Those who have seen the movie, The Bridge On the River Kwai will have learned to a degree how the bridge was built and the toll in terms of human suffering that was endured by the men who slaved under terrible circumstances during WWII in order to build the Burma to Thailand rail line. Of course even a great movie like this cannot portray in its entirety what really happened, therefore read on to discover why the bridge was built, by whom it was built and what you can expect to see when you visit the bridge, the onsite museum and the war cemetery today.
The Building of the Railway
The railway construction was started in 1942 by the Japanese in order to get supplies through to Japanese forces in Burma without using the sea routes which were much more open to attack from enemy forces. The railway was 258 miles long stretching from Ban Pong in Thailand through to Thanbyuzay in Burma now known as Myanmar. More than one hundred and forty thousand allied prisoners of war and many more forced labourers including civilians were put to work and died during its construction. The Japanese were holding prisoners from Singapore, The Philippines, Hong Kong and the East Indies with troops from America, Australia, the UK, Holland and India among the detainees.
The railway began in Burma, a strategic position in WWII for the Japanese and would stretch across many hundreds of miles in to Thailand. Naturally the Japanese wanted the railway and the bridge to be completed as quickly as possible therefore for those reasons they decided to use their captives in order to complete the bridge as fast as possible. Building the railway was never going to be easy as the terrain it crossed included mountainous regions and jungle areas, while the Monsoon also had its affect on the construction along with the searing heat. The most difficult section to build was the line around Kanchanburi near Konyu where the digging out was some 7 metres deep and 450 meters long. This section became known as The Hellfire Pass due to the unbearable conditions endured by the slave workers.
The prisoners who worked on the building of the railway were treated extremely badly. They were starved of food, medicines, sleep and were forced to work long hours in hot sticky conditions that we today as civilised human beings just cannot imagine. Workers were beaten, while malnutrition was rife along with diseases such as cholera and injuries suffered during construction. Allied prisoners of war predominantly British, Australian, Dutch and American worked on the line, alongside some 200,000 Asian labourers, known as Romusha.
The tools that the prisoners were given to dig out the lines and tunnels were nothing short of primitive, therefore ineffective, making the job much more difficult. The Japanese wanted the railway up and working quickly and in 1943 they decided to bring forward their deadline meaning that workers were expected to toil, 24 hours a day nonstop in some cases, which as you can imagine had devastating effects. The living conditions for the prisoners was pretty dire with up to two hundred men housed under a thatched roof held up by bamboo poles. The beds such as they were comprised of raised wooden boards, while each prisoner had around two feet square in which to try to sleep. By the time the first train was able to travel along the lines it is estimated that at least a third of the prisoners had died while working. The building of the Burma Railway was classed as a war crime post war with one hundred and eleven Japanese officers tried for war crimes due to their brutality toward prisoners, thirty-two of these were sentenced to death.
Back in February we spent three weeks in Bangkok Thailand on holiday. Naturally we didn’t travel thousands of miles and not pay a visit to Kanchanaburi to see the famed Bridge on the River Kwai. We did know the history of the place to a certain extent but actually visiting this historic area was something else altogether. We hired a huge log cabin beside a lake in Kanchanaburi and stayed there over three nights. It was a beautiful setting with amazing sunsets and the perfect location for travelling to the site of the famed bridge.
Kanchanaburi Don Rak War Cemetery
It was about a half hour drive to the site and our first port of call was the Prisoner of War Cemetery. As soon as we stepped down into the cemetery the vast array of war graves really hit us. So many young men laid to rest here it was heart-breaking. As we walked along the grass verges between the headstones on a beautiful hot day it was hard to comprehend that each stone marked the burial of a young person who died in horrific circumstances while fighting for their country. The average age of the soldiers was around twenty-two years with the occasional officers’ name being around the late thirties mark.
The cemetery was very peaceful and beautifully kept, while central to the park was a huge war memorial adorned by poppy wreaths and flowers. The cemetery is divided into a British section along with Canadian, Dutch, Australian and American sections. Maintained by the Commonwealth it was good to quietly walk around and contemplate on how lucky we are today that these young people fought with no regard for themselves in order that we may be able to live in freedom. We have visited Auchwitz in Poland in the past and rate a visit to Kanchanburi up there with it in terms of bringing home to us what we owe to everyone in terms of promoting humanity for all.
Once we had walked around the graves, we headed across the road to the adjacent Thai Burmese Railway Centre Museum. We spent around an hour walking through the many exhibits that explain in detail, sometimes horrifically, how the prisoners suffered. There were hundreds of photographs showing emaciated men with tortured looks on their faces, while there was also a room where visitors could sit and watch old footage of the railway building in WWII. The museum is certainly educational and interesting, while also sobering plus there is a small café on the top floor of the building.
Following the museum signs visitors will see
- An introduction to the start of the railway
- How the railway was planned and its construction
- The Geography of The Railway
- The Living Conditions of the Prisoners
- The Medical Problems Suffered
- How the Prisoners Died
- How the Railway Was Completed
- Post War
- The Museum Shop
A Walk on the Bridge
The bridge is located fairly close to the town centre and as we approached the bridge, we could see that it was very busy with people walking along one way and back the other. This is the actual Bridge on The River Kwai and as we stepped on the bridge thoughts of the movie entered our heads. Putting that to one side looking at the stature of the bridge and its columns it made us realise the mammoth job it must have been for starving and tortured men to undertake under such terrible conditions. It was a blazing hot day around 38 C and we discussed how impossible a task it must have seemed for the prisoners to dig and build the bridge. We were overcome by the intense heat when simply walking along the bridge. What must it have been like to have been working on the bridge back then? Horrific!
The section to walk along is around a third of a mile long and stretches across the river. There are platforms to the side every now and then where people were stopping to take photographs. Buddhist monks were praying together too, probably thinking of the innocent victims that perished building the bridge. As we approached the other side of the river bank a man was calling from under the bridge. He was touting for business offering a trip in a narrow boat up the river and back, so we walked down the banking to ask for details.
The Boat Trip
There are many different companies offering boat trips on the River Kwai. Some are pretty luxurious cruise boats, while the little boat we opted for was owned by a local man and his son. There was no need to book as they were simply moored up on the side of the river under the bridge. It cost 200 Bhat for five of us to take the trip which is really cheap. Life vests were provided for us just in case, while anyone with walking difficulties would have found it hard to get down into the boat, which was pretty low so bear that in mind too. Those of us who are more able settled down into the boat to enjoy the ride.
We set off pretty slowly but once we had travelled a few hundred yards he picked up speed and we hurtled along really quickly. It was a little too fast for me, although at no point did I feel unsafe, but the others thought it was great! We sped down the river for around 10 minutes or so then turned around and followed the same route back with other boat passengers waving to us as we passed by. There was plenty to see as we passed by temples and other amazing buildings. It was rather thrilling and a welcome rest after all the walking we had done that day. The boatman let us off on the other side of the river next to a couple of refreshment cabins where mango smoothies were enjoyed by all! This was the perfect end to a very interesting and thought-provoking day.