In Kanchanaburi, David Whitley looks beyond the Bridge Over The River Kwai tourism industry to learn of the horrors suffered by Allied POWs in World War II 

The carriage is crowded. Those standing are lurching over those sitting, angling for the best view out of the window as the train appears to fly over the river. The wooden trestle bridges that carry the train around the hillsides at Thamkrasae are engineering marvels – but they’re ones with a dark past.

The railway line was constructed during World War II. The Japanese wanted to connect Thailand and Burma properly, so that they could get troops and heavy weaponry over the mountains that divide the two countries in preparation for an invasion of India.

The 415 kilometre rail link should have taken five years to build, but the Japanese tried to do it in a year-and-a-half. And they did this by putting prisoners of war to work in brutal conditions. The men were forced to work 16 to 18 hour days, slogging away in camps that were riddled with tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery.

The most famous site along the line, however, is the Bridge Over The River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. Made famous by a largely preposterous book and an even more ludicrous film, thousands of people every year flock to Kanchanaburi to take photos of the bridge. Even though it wasn’t built in Thailand, most of it is a reconstruction, it’s not over the River Kwai, and there’s no river called the Kwai in the area.

The bridge is originally from Java. It was brought over because the Japanese lacked raw materials to build new ones – it was better to strip less important regions of the new empire. That bridge was repeatedly bombed by the Allies during the war, and very little of the original remains. The river is actually the Khwae – pronounced like the ‘quare’ in square – and the bridge isn’t over it. It’s over a tributary that was called the Mae Klong at the time and has since been renamed the Khwae Noi as a sop to confused tourists.

This doesn’t mean Kanchanaburi isn’t worth visiting, however. To the contrary, it’s the best place to learn about the whole Death Railway project. The cemetery for the Allied and Dutch soldiers who died during the construction is just outside the Thai-Burma Railway Centre.

This has long functioned as a research hub, trying to find out as much as possible about the POWs who were forced to work on the railway. It’s also a superb museum.

It covers the backstory – Japan’s 1930s incursions into China and imperial ambitions that set off World War II in the East – but focuses on the conditions the POWs had to put up with. Some of the pictures of the emaciated men, every rib of the cage clearly visible, are horrific. There was no modern machinery. Most of the digging was done by hand, and there are photos of malnourished men having to push huge carts of rubble away from the construction site.

The brutality involved is also covered, but it’s the reasoning behind it that’s often more interesting than the descriptions of the punishments. In the Japanese Army, anyone could inflict corporal punishment on those of a lower rank. The guards were often at the lowest rank (and were often Korean rather than Japanese). Much of the beating and depriving of rations would be about taking out their own frustrations.

As often with war, it’s the personal rather than the widescale that brings a lump to the throat. At one point there is a list of the members of a single Australian platoon, stating matter-of-factly what happened to them. One died of cardiac beri-beri, another of a fractured skull, another at sea on a Japanese ship because the Japanese refused to tell the Allies which ones were transporting POWs and it was bombed by friendly fire.

Elsewhere, there’s a case full of beautifully engraved cigarette tins. They weren’t originally like that – the POWs did the engraving themselves. It was one creative outlet in a world of despair and squalor. Humanity is at its most affecting when it is desperately clung on to.


You can get Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the Islands included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW