Thailand: The bridge over the River Kwai
I’VE always been a fan of Alec Guinness and so when in Bangkok I had to visit Kanchanaburi, where his famous film “Bridge Over the River Kwai” was set.
Only a couple of hours away from the Thai capital, Kanchanaburi is a bustling town that attracts tourists to its markets, Tiger Temple and elephant sanctuary.
For me the biggest attraction was the bridge, and the opportunity to travel over it, both by train and on foot. Of course it’s about more than just the bridge, built by Alec and his mates.
In 1941, the Japanese army made an unexpectedly easy conquest of British colonial holdings in Malaysia and Singapore, leaving huge numbers of prisoners-of-war with whom the Japanese were not equipped to deal.
Japan had not yet ratified the 1929 Hague Convention on POW rights and were unable or unwilling to supply adequate food to the many large POW camps in east Asia.
Near Kanchanaburi there is a beautiful valley of bamboo forest where fields of tapioca and sugar cane give way to market gardens and marigolds. Behind the high, jungle-covered hills is the border with Burma.
This is the setting for the very well laid out and informative memorial museum at ‘Hellfire Pass.’ It was termed such because the lights kept burning in the cutting all night while the POWs continued to work in shifts around the clock.
The Japanese had also invaded Burma and wanted to establish a rail link between Thailand and Rangoon to supply their forces. So began the infamous Burma Railway or Death Railway, a 415-kilometre track built by forced POW labour under brutal conditions.
The cemetery in Kanchanaburi is peaceful and simple. Approximately 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners worked on the railway.
There were many ways for the POW labourers to die. Malaria and cholera for a start, then the diseases of starvation such as Beri Beri and Pellagria. Death by “severe enteric dysentery” tells its own tale.
As well as Hellfire Pass you can visit the Pack of Cards bridge clinging to the side of the cliff along the river, which collapsed three times during its construction and saw many POWs die.
On the train western tourists mix with Thai school children on their way home, skipping down the aisles, leaning out the windows joyfully.
The bridge actually crosses the Mae Klong River but the railway is along the north-eastern side of the Kwae Noi River. Hollywood was never good on the details of history.
In this sunny, warm, happy place the thought of the men working in Hellfire Pass sends a shiver down my spine.