Saturday, March 19

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai was an epic Hollywood blockbuster. Released in 1957, it won seven Academy Awards, and has often been lauded as one of the greatest war epics of all time.  The movie’s screenplay is pure fiction.  However, the bridge around which the central plot revolves can be found about 128 kms north of Bangkok.

It was one of two bridges built by allied prisoners of war in 1943 as part of the Japanese Imperial Army’s notorious Death Railway line.  One bridge was temporary wooden structure while other bridge, constructed from concrete and steel is still standing today.  Its formidable structure spans the Mae Klong River near the town of Kanchanaburi.

The bridge's curved steel spans are original, and were brought from Java by the Japanese. However, the two straight-sided spans in the central section both come from Japan.  They were installed after the war to replace spans destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1945.

Kanchanaburi itself is fascinating place.  The original township was built along the river's edge. Each house was built on stilts in a manner that let them rise and fall as the river's level changed. Today the township is split between a land-based community founded in part by the Japanese army and the original water-borne buildings. Tourists are encouraged to make their way to the bridge via the river and thus experience the old township's unique location.

Garry and I visited the township and its famous bridge as part our overnight visit to Hellfire Pass.  Prior to our arrival we’d worked an entire weekend at the Nuremburg Toy Fair and were in need a break before plunging into our next round of business meetings in Bangkok.  To help us unwind we booked a night at a remote hotel floating on the river itself.

The Kwai River Raft Hotel was an amazing location. To reach it we had to travel by long boat about 15 minutes up river.  The venue itself is a string of wooden rafts upon which a series of thatched roof hotel rooms have been constructed.  The facilities were well maintained but relatively primitive.  There was no electricity and hot water.  Instead the staff lit kerosene lanterns in the evening and its more emboldens guests enjoyed refreshing cold showers.

However, despite its simple set up the hotel was well worth a visit.  We enjoyed reasonably civilised meals and found ourselves unwinding as we ventured “off the gird”.  With no television, internet or local entertainment we had plenty of time to rest and relax and soak in some wonderful river scenery. 
The complex is operated and staff by native Mon people from a nearby village.  We actually took a walking tour of the village shortly after we arrived.  Highlights of the tour included a visit to the local school’s open-air classroom and a pristine white and gold Buddhist stupa that sat serenely in the jungle.

However, for me the real highlight of our time on the River Kwai was the infamous bridge itself.  We were surprised, and delighted, to discover that we could actually walk across the bridge and explore its imposing structure first hand.  It was mind-blowing to think that more than 70 years ago allied bombers had been targeting the very location upon which we were standing. 

 Sadly, the harsh reality of war was bought home to us when we subsequently visited the Death Railway Museum.  It sits opposite the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where almost 7,000 POWs, who sacrificed their lives constructing the Death Railway are buried.  The museum itself houses an excellent exhibit on the railway.  It was established in 2003 by an ex-pat Australian who wanted to research and preserve the region’s POW legacy.

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