Visiting the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

As I’m both a history and book lover the Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan was an obvious choice to put on my to read list in 2016, especially as it won the Man Booker Prize. It was challenging, emotional and I finished it almost with a sense of relief. I was horrified by the graphic descriptions of life in a prisoner of war camp in the 1940s along the river Kwai. Forced to build the Thai-Burma railway by hand in appalling conditions whilst starving and sick, the men died in their thousands. I was shocked at the brutality of the Japanese guards who were slave driving the prisoners. This was a novel, but after my research, I knew that the horror described had been real.

The ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ in Kanchanaburi
I had heard about the Bridge on The River Kwai film and so watched that too. I know that the film has been critically acclaimed and nominated for plenty of awards but I was disappointed that the film did not accurately display the true conditions and suffering that the prisoners of war went through. In fact, there were no bridges built along the River Kwai, they were over what was called the Mae Klong River. Sadly, it is probably this film that comes to the minds of most people when they hear of the Thai Burma Railway, which I feel promotes a variety of misconceptions about the time.

I had become quite emotionally involved with the history after all this, so when I found out that the actual ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ is in a town called Kanchanburi near Bangkok in Thailand, I knew I had to go. A year later I found myself on a slow, bumpy, hot train heading towards the town that the Death Railway passes through.

Ready to depart
The first day in Kanchanaburi we visited the Thai-Burma Railway Centre and the War Cemetery opposite. The museum was very professionally presented and described in detail every aspect of the building of the railway and the conditions the POWs were forced to work in. It was shocking to hear that 60,000 prisoners had been sent to the project during 1942-1943 and 13,000 died between 1942-1945. This does not even include the often forgotten Asian Labourers that perished in even greater numbers, but due to record keeping is more difficult to put an exact figure on. The museum described the camps that the prisoners lived in. Poor sanitation, little to no no clean water, malnutrition and hot wet seasons meant diseases spread rapidly. The refusal by the Japanese to provide adequate medical supplies meant these were often fatal.

The museum had artifacfs from the war, such as letters and personal items, displayed on the second floor. These items transported me back in time, I imagined what it must have been like for the soilders so far from home, scared, desperate and exasperated at not being able to express themselves honestly, and their families anxiously waiting for any news, longing to hear from their loved ones.

It was educational and emotional, which was made even more so by visiting the cemetery afterwards. We wandered through the neatly kept headstones commemorating the lives that had been lost. There are 5085 Commonwealth casualties buried or remembered in this cemetery: a staggering amount of deaths. The ages of the men jumped out at me, some were only teenagers and had not even really begun their lives.

I’m reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain at the moment, which is an autobiography documenting Brittain’s experience of the first world war. I seem to always be reading it on planes, which is awkward because I usually break down into tears at least once each sitting! The graves reminded me of her story, in which she loses some, if not all, of the men that she is closest to before they have even been given a chance to grow up. When you think about the tragedy each one of these graves represent, the loss of human life becomes even more shocking.

Walking over the bridge

In the afternoon we took a taxi to the Bridge on the River Kwai. Quite honestly, the Bridge is now a tourist destination and I would not consider this site really worthy of the significance placed on it. Far more interesting and worthwhile was visiting Hellfire Pass the next day.

At a certain part of the railway the prisoners were forced to work day and night to create a path through virtually impenetrable rock, known as the ‘Konyu Cutting’. The skeletal figures and the dynamite at night caused the prisoners to nickname the cutting as ‘hellfire pass’ due to its hell like appearance. To get there you need to take a train from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok which is approximately a two and a half hour journey. After extensive research on Trip Advisor we decided to get there as early as possible, as the main focus is a walk following the railway’s path, and the heat would become unbearable by midday.

Scenery en-route to Hellfire Pass
We arrived early in the morning (6am) at Kanchanaburi train station and battled through masses of school children and Thai people on their daily commute. The scenery from the train was stunning; lakes and rivers shining in front of imposing mountains. After an initial confusion over whether we could get a local bus to Hellfire Pass, we gave up and took a taxi to the site.

There is a small museum there which provides some context for the walk along the path, which we didn’t spend too much time in as much of it was the same information we had learnt the day before. There are also audio guides, which contain stories from ex prisoners of war who were present during the period. We looked around the museum and as we opted to do the longer walk took a walkie talkie from the museum, just in case of emergency. We did wonder what we’d let ourselves in for at this point!

The Cutting of rock known as ‘Hellfire Pass’
We walked down some steps to the pass itself. The rock was steep and tough, it was unbelievable that anyone would consider it a suitable route to build a railway! There were Allied flags tacked along the sides of the rock, poppies and photographs of people in remembrance. The one that jumped out at me was a photo of two twins, the man had died in his early twenties at the railway, and the woman had lived until her 80s, sixty years later. A whole life lost- just one in thousands.

Memorials and flags for those who lost their lives
We passed the memorial and continued into the jungle to complete the longer route. The audio guide did an amazing job of transporting you back in time with stories from the veterans. The walk was barren, hot and deserted. As we left the main memorial the noise of insects was everywhere and you could feel a repressing atmosphere. At one stage a huge and noisy swarm of hornets passed through the sky above us and we stopped in shock, suddenly realising why they had given us a walkie talkie!

As the morning progressed the heat became stifling. We finished drenched in sweat and exhausted. We had found it difficult enough just walking in the heat relatively early in the morning, so we could only imagine what it must have been like to be sick, starving and forced into manual labour.

We were both subdued after the walk and journeyed back to Kanchanaburi contemplating the wars and whether we will see anything like it again in our part of the world. We took the train back to Bangkok the next day, glad that we had focused on something so important in world history and thankful for the lives we lead today. We owe so much to those people only a few generations ago that did not have the chance at life we take for granted.

Sources: (Thai-Burma Railway Centre, Kanchanaburi)

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