The Death Railway: Kanchanaburi

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The route the train takes today between Bangkok and Nam Tok via Kanchanaburi

We hadn’t been on a family holiday in a long time and it was for the first time that the four of us; sister, my parents; and I were traveling abroad together. The task to put this trip to Thailand together was challenging not only for the said reasons, but also because there were varied interests that needed to be catered for. Now, as someone who does travel planning for a living, it’s a challenge I face pretty much daily. But when it involves your family, it is a whole different ball game. I am yet to uncover a convincing reason for them to act extra pricy and difficult. But you live and learn! Hence, I’d take some credit for being able to coax them into trusting me with Kanchanaburi as our first stop on this five day Thai holiday.

Located about 140kms to the west of the capital, Kanchanaburi, has historically been used as a defense outpost as far back as the 18thcentury when King Rama II had built walls to protect against the Burmese invaders. However, it is better recognized today for a rather somber history of the Death Railway, built during World War II, when Thailand was still Siam. Officially neutral until the Japanese invaded it in 1941, the country has a distinct record to its name. Thailand (Siam) was never colonized by the Europeans, even though every region around it was! Their leaders must have possessed some great negotiations skills! I wonder how India would have fared had it managed to keep the Europeans away?

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The ‘so called’ Bridge on the river Kwai

With the building of this meter-gauge railway line, the Japanese wanted to connect Bang Pong in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Burma, to support their troops in Burma by sending in supplies for them to march further west into India. For them the overland route seemed more secure as opposed to the sea route, albeit treacherous to build. This was in fact, one of the reasons the British gave up the idea of building this line in the late 1800’s. To aid their ambitions, the Imperial Japanese Army used Prisoners of War (POW) – mostly Australians, British, Dutch and Indians – captured after they seized Malay and Indonesia from the European powers, and civilian slave laborers consisting of mostly Burmese, Tamilians and Malay citizens.

Though, the numbers vary, it is said that as many as 60,000 Allied POWs and about 200,000 civilians were deployed to work on this project. Unfortunately though, their living conditions were inhumane. So much so that majority of them perished over the 16-months that it took to build this line. There were multiple factors that amplified their plight – weather, terrain, lack of basic facilities, lack of medical supplies, food and the mental trauma owing to the brutality inflicted by the Japanese soldiers, are just some of many.

As an army veteran, my father was most fervent about this visit. So the convincing part was needed with the other two ladies of the family. After a bit of cajoling though, they gave in and this remains one of most humbling experiences till date, for all of us. Also because the town is not overtly commercial like Phuket and chaotic like Bangkok, it makes the whole atmosphere rather calming. I’d also credit some of it to the stay we choose. Located by the Khawae Yai River and a short walk to the famous ‘Bridge on the river Kwai’, U Inchantreeis a boutique hotel that echoes the charm of this town. All that Kanchanaburi has to offer, in terms of history and nature, is right by its doorsteps.

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On location at the Hell fire Pass

We drove into the town from Bangkok airport and headed straight for the stay. After a quick nap we stepped out and cycled to the bridge. Though November wasn’t particularly pleasant with humidity still uncomfortably high, the light breeze made cycling rather enjoyable. We watched the last train depart from Kanchanaburi station. With the crowds slowly melting away we decided to explore the area around the bridge. A few vendors were still selling coconut water, snacks and locals mingled with each other while kids played with soap bubbles. The highlight of the day though, was the sunset from the bridge which we watched in deep silence.

Day two began with breakfast at out hotel and watching the sunrise from behind the bridge. It set the tone for the rest of the day, which was spent exploring the war history of the region. We drove an hour through the Sai Yok National Park to visit the Hell Fire Pass Museum. Built deep in the forest, where during the mid 1940’s many toiled and perished to build the railway line, it is a stark reminder of the atrocities that they faced. An audio guide brings to life the working and living conditions in the voices of those who survived. It is hard to fathom the inner turmoil they must have gone through to relive those moments. Located a short downhill walk from the museum is the actual Hellfire pass, so called because of the shadows that formed when the workers labored through the night under the torchlights to cut into the sheer rock to lay the railway line. It was supposedly one of the deadliest stretches of the line.

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Boarding the Thailand-Burma train at Nam Tok station

After the visit we drove to Nam Tok station to take the train to Kanchanaburi, a route used by many locals today for their daily commute. With its wooden bridges hugging the mountains and the Kwai River flowing below, the views are hauntingly beautiful. Also located in Kanchanaburi, quite close to the train station, is the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre– an interactive museum and research facility that brings alive the history of the line. This is where we went as soon as we arrived back in Kanchanaburi. A fitting end to our time in Kanchanaburi however, was a visit to the War Cemetery, located across the road from this museum. A grim reminder of the price we pay for war.

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