Educational day in Kanchanaburi

(written by Dave)

We had a very interesting day here in Kanchanaburi.  I’ll admit being a bit jaded by the tourism created here by the River Kwai movie and subsequent commercialism, and to that end was somewhat sceptical about some of the sights before we saw them.  We started the day at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, otherwise known as the Death Railway Museum Research Centre.  Any museum with “Death” in it’s name conjures up images of some sort of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Wax Museum.

Well, as these things go, once I opened my mind a bit, I was in for a real learning experience.  For starters, the “Death Railway” is what the locals call it and they do so because so many of their countrymen died building it.  In the 19 months it took to build, 16,000 allied POWs and 90,000 SE Asia labourers died.  They had barely more than hand tools and built a 258 miles of railway what previously was nothing more than a jungle track.  If that wasn’t enough, they were treated pretty brutally by the Japanese – through both punishment and lack of food and shelter.

We walked to the war cemetery after the museum.  There are mostly Aussie, British and Dutch buried here.  The Americans were all repatriated after the war.  There is no cemetery for the locals who died as they were not tracked like POWs would have been.  The cemetery is the largest of three in the area, though it is not all that big.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the cemetery and not a blade of grass was out of place.

It was a bit of a walk to the bridge so we stopped on the way there for a nice fresh plate of Pad Thai.  Our Thai speaking has not gotten any better but we can order Pad Thai Chicken without much difficulty, and it’s our favourite so at least we won’t starve.

The bridge, like the museum, was eye-opening.  There are lots of stalls selling trinkets but once you get past them you walk out on to the actual bridge.  The middle 4 spans were rebuilt after the war as the Allied bombers took out the bridge during the war.  The rest of the bridge is original and in pretty good shape.  Despite of all the tourist stuff you couldn’t help but feel the presence of all folks who built the bridge.  It would have been real hard work, especially with no more than shovels and hammers.  Interestingly, just before the bridge there was a monument built by the Japanese even before the war was over in honour of those who lost their lives building the bridge.

I did a little more net research this afternoon and found that most people who criticised the River Kwai book or movie were upset at how pleasant the construction conditions were portrayed.  Having seen the museum and read all the history, it is clear to me that happy, well fed POWs whistling a nice tune while walking out to swing a hammer is far from what happened here.  However, perhaps toning down the truth made the movie more successful resulting in more folks learning about the railway.

At the museum we saw a video made of one of the guys who came up with the famous River Kwai tune that nearly everyone can whistle.  The interview was quite funny in that the words to the song were “bolloks and the same to you” – which essentially means “screw you”.  The Brits came up with the tune and words and sang it to their captors.  Since the Japanese did not speak English (British English no less), they had no idea what the POWs were singing.

For dinner we only managed to make it across the street from our guesthouse.  Nancy really wanted a hambuger and almost all the restaurants here have “western” food of some form.  Tai Thai, the restaurant across the road, has a very large menu and a lot of ‘farangs’ (as Westerners are called here) appear to patronise the place so we tried it.  Good food, lots of choices and both the hamburger and my green curry fried rice were very good.  We didn’t partake of the deep fried grasshopper, deep fried bamboo caterpillar or deep fried silkworm though – we’ll save that for another visit.

I have been hanging out in the restaurant using the free wi-fi while Nancy tried out the salon across the street for a haircut.  She is back now with a haircut that cost the equivalent of $6 – real value for money.

We are planning to hang out here for at least another day, perhaps more.  At least one of the towns  on our intended route is now officially flooded and a couple more may be in the same situation.  We need to suss it out a bit more before we head north.

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3 responses to “Educational day in Kanchanaburi

  1. Thank you for the history lesson. I think I’ll watch the movie again! As usual, wonderful pictures…

  2. I hadn’t seen the movie, so I looked up the song…. and sure enough, I knew the tune. I wasn’t able to find the lyrics, though, so that was interesting to read on your blog.

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