Beyond the beaches and brightness of Thailand is a deeper story of hardship and heartbreak from World War II that I wanted to discover by travelling to see the Death railway and the Bridge over the Kwai.
After seeing the film “The Railway Man”, I realised being in Thailand was the perfect opportunity to see and learn more about this important part of our history that I knew so little about.
Early morning at Mochit bus station, Bangkok was the location agreed to meet up with my friend Tanzeena and her partner for a day exploring the reality of war on the building of the Thai-Burma Railway. We caught a local minibus which hurtled along to Kanchanaburi, 120km away from Bangkok and jumped aboard a larger local bus just pulling away that would take us to Hellfire Pass and Museum. We ran and caught it just in time, although it was standing room only. One scary moment came as we were nearing the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) and police got on board to check identity papers, which we didn’t have on us. Luckily they ignored us!
Hellfire Pass museum is set in what is now a peaceful and beautiful part of Thai countryside.
The location marks one of the toughest sections of railway construction built by Allied Prisoners of War and Asian workers on the demand of the Japanese. The railway was constructed to allow food and weapons to be imported to support Japanese troops in Burma (now Myanmar). The reason it was called “Hellfire” was due to the fires that burnt through the night forcing people to keep working in terrible conditions and painting a picture of hell on earth.
The Japanese were merciless in their treatment of the people in their custody. They were not well fed, kept in terrible conditions and forced to labour even if they were sick. What brought it home to me was a letter on display by a young man from Luton writing back to his family in the UK. He was an ordinary person caught up in this bizarre other-world so foreign, far-away and awful. Listening to recordings from POW’s that survived, the key thing that got them through such a horrendous experience was camaraderie and the care of their friends. On completion of the railway around 90,000 Asian workers and almost 13,000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and America had died.
“On completion of the railway around 90,000 Asian workers and almost 13,000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and America had died.”
Walking through the disused pass cut through solid high cliffs of rock was a moving experience. Small memorials left by family members were left tucked into crevices of stone.
We then headed to a nearby railway station and caught the old train that still rattles along significant parts of the death railway and over the river Kwai bridge for 4 hours back to Kanchanaburi.
Its strange to think such an enjoyable experience was built on the back of blood and horror. This was emphasised when we saw the vast area of land filled with the graves of men who died on the railway. It was a day I will always remember. So nice to be with friends and also so important to learn about a part of World War history not often known about.