Saturday, 18 September 2010

The River Kwai and Death Railway

Wednesday 8 September: My local bus arrives here in Kanachanaburi, a dormitory town, once during World War II, for enslaved allied PoWs, forced-labour coolies and their Japanese persecutors. Now it's for tourists of every shape, size and complexion. I book into the Jolly Frog - reasonably priced and cheerful with movies nightly, western food, cheap beer and river views from the balcony - what more could a man want? It's in the hotel and bar strip, a microcosm of Bangkok's nightlife areas. There are backpackers bars at one end, with names like "No Name Bar", "10 Bhat Bar" or, my personal favourite, "Get Shit-faced on a Shoestring". At the other end, just a couple of hundred yards away, are neon-lit girly-girl bars (and one boily-boy bar) with names like "No Money, No Honey" or "Love Nest". As you walk past, the bar-girls howl and scream, some run out and squeeze your bum or pinch your midriff . . . this is how it starts. Bizarrely, some of the satellite TV sport bars on the strip are run by fat bald-headed Londoners with tattoos, who also give you a, much gruffer, cry of "ello mate - cold beer". I walk past them even quicker.
My pace speeds up again - chin up, stomach in, chest out - and I march two miles north of town to see the famous bridge. Now, I defy anyone who has seen the movie Bridge over The River Kwai (1957), to do this in the mid-afternoon heat, and not to start whistling "Dhara, dhara da da dee - dhara, dhara da da doe . . ." - I couldn't stop!
The curved end spans of the bridge are original - the two central spans, shattered by allied aerial bombing in 1945, were later replaced by Thai State Railway with angular sections supplied by the Japanese as war repatriations. Nearby, original locomotives, including a Japanese truck converted to run on the railway line, are gradually decaying in the moist tropical atmosphere.
Several historical errors appear in the movie - conditions were worse than the film-makers could show -
the main bridge was steel and concrete, dismantled in Java and reassembled here - a temporary wooden bridge was built but it was primarily used just to aid construction of the main bridge. The pronunciation of 'Kwai' is as in 'way' (not as in 'why') - the movie pronunciation means Buffalo in Thai, Thais would never call a river that - also, the Alec Guinness character would have been quietly removed by his men (in actuality there was much subtle sabotage).
Thursday 9: What I didn't know, were the words that the British soldiers put to the Colonel Bogey March tune and why the PoWs whistled it as they marched past Japanese officers (and fortunately, for them, neither did the Japanese) - "Bollocks . . . and the same too you". This, and more, is explained in the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, which is also a free research resource for bereaved families seeking closure. Adjacent is the war cemetery where many of the 13,000 PoWs who died building the railway were reburied (the 100,000 or so forced-labour civilian coolies, from all over Asia, who also died, lie buried beside the railway). Alex Salmon, the First Minister of the Scottish Government, had also recently paid a visit to the cemetery and left little tartan-ribboned poppies at the end-of-row headstones.
The JEATH War Museum (Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, Holland) is in bamboo huts of the sort the PoWs were quartered in during the war - it's very realistic with real fungus growing on the decaying exhibits.
Sunday 11: Today Ramadan ends and I've reserved my seat on the Death Railway heading north towards Burma, then back south to Bangkok (to get a visa) before heading for Indonesia. Nowadays, the remaining 'Death Railway' stops-short of
Hellfire Pass and Three Pagodas Pass on the Burma border, so I leave from Kanachanaburi's pretty little station, trundle over Kwai Bridge, and get off two stations short of the end of line at Thamkra Sae Bridge. Built by forced-labour during WWII, trains still run over this original wooden structure. The ride back south is slow, rickety and bumpy but I arrive at Bangkok, only three-hours late, at 8:35pm.
The River Kwai and Death Railway photos.

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