train.

Soon after the war the remains of the Allied war dead were moved from the former POW camps and graves along the rail line to Commonwealth War Graves Commission-maintained cemeteries. The largest is the War Cemetery in the town of Kanchanaburi, immaculately kept, which contains the graves of 6982 soldiers, including two New Zealanders.

Later came two museums, at Hellfire Pass in 1998 (slightly north of the terminus at Nam Tok), and, in 2003, near the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Museum. Both are world -class museums established largely thanks to the tenacious efforts of Australian ex-POWs. Yet they give testimony to the inspiring stories of all nationalities.

The Hellfire Pass Museum has the advantage of being located at one of the actual - and most deadly - sections of the build.

As well as visiting the museum you are able to walk, surrounded by jungle, along the 2.5km of the pass - carved out of the rock by hand by the POWs, the largest rock cutting of the railway.

Make sure you get the free audio before you head off, because it will make much more sense of your pilgrimage. The memorial to those who died is placed at the very spot you'll feel you need to sit down to take a moment to reflect.

Back in town the exhibits in the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum help you better understand the story of the railway and why so many deaths occurred, most of them during the "speedo" of April to October 1943.

My wife and I found ourselves deeply moved, heading up shakily to the cafe afterwards for a hot drink to steady our nerves. We'd noticed there'd been nary an apology from any Japanese, though in the excellent documentary video one disgruntled Japanese former army engineer complained that the British POWs in the famous movie had been depicted as having far too much engineering knowhow.

Take two days for this experience - a day for the bridge and the pass, another for the war cemetery and the town, with plenty of breaks to remind yourself just how darn lucky you are. There is accommodation of every type in Kanchanaburi and a lot more to the place than just the railway: fine temples, elephant rides, national parks and river cruises, as well as all the traditional Thai luxuries, including massages at $6 an hour, wonderful night markets and cheap, tasty food.


Thailand Checklist

GETTING THERE: Thai Airlines flies five times per week between Auckland and Bangkok.

ONLINE: bridgeriverkwai.com

- NZ Herald

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