The stories of the River Kwai

I’d heard of the term ‘the bridge on the River Kwai’ before I ever knew what it meant. I didn’t know where the River Kwai was, what was so special about the bridge and why it had stuck in my head in the first place.

One day, I figured it out. Nobody told me, and I didn’t learn it in a class. You see, I’m a member of Generation Y, whether I like it or not. I Googled it.

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The River Kwai in western Thailand.

The River Kwai is a 300-odd kilometre river in western Thailand, but for Westerners it’s better known for running alongside and under the Thai-Burma Railway project undertaken during World War II. You might have heard it referred to as the ‘Death Railway’. Japan never invaded Thailand, but the country’s government collaborated with the Japanese after seeing the quick and often brutal occupation of all of its neighbours.

Visiting Thailand, you often hear of the fact that the country has never been ruled by a colonial power. The Thais are immensely proud of this, and they should be. But if you delve a bit deeper, it gets a bit murky. In the nineteenth century, the British and French were perfectly happy for Thailand to be a kind of a buffer zone between their spheres of influence in neighbouring Burma and Indochina (modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). And, technically in World War II Thailand was never invaded by the Japanese. Technically; collaboration isn’t an invasion.

Part of this collaboration was allowing the Japanese to build a railway through the country to supply the occupied Burmese capital of Yangon. The sea route from Singapore was seen to be dangerous, so a railway through thick jungle was planned instead.

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Still-functional railway lines in Kanchanaburi.

The reason why we Westerners have heard of this project is because a great deal of those who built the railway were Allied prisoners of war; mainly British, Australians, Dutch and Americans. Indeed, that’s why we were there.

War tourism is a funny thing. I’ve been studying it a bit for my thesis; the way people take time out of a conventional holiday to learn about something that is essentially a tragic event, and see where it took place. So, a day after we were enjoying a Thai cooking class, sunbaking by our hotel’s rooftop pool and drinking cocktails by the river, we left Bangkok to see where 16,000 Allied POWs lost their lives (out of the 60,000 Allies forced to work on the project) during WWII.

Our first stop was Kanchanaburi, the biggest town in the region and the home of the famed bridge. The bridge actually became famous due to the 1957 movie called The Bridge on the River Kwai, which actually depicts another bridge, a wooden one, further down the river which was destroyed during the war. The actual bridge is an iron one, and is still used today.

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Looking onto homes from the bridge.

The bridge was interesting, but you couldn’t help but think to yourself, why exactly are we here? Is it because of the actual history of it, or because Hollywood made a movie about it? At this stage I didn’t know a hell of a lot about the building of the railway, so it was pretty hard to put it all in context. I needed a museum, and luckily there are a few around. There are two war museums in Kanchanaburi; and we visited the one opposite the Allied cemetery.

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 The museum was very good, telling the story of the railway in a chronological order, beginning with the Japanese advance through Asia and the Pacific. I’d never before seen how quickly the Japanese took Southeast Asia; Pearl Harbour was attacked in December 1941 and by May 1942, a mere six months later, they had taken modern-day Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, most of Papua New Guinea, and arguably the most important and symbolic to Europe, Singapore.

It was right after this, in June, when railway construction began, and it continued until it was finished in October 1943. A rush job if you’d ever see one; conditions, as you’d guess, were atrocious. Not only were we lucky enough to be travelling to the region on holiday, it was also the dry season. The wet season is horrible even in modern-day Bangkok; you can only imagine what it was like in the wild jungle; malaria, starvation and ill-treatment by the Japanese were rampant.

That afternoon we headed further west towards Hellfire Pass, a section of the railway which cut through solid rock. The task was completed in only six weeks, and its workers suffered perhaps the most brutal treatment of all, if you can measure that sort of thing. The area still turns into mud come the wet season, causing landslides, so the track is dug out every year to preserve it as a memorial.

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Hellfire Pass.

Hellfire Pass also has a museum built quite recently, which was financed by the Australian Government. I didn’t find this particularly unusual until Paul pointed it out; the Aussies are quite good at remembering their war dead. Examples can be found all over the place; the large memorials in Flanders and the joint Turkish-Australian upgrade projects around the Gallipoli Peninsula are just two.

The Dutch, in comparison, he believed weren’t so great. Just as many Dutch worked and died on the project as other Allied POWs yet he’d never even heard of the Death Railway before. Instead, the Dutch finance things like a Dutch East India Company (VOC) museum in Ayutthaya. We all choose which parts of our history we shall collectively remember, whether we like it or not.

We also choose to remember the Allied POWs, but less so the 180-240,000 Asian forced labourers who also worked on the project. I wasn’t immune from this; before entering the museums I thought that solely POW labour built the railway. That wasn’t the case at all. Forced labourers from the occupied territories were brought over in even larger numbers, were made to work in even tougher conditions and died at a much higher rate. Do we remember them? No, I don’t think we do, really. Hollywood forgot about them, just like it has forgotten other atrocities that occurred in Asia and the Pacific which lacked a Western presence.

(Yes, I know that’s a bit controversial, but hey. I have opinions on things, if you haven’t already realised.)

Even after the war ended, the railway has remained quite the political football. One of the first things the British did when the Japanese fled was destroy the railway around the Burmese border; they didn’t want the railway in and out of the country to assist in any independence movements (which were successful in 1948). Today, only a part of the western section remains operational; basically the most populated area of the region. The original line through thick jungle and solid rocks unsurprisingly isn’t of much need to Thai Railways these days.

The line is a local one, but offers some spectacular scenery, particularly on a number of rickety wooden bridges. It is when riding this line that you get a bit of an idea of just how complex the terrain is; you cut through rocks, soar over rivers and choo-choo past thick banana and palm trees as far as the eye can see. It was beautiful.

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My parents always used to tell me when growing up that you learn more out of the classroom than in it. This was coming from two school principals, mind you. And they’re completely right; I never would have learnt about the Thai-Burma Railway if I hadn’t seen those tracks and bridge for myself. If I had just stuck to Hollywood’s interpretation, I would never have heard the fate of those hundreds of thousands of Asian forced labourers. Now I have, and in turn my own view of history has been changed for the better.

10 Responses to The stories of the River Kwai

  1. Jacintha January 27, 2013 at 11:16 PM #

    The film was shot in Sri Lanka :-)

    • Caitlyn January 27, 2013 at 11:25 PM #

      Yes I heard that too! They really used quite a lot of poetic licence by the look of it.

  2. Magpie Groupie January 28, 2013 at 2:36 AM #

    Just finished the book “The Railway Man” by Eric Lomax which I believe is a m
    ‘must-read’ if you want to continue your historical investigation of the region…….they have just completed a film version of the book so let’s hope they don’t stuff this up as well.

    • Denis February 14, 2013 at 12:41 AM #

      It may be humanly possible to forgive what happened, but impossible to forget.

      Those two principals would also like to add that going to places like Hollywood on the Gold Coast doesn’t over-ride a place in the classroom!

      • Caitlyn February 16, 2013 at 8:07 PM #

        Oh yes I forgot about that! No, I don’t think it’s worth it to take kids out of school to lie on the beach – that’s what school holidays are for!

  3. Mev February 24, 2013 at 11:44 AM #

    Hmmm controversial yet fair comments about Hollywood’s influence on the Bridge’s story. However, if one has watched the movie, AND visited the bridge itself, a comparative view would be pretty insightful don’t you think…

    • Caitlyn February 25, 2013 at 2:57 PM #

      We watched it a couple of weeks ago! But the copy is dodgy (or our DVD player is) and it kept jumping all over the place. We gave it the flick after about 15 minutes.

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