The Death Railway and the Bridge over River Kwai | What to see and where to stay

Due to the somewhat joyful atmosphere from happy tourists and the scenic aspects of the territory. It is sometimes hard to imagine the gruesome events that took place here during the Second World War. When people come to Kanchanaburi (The Golden Land), a lot of focus is on one bridge. This is very much due to a movie that owes it to a book. Yes, I am talking about Pierre Boulle’s Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï and David Leans Hollywood blockbuster starring Alec Guinness from 1957.

This movie premiered on Swedish television in 1986 and had been shown on 3 occasions before my arrival to Thailand in 1994. I had seen it and I could whistle The Colonel Bogey March,” the soundtrack.

At the time of my first visit to Thailand, it just accorded to me that the story took place here. So I felt a lot of interest and came to visit. At that time I didn’t have any clue at all that I would be back here operating tours to this place for more than 20 years.

Pierre Boulle(himself a prisoner of war in Malaya) couldn’t quite get the name right. The river’s real name is Kwae and it is divided into two estuaries. Kwai in the Thai language translates to water buffalo and is often used as a derogatory word about a less clever person. The main river was at the time of WW II named Mae Klong.

The attention should go to the whole situation, sleepers and bridges and the construction of the Death Railway. A Japanese initiative to connect Singapore to India via Thailand, (Siam) and Burma through dense jungles on land. After the Japanese lost the important battle of Midway to the US navy, they were no longer in control of the seas.

Allied prisoners of war, and not to forget numerous Asian labourers were brought here to work under horrific conditions to build railway and bridges in the scorching hot sun. Prisoners died from malnutrition, tropical diseases and Japanese torture. And some were unfortunate to die from allied bombing.

The railway was to be built no matter how high the cost, in human lives or money. The numbers for how many deaths differ from source to source but an estimated 15 000 – 20 000 allied soldiers and up to 100 000 Asian workers paid with their lives for this Japanese War effort. The railway is 415 kilometres long and with 15 kilometres of bridges. 260 kilometres of rail is on the Thai side and the remaining on the Burmese/Myanmar side.

The railway was functioning between October of 1943 until June 1945.

Things you have to experience in Kanchanaburi

  • Visit the bridge on the River Kwai
  • Visit Hells Pass
  • Take the train from Nam Tok to Thailand
  • Overnight in a Floatel or Hin Tok River Camp
  • Visit a War Museum, JEATH or/and the Hellfire Memorial Museum.
  • Enjoy a meal in a floating restaurant
  • Visit a War Cemetery

The Bridge in Kanchanaburi over the River Kwai

What about the bridge you see as a visitor in Kanchanaburi?

The bridge was bombed in the spring of 1945.

In 1944, the bridge over the Khwae Yai River began to be subjected to systematic attacks by heavy bombers. It took until the spring of 1945 before a direct hit threw the central span down into the river. So when bridges were hit, the Japanese would transport goods with barges across the Mae Klong river.

The bombed bridge was restored after the war and got a new centre span, delivered free of charge by Japan. That is why the bridge that can be viewed today has a truss span in the middle while the other sections are built as arch bridges. The railway itself was after the war for long distances in very miserable condition. Some sections were torn up and rails and sleepers were used in other railroad works.

Despite the grisly history, the terrain here is stunning, and to stay here two nights is in my mind a minimum to see the main sites and have a chance both to reflect and also enjoy the landscape and nature.

One of the more pleasant experiences we have had through the years has been to get on a floating restaurant after the visit on the bridge and let a small long-tail boat pull the raft – restaurant on the river for an hour or so and then get off at the Chung Kai War cemetery.

This used to be one of the Allied POW camps. The cemetery holds the graves of around 1800 soldiers from the Commonwealth and of Dutch origin. It is smaller than the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi.

The train ride from Namtok to Thakilen

It is hot, but only an hour ++ of your life. All your senses are with you when you take the train on the railway. Vendors enter to sell doughnuts, samosas, tapioca crisps, postcards and t-shirts. Have some nice Thai food at the small restaurant run by the stationmaster himself and wait for directions from him as when the train is arriving. It is often late 15- 45 minutes. One of the highlights is passing the wooden construction by the so-called Death Cliff.

Passing the Death Cliff

Where to stay?

For many years I always stayed with groups at the classic River Kwae Hotel, but after a certain tour company became too dominant with too many clients at the same time, we changed to the Hin Tok Glamping site, which was a great experience. Every night there would be a BBQ buffet in the middle of the campgrounds and a small bar.

The movie was recorded in Sri Lanka. But it is worth seeing because it is this story that created the modern “legend” surrounding the River Kwai. There is a full version on YouTube.

Pristine river views
Sign at the River Kwai building site.
Sign at Mahaweli Ganga River in Sri Lanka, It was across this river that the makers of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, constructed their bridge. The largest movie set ever built up to that time. The movie bridge took eight months to construct costing over $250,000. It was longer than a football field and as high as a six-story building.
Hell Fire Pass Memorial. 69 men were beaten to death by Japanese guards while building this passage that took 6 weeks to construct. During the nighttime, the pass was light up by torchlights, with the red light shining on them like a Dantes Inferno.

The Real Colonel Nicholson from the The Bridge of River Kwai.

Alec Guinness character Colonel Nicholson in real life was Philip Toosey. He was born in 1904 outside Liverpool. As a teenager, he was sent to a boarding school, where he excelled in sports but not in terms of studies. Perhaps as compensation for a general impracticality, Toosey developed an extraordinary social ability.

First, he worked as an apprentice at a company in the textile import industry, he graduated as an officer for the army and he also worked for a major bank.

In August 1939, he was called up for active duty. He was appointed commander of an artillery battery that was shipped over to the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and took part in the battles in May 1940. His experiences during this catastrophic time for the British profoundly affected him.

After undergoing senior command training, Toosey was assigned in the summer of 1941 as commander of a three-battery field artillery regiment. In October of that year, the unit was shipped to Singapore and participated in the defence of the Malacca Peninsula in early 1942. Toosey’s leadership here attracted the attention of his senior commanders.

He was decorated for his courage and when it became clear that Singapore would fall, he was ordered to look after an evacuation transport. Efforts were made to save as many important officers as possible for efforts on other fronts. Toosey refused with the motivation that he preferred to follow his soldiers in captivity.

As prisoners of war, Toosey and the men of his regiment moved to Thailand, where they were stationed in the Tamarkan camp, about five kilometres outside the town of Kanchanaburi. Together with 2,000 other prisoners of war, they were forced to build bridge 271, which would later gain fame as the bridge over the River Kwai. This was the largest river crossing in the Japanese’s major railway construction and crossed the Khwae Yai, an approximately 150-meter-wide tributary of the greater Mae Klong.

Toosey and the other prisoners had a difficult situation. On the one hand, by working with the bridge, they did not want to contribute to the Japanese war efforts, on the other hand, this particular work was a prerequisite for survival. Anyone who did not want to work was beaten by the camp guards, sometimes to death.

Toosey, as the highest-ranking British officer became camp commander. He fought to make the lives of the prisoners as bearable as possible.

Toosey’s method was to administer the camp with its staff and with maintained orders, partly to reduce friction areas with the Japanese, to achieve a functioning and fair distribution of food, accommodation conditions, workload and access to health care and so on.

Toosey was beaten by the Japanese many times but eventually won their respect. His main argument for the Japanese to treat prisoners humanely was that they worked better if they were healthy than if they were sick. In this way, the bridge could be completed more quickly, which was in the Japanese self-interest. Toosey consistently defended his men in conflicts with the prison guards, visited the camp hospitals daily and attended every funeral.

The contrast between Tamarkan and other camps along the “Railway of Death” was striking. In camps, further west, anarchy and the power of the strong sometimes prevailed, but Tamarkan was well managed under Toosey’s leadership.

When the bridge was completed, Toosey was kept at Tamarkan. There he was given the task of reorganizing the camp into a central hospital for prisoners. The Japanese later placed him as a commander in other concentration camps. Toosey survived the war, he lost a to of weight but regained much of his physical health. Like many other prisoners, he suffered from post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life though. He died in 1975.

Locomotive for the Death Railway seen at Yasukuni museum Tokyo
A locomotive from the Death Railway exhibited at the Tsukiji Shrine museum in Tokyo.

The Railway Man

Not as famous a story as The Bridge over River Kwai. The autobiography The Railway Man is also a true story. I have read it many times in the shorter version in Readers Digest. And it was filmed in 2013, just a year after Eric Lomax passed away, a Scot that also worked here to build a railway after the mass capitulations of fortress Singapore. The movie was directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.  Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine play Lomax at different ages. Nicole Kidman plays Patti, the nurse who befriended and also married Eric Lomax. Lomax suffered major ordeals at the construction of the railway, torture such as waterboarding and he was interrogated by a Japanese Takashi Nagase that had no choice but to follow his officer’s orders but was very reluctant to do this work for the Japanese War Machine. In his heart, he didn’t agree with the methods the Japanese were using. Before the war, Takashi Nagase was an English teacher in Japan. Lomax book is about the reconciliation with his captor and it is very gripping. How he first constantly is on the search to find the interpreter that was present during all the torture because he wants to punish him, and finally end up in a lifetime friendship with him instead.

A statue of Takashi Nagase also wrote about his experience at Kanchanaburi in the book Crosses and Tigers. The Japanese interpreter also suffered from his experiences at the Death Railway. He tried to drown himself at one point. Nagase did a lot of work to get former guards and POWs to meet and reconcile. He was on a constant mission to Kanchanaburi visiting the town no less than 135 times. He met Lomax in 1993 and 1998 here.

The Narrow Road to Deep North, a story of impossible love and mateship among Australians during WWII, by Richard Flanagan and James Clavell’s King Rat about the POWs in Singapore’s Changi prison are also good reads about this time in history.

Bombing the new bridge every year

The yearly festival of bombing the bridge takes place at the end of November or early December yearly. It is a sound and light show that reenacts the World War II bombing of The River Kwai Bridge.

Other places to visit

The ancient Khmer ruins called Prasat Muang Singh is a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the most western ruins from Khmer Empire discovered in Thailand. Prasat Luang Singhs construction dates from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Erawan waterfall in the Erawan National Park has seven separate tiers. One of the prettiest waterfalls in Thailand. In the park, you also find caves in Limestone rocks to explore.

If you have time continue to Sanghkaburi for a quite picturesque and unique feeling of a small Thai town.

Forgive but don’t forget

That is the mantra at Kanchanburi today. Five million people visited this area in 2015, so if you one time feel it is rather hot on the train or somewhere else. Please remember the prisoners and laborers that worked here during the WWII.
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