Walking across the River Kwai

IMG_5139 Last weekend, the Diplomat, Isla and I jumped on the embassy bandwagon and headed out of town as it was a public holiday in Thailand. February 24 is Makha Bucha Day (this year, it varies with the lunar cycle), a day where, historically, 1,250 monks gathered to hear Buddha preach. He subsequently ordained these monks and thus began the spread the principles of Buddhism. 45 years later, on the same full moon in the third lunar month, Buddha again delivered his teachings. The significance of this day means that many Thais go to their local Wat; often to perform a ritual known as the candle ceremony where they walk clockwise three times around the temple. holding flowers, incense and a lighted candle. We actually went to our local Wat to do this circumnavigation but a disgruntled and hot Isla ensured we could only complete the one lap. Anyway, I digress….on the Saturday we decided to head to Kanchanaburi, the province and town which Lonely Planet et al. list as a top ten Thailand destination. Indeed, the province has many attractions: Hellfire Bridge, Death Railway, Bridge over the River Kwai, Tiger Temple, Sai Yok National Park, Kaeng Lawa Caves, several waterfalls (Erawan being the most notable), dozens of Wat, and two dams. It nestles up against a ridge of mountains that run the length of the southern border of Burma-Myanmar which ensures it is both rural and much cooler than Bangkok.

A two-hour journey took four as I made a SatNav mistake, missing a fundamental flyover which meant we crawled along Thanon Borommaratchachonnani at ground level rather than whistling through in 20 minutes. The notion it was a Saturday morning meant nothing to the ten trillion other caravans heading East. I’ll plead “trickiness” as the SatNav tells you to “keep left” or “keep right” but you can’t take it literally as the far right lane (of four or five) might take you in the wrong direction. The SatNav actually meant “stay in lanes three and four” but that’s too complex for it. The end result is many little fascinating side trips down soi and thanon I’d never otherwise take.

Anyway, four hours later we arrived after traveling down Highway 4 and Highway 323 arriving at a four-star Hotel Spa named Dheva Mantra. If you are ever in the area and want a little more luxury (i.e. pool and spa treatments) for your trip then at $100 a night, it’s absolutely worth it; especially if you are traveling with an “Isla”. It is located about 1km upstream on the west bank in an area where resorts are beginning to flourish, yet aren’t so prevalent you’re on a “resort strip” with all the customary tourist traps.If you want to go cheaper you can do a two-star place that’s a room on stilts out in the river. About $25. You get what you pay for, and it does sound fun to do.

Once we had divested our baby paraphernalia we took the quick trip round to the bridge. Parking was fairly easy and, having pushed our way through the usual glut of street vendors selling all kinds of plastic “souvenirs”, found ourselves at the bridge. Given it is a narrow gauge, non-electric track you can happily walk on it. In fact you are encouraged to walk over the bridge itself, a steel affair. The two middle spans are “new” having been blown up by the British. The bridge itself was built as part of the Burma railway in 1942; at the time over the Mae Klong (it got renamed to Khwae Yai in the 60s) at Tha Ma Kham, a few km from Kanchanaburi. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells the historical significance of the Bridge at the Chungkai War Cemetery. The statement goes as follows…

The Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar).

Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma, worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre. The Japanese aimed at completing the railway in 14 months and work began in October 1942. The line, 424 kilometres long, was completed by December 1943. The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway (except for the US, whose remains were repatriated) were transferred from camp burial grounds and isolated sites along the railway into three cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar. Chungkai was one of the base camps on the railway and contained a hospital and church built by Allied prisoners of war. The war cemetery is the original burial ground started by the prisoners themselves, and the burials are mostly of men who died at the hospital. There are 1,427 Commonwealth and 314 Dutch burials of the Second World War in this cemetery.

Remember this is the actual bridge. The film was done in Sri Lanka, near Kitulgala and, whilst was a worthy 7-time Oscar winner, is not the place to go to.

I was able to walk the track taking a few photos whilst Isla provided her own photo opportunity for several tourists.

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The Diplomat told me on my return that at least ten groups had gathered to photograph Isla. It’s quite incredible how much pictorial interest she garners. Crossing the river was a fairly quiet affair. There are certain places – those where many have died in an atrocity – that immediately (and without formal notice) command a reverence, a respect, a thoughtful silence. The very emotions of the tragedy still hung in the afternoon heat; tourist chatter was muted. Yes, it is now a place to visit, but it is also a place of remembrance and of reflection. We may not have witnessed this event ourselves, but the common narration of history’s terrible events has the same effect on an individual conscience. Time may dull our senses, but we must always remember those who fought and fell in defence of Liberty. Places such as the bridge over the River Kwai serve to constantly remind us of what each generation owes its forefathers. For myself, as the events were of my grandfather’s generation I went along with his binoculars that he said he had used back in Blighty during WWII. They’ve never been to Thailand, but they existed during the emotive power of the War generation. It felt oddly right to gaze down the river through them, even if for a brief moment.

Having crossed the bridge from East to West I, and a hundred other people, had to cram into a tiny niche as we realised it was a working railway. Not the kind of safety you’d get on the VIA or South West trains, but fun as hell. I took a video of the walk across the entire span of the bridge but the Diplomat thought this shorter one of a train approaching and going past my nose would be more appealing to readers. If I get 10 “likes” on this page I’ll add the other video; if I don’t….well….I won’t 😉

It was done on the west bank, across from the main tourist access point.

After that we retreated back to an evening of dinner and relaxation. The next day I went to the Jeath War Museum….but that is a tale for another blog.

Is this what diplomacy is all about?


Categories: Kanchanaburi, Thailand

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1 reply


  1. Dheva Mantra « travelswithadiplomat

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