The Kwai River Bridge
Our journey through Thailand takes us to Kanchanaburi, a beautiful region that I really appreciate, with its surrounding mountains, valleys, rivers, fields of crops and splendid rice paddies.
My idea was to take this train ride through the mountains along the famous River Kwai, from Kanchanaburi to the terminus of the line at the small station of Nam Tok.
This line, traditionally known as the "Train of Death", takes you after a few kilometres to a site steeped in history... you'll soon know when you see the images that follow the explanation of this rather intriguing... even shocking title.
Step by step, I'm going to tell you how we discovered this highly touristic place, which is very popular with tourists from all over the world.
The Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi today looks nothing like the photo above, which was taken from David Lean's famous 1957 film.
There are two ways to take the train to Kanchanaburi. Obviously, if you're travelling on your own, like us, with the family and the car... the best thing to do is to buy your ticket and choose your seat in a carriage at the small station in town...
If you're in a group, you won't have it so easy and you'll have to follow the collective movement, that goes without saying. There's a good chance that you'll board the train at the small station close to the bridge... but that's a minor detail.
Very quickly, we discover a train ready to start. The train is very old (it must date from the 50s), the windows are open and the only air-conditioning is limited to fans hanging from the ceiling.
The interior is spotlessly clean!
Stop at the station just before the bridge
It's especially here, at the little station just before the bridge, that the crowds really start to show... in a matter of seconds the carriages fill up with groups of tourists...
All the windows are open, and the fans hanging from the ceiling are on full blast to stir up the hot air... that's promising! If the train looks really old, it's certainly clean and well maintained.
Pancake and soft drink vendors pass by every five minutes in the central aisle...
Most of the time, it's dozens of onlookers walking on this metal frame to have their photo taken (I did it too...).
Leaving behind us Kanchanaburi and its various memorials, we travel at a leisurely pace through the local countryside, which resembles all the countryside in Thailand... the train must not exceed 45km/h...
The train of death
About 45km from our departure point, we reached Thamkrasae Bridge.
I really wanted to see this viaduct up close, as I wasn't feeling very emotional on the train. Of course, the panoramic views were very beautiful to contemplate, but I needed more: we decided to go on foot to see the details of this construction more closely.
The text (at the end of the article: "The tragedy of the Bridge on the River Kwai") that I discovered recently really emphasises the difference between what the American film shows us and what the harsh reality was.
The sight of those huge, dense, hard, extremely heavy wooden beams being used to build that line in such a wild place, infested with snakes, mosquitoes and other critters (crocodiles? tigers? I don't know if you can imagine the suffering of all those prisoners suffocating in the humid heat, injuring themselves, falling ill, living in inhuman conditions, and getting just a bowl of rice at the end of the day... and probably very little care... absolute horror!
More than 90,000 prisoners died here from exhaustion and disease, so it's a truly moving and sad thought.
In any case, when I discovered this incredible structure (which might seem almost commonplace nowadays, with all the technical resources available to construction companies), I was truly meditative, contemplative and overwhelmed.
One thing's for sure, this visit wasn't just a stroll... but an overwhelming discovery.
Nam Tok is not far off, and the train winds its way quietly through pine trees, bamboo and steep cliffs...
Nam Tok, terminus
The military cemetery Kanchanaburi
Le terrain sur lequel se trouve ce cimetière est un don du peuple thaïlandais pour le repos perpétuel des marins, des soldats et des aviateurs qui sont honorés ici.
The Train on Google
On the Map
The Bridge on the River Kwai tragedy
The construction of the Bangkok - Rangoon line by the Japanese in 1942-1943 resulted in 90,000 deaths.
"(...) Many of you will never see your homes again. We will build the line, even if we have to run it over the white man's body." Not exactly an inspiring speech by Japanese Lieutenant-Colonel Nagatomo Yoshitada in the summer of 1942 to the Western prisoners of war mobilised to build the Bangkok - Rangoon railway!
The reality turned out to be even worse: in sixteen months of construction, more than 90,000 forced labourers lost their lives on the 415 kilometres of this "railway of death" running along the River Kwai. Asian coolies paid the heaviest price, but at least 12,400 British, Australian, Dutch and American soldiers and officers also perished on this journey to the end of hell.
Much worse than the film
This is a far cry from the famous seven-Oscar-winning drama Bridge on the River Kwai, which director David Lean adapted in 1957 from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, a former resistance fighter and British Secret Service agent in South-East Asia.
The mythical bridge, located in Kanchanaburi, was indeed built by a workforce of Western and Asian prisoners, as the British-American feature film recounts. But "their conditions were much worse than those described in the film "*, points out interpreter Nagase Takashi, who was present on the Thai railway worksite at the time.
"The film is a total fiction that completely idealises the conduct of the British prisoners "**, adds Japanese lieutenant Abe Hiroshi, who ran a labour camp and was convicted of war crimes. In reality, the British convicts did not contribute their know-how to the construction of the bridge. Nor did they blow up the structure. The bridge was only bombed later by the Allied forces. Rebuilt by the Japanese as war damage, it still exists and is much visited by tourists.
The hell of the jungle
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a much watered-down account of the atrocities of forced labour imposed on prisoners of war by the Japanese armed forces, in defiance of the Hague and Geneva Conventions. In fact, as historian Jean-Louis Margolin writes, "the Bangkok - Rangoon railway was the epicentre of the horror".
Carried out in the hellish mountainous and swampy jungle of the peninsula, the aim of the project was to link the Thai and Burmese rail networks as a matter of urgency, at a time when Allied submarines were blocking the sea routes. The Japanese strategic objective was to facilitate the transport and supply of troops to the north of Burma, where the Japanese army was fighting the British, Americans and Chinese.
To build this new line, the General Staff was able to call on a large workforce that could be worked to death: around 200,000 Asian "romusha" (forced labourers) and more than 60,000 Western "slave soldiers".
The prisoners were transported by boat or train in freight wagons, "real iron cages" where "the heat was unbearable, between 40 and 50 degrees", according to the young engineer Klaas Kooy, who endured a six-day journey in such conditions. The prisoners then made their way on foot to the camps along the route of the railway, during arduous forced marches in the rain and mud: "Some of us were so exhausted that we couldn't get up. Our Japanese guards threw themselves on top of them, shouting and kicking," recounts Dutch prisoner Loet Velmans in his memoirs.
Living conditions in the camps were described as "very harsh" or "atrocious". Housing and hygiene were catastrophic, food was cruelly lacking, the rice was rotten and the water unsanitary.
The inmates eat anything vaguely edible, leaves and roots, snakes, crabs, small mammals... including a British regimental mascot. "I've eaten raw worms from latrines. They didn't taste at all. Absolutely not to be recommended," notes sarcastically Dutch cavalry officer Klaas Kooy, who does not hesitate to compare the situation in the cantonments to the Nazi extermination camps.
Most of the forced labourers fell ill: malaria, cholera, various infections. In the Hintok camp, Australian military doctor Edward "Weary" Dunlop had to admit 2,882 patients in six months. The most common illnesses were malaria, dysentery and enteritis.
According to Singaporean Tan Choon Keng, the sight of these men pushed to the limits of their strength was terrifying: "Many were so emaciated, so haggard (...) Some had to use banana leaves as sarongs". Loet Velmans confirms: "At 21, I must have looked like one of those walking skeletons you see in the photos of Bergen-Belsen."
The railway line was completed in October 1943. But for the survivors, the physical and psychological hell would continue for years. After the war, their mortality rate was four times higher than that of ex-combatants.
* Jean-Louis Margolin, L'armée de l'empereur - Violences et crimes du Japon en guerre 1937-1945, Editions Armand Colin, 2007.
** Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore Cook, Le Japon en guerre 1931-1945, Editions de Fallois, 2015.
Source: Pascal Fleury (Published on 11.11.2016) - www.laliberte.ch
A film that has marked a generation...
For people of my generation, it is clear that when we talk about "The Kwai River Bridge" we immediately think of the 1957 film directed by David Lean, but also of the music of the film which was regularly whistling by many people on the street....
For a long time, this title only referred to the hit film that everyone knows and nothing else. Even today, we still make the connection with the film and it is inevitable.
Unfortunately, this story of a prison camp lost somewhere in the depths of Asia, without anyone knowing exactly where, was very real.
Even today, many people still do not know where this famous bridge on the Kwai River is located and are often surprised to learn that it is located in Thailand, three hours' drive west of Bangkok...
Colonel Nicholsson (Alec Guiness) probably never existed, the bamboo bridge maybe either, who knows....
The film of course distorted reality, it's normal... classic technique: we use a frame and a story and we arrange all this in a Hollywood style.
At the time, Asia was so far away... it took several days to get there and it was a long and tiring battle course. Very few people went to these regions to do tourism, which only increased the imagination of the film.
The French writer, Pierre Boulle, was far from thinking that his novel would be such a success in American cinema. It was not the only success he experienced, since a few years later, he wrote the novel "La Planète des Singes" which has since made its way.
Since the release of this film, the title "The Kwai River Bridge" has always been a dream and still is. I read these days on an English website that even today, this destination remains one of the priorities for many tourists arriving in Thailand for the first time.
Just look at the number of tourists walking on the bridge in Kanchanaburi, having their picture taken and contemplating the metal structure, which has nothing to do with the film itself, which was made of bamboo...
The few pictures I propose today will show you the bridge itself, but also and especially the railway built on a long and impressive viaduct leaning against the cliffs overlooking the Kwai River.
The previous text "The Bridge on the River Kwai Tragedy" is rather harsh: it does not seek to destroy the work of the film's directors and novelists, but explains how the real situation on the spot was even worse than the film portrays...