Chitra Gopinathan | Published on Sun 13 Jan 2019 09:49 AM IST
The ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, is our destination in Bangkok for today. York, our guide, tells us that the drive from the capital will take over two hours. In the end it was closer to three. The first stop is Kanchanaburi, where the bridge is situated. The pronunciation for Kwai is not as we imagined but ‘qua’ as in ‘square’. At Kanchanaburi, we are dropped off at a bustling market place. A short walk takes us to the bridge. Tourists are lining either sides of not only the track, but also the small standing platform on the bridge. I wonder if it is safe to walk along the track when the train is arriving. But the train stops. When it starts again, it does so at a slow pace. Like a conductor getting ready for a performance and slowly lifting his baton, the engine gets into gear, slowly the tempo rises as the crowd get their cameras ready for action and away it slithers into the distance. The bridge we see today is not the original wooden one but a replaced metal version.
Our next stop is a restaurant next to the train station from where we are going to make a short trip on the 'Death railway'. From the coach, we can see mountains ahead and that is where we are heading. Corn fields give way to sugar cane and tapioca farms and then to the forest, where monkeys peer from the trees. The mountain road takes us to our delightful restaurant which nestles in the midst of a clearing in the forest. There is nothing fancy here, just benches and long tables. The terracotta flooring, low ceiling covered with mats and open-air setting with cheerful water features give it a cool and peaceful ambience. The buffet is equally pleasing.
One of the elderly gentlemen from the trip who is travelling on his own joins our table. His dad was a POW (prisoner of war) during the Second World War and was one of the British soldiers who survived the ordeal. He kept a diary from the time he was deployed till he returned home. The entries are short but describes the 250 kilometres he advanced during the period the railway line was built. I get the impression that he was a mentally and physically tough person to have survived the torturous journey and lived till the age of 92. I ask him what his dad had thought about David Lean’s film of the same title. Apparently, the difficulties endured were much more than what the film could portray.
The train station is walking distance from the restaurant and we get there with plenty of time to spare. The Death Railway as it is referred to was built to transport troops and supplies between Burma and Bangkok by the Japanese Army during the War using POWs and Asian labourers. As the train swivels around the bend on the cliff, York tells us to look down to see a treacherous part of the track. To build the track the men had to hammer and drill on the rock surfaces with minimum tools. Once the rocks were loosened, they used explosives to blow up the part of the mountain to make way for about 400 kilometres of track. Following this they had to carry and dispose of the shattered rock segments. I feel my heart go heavy and wonder how it would be for those who lost or knew someone who suffered at the hands of the Japanese army. The track that extends to Burma (Myanmar) doesn’t exist anymore, only the Thailand part survives.
We disembark after a couple of stops and join our coach. Next stop is the cemetery and War memorial museum. Here, we go through the history and details of the building of the rail track. It shows us in graphic details how the men were taken to Thailand under false pretences and the conditions that they endured on arrival and throughout their stay. Over hundred thousand men perished during this period. Of these over forty-five thousand were from Malaysia or Malaya as it was known then. Tamil Indians formed a large majority of this group. About 75000 unemployed Tamils, who had previously worked in the rubber plantations in Malaya were sent to Thailand to work on the railway. It seems that they formed a major portion of the Asians who died working on the railway line. Next to the museum is the cemetery. Plaques display the name, rank and age of the soldiers, but it seems that it is only the tip of the iceberg and many died with no records. There are memorials for most nationalities but none for the Asians.
On the journey back, Keith gives me his dad’s diary to read. His dad was one of the lucky ones. He worked as a cook and possibly had a slightly better deal compared to the other prisoners. His diary gives the feeling that despite experiencing bombings, shootings, contracting malaria, developing appendicitis and seeing people dying daily around him, he kept his spirits up. He never talked about his ordeal, 'apart from in anecdotes', according to Keith. Keith’s dad was a truly remarkable person and thousands like him disappeared during the war with no trace or record to show for it. This site and museum are the only markers of their life and although history keeps repeating itself despite the valuable lessons we learn in life, let us hope that their lives were not lost in vain. Keith made the trip holding on to his dad’s diary and memory close to his heart as he sat through the train journey and the trip to the museum. He was trying to find some closure to his dad’s ordeal and I hope he managed it. I, for one, am grateful that he shared the memories with me. As an Indian born and brought up in Malaysia, I felt sadness for the vast number of fallen and forgotten Indian men. I say a silent prayer for them.