We’re finally leaving Bangkok. Travelling by train (yes to avoid the Bangkok highways and for speed – we need to get to Chiang Mai) from Thonburi Station, Bangkok Noi, we planned to catch the 13.35 to Kanchanaburi, home of the bridge over the River Kwai. As we approached the station, it looked more like a train graveyard than a station, I wad doubtful that trains ever left here! However as we got closer, we saw a platform and people waiting, so that was a step in the right direction. The train was at 13.55 and cost 100 Baht each, plus 180 for the two bikes.
Already engrossed in my book...
So off we go, with a few snacks from the roadside stall in hand, at a slow pace. It’s a 3rd class train so I’m not expecting it to fly, but this is a little slow. Ah well relax and enjoy the journey. We are due to arrive at 16.20. After 45mins, the train stops and sits, then after lots of loud jolting and banging of metal, the train begins to go backwards! Not so good. We end up back where we started an hour ago, at Thonburi station! Hmmn cue Thomas the tank engine music. It appears that the engine train is ‘bloken’. A new engine,that Chris now nicknames Thomas, arrives and after more banging and jolting we set off again. Only now we are going really really fast, should… er… a train go this fast??
Stopped again. The main in uniform is on his walkie talkie, strolling up and down the platform outside. There isn’t much in the way of information round here, so no one has much idea what’s happening. Chris informs me that it might be a box junction and that because the train is now running late, we may have to wait for another train to pass. I have no idea how he knows this. Now resigned to a long journey I open my book, the excellent A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson and lose myself in the rather entertaining world of the sub-atomic, particles with strange names that only exist theoretically ( no one has actually seen one) oh and Flash Gordon. Chris meanwhile is writing an article on choosing a touring bike, on our laptop. A few minutes later a train comes from the opposite direction, passes us and we set off again. Needless to say, I now know what a box junction is.
So our 2 and 3/4 hr journey turns into 5 hrs and we arrive in Kanchanaburi about 7pm, both feeling weary and slightly bewildered – where exactly did the day go? We load the bikes and head straight to the town to find a guesthouse and some food. We end up going to the main drag to No Name bar, with the rather charming slogan of ‘get shitfaced on a shoestring’ – primarily because they serve bangers and mash. Anyone who knows me well, probably knows that I love mash potato. Thai food doesn’t really feature potato very heavily, so I had to seize the opportunity. It was very good and came with fried onions and gravy! We ended up having a couple of beers and talking till late about the planets, chance, fate, witchcraft, how unlikely it is that we should even exist at all, how lucky… all the usual topics you might expect in an evening down the pub, ha ha!
Next day, a scorcher even by Thai standards – 36 degrees at 11am – we head to the Railway Museum to learn more about the story behind Kanchanaburi and the bridge. It’s air-conditioned, 100 Baht to get in and free tea/coffee at the end. It was well worth the entry fee and an excellent place to start. The exhibition is very well presented and helps to re-create the conditions that the POWs were living and working in. It also explains the Japanese involvement in WWII and their prolific advancement through SE Asia. The well known film concentrates on the bridge and depicts British POWs, however the Japanese project here was on a much bigger scale. The men were building a railway from Thailand to Burma, cutting through the mountains and building several bridges, and they were not just British. Prisoners from Australia, Holland and America were there too, plus of course the Thai people, Burmese, Malays and Indian workers (mostly drafted by force) who often get forgotten. They were subject to horrific conditions; near starvation, dysentery from unclean water supplies, disease from mosquitoes, injuries and sickness sustained from working, the heat and the brutality. It was truly horrendous and 100,000 men died in 3 years at various camps along the railway. One board explained that ‘food rations were withheld from those who were sick to encourage them to return to work’. Most of these men were dying or seriously ill, many due to lack of food and nutrients ( medics prescribed marmite as medicine)! Shocking.
I found it a very moving exhibition and made me very glad (selfishly) that both my brother and partner – both of a similar age to many of the men who died here – were not alive during WWII. I know that my Grandad was in Burma during the war, however I know nothing of his time there or the horrors he may have encountered.
Final resting place
The cemetery opposite marks many graves of the men who died here. It is beautifully kept and there were people tending to the plants and grass around the headstones whilst we were there. So far from home, I’d be glad to know that so many people visited and remembered.
At the bridge
From there we cycled to the Bridge, which was a little underwhelming. It isn’t a wooden trestle bridge as seen in the film, in fact it’s concrete and steel. The surrounding area is now filled with restaurants and shops, with lots of people milling around. The river has floating Kareoke bars going up and down. No matter how hard i tried, I couldn’t imagine it as a POW camp.
As we cycle on, I can’t help thinking that even on the hardest, toughest days that we might have cycling, I’m pretty sure that none of them compare to the days endured by the prisoners of 1940-1943.