The Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi

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.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

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.

The Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi

The Bridge over the River Kwai

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.

Scenery in Northern Thailand

Scenery near Hellfire Pass

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.

Death Railway War Cemetery

One of the war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi

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.

Hellfire Pass, Thailand

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.

A trip on The Death Railway, Thailand

A trip on The Death Railway line

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.

  • Kerri
    Posted at 18:42h, 25 November Reply

    Amy I can’ t agree with you more. On our adventures, I have gained a deeper understanding of history by actually visiting the sites versus from learning from history books. This was especially true when we visited Auschwitz this last summer. It gave me a whole new appreciations of what the conditions in the camps were really like.

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:08h, 26 November Reply

      I bet Auschwitz was harrowing Kerri; I would really like to go there too to better understand those terrible events though. I am loving learning so much about history as we travel – it’s one of the best things about being on the road.

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 12:39h, 26 November Reply

    Definitely agree that traveling is what helps bring history alive. I’m really not a history buff at all, and even as a bookworm, reading about this stuff normally puts me to sleep. I have a much easier time getting interested in it when it’s all around me and I can really appreciate the scope and ramifications of what went down. I definitely felt this when we were traveling in Cambodia; it was actually quite shocking to keep realizing how relatively recent all of this was and how little of it we ever hear about or learn about back in the west. We’ve not been to Kanchanaburi, though we may do a daytrip with my parents when we’re back in Thailand in a few weeks time.

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:19h, 28 November Reply

      Hi Steph, I would definitely recommend Kanchanaburi. We’re fully expecting to find Cambodian history shocking and saddening too; at the moment we’re in Laos and learning about all the bombs the US dropped here during the Vietnam war and have found that quite sobering too. Still, we are learning so much more about the history of South East Asia than we ever would have back home in England.

  • The Guy
    Posted at 03:19h, 27 November Reply

    Very interesting post Amy and I totally agree with you about the history. I’m always fascinated by history and what to know why things are the way they are.

    I’m just finishing a trip in the US and over the last few weekends I’ve been exploring some historical sites which I’ve really enjoyed. Can’t wait to blog about them too.

    I’m jealous of you being to Pompeii, I’d love to go there. As for Auschwitz, I went over 20 years ago and found it an emotionally numbing experience. Maybe that was a self protection mechanism since what took place there was so horrific.

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:23h, 28 November Reply

      Ah, I’ll be interested to hear about the historical sites you visited in the US; we’re hoping to get over there in 2015. Auschwitz sounds harrowing – I’m sure it would be a very worthwhile experience though.

  • Patti
    Posted at 07:11h, 28 November Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. Seeing the sites and experiencing the local cultures are key components of travel, but the history – the history for me is the best part of the adventure. I think it is incredible to walk in the path of others… we have so much to appreciate and so much to learn from those who came before us.

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:25h, 28 November Reply

      So true Patti, we must all study history to make sure we learn from the mistakes and tragedies of the past – travel really brings all that alive.

  • Carmel
    Posted at 04:50h, 01 December Reply

    Since we decided to go back to Bangkok before heading to Cambodia for Christmas, this trip has gone back on the table. I really hope we can make it.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:56h, 01 December Reply

      Good news – I look forward to hearing what you make of Kanchanaburi.

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