The Bridge over the River Kwai today

The Burma Siam Death Railway

Having sorted out our passport problem, our Thai guide took us to Kanchanaburi. In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control. It was here that Asian forced labourers and Allied POWs, building the infamous Burma Railway, constructed a bridge; immortalised in the films The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Return from the River Kwai (1989) and The Railway Man (2013). The Japanese wanted to take goods from Bangkok to the Indian Ocean, without having to take ships round the southern tip of Malaya, where they were exposed to allied attack.

At Kanchanaburi, there is a memorial and two museums to commemorate the dead. The city is also home to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. There were between 200.000 and 300,000 "volunteer" native labourers from Malaya, India and other SE Asian countries. Around 100,000 of these died working on the railway 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans. After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese military officials were tried for war crimes because of their brutalization of POWs during the construction of the railway, with 32 of these sentenced to death. No compensation or reparations have been provided to Southeast Asian victims.

The Burma Siam Railway route

The Japanese had originally intended to use an Asian workforce to construct the railway, and indeed most of the railway labourers were from Burma, Java and Malaya - some 240,000 seems to be the most reliable estimate. However with the fall of Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia (then the Netherlands East Indies) in 1942, the occupying forces found themselves with a large number of prisoners of war, an event they had not planned for. What to do with these prisoners was a vexed question for the Japanese military administration for the first few weeks of their rule. It was then decided that these men - skilled, disciplined military personnel - were to be used to further the Japanese war effort.

The first group of PoWs who were ultimately to work on the railway, were those of 'A Force'. These 3,000 men were sent by ship to from Singapore to various places in Burma to work on airfield construction. Later in 1942 these isolated groups were concentrated at Thanbyuzayat to begin work on the Burma end of the railway. Construction began in June 1942, under the direction of the Imperial Japanese Army's 5th and 9th Railway Regiments. Gradually more forces were sent to Burma and Thailand; in total more than 60,000 prisoners of war were transported to the railway project during 1942-3. At the same time the 'Sweat Army' of labourers from Burma, ostensibly volunteers but many conscripted by the puppet Burmese government, toiled on the construction work. Conditions in Malaya after the capitulation of the Allies caused the collapse of agricultural production, forcing many undernourished Malayan plantation workers - mostly of Tamil extraction - to volunteer for work on the railway, the terms being "A dollar and a pound of rice per day". Many went purely for the rice.

The 415km line linking the Thai and Burmese railway systems was constructed simultaneously from both ends, Thanbyuzyat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Thailand. The appalling conditions for those working on the railway are well documented. The numbers of deaths speak for themselves. Disease (particularly dysentery, malaria, beriberi and savage cholera epidemics), starvation rations, overwork, poor or no accommodation or sanitation, and the individual brutality of Japanese and Korean engineers and guards, took their inevitable toll. About 13,000 prisoners of war perished during the period between late 1942 and late 1945. The numbers of deaths of the Asian labourers is harder to calculate; around 100,000 seems to be the most reliable figure. During the infamous 'speedo' period, July to October 1943, the desperation of the Japanese engineers to finish construction on time, under severe pressure from their superiors in Tokyo, meant that many men were forced to do grinding manual labour around the clock - 62 hours work out of 72 hours appears to be the record. Rest days were rare. This, combined with the first outbreak of cholera, caused the death toll to reach its peak during this time.

The Thai and Burmese sections of line were joined near Konkoita in October 1943. Actual construction took a mere sixteen months - some would say a remarkable engineering feat. After the line was completed all of the PoWs were transferred from remote jungle camps to base camps and hospitals. Some, after recovery, formed new work parties destined for Japan, others returned to Singapore. A large number of PoWs remained in the Thailand base camps until the end of the war.

The majority of the Asian labourers remained in the jungle camps to operate the railway under Japanese command, and to undertake maintenance work on the line. From time to time PoW work parties were taken back onto the line to carry out maintenance work and cut wood fuel for the locomotives. This work became crucial to the Japanese; the situation on the Burma Front was becoming critical for them and their vulnerability in the waters of the South China Sea meant that the railway was a vital supply route that had, at all costs, to remain operational. An average of six trains per day operated for the life of the line, well below original Japanese expectations but still a major contribution to their strength on the Burmese Front.

The railway continued to operate, with some interruptions, until the final victory of Allied forces in August 1945. Slowly the prisoners of war and Asian labourers were rehabilitated and returned home. Some former PoW's remained in Thailand and Burma to recover their comrades from remote maintenance camps, and to work on grave recovery parties. The railway then fell into disuse through lack of maintenance, and in 1947 the line and rolling stock were sold to the Thai Government. The money being used for war reparations and to compensate those countries who lost rail stock to the Japanese. By 1957 the Thai government re-opened the section of line from Nong Pladuk to Nam Tok (known during wartime as Tha Sao), and this part of the railway still operates today. Much of the abandoned section has now been reclaimed by the jungle, but embankments, cuttings and bridge sites can still be found


Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum, Next to Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Considered to be the best source of information regarding World War II in Thailand, railway construction and route, and the conditions endured by POWs and Asian labourers. I thought that they had gone a little too far in trying to be "fair". Very moving exhibits, including video and interactive displays. A visit takes at least one hour, and probably longer if you want to read everything.. Photography is prohibited, so I don't have any photos from inside the museum

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Bridge over the River Kwai . The most famous portion of the railway is Bridge 277, "The bridge on the River Kwai". There is a slight technical problem here, it crosses a river all right, but not the River Kwai. Pierre Boulle, who wrote the original book, had never been there. He knew that the 'death railway' ran parallel to the River Kwai for many miles, and assumed that it was the Kwai which it crossed just North of Kanchanaburi. He was wrong - It actually crosses the Mae Khlung. When David Lean's blockbuster film came out, this gave the Thais something of a problem. Thousands of tourists flocked to see the Bridge on the River Kwai, and they hadn't got one, all they had was a bridge over the Mae Khlung. So, with admirable lateral thinking, they renamed the river. Since 1960, the Mae Khlung has been known as the Kwai Yai ('Big Kwai) north of the confluence with the Kwai Noi ('Little Kwai), including the bit under the infamous Bridge. The Bridge on the River Kwai is about 5 km from the centre of Kanchanaburi.

We walked across the bridge on the wooden planks while waiting for our train. There were actually two bridges here, both built by prisoners of war - The first (wooden) bridge was completed in February 1943, superseded a few months later by the steel bridge which you see today. The curved steel bridge spans are original, and were brought from Java by the Japanese. However, the two straight-sided spans come from Japan, and were installed after the war to replace spans destroyed by allied bombing in 1945.

This bridge was immortalised by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, there are many who point out that both Boulle's story and the film based on it were utterly unrealistic and do not show how bad the conditions and treatment of prisoners were. In an interview made by former POW John Coast, which forms part of the 1969 BBC2 documentary Return to the River Kwai, Boulle outlined the reasoning which led him to conceive the character of Lt-Col Nicholson, who works to build the fictional bridge and ultimately tries to prevent its destruction.

The first wooden bridge over the Khwae Yai was finished in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943. It was this bridge 277 that was meant to be attacked with the use of the first-ever example of a precision-guided munitions in American service, the VB-1 Azon MCLOS-guided 1,000 lb ordnance on 23 January 1945 but bad weather scrubbed the mission. According to Hellfire Tours in Thailand, "The two bridges were successfully bombed on 13 February 1945 by the Royal Air Force. Repairs were carried out by POW labour and by April the wooden trestle bridge was back in operation. On 3 April a second raid by Liberator bombers of the U.S. Army Air Forces damaged the wooden bridge once again. Repair work continued and both bridges were operational again by the end of May. A second raid by the R.A.F. on 24 June put the railway out of commission for the rest of the war. After the Japanese surrender, the British Army removed 3.9 kilometres of track on the Thai-Burma border. A survey of the track had shown that its poor construction would not support commercial traffic. The track was sold to Thai Railways and the 130 km Ban Pong–Namtok section re laid and is in use today." The new railway did not fully connect with the Burmese system, as no bridge crossed the river between Moulmein on the south bank with Martaban on the north bank. Thus ferries were needed. A bridge was not built until Thanlwin Bridge in 2000–05.

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Wampo Viaduct (Wang Po)..We boarded our train at Kanchanaburi (at River Kwai Bridge station). After slowly crossing "the" bridge, our train picked up speed and rattled fairly quickly across an open plain.It then runs along the scenic River Kwai, passing at slow speed over the impressive Wampo Viaduct, also built by prisoners of war. The viaduct consists of wooden trestles alongside the river, nestling against the cliff side.

The train stops at, and we got off at, Tham Krasae Bridge Station and walked back to look at the cave that was used by PoWs

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Hellfire Pass -We then went by road to Hellfire pass. Having been taken over by the jungle when the railway was abandoned after WW2, this site was only re-discovered in the 1980s, Konyu Cutting (known as Hellfire Pass by POWs and Asian labourers who cut and blasted through rock by hand to clear this pass for the Death Railway). It has now, thanks to the Australian Government (as in Gallipoli, the British Government are conspicuously absent from any remembrance work here) has been reclaimed from the jungle as a profound war memorial. An excellent museum and self-guided walking tour facilities are available. The descent through the jungle down to the pass is a moving experience. Before leaving, take a moment to reflect at the peace lookout overlooking the beautiful Kwai Noi Valley.

Hellfire Pass in the Tenasserim Hills was a particularly difficult section of the line to build due to it being the largest rock cutting on the railway, coupled with its general remoteness and the lack of proper construction tools during building. The Australian, British, Dutch, other allied prisoners of war, along with Chinese, Malay, and Tamil labourers, were required by the Japanese to complete the cutting. Sixty-nine men were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the twelve weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion.

The Australian government has cleared about 7km of the old track-bed as a memorial to the allied prisoners and Asian labourers who died building the railway - though only 4 km is currently open to the public. The site includes the Hellfire Pass itself (Konyu Cutting, dubbed 'Hellfire Pass' by the PoWs for the way the work site looked at night by torchlight, and pictured right).

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Kanchanaburi War Cemetery  Saeng Chuto Rd (Opposite the railway station). 07:00-14:00. This is the final resting place of almost 7,000 POWs who gave their lives for the construction of the Death Railway to Burma. All POWs at this site are from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia. After WWII, the Allies moved all the buried POWs along the railway line to two war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi so as to be easier to maintain. The graves are set in straight lines with neatly mown lawns, and some have moving personal inscriptions. Exceptionally well maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is a sombre yet peaceful reminder of what happened.

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The Oriental Kwai Hotel was a perfect choice for us, as we were in the area to see the Bridge Over the River Kwai, the Death Railway museums and Hellfire Pass. We opted for a river view (yes that is a view of the River Kwai) villa, and would recommend that option to anyone. You can sit on you balcony and watch the river flow by. The villa itself is very comfortable, with lots of teak to give a traditional air. We did not see the much mentioned owner Djo here, but did see his wife Evelien, who is I think Dutch, and is very hospitable

The pool is of a reasonable size, and has beautiful garden surrounding it. We ate in the hotel restaurant both nights. The first night was a thunderstorm, so one could not eat on the balcony. The second night was clear, and we ate outside overlooking the river The hotel is a long way out of town and realistically you have no real choice other than to eat in the hotel. The breakfast is worth a mention. It is served rather than buffet. You choose one of several different "types" of breakfast. I particularly liked the Dutch Breakfast with a banana crepe. And had the same thing the second morning

So a good base for seeing the things there are to see, relics of the Death Railway, plus a ride on a train along the very tracks. The hotel makes a very good shelter after a difficult day fronting the realities of the brutality of the Japanese to Allied prisoners in WW2. I would thoroughly recommend this hotel

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And from Kanchanaburi, it was a 2 hour drive the next day to our final stop of the trip, the former Thai capital of Ayuthhaya

On to Ayuthhaya

Burma Holiday