On weekends and holidays, a special day-excursion train runs from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station to the Bridge over the River Kwai. One of the more famous bridges in history, thanks to Pierre Boule’s 1952 novel and the 1957 film adaptation, the bridge stands as an emblem today for a darker piece of history: the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, a 250-kilometer stretch of railroad from Bangkok to central Burma (also known as Myanmar). The deceptively benign-sounding Thai-Burma Railway is more commonly known as the “Death Railway” for the 100,000-plus Allied prisoners of war and locals who died during its construction from 1942-1943. What imperial Japanese engineers anticipated would be a five-year project was completed in 14 months due to prisoner and indentured labor as well as the brutal pace set by the railroad’s overseers.
But in exploring the sobering story of the railway, a traveler is constantly confronted with strange juxtaposition: the beautiful countryside; the rail itself, cutting through like a black vein; and the unceasing kindness of the Thai people.
I woke up at 5 a.m. to catch the special excursion train. On the taxi ride to the train station, my driver tried to sell me on a personal driver out to Kanchanaburi, the town and train depot closest to the bridge. It would have certainly been quicker, although more expensive (by the end of the day, I would come to have spent less than $10 for my ticket, meal, and cab fare). But, for my money and its favorable exchange rate, there is no better way to see the bridge than by train, especially because the excursion train is one of the few actually permitted to cross it.
To get my seat, I had to speak with the conductor, a kindly, official-looking man who reminded me of a Thai Barney Fife. He sat me directly up front on something closer to a church pew than a seat. The train then filled up with Thais. The excursion train is far from luxurious, and it’s mostly the locals who take it, adding a fun, native flavor to the trip. Even though it was only 6:30 in the morning at this point, the Thais were in high, mirthful spirits. They came aboard telling stories and jokes, laughing, and passing around drinks.
Our first stop was Nakornpathorn, where we stopped for forty minutes. That gave me barely enough time to visit the Pathorn Chedi, the city’s major wat. No sooner had I taken a few snapshots than it was time to depart for the River Kwai Bridge. When I got back onboard, one of the train’s operators told me to “go back”, pointing towards the back of the train. He spoke very little English and avoided eye contact (in the deferential way of Thais), so it wasn’t until he took me by the arm that I understood what he was getting at. We passed through all five cars of the train (each one third-class) to the far back, where he sat me in my new seat. This one was cushioned, though.
“We go bump, bump, bump,” the operator said to me, gesturing with his hand either that we were about to enter rough terrain or he was about to drop a beat. As we took off over some rugged stretches, rattling and jostling, my hind end was grateful for the new seat.
Is there a better way to see a country than by train? Not only do you see more of it, but it gives the country more time to work its respective spell on you. Strangers in the seat became your accomplices in seeking out new corners of the land, and, despite any language barrier, it gives you a real sense of community. Nothing happens on airplanes; scarce space overall and even scarcer legroom dissuade you from moving about the cabin. Besides, when you’re tens of thousands of feet above the Earth, an eventless flight is a pleasant one. You see little of note while sailing, unless you’re coming in or out of port. But ride a train long enough, and something always happens, something always is there to be seen.
The countryside was dotted with sharp-roofed temples like dragon boats riding through the trees. Stray dogs would run alongside the train at certain intervals, hoping, I guess, for handouts from the train passengers. There was even a tall spire of some kind out in the middle of nowhere, something I still have no explanation for.
The train wasn’t air-conditioned, but had a row of old-time blade fans on the ceiling, which, when they worked, actually helped a bit. Additionally, with every window open, we were treated to cool gusts of air, along with surprise Yahoo Serious hair-dos.
When we arrived at the bridge, the conductor came down the aisle speaking through a megaphone. Thankfully, in the seats across from me was an Indian whose Thai girlfriend translated for us. We were getting only twenty minutes to see the bridge. This, the conductor assured us, was enough time to walk across and back to where the train would wait before crossing.
As with Pathom Chedi, it was barely enough time. I crossed with other tourists on foot. Towards the end of the bridge, a friendly Thai woman struck up a conversation with me. This is not all that uncommon with Thais and if they aren’t taxi drivers, it’s usually sincere. So we chatted for a few minutes. She told me she had twin daughters, one of whom was living in Washington DC (she grew excited when she learned I was from DC) and Vancouver. Then, as quick as that, it was time to go.
Back on the train, we crossed the bridge, gaining nice views of the river in both directions. The Death Railway Bridge isn’t the most spectacular of bridges, but as we crossed, the train grew nearly silent. In addition to POWs, thousands of Thais lost their lives in the construction of the railway, and the bridge served as a meditative symbol for them as much as anybody. The bridge was originally built in Java, but the Japanese dissembled it and shipped it to the Kwai River (or Mae Nam Khwae to the Thais) in 1942 as they began construction on the Thai-Burma Railway. During WWII, it was bombed repeatedly, and the bridge as it stands today benefitted from Japanese reparation money soon after the close of the war.