Day 36: We had a snooze-on today until nearly 9am – unusual for us, but it’s good to have a lazy start to the day every now and then. After breakfast, we threw on our walking gear, grabbed our map and headed out to explore a chunk of Kanchanaburi.
The town is really interesting – endless sights and historical landmarks to walk around, but it can be a little tricky to get to the bottom of the real story behind the Burma-Thailand railway, also called the Death Railway. The 1957 British-American movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” (itself based on the 1952 novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai) contains lots of fiction, and the bridge as it stands today has been rebuilt a number of times.
We thought we’d start by getting our heads around some real facts – so walked to the JEATH Museum – its name derived from countries that were involved in the WWII death railway construction from 1942 to 1945: Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland. It’s an excellent, though harrowing, exhibition depicting the harsh living conditions of the prisoners of war through a collection of original black and white photographs, letters, newspaper articles and war relics.
There’s also an unexploded Allied bomb at the museum, which was dropped with the intention of destroying the bridge.
The British had already surveyed the railway route in the 19th century, but never built it, as it was deemed to be too difficult and expensive to complete. During the second world war, after the Japanese seized control of Burma from the British, they took on the railway project as a military supply line for the movement of troops and goods to the Burma front, and ultimately in preparation for their invasion of India.
The project had an initial anticipated time frame of 5 years to completion, however by forcing the Allied prisoners of war to work on the railway line, for up to 18 hours per day, and engaging hundreds of thousands of Asian laborers, they completed the 415km line in only 16 months, on 17 October, 1943.
A combination of overwork, hideous brutality from Japanese and Korean engineers and guards, sickness (particularly dysentery, malaria, beriberi and cholera) and starvation took its toll. The POW diet comprised only rice and vegetables twice a day. Over 12,000 Allied prisoners, plus around 100,000 Malays, Tamils, Burmese, Javanese and Thai laborers, died during its construction.
The bridge as it stands today is a concrete and steel construction and was completed in April 1943, a few months after the original wooden bridge up-river of which there are no remains. Both bridges were regularly bombed and damaged but were quickly repaired, until a final bomb in June 1945 put the entire railway out of action. The square spans of the bridge are the replacements for the arched spans which were destroyed.
When we’d finished at the museum, we walked along one of the main roads to the Chungkai War Cemetery, the larger of the town’s two war cemeteries.
Of the nearly 7,000 soldiers buried there, nearly half were British. The rest were mainly from Australia and the Netherlands (there were a number of small Australian flags planted one some of the graves). The immaculate grounds are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We spent a while wandering around, reading inscriptions on the gravestones – sobering stuff.
With enough history under our belts for one day, we headed home for a quick rest, then wandered out to one of the local bars popular with Australians and English. Usually we tend to avoid them, but felt like a bit of lively activity and banter after the visits of the morning. We joined a long table of people sinking beers outside on the street, and quickly found ourselves in conversation with the guys sitting next to us – it’s always fascinating to hear about people’s lives.
One guy has just started a 2 month volunteering program 25km outside Kanchanaburi, teaching English to very young kids. He got divorced, lost his house, chucked in his job as a nurse in Brisbane and decided to start a new life abroad. The English couple sitting opposite have retired – they sold everything they owned, and headed to Asia with just two suitcases, their entire remaining possessions. They’ve lived in Thailand for nearly a year on a study visa, and while they don’t know where is next, they’re adamant they won’t be going back to the UK. The guy to Lil’s left has lived in Kanchanaburi for 10 years – he said he ‘didn’t mean to stay’ but is now happily settled – though we suspect a large number of his waking hours are spent happily settled in the pub.
The English couple tried to convince us to join them for 50 cent shots at a bar up the road, but we sensibly declined and headed for dinner. Hangovers aren’t something we can easily handle any more. As we walked up the street, we spotted a fabulous hand-drawn banner ripping off the Starbucks logo. We were tempted to pop in and ask for a Grande skinny extra hot soy caramel latte with extra foam.
We also passed a bunch of ‘self-serve’ public washing machines which have seen a lot of action – the numbers on the front depict the number of Baht for a load of washing.
A Thai vegetarian restaurant called On’s Thai-Issan was recommended to us so decided to give it a go, and wow it was ridiculously good. We wrote our choices on a small lined pad then the the whole Thai family got involved in cooking our dinner. The dishes were awesome – a Massaman curry with tofu; banana flower salad, and fried curry rice – all superb.
Earlier in the day we spotted one of the local bars had a sign saying a blues-rock band was playing at 8.30pm, so we wandered along to have a listen. Our expectations weren’t high, but it turns out the band was really great. In one of the breaks, we chatted about how amazing it is that non-English speakers can learn the vocals to so many English songs (probably without understanding what most of them mean). There were a few glitches like “Blushing her long brond hair”, and “Sweet Home Alabumbum” – but really, who cares? Given we speak zero Thai (or pretty much any language other than English really), we were seriously impressed. Lovely guys too.
And then home to bed at the end of another fabulous packed day. Tomorrow we’ll do some more exploring, and we may even rent bikes to pedal to a big tree.