River Kwai & Burma Railway

We had made arrangements for a tour to the River Kwai and the Burma Railway (Death Railway) which is located in Kanchanabur.  We had to catch a van at 7:30 in the morning, which then took us to the tour companies main transfer station  somewhere in the city.  After we got a little purple stickers, that allowed the tour guide to know which tours we had paid for, we were off  through the city, out onto the open highway touring past  many small villages, and through several toll booths.   It was approximately 2.5 hours trip to the river, but as usual so much to see.  Our driver was a bit of a speed demon, which was at times scary.  He didn’t get us to our destination any sooner  though  as getting pulled over for speeding, not once, but twice only added to the length of the trip. In any case, we did get there in one piece.  The movie  “Bridge over The River Kwai” is a fictional story that made this area famous.  It is a beautiful place, and of course has been transformed into a tourist destination with a great deal of memorabilia, although again, easy to stroll through as the merchants are always busy on cell phones! We did walk across the bridge, and the river looked so inviting in the heat.  It appeared to be more clean than anything else we’ve seen on this adventure, but I suspect it is still filthy.  The  Kuang Im Chapel,  a Buddhist temple sits on the opposite side of the river, and although we didn’t have time to explore it, we did get a closer look when we walked across the bridge.  It was so nice to be out of the city and surrounded by some Thailand nature.  As we neared the opposite side of the bridge we heard a strange, to us, bird.  We stood for a moment looking for it, and Gus was able to capture a wonderful photo.  I’m not sure what its name is, but it truly was a wonderful song it was singing.

There are people which think these tours are exploiting the survivors and  those that lost their lives while the railway was being built.  However,  my opinion is innocent people make a good living through various jobs with the operations of the trains and tours. Some only know this bridge and river from the movie, which again is fictional.    I feel its important that people see what went on during the war, and in some cases it may cause people to feel differently after the experience of being and seeing first hand,through the photos and memorabilia. Unfortunately the tour company we used for this tour seems to get tourists to the  sites, but no information was relayed to us.   We basically see what we want to see, and do what we want to do, and then be back to the  van at a specific time.   Done at the Bridge, we were off to a train station that would take us on a 45 minute (5 stops) railway tour. Once we got to the station we  had a 10 minute wait before the train pulled in, and it was here that we encountered the rudest person on our entire adventure.  In reality,  I don’t think we encountered any rude people, until now. Really it was a joke, and I actually laughed out loud at the feeble mindlessness of this woman.   We were told to sit on the left side (River Kwai side)  if possible.  We found our seats, facing each other. Gus sat facing back, and I sat facing forward –  with another passenger.  Even though she had her cameras etc. on the seat between her and the window, the seats were large enough to fit three people each, so it wasn’t like I was crowding the her. The train starts to chug along, and we are enjoying the view, it was so beautiful, again going through villages and the very fertile farmlands.  We stopped at a station about 15 minutes into the ride. The couple sitting across from us got off the train.  It was another 15 minutes when I  realized we were along the famous part of the railroad where we would be going over a bridge, with the river on one side, and a rock wall, inches from the window on the other.  I stepped across the isle  to take a photo out the opposite window, and when I turned to sit back down she had moved over, leaving me very little room to sit.  Rather than ride backwards; you know motion sickness and all, I stayed on the other seat.

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I couldn’t believe the audacity!  At one point everyone from the right hand side of the train got up to see the view of the river on the left hand side.  It was spectacular, and I know this because  I got up –  like everyone else and leaned out her window…I think she may have got my portrait in all her pictures with the River Kwai below us!  So happy we could share our holiday with such a wonderful person, no wonder she was travelling alone.   In 1885 The British Government surveyed the route for a railway between Thailand and Burma. At that time they  viewed the route to be too difficult as they would have to pass over many rivers, and the jungle terrain. However in June 1942, as the Japanese invaded, they found using the sea was too dangerous, and made the ships too vulnerable to attacked by the allies. A railway from Thailand to Burma was a more reasonable option.   They began building the railway 1942, and was completed in a record amount of time in October 1943.  But the price that was paid were thousands of lives.  There is always conflicting stories, but in general the consensus is over 180,000 civilians , and over 60,000 POW’s worked on the railway.  Thousands died during that time, thus the name, “The Death Railway”.   There are many accounts of how the “working” men of the railroad were treated, but one thing remains constant,  they were beaten, tortured,  overworked, and underfed. Living conditions were atrocious and no medicine for the sick.  Many succumbed to malnutrition and disease.  If you are interested in more history of this railway, there are 6 videos  here that have a great deal of information.

We disembarked the train at Wang Po, where we were shuffled onto the van for a short drive to a Resort on the River Kwai.  Resorts in Thailand are not quite what one from the west would imagine.   It was a little worn looking, and I almost slipped going down the steep sidewalk, but caught the handrail.  The floating café was built very simple, and you could see the water through the floorboards, although good for cleaning crumbs off tables and or floors, the floor boards were warped and uneven, so you had to watch your step!   It was a buffet style lunch, and the food was very good, even went back for a second helping of noodles! The washrooms were a little on the used side as well, and although you could see the water line going to the toilet, you did not see one that would take any away, it was a western toilet though, so I was thankful for small things.    A couple of girls that on our tour were staying here for a few nights, touring the area.  As peaceful as it was,  I was happy we were returning to Bangkok.  Several of the people had booked a bamboo raft trip for after lunch, and so as they prepared to leave those of us who didn’t,  loaded back into a different van and, happily with a different driver.  Although the van was older and not as nice as what we arrived in,  the air conditioning worked and we headed up to the Sai Yok Waterfalls.

Being the dry season the falls were not quite as spectacular as what I had imagine.  But it was still very nice, and peaceful in the country.   Of course I read several signs warning  about the rocks being slippery, but on the way back down I crossed the creek, using the same rock I used going up, but this time wasn’t so lucky.    Yes, landed on my left hip.  Fortunately, only a bruise – that went from red, to purple to green/yellow! At least I wasn’t going to be tempted to go swimming at a pool at the hotel! We wandered around, enjoying the shade and all the flora and fauna.  Then stumbled upon a train at the top of the hill which is one the  Japanese used to haul supplies during the war. 

With our self guided walk over, we were back in the van and headed  towards Bangkok, with one more stop.   One lady on the van was a little annoyed with the stop as they had stopped here on the way to the River Kwai, understandably, she sat in the cool van while the rest of us got out to see the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.  It is the main cemetery for the  Prisoner  of the Japanese that were  imprisoned, and consequently died  while building the railway. There are three memorial cemeteries in Thailand.  The commonwealth graves commission does the upkeep on this cemetery, and I have to admit, it was not what I was expecting.  It is a beautiful tribute to those men, some very young men, who lost their lives during this horrible time in history.  There are several registry books at the gate you pass through, and you can find the plots to anyone you might be trying to find very easily. Strange, you couldn’t leave anything out like that in North America, it would have to replaced every day, however here…it appears the books have been there for quite some time.  

We were able to wander for about 20 minutes.  Despite the fact that it is a beautifully kept cemetery, the haunting reality comes back when you see the ages of many of the young men rested here, those that succumbed to the brutality of the Japanese. Obviously we didn’t look at ALL the tombstones, but those I did had ages ranging from 22 to 35, young men just beginning their lives, those with young families back home, so sad this was their fate. A little somber getting back into the van to continue our trip back into the city.  I felt much safer returning to the city, the trip was uneventful, with no speeding tickets, cutting people off, or going around the block to avoid going through a red light!  Another long, hot day under our belt!  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining…tomorrow will be another day in paradise! That night we went to a noodle hut on the street for dinner.  The soup I ordered was HOT, not sure what was in it, but it was so good, I couldn’t stop eating it.  Back at our hotel we had our usual nightcap,  over looking the church, discussing the day, listening to the monks chant and watched yet again a beautiful sunset.

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With only a couple more days before we depart for Canada, I need to still get my massage.  While I was able to convince Gus to have a foot massage in Hue, I don’t think he will be persuaded to go for a 90 minute message here.

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