Kanchanaburi: Bridge on the River Kwai, Death Railway, Hellfire Pass

 

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Bridge on the River Kwai

David and I rewatched the 1957 movie classic “Bridge on the River Kwai” before coming to Kanchanaburi to help with the mood change from beautiful, tranquil Tup Kaek Beach to the infamous “Death Railway.” The movie, like the novel it’s based on, is fiction, but it’s based on a real bridge (or bridges) and a real railway constructed at great misery and cost of life by POW’s and conscripted civilians forced into labor by the Japanese during World War II. Over 100,000 people died building the 250 miles of railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway which connected Bangkok to Rangoon. Most of the dead were Asian civilians (“romusha”) and roughly 16,000 were Allied prisoners of war, the majority of whom were Australian, British and Dutch.

Conditions were much worse than depicted in the movie for the POW’s and even worse for the romusha who had no medical personnel among them. The Japanese deliberately underfed and overworked their prisoners, even hording Red Cross rations rather than distributing them or using them themselves. The result was widespread disease. Other prisoners died of beatings, torture and executions. Many of the camp commanders were convicted of war crimes after the war.

Today, a train makes several runs on Saturdays and Sundays along the historic railway. At one section, the train runs along a wooden viaduct that clings to the face of a 30m deep “cutting” or man-made cliff/gorge, a stretch where nearly every man who worked on it died. It’s a peaceful area now, with a nearby resort and floating bungalows available to rent. I was struck, as I was in Auschwitz and other places of past horror, by how a place where great evil was done can be beautiful and peaceful years later. Some people claim to feel a lingering malevolence in such places, but I don’t don’t feel it; just a sadness for those who suffered and that humanity can lower itself to such cruelty. It doesn’t seem to me that the birds that sing in such places now or the natural beauty that has reasserted itself are tainted by what people did there long ago, but I believe it’s important not to avoid such places, to remember and mark evil events in hope that they are never repeated.

The train starts in Kanchanaburi and runs to Nam Tok, some two hours away. (Actually, you can take a train from Bangkok, too, but I had no interest in that. Too hot and too long for me.) The train is old and rattling and un-air-conditioned and everything I’d read said the real views and interesting part happened just after the rural train stop at Tha Kilen. If we started our train ride there, we’d shorten the trip by an hour and miss the initial, hot ride that many described as “boring.” By car, the distance to Tha Kilen is only 30 minutes…and in private, air-conditioned comfort. Our decision was made!

There’s frustratingly little info on how to start your trip anywhere other than at the main Kanchanaburi station or the nearby Bridge on the River Kwai station. The internet yielded no details. We tried asking at our hotel, but they just wanted to sell us a tour (as did any number or tour touts on every block of Kanchanaburi) and tried to discourage us from driving on our own. So, we got up early and drove the five minutes to the main Kanchanaburi station to see if we could buy a ticket from Tha Kilen there. No, we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to buy the ticket at Tha Kilen. They were friendly about it, though, and showed us the schedule which indicated that the train would stop in Tha Kilen at 11:30am. This train had the added benefit of being the only train of the day with a “special carriage” where we were guaranteed a seat. I didn’t feel like standing up for an hour in a hot, crowded train and it was only 150 baht, one-way for the “special carriage” (50 baht more than the 3rd class fare). We could buy a ticket at Tha Kilen 30 minutes before departure or 11am. We had a plan.

Tha Kilen had the extra enticement of Khmer ruins in the nearby Muang Sing Historical Park. I was worried that the train might be full as I read that sometimes it is packed, so wanted to get to Tha Kilen early on the chance that someone might be there to sell us a ticket before 11am, with ticket safely in hand, we could go check out Muang Sing until it was time to catch the train. We arrived at 9:30am to find a few people around the Tha Kilen station, but we were told again that we could buy a ticket at 11am. Alrighty then, it was Muang Sing for us.

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Tha Kilen Station

Muang Sing turned out to be a very nicely set-up historical park. Very few people were at the park at this hour and we were able to visit most of the ruins in peace before a tour bus showed up. Even at that hour, the heat was oppressive. The ruins are partially rebuilt and worth a look (especially if you’re killing time until you can catch the train), but it’s a relatively minor site and not a big loss if you miss it.

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Ruins at Muang Sing

Back at the Tha Kilen station, things were starting to pick up. Vendors laid out food for lunch and we bought sticky rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet karonda (or corunda) berries with chili powder. Other people started to arrive, but still the ticket seller was not open for business. I watched him through the open door and window of his office as he worked ancient-looking brass machines which clanged as he turned a shining handle. This apparently had something to do with incoming trains. A regular train came through and the station master handed off a lunch to the engineer as he went by. At exactly 11am, the station master took his seat behind the sales window and we were able to buy our tickets (which had the departure time printed on them as 11:45, not 11:30). We pointed to the sign about the “special carriage” and got the correct tickets. Our request for the left side (best view going towards Nam Tok), met with a nod of his head, but we had no faith that he understood us. [Note: There’s a red sign next to the ticket window stating that you have to show your passport to get a ticket. This is not true and no one asked for a passport. Since we weren’t crossing a border, I have no idea why the sign is there unless maybe some trains are going on to Burma/Myanmar.]

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Food vendors setting up at the Tha Kilen station

With a little time before the train was due to arrive, I bought food from the vendors: sticky rice with pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet pink karonda berries with chili salt for dipping. We dug into the chips on the spot, but saved the rest for the train.

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Unwrapped banana leaf packet of sticky rice and pork. Yum!
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Carunda berries

Some tour groups and individuals began to arrive and at 11:45am, the train pulled in. Since our tickets showed no specific seat assignment, we asked a guide we overheard speaking English. She told us the green cars were the “special carriages” that we had tickets for and asked the station master about our seats and said he said he’d show us to our seats. He made no move though, so we’re not sure where the translation went wrong. Not wanting to miss the train, we climbed onto one of the two front green cars and I staked out a left-hand seat. A uniformed attendant approached and said he’d lead us to our seat, then proceeded to lead us to another car and direct us to a right-hand seat. When I stated our preference for the left-hand seat (relying mostly on gestures), he took us back to the seat I’d originally claimed. Oh well.

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The “Death Train” arrives; the 2 green cars in the front are the “special carriages”

The special carriages are “special” because you get a guaranteed seat plus a cushion on the wooden bench that comprises that seat, a sealed plastic cup of water and a cold moist towelette to start the journey, and your choice of a tea or coffee. Pretty swank, huh? We were grateful for the water and the cool cloth, but wanted no part of hot tea or coffee in the tropical weather. All the windows on the car were open and the train made a nice breeze as we chugged and clanked along.

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Inside a “special car”; the ticket is 150 baht each way.

Shortly out of Tha Kilen, we came to the most dramatic scenery of the trip, the portion along the 30m “cutting” where so many died. Now, though, a resort and floating bungalow hotel rooms occupy the first portion of opposite bank. Tourists clustered along the way taking photos of our train as we passed. People on the train leaned out, taking photos of the resort and the people photographing them. Just beyond, the opposite bank peels away, opening up a lovely vista with the mountains beyond. Throughout this stretch, the sheer rock wall of the man-made cliff is all you can see our the right-hand windows…save for a flash of a Buddha statue in its cave at Kraesae.

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Looking back on the floating bungalows we’d just passed
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The River Kwai with mountains in the background

The view was beautiful, but both David and I were a little underwhelmed by this stretch, only because the descriptions we’d read tended towards the hyperbolic. We didn’t really have the sense of clinging to some precarious perch on a cliff. No doubt we were, but you don’t get that perspective much from the train itself because you’re so close to the cliff on the right (nothing but rock just outside the window) and there’s a lot of vegetation hiding much of the drop to the left.

When we arrived at the Nam Tok terminus, a swarm of songtaew, cars and buses awaited. An old lady near a songtaew with its modified pick-up bed crammed full of passengers approached me. David was aghast that I’d even consider joining that throng, but the lady was offering us a ride up front in the air-conditioning, for a premium, of course. She borrowed a laminated sign from a neighboring driver indicating the charge would be 800 baht ($22.86) for a round-trip ride. This is a fortune around these parts, but it was a 20+-minute ride to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a total 2-hour commitment for her since she had to wait on us, and we didn’t have time to waste since we needed to be back to catch the last train back to Tha Kilen which left Nam Tok at 3:15pm. We made the deal. David rode in front with our lady driver while I sat in the rear seat of the club cab with her middle school-age grandson. A couple kilometers away, we dropped off the throng in the rear of the songtaew at the local Tok Sai Yok waterfall/swimming hole before going on to the museum.

We had to pass through a military checkpoint to enter the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum grounds. The museum itself is small, but very well done and modern. It’s also free, but donations are encouraged. It didn’t take long to walk through and watch the 5-minute movie of prisoner recollections that runs regularly.

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Entrance to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum with the ramp just below the name on the building leading down to the walkway to the pass

Stepping out the back of the museum, there’s an overlook with a “peace vessel” created by an Australian former prisoner and a view over the path to Hellfire Pass, the deepest of the many prisoner-made cuttings through the mountains.

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“Peace Vessel” at the museum overlook
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Looking down on the wooden walkway that descends to the bottom of Hellfire Pass

The entrance to the Hellfire Pass walkway is just outside the front doors of the museum, to the left as you exit. At the base of the initial descent, you can choose to walk left down a wooden walkway or right. The lady at the Information Desk inside had suggested we go left, then return along the other path to make a full loop, so that’s what we did. It’s not a bad walk, but not for the mobility challenged. It’s a lot of walking and a lot of stairs going both directions. It’s hot, but much less so that we’d feared given the elevation and the shade.

The scale and magnitude of the work done here under such horrible conditions is really brought home as you walk along the base. You can’t help but be impressed by what the prisoners accomplished in this rocky jungle with basic tools and dynamite, especially while in such weakened physical states. Makeshift memorials along the way bring home the human suffering and loss.

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Makeshift memorials in Hellfire Pass
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Poignant memorial
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The scale of the cutting here is brought home as you walk along the old railroad ties along the bottom.

At the far end of the pass by a permanent veterans’ memorial, I was stopped by a group of Thai students wanting to interview me. Their questions had to do with where I was from, whether I liked Thailand and would want to return and why I chose to come to Hellfire Pass. As always in southeast Asia, “United States” was met with puzzled looks which brightened to understanding when I amended to “America.” Their English was pretty functional, though, and I enjoyed the lightness their young enthusiasm brought after the solemnity of my walk through Hellfire Pass. They insisted on photos together after the interview, so I got David to snap a couple for us, too.

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Mimicking the cheerful “thumbs-up” of my lead interviewer
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Veteran’s memorial at the end of Hellfire Pass with stylized railroad ties in the foreground and railroad ties of the actual railroad visible on the continuing path beyond.

The return path to the museum through humid jungle proved to be longer and a bit more arduous (and hot and mosquito-y) than the wooden path and steps on the descent. Mid-way through, I was wondering if we wouldn’t have been better off retracing our steps through the pass and back up the wooden walkway. [It’s also usually possible to hike much more of the railway line than the 40-minute loop Hellfire Pass loop that we walked. However, segments were closed when we were there. We felt we’d seen enough, though, and weren’t interested in hiking hours more anyway.] We made it back ten minutes earlier than we’d estimated to our driver, but she was waiting and we headed off back to the Nam Tok train station.

Once again, no tickets were available until 30 minutes prior to departure. This seems to be a hard and fast rule. So, we ordered a couple of Chang beers at an open-air restaurant across the dirt parking area. The train was ready to go early, but we were delayed a warm ten minutes as they waited for a tour bus full of German tourists. I think we understand now why the train is notoriously late. Ten minutes wasn’t bad, but I could see it compounding over the length of the journey to Kanchanaburi.

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Red flag until the German tour bus showed up

There were no “special carriages” on this train, so we got to try out 3rd class. The main difference was no cushion on the seat (and of course no drinks and cool cloth). Fans mounted on the ceiling and the open windows made for a nice breeze, though, and David and I spent most of the return trip hanging out the window, always careful to ease out and dodge any plants or rocks too close to the track. The lowering sun now on the right side of the train made it hot whenever we stopped at a way-station, but that was nothing new to our SE Asia experience.

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Inside a 3rd class train car

More passengers boarded as we went along so that most seats were filled by the time we reached Tha Kilen where we’d left the car. It was a shock to see the parking area at the Tha Kilen station filled with motor coaches and cars. We sprinted off the train and to our car to beat that mob scene and were soon rolling through the countryside back to Kanchanaburi.

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Tapioca fields by the road to Kanchanaburi

We got back into Kanchanaburi late in the afternoon with enough time for a visit to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. There were two bridges in the area during World War II, a concrete and steel one that the present one replaces and a wooden bridge built by prisoners. Both of the original bridges were destroyed by Allied bombing. The present bridge, pictured in the top photo above, was built shortly after the war.

 

Comments and questions are welcome!