Bridge over the River Kwai

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This infamous bridge has been the subject of many books and films and forms part of the Thailand to Burma railway. It was originally constructed during the Second World War by Asian slave labourers and by prisoners of war (POW’s) captured by the Japanese. The Japanese  wanted the railway built in order to transport cargo to India.

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This is the less touristy side of the bridge

We arrived at the bridge around 11 am and spent some time taking in the surroundings. Most people seem to linger at the start of the bridge posing for photos but it is well worth walking to the other end where to some extent you can escape the touristy feel and spend some time contemplating on how intolerable conditions must have been for those who laboured on the death railway.

As the trains were so infrequent and generally slow you can walk over and along the track, although be prepared to hop on to a pedestrian siding should one appear.

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One of the train exhibits at the River Kwai train station

After looking at the train exhibits we got a taxi for the 5 km or so to Kanchanaburi. Here we visited the cemetary which contains the remains of 7000 POW’s who lost their lives while building the railway. Around 1 in 3 people died during its construction which is why it is now known as the Death Railway.

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Thailand-Burma railway cemetery at Kanchanaburi

It was incredibly moving to walk through the commemorative plaques and particularly to read messages from families. Most of those who lost their lives were only in their 20’s and 30’s and as we walked the first few rows we noted that many came from Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk which are counties in England where we and our families both come from.

The cemetery was well maintained and carefully looked after with a different plant between each commemorative stone.

Even more moving was a visit to the Death Railway Museum and Research Centre where we learned in more detail of the horrific conditions the POWs endured.

Learning that in order to transfer captives from Singapore to Thailand, 28 men were squashed together in a tiny metal carriage and shunted by rail for 4 days and 4 nights, standing room only with little food or water in tropical heat puts everyday issues and annoyances into perspective.

POWs slept in cramped unfinished bamboo huts or tents crammed in together and during the monsoon they lived in constant rain and with little shelter. They suffered with lice crawling up from below and and mosquito’s bombarding them from above. There was no suncream, bug spray, air conditioning, comfy pillows or sheets.

After working for up to 18 hours a day they went to bed weak, hungry and thirsty. Diseases such as cholera and malaria were rife. Conditions deteriorated when the Japanese ordered for the railway to be finished more quickly which resulted in greater loss of life.

Museum info

The museum is located across the road from the cemetery. The entry cost was 140 baht and you get a free cup of tea or coffee from the museum cafe on the top floor.

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Standing on the track waiting for the train at Kanchanaburi

 

How to get there

The man in seat 61 (an excellent website for planning global train travel) gives more details but this is our account of our journey to the River Kwai…

The journey from Bangkok to the River Kwai takes approximately 3 hours each way. Trains for the Bridge on the River Kwai leave from Thonburi train station (not Bangkok’s main Hualumphong station).

We took a metered taxi from our hotel (Sathorn area of Bangkok) which took about 20 minutes and cost 108 baht. This was on a Saturday at 06.45 am so the roads through the city centre were unusually clear.

We brought tickets at the station for 100 baht each (£2) for the outward journey. The station is next to a market and across the road is a supermarket for breakfast/snacks.

The train was scheduled to depart at 07.50 but left a few minutes late. From Bangkok there was plenty of spare seats although the train filled with people as it progressed towards the River Kwai.

Only 3rd class tickets are available but the train had big open windows with a constant breeze. Don’t worry if you dont have time to buy any snacks as vendors continually walk up and down the train selling all manner of snacks and cold drinks.

 

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The journey from Bangkok was long and the day was somewhat sombre. However while we were both quite horrified by the conditions endured we were also inspired at how strong the human spirit must have been by those who worked on the construction of the railway.

Below is a letter from John Coast who wrote an account of his experiences as a railway POW which was later published as a book.

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