Bridge on the River Kwai

In popular culture, the Bridge on the River Kwai is the stuff of legends. David Lean’s 1957 film about a group of prisoners of war forced to construct a railroad between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) for their Japanese captors is a masterpiece that most people over a certain age have seen. A Heart of Darkness for the WWII generation, the film—and the true story behind it—continues to carry strong emotive force even today.

Bridge on the River Kwai
Bridge on the River Kwai

For visitors to Thailand, then, a visit to the Bridge on the River Kwai is an eye-opening and memorable experience. Situated next to the town of Kanchanaburi, which is only a short train ride away from the country’s capital, Bangkok, the bridge is an easily reachable destination whether you want to come here on a simple day trip or on a nightlong stopover. The Kanchanaburi Bridge is a popular sight to see, but it doesn’t quite attract the tourist droves of, say, the Grand Palace or the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. As a result, you’ll find traveling her a comfortable experience; while there are plenty of tourist provisions available, such as guesthouses and eateries, they are not completely overrun by busloads of foreign visitors.

As iconic as it is, Kanchanaburi Bridge has a history steeped in blood. The Thailand Burma Railway is often referred to ominously as the Death Railway. Forced to work in simply horrendous conditions by day before being detained in inhumanely small camps by night, hundreds of thousands of POWs died during the construction of the railway. As the film documents, these prisoners were stuck in a terrible Catch-22 scenario: They had to work for their captors to stay alive, but then the Death Railway was being constructed precisely so the Japanese could fight the Allied forces on the Burmese Front. The construction of the Kanchanaburi bridge was, in a manner of speaking, an act of treason, though to fault the prisoners for their work would probably be an accusation beyond even the most hard-lining of nationalists.

While visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai, taking a few hours out to explore the Thailand Burma Railway Center is a good way to ensure you come to grips fully with the railway’s past. This excellent visitor’s center exhibits numerous artifacts and explanations pertaining to the bridge’s construction and to the historical forces that surrounded it.

It’s still possible to take a ride on the Death Railway all the way to the Burmese border. The train is an old-school steam train that chugs along, pulling wooden carriages up around mountains, past cliff faces, and through dense jungle. Like the toy train in Darjeeling, riding this train is a fascinating glimpse into the past, though the experience is probably more harrowing here than on its Indian counterpart. As the train pushes along its tracks, past farmers and their rudimentary huts, it’s hard not to cast one's mind back to the human toll that went in to the creation of the railway. This is an eye-opening, scenic, and eminently historic tourist attraction in Thailand; it’s not quite as immediately pleasurable as sitting on a beach in Phuket or trying out the nightlife in Bangkok, but it is something that will stay in your mind once you return home from your travels.

Top image: xiquinhosilva (flickr)

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