Thai-Burma Death Railway, and the Bridge on the River Kwai

Probably one of the most famous locations of what we can broadly call the Pacific campaign of World War II. Not a straight-out military engagement like Pearl Harbour, Midway, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, etc., but certainly in British popular culture the Bridge on the River Kwai was made famous from the eponymous 1957 film, and more recently the Colin Firth & Nicole Kidman film based on Eric Lomax’s book The Railwayman.

Many firms do specialised tours along the entire route of the railway (links to them as they were so pleasant to deal with, Battlefield Tours and Historic War Tours) but for a sole traveller these were coming in at between A$2k and A$3k (and that was just the tour itself), so I compromised a bit and chose a tour taking in some of the railway, as well as other sights in rural Thailand (palaces, temples, and the like) as it will still be worth doing.

Once I’d booked the tour I booked my flights to Bangkok and hotels in Bangkok before and after, and got my jabs for hepatitis A, typhoid, and a tetanus booster. The doctor also gave me a prescription for anti-malaria medicine, as well as pills to bung me up, pills to flush me out, pills for nausea, pills for skin conditions …. the pharmacist could believe her luck when I turned up to buy all of these.

Thursday 17th January

I’ve booked to go to Bangkok on Jetstar Business Class, this will be the third route I’ve flown on this class, I like the service that you get, and price point compares very well to business class on Qantas or Thai Airways. I won’t go into detail about the service as I did that on my Hiroshima blog last year, but here’s today’s menu. I just stuck to white sparkling wine because I’d already been drinking it in the Qantas Club for a couple of hours beforehand.

There’s a train line direct from the airport towards the city, not right to the heart of the city, but close enough. I’ve picked a hotel that’s about 100m from the station at the end of the line, the fare is 45 baht (about A$2) and I get there no problem. I don’t bother going back out, except to the 7-11 next to the hotel to get some water and snacks.

Friday 18th January

The tour doesn’t start till tomorrow so I’ve got a whole day to myself, this is deliberate just in case there were problems with my flight being delayed, and also I just fancy a look round Bangkok as I’ve never been here before. After a wander up to Victory Monument (don’t bother, just a big roundabout, and the fallen soldiers it commemorates deserve better) I get lunch in a KFC and remember to pop my first malaria pill of the trip (I’ve been taking them for a couple of days before I left Australia as well). Then I go to the station and get a one-day travelcard for 140 baht.

How come Bangkok has the wherewithal to be able to provide one of these but Melbourne can’t???

I’ve done my research about where most of the bars are , so I take the skytrain down to Nana station and do a bit of a recce. I find some of the places I’m interested in, basically anywhere away from Nana Plaza itself, which is the really seedy and (in)famous area that gives Bangkok much of its reputation.

The heat is getting up and the humidity is getting up (it will top out at 35 degrees and 95 percent) so I go back to my hotel and have a lie down for the afternoon.

When it’s time to go out I get the skytrain to Phrom Phong to try out the Robin Hood which is just like any other plastic British pub, but is doing pints for 99 baht (just over A$4) so can’t complain. Then I wander up to The Drunken Leprechaun, which is a great pub till I get the bill and they decide to add service charge and VAT to their advertised prices (nowhere else does this), then the Black Swan before I settle in the Kiwi Bar for dinner. There’s nothing particularly Kiwi about it, all the staff are Thai and it shows Sky Sports news on the big screen behind the bar, and another screen is showing Australian T20 cricket on a BT Sport channel. But it’s a nice place to spend the early evening, the beer is cheap, the food is nice, the staff aren’t pushy, they don’t rip you off when the bill comes, I’ll be going back here.

Saturday 19th January

And this is where my trip really starts 🙂 I get up at 6 so I can checkout at 7, and from here get a taxi to the meeting point about 5km away in the old city. The train system hasn’t penetrated this far, and it won’t ever, so this is the only realistic option (don’t want to risk a tuk-tuk with all my luggage, and if I catch a bus I have no idea where I’ll end up). The fare comes to 71 baht so I just give the driver 100 and tell him to keep the change – it’s just over four dollars and the meter doesn’t even start that low in Melbourne.

I’m early so I get a small brekkie in a cafe opposite where I get the feeling some of the other customers haven’t been to bed yet. I pop my malaria pill and then go back to the meeting point where the guide is now there. Her name is Pe-Pae, she’s Thai and her English is pretty good, and as the tour went on I find out that she’s 25, studied tourism at Uni, and worked for Intrepid in her placement year, and then again ever since graduating.

First thing she tells me to do is change out of my shorts and into long trousers, as we are visiting temples today and bare legs are seen as disrespectful. All I’ve got are jeans, which are going to kill me in this heat, but there’s nothing I can do about it, I should have read the tour notes more closely.

The other two people on the tour are a Canadian couple about my parents’ age, he’s really into his WWI and WWII history (far more than I am), and that’s it, a small tour group of three people, which is actually a really good thing.

First stop is the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace which is a vast estate with palaces, temples, and living quarters (or concubine as it formerly was). I’m not going to go into a lot of depth about it here, as that’s not what the blog is about, but here are a few photos. It was really good to have visited.

Note – for all the photos in this blog, click on it to see the full-size original.

Next stop is Wat Phanan Choeng, which has one of the biggest sitting Buddhas in the world, surrounded by dozens of smaller Buddhas, and also literally thousands of Buddhas in tiny alcoves all the way around it. Again I’m not going into a lot of detail on the blog, here are some photos.

Lunch now (I had pad thai chicken) and then on to the 14th century temple at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. This was the highlight of day one, it’s an absolutely stunning structure, and you think “how did they manage to do that 700 years ago?”.

dsc05482This is the first point of the trip where I put on my insect repellent, not because there were mozzies flying around but because I had packed a gel rather than a spray, and it had a sunscreen in it, and the afternoon had started to get very hot. And me being me, I picked the repellant with 80% deet, and it absolutely stank! I’d rub it on every square inch of exposed skin – my arms, not my legs as I’m still in my jeans, the back of my neck, the front of my neck and top of my chest …. and then I try to wash it off my hands but I can still feel it’s on there. Any time I rub my eye I get deet in there, anything I eat with my fingers I get it in my mouth, when I take the cap off my water bottle it goes on there …. it’s effective yes, but not practical. And I’ve got to try and manage this for today, tomorrow and Monday.

The Historic City of Ayutthaya was the last site today, and also the saddest, it was destroyed by invading Burmese forces in about 1750, most structures were razed and statues of Buddha were beheaded.

Then a couple of hours in the minibus to our accommodation in Kanchanaburi. The four of us (three tourists plus our guide) have dinner together, I have Thai green curry and get introduced to Leo beer which is far nicer than the Chang and Tiger that I was drinking back in Bangkok. And with the seven hour time difference to the UK I could watch the Premier League at a decent time before falling asleep.

Sunday 20th January

At breakfast there’s a choice of western and Thai – the western isn’t up to much (sauteed potatoes, fried eggs, sausages that taste plastic-y) but I still have it, plus toast and fresh pineapple and melon. And a malaria pill. We leave the hotel at 8, another early start.

First on the list today is Erewan National Park and its seven-level waterfall, each level cascading down onto the next. It’s described in much more depth here than I’m going to. I did get all the way to the seventh level, it took me about an hour to get up to the top, and half an hour to get back. I can now see the sense in leaving the resort at 8am, so we got here while it wasn’t too busy, nor was it too hot. Really wish I had worn my hiking boots though.

After this it was green Thai curry (again) for lunch, and then the WWII section of the tour really started as we made our way to Hellfire Pass.

The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre was opened in 1998 and is maintained by the Australian Government. And is worth every cent of my taxes that go towards it. The centre tells the story not just of the railway, but the entire Thai-Burma theatre of operations, starting from the beginning, and it’s really well done. It gives context to how things got to the point where the railway was required to be built, and how the progress of the war to that point facilitated the appalling abuses that happened here 75 years ago. And it’s explained really well, in terms that a layman could easily grasp, but without dumbing-down or being patronising.

Exit the centre at the rear, go down a lot of steps, and you get to the site of the Death Railway. To start with it looks innocuous enough ….

…. then you approach Hellfire Pass and the enormity of it just hits you.

It’s a hot day today, but I can’t even imagine how any of the POWs can have survived these conditions day after day, week after week, and having to dig through solid rock with little more than picks and shovels.

At the interpretive centre we got audio guides, and the commentary was from actual POWs that worked (and survived) on this stretch of line. It was wonderful, I can’t do justice to it here, but hearing their stories told, while you’re standing where they stood, facing the heat and humidity they would have faced, makes it something really special. The comment that sticks with me, and this isn’t mean to sound flippant but I’m popping malaria pills every morning and rubbing deet all over me all day, is the soldier who says he didn’t mind malaria, it was okay, the thing you really didn’t want to get was cholera!

This is the memorial to the fallen from Australia, The Netherlands, Thailand, the UK and the USA (Dutch POWs were used after the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia – fell to the Japanese in 1942). There’s a dawn service here every Anzac Day, April 25th.

Today finished up with a trip on a portion of the Death Railway that’s still operating today, from Nam Tok to Tha Kilen. The rolling stock seems to be as old as the railway on which it runs!

This didn’t add anything to my understanding of the railway’s construction, or anything around the war generally, but it’s still nice to have done.

At the station before the money shot (train on a bend, everybody leaning out to take pictures of the structure on the right) our quiet-ish carriage is invaded by hordes of francophones (that’s what they called themselves, the tour leader’s t-shirt said something like société francophone) who proceeded to talk loudly in French and smell of garlic. So when I had to push in at a window to take my photos, hopefully it pissed somebody  off.

Then at the next station they piled off and it was quiet again.

That evening’s dinner was at the Kanchanaburi Night Markets, which is a car park by day, and is the closest thing to street food that I had all trip (but still isn’t really). I got a portion of crispy pork with steamed rice for about A$1.80.

Never in a million years would I have gone anywhere near this were I not on an organised trip.

This has been a good day.

Monday 21st January

Same brekkie as yesterday, and today there’s only the four of us in the restaurant. And another 8am start takes us to the Bridge on the River Kwai. This isn’t the original, as that was bombed by the USAF and RAF towards the end of the war to prevent the Japanese from using it, it was repaired after the war and remains in use today.

From here it’s a fifteen minute rickshaw ride (the tour company deliberately do this, to try and keep a rapidly-dying mode of transport alive) to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

It’s absolutely massive! Much bigger than I was expecting. Okay I’ve been to bigger on the Western Front, but this isn’t a competition, it still rocks you back on your heels when you see the size of it. And so beautifully maintained, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Yesterday I was proud that the Australian Government had done such a splendid job with the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre, well today I’m full of pride at both of my countries (and Canada, NZ, SA and India) for the ongoing care of this space here.

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Looking at the plan (click to get a very high resolution version), broadly speaking all graves on the right hand side are British, bottom left are Australian graves, and top left is Dutch. It’s not 100%, occasionally you’ll see a British grave in the Australian section and vice-versa, and there are a very small number (single-figures) of New Zealanders and Canadians. The USA repatriated their soldiers’ remains after the war.

Very noticeable that the graves aren’t sorted by name, or rank, or regiment, there’s no hierarchy here. Every headstone has an age, and the soldiers are nearly all young men in their 20s, it’s heartbreaking. Occasionally you’ll see a much older officer, e.g. born at the turn of the century, and think that this man likely survived the horrors of the Great War and its trench warfare, only to succumb to the hellish conditions of the Death Railway.

Nothing more to say about this, the pictures tell their own story.

Across the road from the cemetery is the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, which is a relatively recent, and privately-funded, addition to this part of town. It’s not judgemental, it just tries to tell the story. It doesn’t seek to apportion blame, nor does it seek to offer forgiveness. I can’t criticise it, and its own website does a much better job of explaining its content than I am going to capable of. It’s truly remarkable that one man has driven this forward to get it to the (excellent) state it is today.

Okay I have one criticism – all the exhibits and installations have descriptions in two languages, English and Thai. Given the number of Dutch graves I just saw, it would be fitting if there were three languages.

And that was the end of the tour. It’s about two hours back to Bangkok, and then takes the best part of another hour to get through the traffic (even in the early afternoon on a Monday) and we break the journey halfway to get some lunch. There’s a McDonald’s at the service area we stop at, and this is my first western food since my pie and chips on Friday night.

Tuesday 22nd January

I originally thought that I’d fill the rest of Monday’s entry and all of Tuesday’s by describing what I did in Bangkok, but that would quickly turn into a list of train stations, shops & pubs, and it doesn’t seem that matters now that I’ve re-lived the last two-and-a-half days.

I finish the holiday as I begin it, on a 45 baht train journey to Bangkok airport to catch my Jetstar Business Class flight (and thankfully I wasn’t on the same flight two days later!). This time I’ve been out of my hotel for six hours at the height of the day, in the heat and humidity of Bangkok, and covered in the last of my tube of insect repellent. I must reek.

By the time I get to the airport it’s too early to check-in, so I look for a shower and across all four floors of the terminal there appears to be nothing landside (I see a sign for a spa which gets me excited, until I get closer and see it’s a foot spa). So on check-in I’m really pleasantly surprised to be given a lounge pass (this isn’t standard with the fare I’m on), so once I’m through security I can have a long, hot shower and few glasses of Aussie red wine (admittedly one that I wouldn’t clean the toilet with back home).

This is a nice way to end a nice holiday.

 

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