Thailand: Water under the bridge

By Helen van Berkel

Helen van Berkel senses the suffering of the prisoners of war who died to build the Death Railway.

The railway and the tragedy of its construction were made famous in the 1952 book 'Bridge Over the River Kwai'. Photo / Thinkstock
The railway and the tragedy of its construction were made famous in the 1952 book 'Bridge Over the River Kwai'. Photo / Thinkstock

April 25. It's a date seared into the minds of Australians and New Zealanders, especially as we lead up to the centenary year of Gallipoli. But I break out in goosebumps when I see the date etched on the wall at the Hellfire Pass Museum in northern Thailand.

That was also the date in 1943 that Australians began work on the 415km stretch of iron and wood that was intended as a Japanese supply line from Bangkok to Rangoon in Burma, now known as the Death Railway.

More than 100,000 people died building the railway - one for every sleeper laid - including 90,000 Asians and more than 12,000 Allied POWs from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States. A handful of New Zealanders also perished here.

Those lost fathers, brothers, sons and uncles are now in nearby Kanchanaburi, their bodies reinterred from mass graves alongside the railway.

I wander around the Dutch section of one of the cemeteries, the tragedies and generations of heartbreak behind those rows upon rows of graves causing a prickling sensation at the back of my eyes. I pause at the grave of J. P. C. Wessels. Wessels is my mother's maiden name.

The 1952 Bridge Over the River Kwai book and 1957's eponymous movie probably helped keep this horror episode of inhumanity in the world's consciousness - even though the bridge is actually over the Mae Klong tributary (renamed the Kwai to avoid confusing the tourists).

Their story is told in the curious little JEATH War Museum (named for the Japanese, English, Australian, Thai and Holland forces) in Kanchanaburi and in the Australian Government-sponsored museum at the pass.

The cast-iron structure is still in use today. We chug across the bridge to Nam Tok, probably seeing the same hazy blue landscape backed by vertical limestone mountains rearing from the flat plains like startled beasts and where farmers in broad-brimmed hats grow tapioca.

We tread quietly through the Konyu Cutting, known as the Hellfire Pass, where sick, starving shadows of men cut through metres of hard rock and died in their thousands.

My guide says no ghost tales are told about this place where barely a bird dares to twitter: even spirits do not linger.

Locals do, however, tell of voices heard at the sites of the camps in the valleys below.

The jungle had almost reclaimed the cutting before a determined Australian veteran found it in 1984.

Today it is a major tourism drawcard, with visitors strolling in the footsteps of the railway's victims.

We rode elephants and took a paddle aboard a bamboo raft. We stayed at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts, one of three of a series of houseboats lashed together and secured to the bank in the astonishingly swift river. Our rooms and the dining area were lit by kerosene lamps. I fretted about the possibility of fire but was told it hadn't happened yet. Well, that's reassuring.

Splashing that's louder than the hurrying river draws me to my back deck in the morning and I'm mesmerised as an elephant takes its morning bath. It came from the nearby Mon village, a people originally from Burma.

The villagers look after the Westerners aboard the rafts. Their village is basic: thatched-roof huts of bamboo and timber, dirt paths protected in the rainy season by a woven roof on poles. Colourful chairs are lined up in the classroom where the children learn their own language.

It's a world away from Bangkok, with its rushing traffic, its noise and lights, its barricades.

And in both places, after walking the Death Railway, after seeing streets barricaded because of political anger, you are left wondering why we humans cannot just get on and be kind to each other.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Thai Airways flies direct from Auckland to Bangkok every Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Where to stay: River Kwai Jungle Rafts.

Further information: See Tourismthailand.org .

The writer travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

- NZ Herald

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