More than a movie, the death railway that is the bridge on the River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai sits in infamy as a classic world war two movie. Based on a fictional book by French writer Pierre Boulle, it features the construction of the Burma Railway between 1942-43. Dig deeper into this films own history, and you’ll see it has quite a bit of controversy in its own right. But, that is not why I am here.
Temporarily based along Bangkok’s MRT/BTS rail lines I really wanted a break from the hot humid city, and rail seemed the best way to do this. Not having plans to travel “all” of Thailand, I looked for a place a little out, but not too far. Kanchanaburi seemed like an ideal place. 5km from the “Bridge on the river Kwai”, the town looked peaceful, idyllic, and not so far removed from civilisation.
What’s more, there’s a special weekend tourist train that leaves from Bangkok’s main train station Hualamphong at a cost of 120 Bhat. It saved me the time and trouble making it over to the second station at Thonburi, which seems to have moved. There are also a bevy of tourist buses making the route everyday.
Somehow taking a tourist bus to the bridge on the river Kwai, just doesn’t seem right
Bangkok to the bridge on the River Kwai by train
Special mention has to go to the Thai people on this great weekend train. There were very few international tourists here. Everyone seemed to be from Thailand. And, they really were exceptionally nice.
The conductor was a lovely old smiley man in a brown uniform that marched up and down with a megaphone and had everyone singing and joking along with him. Barely a word of English, yet still his grin was enough entertainment for the hot train ride.If you had a birthday, you were made the center of attention one way or another.
A stop at Pathom Chedi for breakfast was unnecessary, but in hindsight if I’d known about it I wouldn’t be writing this with an almighty pain in my stomach.
Passing over some shaky cliff-sides
I thought I’d seen the last of my bad bridges in Nepal. But the Bangkok to Kanchanaburi route passes over a rocky cliff side face where there’s a bridge set made from wooden girders.
The train slows to about 5mph and eeks along this corner of rickety old wooden beams. Meanwhile, everyone in the train carriages rushes to the windows for a glimpse of this uneasy crossing. But, as the Thai’s do, everyone still smiles.
By 9.50am we were at the bridge.
What’s the real Bridge on the River Kwai like?
Black painted iron and concrete with some wooden girders, it’s a well-kept rail bridge that stretches over a green looking river. On either side they have made some small walkways for people to cross over. Each with an area away from the rail so passing trains (2 a day) can ride by.
I walked the old rail bridge and somehow didn’t get the feeling I was seeing anything so special. A strange thing for me as I like WWII history. Maybe it was because it has been well documented already, or maybe because my stomach was still in a tight rebellion over breakfast.
At the end of the bridge was a lone Thai man on a small guitar playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Tourists walked past, each of us trying to take a photograph of the famous bridge … a famous bridge over a river that once upon a time really didn’t exist!
The hidden truth behind the bridge on the River Kwai: history rewritten
This famous bridge, is really only famous due to the movie. One that the book’s author, French writer Pierre Boulle, had based here as he presumed the river Kwai ran north of Kanchanaburi town. He was wrong; it was the river Mae Klong. And so this is actually “The Bridge on the River Mae Klong”.
In the 1960’s during the release of the Blockbuster movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, the river Mae Klong was renamed Khwae Yai River or River Kwai. Purely to associate it with the movie, and the droves of tourists heading there.
Add to all this the fact that the movie was actually shot in Sri Lanka, and it really makes for a bizarre history in its own right. But, in reality there is a very chilling real history to this railway line.
The Death Railways death toll
In 1942, Japanese forces had invaded Burma via Thailand and taken the then colony from the British. To keep supplies running to the area, and avoid their disadvantage at sea, the Japanese started the railway project in June 1942. Originally a concept of the British in the early 20th century, it was abandoned due to the harsh and difficult terrain. The Japanese had no intention to let this stop them.
Approximately 90,000 Asian laborers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project.
The famous movie came under heavy criticism as many POWs stated that their treatment along this railway was far more brutal than the film told. The producers stated that they would never have been allowed to show such treatment by the censors of that time.
A famous song, I make use of to this day
A bridge over a river that never was. A movie that wasn’t able to tell the whole the truth. And a train that still runs today. I could tear it all apart. But, that’s history, one way or another.
In the movie there’s a scene with a famous song: “Colonel Bogey’s March” or “Bridge on the River Kwai Theme”.
I use it when I am frustrated in certain circumstances. No one in East Asia seems to really “get it”.
You can listen to the famous tune on this youtube video from the movie a bridge over river Kwai.
At the time the lyrics were also deemed too vulgar for the film, so they just whistled the tune. Much like the real meaning of the song, it made many people laugh as it was bypassing the censors yet still being blatant with its meaning. What’s more, it made some people, very proud in hearing it during the honorable, inevitable, march scene.
In case you have no idea what all this means. Here are the lyrics:
Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim’lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.
There are several variants of the wording. Indeed, Wikipedia has a whole article dedicated to the lyrics (source). Whichever one you prefer, the result is the same.
No matter how frustrated one gets, or how bad things can seem. If you get the tune/song, it can work wonders.
How to get to The Bridge on the River Kwai from Bangkok
- There are numerous tour buses offering day trips or transport to Kanchanaburi, where the Bridge on the river Kwai is found, via mini van and bus.
- Via train there is a special weekend tourist train that leaves from Bangkok’s main train station Hualamphong at a cost of approx 130 bhat. The weekend train leaves about 6am and returns at 6pm-7pm from Hualamphong with tickets available in advance.
- Another option is to take a train from Bangkok’s Thonburi station.
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Kanchanaburi: photos of the remembered