Kanchanburi - death railway

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February 23rd 2009
Published: February 26th 2009
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Monday 23rd
Not sad to check out of the 'Holiday Hotel'. We found a nice little cafe attached to a bakery on the walk to the bus station, so managed to have nice croissants with coffee. We clambered aboard the creaky but uncrowded bus for the first leg to Suphanburi It was a very slow bus and took what we assume was the back roads through lovely green paddy fields. I saw numerous varieties of birds. This part of the journey should have taken two and a half hours but took more like three and a quarter - in fact we became worried that we might have missed the destination but in fact it was as we suspected the terminus. Refreshed with an ice cream we boarded the second bus and got uneventfully to Kanchanaburi a further two and a half hours later. We found a nice guest house called the Blue Star with a room ( Jen negotiated a discount from 350 to 300 baht a night by paying four nights in advance). It is well placed just to the north end of the main strip and just a short stroll from the famous Bridge on the River Kwae.

Tuesday 24th
We headed to the museum which commemorates the Thai-Burma or so called Death Railway. During it's two year construction 10,000 British, Australian and Dutch POW's plus perhaps 90,000 Asian workers died through maltreatment and disease. The museum is moving. I knew that many of my fellow Norfolkmen died here so it was especially poignant when I came across one exhibit. It is a tin of personal effects which he'd carried with him belonging to a survivor of the death railway from the Norfolk Regiment. His widow found the tin only after he'd died and he'd never revealed it to anyone. The descriptions of the fate these men endured is heartbreaking.
After the museum we visited the War Cemetery right alongside which is immaculately maintained. Immediately I was struck by the number of graves of Norfolk Regiment men with the prominent Britannia symbol. We walked up and down every other row so that we were able to read them all. We endured the heat for under an hour doing this - but these men slaved away fn heat conditions like this for up to 16 hours a day performing heavy labour - day after day - with insufficient food and virtually no medical supplies whilst subjected to brutal treatment. They were of course mostly young when they died - perhaps mostly 22,23,24. We've been so lucky not to encounter anything like this in our lifetime. We also visited the Australian and Dutch sections. The fate of the Asian labourers was just as awful but they are mostly buried in unmarked graves out by the railway. Later we headed out just pre sunset to see the Bridge over the River Kwae from the road bridge downstream.

Wednesday 25th
We were up before first light and to the railway station to catch the first train of the day out along the Death Railway. We wanted to avoid the tourist hordes. The train was due out at 6:56am but was unexpectedly late so we got to see the sunrise from the platform. It left eventually at about 8am. Almost immediately we crossed the bridge made famous by the film. At the station we'd met a young Australian girl called Amy, who became our companion for the day. The track first follows low lying plains through agricultural fields then starts to skirt the river and hills. High mountains line the horizon - marking the border with Burma. The line runs along wooden support at a scenic spot where ir runs above the river on a tight curve. The train is much used by locals and became busy with lively schoolkids. Perhaps it would give the old POW's some solace to see it used for such a peaceful purpose rather than the military one for which the Japanese had it built. The line now terminates at a small town called Nam Tok. There we found the main road and caught the bus (having to run as it arrived as we neared he stop). We knew only roughly where we had to get off and were becoming concerned that we'd overshot when the 'Hellfire Pass' sign appeared. We strolled in the heat to the museum. Hellfire Pass is a particularly historic part of the railway where the POW's and Asian workers hacked a deep cutting mostly with handtools through the bare rock. I was shocked by its depth and the misery this represented. The Australian Government have cleared the jungle from a further 5km of the former track as a memorial and we decided to walk it. It passes through further cuttings and up and down where there used to be bridges. There was virtually no shade and the heat was indescribable. I don't think I've ever sweated so much. Again we could only think of the suffering of the POW's having to slave and be brutally treated in these conditions. At one point there is a magnificent vista out over the valley from which the horse shoe shape of this section of the former track can be seen. Something I hadn't anticipated was the amazing noise created by the insects which must have been maddening. We ( Amy, Jen and myself) eventually reached the end of the walking trail at Compressor Pass having passed such features as the site of the 'Pack of Cards' bridge and Three-tier bridge - with bomb craters still visible. A sign indicates that it is possible with care to walk a few kilometres further but we were exhausted by the terrain and heat and getting low on water due to excessive consumption due to the heat, so we turned back. We'd seen no one else since getting about 200 meters away from Hellfire Pass. The walk back seemed much faster - perhaps as we imagined cold water back at the museum. The museum is dignified and a worthy memorial. We caught the local bus back to town and later after refreshing showers treated ourselves to a good Thai curry and a well deserved couple of beers. Sad to think that some of those Norfolk lads on the railway never tasted beer again.

Thursday 26th

We strolled out to the Bridge over the River Kwae and walked out over it with many other tourists (surprisingly many of them French). There are only a few trains a day and they cross at 5 mph so it is not foolhardy. An elephant was at the far end of the bridge and Jen bought it some bananas which it devoured rapidly. (Apparently it was a 57 year old female). There are places where you can stand as a train crosses - which I did when one pulled off from the station by the bridge. After iced coffees we visited a bizarre museum by the bridge which has a curious and eclectic collection. The original curator and founder must have been an eccentric - it is mostly war memorabilia but there are also stamps, jewellery, minerals, cars motorbikes, a locomotive and even a section on former Miss Thailands. Some of the written documents on display re the Death Railway are very interesting particularly excerpts from a work by a Japanese Army translator who worked on the railway. Back near our guesthouse I had what may be my last papaya salad for a while.


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