25 Nov Living History and a Journey on the Death Railway
One of the best things about travel is that you get to discover history in a way you never could sat at home reading a book. Visiting a place, exploring its museums and walking its streets helps you understand how past events have shaped the culture and lives of the people who live there; in particular I find that seeing firsthand places scarred by war or tragedy makes history real in a way that mere pictures and words never can. I’ll never forget, for example, walking the eerie, earthquake-destroyed streets of Christchurch in New Zealand, exploring the ruins of Pompeii or reading the missing posters plastered around ground zero a few months after September 11th, when I was just 18 years old on a college trip.
We have a lot of this learning ahead of us in the next few months as we journey through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma – all of which have been heavily touched by wars; many of which occurred in the not too distant past. I’m trying to prepare for the sobering and heart wrenching things we will learn on our trip by reading up on these countries before we arrive. This is especially important because back at school in the UK, we were taught a great deal about European history but little about the rest of the world.
Learning about the Bridge over the River Kwai
I didn’t know much about the Burma Thailand railway or how and why it was constructed before we visited Kanchanaburi in Thailand, although I had a vague memory of my Dad watching The Bridge over the River Kwai when I was a kid. Andrew and I had visited Kanchanaburi on our first trip to Thailand in 2009 and we were eager to take my parents there when they visited this summer. Our first stop was the excellent Thailand Burma Railway Centre next to the war cemetery, followed by a trip to the infamous river Kwai Bridge. If you don’t know about the history of the death railway, here’s a brief overview of what I learnt in Kanchanaburi.
During World War II the Japanese invaded Burma, which had previously been under British rule, as part of their campaign to gain control of South-East Asia. They quickly set about establishing an accessible route through Thailand to Burma so that they could easily transport troops and supplies without coming under attack by allied forces. This meant building a 258 mile long railway through thick jungle and mountainous terrain, a task which took about 16 months to complete and killed over 102,000 men in the process.
The Japanese forcefully recruited 250,000 Asian men and around 61,000 mostly British, Australian and Dutch prisoners of war to construct the railway line. Work took place in hellish conditions; during the fierce heat and humidity of the dry season and through continuous downpours during the wet season. Men worked long, exhausting hours on starvation rations with little rest or medical care and under the brutal eye of Japanese guards. Starvation, injuries and diseases such as malaria, dysentery and cholera caused many deaths but men were also tortured, beaten and killed by Japanese soldiers.
Looking around the museum, reading the stories of men who survived and seeing pictures of the horrific conditions they were forced to live and work under I could scarcely believe that anyone survived working on the railway line. Overall, one in every five men died during construction; 90,000 Asian men and 12,400 prisoners of war. While military training meant prisoners of war were better able to withstand the harsh conditions and organise their camps; they were also given slightly more food than the Asian workers and had more medical knowledge, which helped more of them to survive. By contrast, Asian labourers suffered harsher conditions and died more frequently. Prisoners of war also kept records of casualties and tried to bury their dead in marked graves, which made recovering bodies at the end of the war easier. Looking around the museums and war cemeteries it’s easy to feel that the prisoners of war are better commemorated than the Asian victims – even though far fewer of them died in comparison.
Visiting Hellfire Pass and Riding the Death Railway
Aside from learning about the war history, Kanchanaburi is a great place to relax. The quiet little Thai town is surrounded by mountains and lush forests, the river running alongside it like a thick, brown snake. We stayed at Apple’s Retreat, a quiet guesthouse right on the river bank only ten minutes away from the famous bridge. After a couple of days Andrew headed off to meet his sisters in Koh Phi Phi and my parents and I were joined by my friend Jo. Eager to see more of the stunning northern Thai scenery and learn more about Kanchanaburi’s history, we decided to take a trip up to Hellfire Pass.
We caught a local bus a couple of hours out into the mountains up to Hellfire pass, a part of the railway line which was particularly difficult to construct because it required men to cut through vast sections or sheer rock with only hand tools and dynamite. The air was hanging low and misty above the mountains as we went into the museum and we emerged later to full-on rain. My dad and Jo braved a short walk in the downpour to see the historic hellfire pass itself before we hitched a lift in a local’s pickup truck to the train station.
Now it was time to settle down for the two-hour journey back to Kanchanaburi on the actual death railway line itself. Although it was still drizzly outside, the scenery was spectacular as we chugged along, perching on wooden benches with all the windows pulled wide open; throughout our journey I continued to remind myself of how every inch of the line had been built. Since the train ended up stopping half way for no particular reason, adding almost an hour to our journey, it was dark by the time the train crawled across the bridge over the river Kwai. Lit by colourful lights which reflected off the water, the bridge looked beautiful, despite the grisly history it represents.