Asia

Crossing the River Kwai – onboard southeast Asia’s ‘Death Railway’

Passing through pleasant rice and sugar cane fields, our train journey through the western Thailand countryside was a memorable experience. As mountains unfolded in the distance, a serene river, teak and papaya trees and colourful temples could seen closer to the line. The windows could be fully opened allowing the breeze to come inside the carriages – and for passengers to get a better view of the surroundings.

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But beyond the picture postcard scenes of our hour long journey there lies a tragic story. What I travelled on has come to be known as the ‘Death Railway’ on account of the high number of lives lost building the one-metre gauge, single line railway through a treacherous landscape. It was a route that the British had originally surveyed in 1903, yet didn’t built.

Constructed in just 17 months – an amazing feat of engineering given the tough terrain – during Japan’s occupation of Thailand during the Second World War (1941-45), the 250 mile railway was intended to be an alternative supply route to the sea route to Burma which was being cut off by Allied submarines and aircraft. The Japanese hoped that by improving communications they would be able to conquer more Asian countries in west, including India.

More than 61,000 British, American, Dutch and Australian prisoners taken captive during campaigns in southeast Asia and the Pacific were brought to work on the railway between 1942 and 1945. But some 16,000 of these – as well as more than 10,000 conscripted Asian labourers some of whom were attracted by payments of a dollar a day – died during the building due to malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.

Remembrance

We started our tour of the Kanchanaburi area by visiting the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, which contains graves for 6,891 soldiers (nearly half of which were British) arranged in neat rows and separated by thin strips of grass allowing visitors to view the individual gravestones. The site, designed by Sir Colin St Clair Oakes and now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is in pristine condition thanks to the team of gardeners and other maintenance staff. It was near here that the Kanchanaburi labour camp was sited.

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Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

From the cemetery it is just a few to the Jeath War Museum, where a mocked-up prisoner of war camp has been created. As you walk through the bamboo shelter, where photographs and artwork depicting the brutal work conditions during the construction of the railway are displayed, you are passing through somewhere resembling the soldiers’ living quarters, where each individual only had around 75m width of space.

The prisoners were forced to work in appalling conditions, clearing rugged terrain by hand, rather than benefitting from any modern machines. And for all this back-breaking work, men sometimes needed to live on little more than a bowl of rice, with salt, each day. In the main camps, they pawned their valuable possessions in an attempt to get more food, but these additional supplies could not be guaranteed.

“..if you work hard you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard you will be punished,” a Japanese commander told the prisoners. But working shifts which at times lasted 24 hours a day they did suffer, as they toiled in the jungle-covered mountains and were forced to removed heavy boulders. The countless make-shift grave sites that were created along the side of the track speak for themselves.

One former prisoner later reflected on what it was like to build the Death Railway:

“The slopes of the embankments consisted of loose, clambering to the top was a case of sliding and slithering with a weight of earth in attendance. This proved to be very tiring on the thigh muscles and painful, often resulting in crippling cramp. You just had to stop, you could not move. Whenever this occurred the Japs were on you with their heavy sticks, and beat the living daylight out of you. Somehow you got going again if only to escape the blows.”

It was an environment where death could always be just around the corner, as he added:

“Once, after a day’s work on the embankment, a mate next to me laid down for the night’s rest, when he turned to me and said: ‘I feel lousy and very tired’. The following morning I shook him to make sure than he was awake. He was not, however. He was dead. Died during the night. The orderlies came and took him away.”

For our trip we took a fast long-tailed speed boat down the River Kwai and arrived at Death Valley Bridge. The 300 metre steel bridge (originally a wooden bridge was built), which was made famous by the film Bridge Over the River Kwai, was bought from Java by the Japanese and re-assembled by the prisoners in its new location. Its centre part was bombed by the Allies in 1945, but was re-built by the captured soldiers.

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Death Valley Bridge (River Kwai Bridge)

Once we had walked across the bridge and looked again at the pleasant views back down the River Kwai, where some attractive homes now lie along the water’s edge, we waited on the open air platform for our train. It makes a daily return journey between Nong Pladuk, south of Kanchanaburi, and Nam Tok – a distance of approximately 84 miles (the rest of the line is no longer in use).

The high point of my train journey was crossing the Wampo timber viaduct, which hugs a cliff face on one side of the line and follows the Kwai Noi River on the other. Prisoners built this at great human cost – the work to carve out a ledge from the rock was both a dangerous and exhausting task. In a sign of how much things have changed, what was a camp for the workers at the time, is now a holiday camp made up of pleasant-looking chalets.

Keeping memories alive

In the dying days of the Second World War, Japanese troops used part of the line as an escape route, while on the Burmese side the British ripped up two and a half miles of track to minimise the ability of separatists to organise.

After the fighting had fininished, the British sold the line on the Thai side of the border to the State Railway of Thailand for 50 million baht, who built stations that are in use today. Although the government company intended it would be used by locals, it is now mainly used by tourists. This explains why the platform at Kanchanaburi was lined with souvenir stalls. The company running it keeps you well fed and watered with drinks and snacks during the short journey – and you get a certificate for going on-board the Death Railway.

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Boarding Death Railway

It is a well-visited attraction. On our train there also a group taking part in a team building challenge and many tourists with selfie sticks. But our guide reported that there have sometimes between tearful moments in recent years when relatives of those who built the line have come to see where their fathers and grandfathers suffered. And on the day we travelled there was a group of Japanese visitors sitting behind us. Perhaps their relatives had supervised the building of the line.

The State Railway of Thailand has been spending a lot upgrading the line in recent years in an attempt to ensure the train remains punctual. Two years ago you apparently never quite new when a train was going to turn up, but that has improved. Central to their work has been replacing wooden sleepers which have become rotten, something which also became a problem during the Second World War when some needed to be renewed after just three months. Yes, the Death Railway may now be a tourist attraction, but by preserving it means the hard word completed by prisoners will not be forgotten.

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