I am leaving Kanchanaburi tomorrow in a pensive mood. While this town at the gateway to the mountains separating Myanmar and Thailand draws tourists and backpackers by the crowds to hike to waterfalls, laze away in riverside huts, and explore multiple temples and national parks, I came for the history.
A rather somber history. For the past two days I have been communing with the past. This morning I caught the first blushes of dawn while standing solidly in the middle of the steel bridge spanning the Kwai River. Yes, that “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” Pinks and purples splashed the sky and mist hung like a curtain over the still river. I had the bridge in the darkness to myself, just me and the fisherman poling his tiny raft-like boat into the floating vegetation to checks his nets and traps. As soon as the sun would blaze huge and red above Kanchanaburi’s skyline, the tourists and tacky souvenir hawkers would descend. For now, I could be alone with the beauty of the moment, a haunting moment knowing as I do how the bridge and the rest of the rail line was built, on the thousands of lives of Allied POWs and Asian forced labor.
During WW2, as the Japanese overextended into Burma, they realized they only had one way to supply their new territory – by the shipping lanes into Rangoon, vulnerable to Allied naval and air attacks. So the Japanese military pushed for rapid construction of a vital rail line through the mountains from Thailand, a rough and dangerous stretch of rock and jungle. The labor? British and Australian POWs, as well as a smattering of Americans and Dutch, all captured in the SE Asian territories and islands as Japan captured country after country.
The conditions were deplorable, the sanitation and health of the camps not of concern to the Japanese. The labor force toiled for up to 18 hours a day, every day, in harrowing situations, chiseling down into the mountain to create cuttings (open-air train tunnels) using only hand tools and dynamite. Erecting huge wooden trestle bridges. Building the famous steel bridge over the river. Tools? Rudmentary. Clothing? What was on their backs rotted away and the Japanese military did not replace them. Soon the men were working in only a g-string made from scraps of cloth. No shoes, no hard hats, and certainly no safety harnesses as they clung to mountain sides and scaled massive bridges under construction.
Thousands died – of the 60,000 POWs and 100,000 estimated Asian forced labor, over 45% of them died, their graves scattered in makeshift graveyards all along the rail line.
I rode the surviving section of the rail from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok. The train clacks steadily through mostly rural farmland, the farmers harvesting huge dense bouquets of sugarcane, among other crops, the mountains soaring in the background. But after about an hour, the train hits the dramatic mountains and crawls over a surviving viaduct trestle bridge, literally anchored into the rock cliff face. To lean out the window and look straight down at far below mountainside and the river valley is dizzying.
A visit to Hellfire Pass Memorial only cemented my mix of awe and deep sadness. This section is now a trail for walking and remembrance, extending 4 km. I concentrated on Hellfire Pass, a deep, long cutting into the rock through which the train once passed. Scattered bits of rusty metal pieces from the rail still litter the area and personal memorials to lost beloved family line the path. The sun filtered through the trees and bamboo onto the path, birds sung. It was a pleasant, cheery hike, completely at odds with the ghosts of the past horrors lingering here.
I am glad I came, but I leave subdued and contemplating my own grandfather’s service in the Pacific, what might have been if the Japanese had attacked Samoa.
Tomorrow, onward again.