The Death Railway
I came close to collapsing with heat stroke twice in one day. I can be too stubborn for my own good sometimes, always determined to walk as much as possible. But when the mercury is encroaching on 40oC and the humidity pushes the feeling even higher, I really ought to know my limits. Especially when I’d already knackered my poor feet the previous two days in a row.
The in-flight entertainment on my Qantas flight to Bangkok included some tourist information on various destinations, including the city I was headed to. With little research done on my destination, I was curious to see what it said, and was intrigued to see it recommending making a day trip to the ‘Bridge On the River Kwai’, which was made famous in the movie of the same name, and bares the scars of the war that lead to the railway earning its nickname of the Death Railway. I’d seen the location on the map before I’d left home, but hadn’t given it any thought. However, after watching the video and once getting some wi-fi at my hotel in Bangkok I did some research into the plausability of taking a day trip there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be possible to travel the full run on the train as well as seeing the countryside around the bridge or the war memorials all in one day, but it was definitely an option to go as far as Kanchanaburi, the location of the Allied War Memorial.
I rose early to catch the first Skytrain (BTS) to Saphan Taksin, and waited for one of the first ferries of the day to take me up river. I caught the orange boat at central pier and disembarked at N10, Wang Lang. I’d promised myself I’d catch a tuk tuk to Thonburi train station, but not knowing how long I’d need to get there, I’d arrived at Wang Lang with an hour to spare, and only a 15 min walk to get me to the station, so I reneged on my earlier promise and wandered the busy streets of Thonburi district. It wasn’t long until I’d reached the bustling market that fronts the small train station, and after purchasing my ticket, I had a wander round in search of something for breakfast.
There were a lot of tourists waiting for the train, and despite all the other scheduled trains leaving late, the 07:50 train to Namtok left nearly on time. Despite this, it was over an hour late in arriving in Kanchanaburi, a feat that I’m still not sure how it happened. It was an interesting ride through suburbia and townships, and eventually reaching the countryside. I’d noticed on the flight into Bangkok how flat the area is, and this continued for most of the train ride. Most of the track felt like we were going in a perpetual straight line with very few turns, and only when Kanchanaburi was getting closer, did the hills start to appear, and lush vegetation take over.
Despite being due in at 10:20am, we pulled in at the station after 11:30am, and I went straight away in search of food. Despite leaving Bangkok with its inclement skies, out here, the sky was near cloudless, and the sun beat down relentlessly. After a quick refreshment, I stupidly decided to walk the 2km from Kanchanaburi to the famous bridge. A walk that back home in cool New Zealand would have been a breeze, was one of the stupidest things I decided to do in the heat of the Thailand day with the humidity pushing the perceived temperature into the 40s. My stupid pride made me wave off tuk tuks and taxis that tried to pick me up, and nearly 2/3rds of the way there, I started to feel nauseous and dizzy. My feet ached, but I pushed on, finally reaching the crowds at the bridge, only to have to desperately find some shade to catch my breath and rehydrate myself. I promised myself I’d get a taxi for the return journey.
The river Khwae Yai flows peacefully under the majestic and iconic structure of the bridge. It is easy to spot which part was destroyed and replaced as the central bridge spans are different from the outer bridge spans. Despite the crowds, it was a serene place to be, and I wandered slowly across, admiring the changing view both up and down stream. It felt a world away from Bangkok and I was revelling in the change of scenery. On the far bank, a seemingly out of place Chinese temple sat on the banks blasting out music on loud speakers. It was open to the public, but most people didn’t notice or didn’t care. Only a couple of other tourists went in for a wander, and I followed a little behind them. It was worth it purely for the view it gave back over to the bridge and down stream, and I sat on the river bank for a while, enjoying some much needed shade. Eventually, after wandering around the grounds of the temple, I headed back up the stairs to the bridge and returned to the other side.
There was not a taxi in sight when I was ready to head back to Kanchanaburi. Conscious of time before catching the train back to Bangkok, I felt I had no choice but to head off in the heat. It was a miserable affair, and to make matters worse, I ran out of water on route. There was no shade from the relentless sun, and again I felt the nausea and dizziness return. I was close to collapsing when a tuktuk appeared and I flagged it down. I did a terrible job of bartering a price, agreeing to a ridiculously high price, but at that moment in time, I would have paid anything to get off my feet and into some shade. I got him to drop me at the Allied War cemetery, but even there, sitting in the shade of the entrance arch, I felt rotten.
After a brief rest, I headed across the road to the Thailand-Burma Railway centre which thankfully had both air conditioning and water, and I wandered round what is a relatively small but very interesting museum. Whether the heat stroke added to my emotional state or not, I was deeply moved by what I read and saw. However you look upon it, the Thailand-Burma railway was a feat of engineering, strength and endurance which Japan had built using the labour of Allied prisoners of war in the second world war. The numbers are staggering. At 415 km long at its full operational length, it was constructed by 180,000 civilian labourers and 60,000 PoWs, with an estimated 90,000 civilian deaths, and 12,621 PoW deaths during its construction. They laboured through monsoons, and incessant heat with little shelter or nourishment provided. There are many stories of brutalities, and the men were worked till the point of collapse. Having nearly collapsed twice from walking 2km in the heat with a large bottle of water, I shuddered at the thought of what these men went through on a daily basis. There were plenty of photos in the museum depicting the emaciated bodies of the men who were forced into hard labour.
Built for the purposes of supplying the Japanese forces who had taken control of what was then Burma (now Myanmar), it was finished ahead of schedule, taking around a year and a half in total. It saved the Japanese valuable time by saving the need to transport by sea. 111 kilometres of the railway were in Burma, and the remaining 304km were in Thailand. Just four years after completion, the railway was closed and abandoned, and now large sections of it are under water, deconstructed or left in place to age. Only the Namtok to Bangkok section, including Hellfire Pass, which was a particularly difficult and deadly section to build, is still used.
I returned to the Allied War cemetery and looked through the book of names before wandering through the beautifully maintained and landscaped cemetery. I was overcome wandering along row after row of headstones baring the names of lives who’d been cut short through disease, brutality and exhaustion. Several of the headstones bare no name, as the remains have not been able to be identified. A lost soul buried with his kin. I’ve never felt so emotional before at a cemetery or a war memorial, and if ever I could feel grateful or sorry for the sacrifice of a generation I know so little about it, it was here, in the quiet and solitude, amongst the graves of fellow countrymen, in a town in the middle of Thailand.
Eventually though, I had to head back to the station. I expected the train to be late in returning as it had been so late in getting there that morning, but I didn’t want to take the chance of missing it. When I got there, an English couple who I had seen at the bridge, were waiting, and the ticket office bore a sign saying the train would be 45mins late. I sat with them for a while, before feeling drawn back to the cemetery where I passed some more time before grabbing a snack on the way back to the station. I shared the bizarre sea-weed concoction with my fellow travellers, and discovered they were needing to get back to Bangkok to catch a flight that night. They were getting nervous about making it, so when the delay was extended to 90 mins, one of them went off to see if they could negotiate a taxi. In Thailand, it is normal to barter for a price, and it is easy for novices to be ripped off. With a two hour drive back to the capital, we all knew the taxi price would not be cheap, and when he returned with a price, and not enough cash in their wallets, I offered them some much needed Bahts in the hope it would help them catch their plane. When the taxi turned up, they asked if I wanted to join them, and with the prospect of an unknown time till the train would finally appear, I decided to accept.
Firstly, our driver spoke very little English. Secondly, he took us to someone’s house down a back street where a second man and a young boy got in, meaning what we thought would be a comfortable air-conditioned drive, was actually 6 people squeezed into the car for a 2.5 hr drive to the airport. One of the things I’d already noticed in Bangkok was that lanes, and indeed sides of the road, were only for suggestion, and cars, motorbikes and buses weaved in and out as they pleased, including driving on the wrong side of the road if it suited. Despite that, there was very little horn tooting unlike what I’d experienced in India. Not only that, but all the vehicles looked in pristine condition, as if new and straight out the car wash or the car showroom. Apart from the one man who I’d seen come off his bike, I saw no accidents and no bashes or scratches on any of the vehicles. It was amazing.
The three of us chatted the time away in the back seat as the sun began to set, and eventually we hit the rush hour of Bangkok. It was a side to Bangkok that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and despite never having met any of these people before, it felt like an adventure sharing this part of their trip with them. Finally, we pulled up at Suvarnabhumi International airport, and we went our separate ways. They were in plenty of time for their flight, and I caught the train back into the city centre, before jumping on the metro back to my hotel. Doing the full trip up to Namtok via Hellfire Pass will be on my agenda if I ever make it back to Bangkok. But I was exceedingly pleased that I made the time to go to Kanchanaburi, and tired and hungry at the end of a very long and emotional day, my heart wept for the dead.