Daily Archives: November 1, 2014

Kanchanaburi – More than the Bridge Over the River Kwai

The Bridge Over the River Kwai in the background
The Bridge Over the River Kwai in the background.

Day 1

One thing Eric and both agreed on was that we wanted to cycle to the famous Bridge Over the River Kwai. After a challenging ride out of Bangkok and a second long, hot and noisy ride through much of industrial Thailand, we arrived in Kanchanaburi. After a good night’s rest and a leisurely 7-11 breakfast of instant coffee, a hard-boiled egg, and some raisin bread (because the coffee shop at our guest house didn’t open until 10:00 can you believe it?) we devoted the entire day to exploring sites and museums.

Thai Scouts on a field trip...I think...could be school uniforms...
Thai Scouts on a field trip…I think…could be school uniforms…

We started at the bridge. It actually makes for a nice picture and a fun walk. Aside from lots of Dutch and Australian tourists, there was also a gaggle of Thai Girl and Boy scouts in their uniforms. They were snapping selfies and group poses at this historical place in order, I’m guessing, to earn their history badge.

This train locomotive was used by the Japanese to build the Death Railroad.
This train locomotive was used by the Japanese to build the Death Railroad.

Our next stop was the museum near the bridge. This museum is not very well organized but there are some interesting artifacts that really caught our attention. Eric was interested in the large motorcycle collection used by the Japanese after they invaded SE Asia. He was trying to impress me with lots of engine stuff and how he could tell whether it was a BMW or (inset any other brand here). My eyes were glazing over.

I, on the other hand, was fixated on an American ship anchor that has been found in Pearl Harbor and was wondering why or how it ended up in this museum because it would have been too heavy to fit in a suitcase. I also liked the rocking chair facing the river and wondered if this was where the Japanese officers watched in horror as the American plans blew up the bridge that more than 60,000 POWs and more than 200,000 Asian laborers helped build.

After a quick lunch stop for meat on a stick (chicken sate for me and some kind of pork sausage for Eric) and a fruit smoothie, we rode to the War Cemetery. This cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is a beautiful tribute to all the allied soldiers who died building the Death Railroad.

This beautiful cemetery is the final resting place for many Allied POW's who died working on the Death Railroad.
This beautiful cemetery is the final resting place for many Allied POW’s who died working on the Death Railroad.

Next to the war cemetery we stopped at the Thai-Burmese Railroad Museum. This well-organized, well-research museum is definitely worth a stop. An added bonus is the excellent air-conditioning and the free coffee after the visit, both which make this museum a great heat-of-the-day reprieve.

We cycled another 5 kilometers out of town to a second war cemetery where many of the 5000 soldiers who had died in the hospital were buried. The layouts and design of both cemeteries were the same – dignified and lovely.

Finding a Thai restaurant packed with locals and delicious food: green curry, fried Ruby fish, and papaya salad with crispy pork gave us the energy we needed to get back to our guest house.

To end the day we watched “The Railway Man” with Colin Firth which was partly filmed where we were today. Even if you’re not visiting Thailand, I highly recommend this based-on-a-true story film about reconciliation between a British POW and his Japanese torturer/prison guard as a supplement to your understanding of the history of this tragedy.

Hellfire Pass - There were no machines used to cut through this rock..only manpower and TNT
Hellfire Pass – There were no machines used to cut through this rock..only manpower and TNT

Day 2

Thanks to Trip Advisor’s ranking the Hellfire Pass Museum as the #1 attraction in Kanchanaburi (an attraction I’d never heard of until yesterday) we decided to hire a taxi to drive us the 67 km north to this “#1” site. To be honest, we felt guilty about not cycling, but a trip of this distance and this much uphill would have meant an extension of 2-3 days in this area, a extension we did not want to make.

As it turned out, the taxi ride was totally worth it for two reasons: one, the Hellfire Pass museum and the 5 km hike along the Death Railroad makes a tragic impression, and two, Eric got to take a good nap in the car on the way home.

While walking along the old rail bed I could really feel the gravity and tragedy of the construction of the railroad. Over 100,000 people died (over 12,000 allied POWs and 90,000 Asian forced laborers) during the construction of this railroad. That would be like wiping out my hometown 20 times.

The working conditions were ruthless and inhumane. To put it into perspective, Eric and I hiked a mere 5 kilometers with full stomachs, solid hiking shoes, and a good night’s rest. After 2 hours I’d drunk all my water and sweat was dripping off my chin. I was wanting a rest. Eric’s shirt was so soaked that you could see every muscle and rib bone sticking through. Our stomaches were grumbling and we were discussing our next meal option. We also knew that an air-conditioned car was waiting for us in about 20 minutes walk.

The POWs and Asian laborers, on the other hand, (mostly Malay, Tamil and Cambodian) had a bare two meals per day of soggy rice with watered down dried fish, slept in lice-infested bamboo huts, wore no shoes, walked 6 km one way to work where they were beaten, injured on the job, and worked up to 18 hours per day in brutal heat and monsoon rains.

The past two days have been mentally exhausting, but worth seeing if only to serve as reminders of the reality of evil in the world, the power of hope, and the desire for goodness to prevail.