Crossing the Kwai on a train journey in Thailand

Crossing the Kwai on a train journey in Thailand

Dennis Cavagnaro

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is in the top rank of motion pictures. David Lean’s lushly photographed 1957 film, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, spun a wonderful though fictitious psychological tale based on an actual WWII event: the building of a bridge over the River Kwai on the Japanese-driven Thailand-Burma railway.

Today, we can hike across Thailand’s bridge on the River Kwai, ride across on the train or even do both on the same day.

Bridge crossing

There are no traces left of the wooden bridge which crossed the river, but its replacement, a 9-arched steel bridge which also was bombed by the Allies, was repaired and today serves the railway. Wooden planks have been laid between the rails for visitors to walk across. When trains slowly roll over the bridge, hikers can easily escape into small alcoves.

The bridge crosses the River Kwai Yai (Big). A little farther downstream the river is joined by the River Kwai Noi (Little). While the building of the original bridge was dramatized in the film, the far more difficult construction took place farther up the line, alongside the Kwai Noi. There it skirts above the river on trestles and ledges that were dynamited out of the sheer rocky hillside.

Taking the train

Air-conditioned tour buses take visitors to Kanchanaburi, where they board a train, cross the River Kwai Bridge and continue on to the railhead at Nam Tok.

A posh, air-conditioned train takes a long day to make the round trip from Hualamphong Station in central Bangkok on weekends and holidays.

The more adventurous can enjoy a view of Thailand and the friendly Thai people by taking the train–strictly third class–from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and then on to Nam Tok. The cost is 30 baht, or about 72 cents, one way. Because the train often runs late, it’s best to overnight in Nam Tok or Kanchanaburi. Both have nice tourist accommodations, including floating hotels on the River Kwai.

There are two daily ordinary trains departing Bangkok at 7:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m., respectively, for the scheduled 3-hour journey to Kanchanaburi. Do not count on punctuality.

These trains leave from the Bangkok Noi Station in Thonburi, a 5-minute ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River from central Bangkok. The Thonburi Station, a kilometer to the east, is handsome and seemingly functional, but the trains use the plain, no-nonsense Bangkok Noi Station. A bus shuttles passengers between stations. (Rumor has it that the Thonburi Station will eventually become a rail museum.)

All aboard

When I arrived after 7 a.m., the street markets, about two meters removed and paralleling the rails, were in midday form, To this North American, the scene looked like controlled chaos with charm.

A number of trains load and head west on the single-track line. At 7:45 I assumed that the next train would depart for Kanchanaburi. Since I obviously was the only non-hippie, non-Thai on the platform, my fellow passengers kept me from boarding the wrong train.

At 8:00 everything stopped as the loudspeakers played the Thai national anthem. Finally, at 8:15, my newly found friends ushered me aboard a 50-year-old but clean and well-painted coach carrying a removable signboard proclaiming “Bangkok Noi–Kanchanaburi.”

For the better part of an hour we crept alongside a very minor klong (canal), through neighborhoods of thatch- and tin-roofed homes on stilts, and past lotuses, reeds and bullrushes in the water, colorful flowers, banana palms, creeping vines hugging the tracks, small parks, Buddhist temples, barking dogs and cackling chickens.

Inside the train

The train’s third-class passenger cars were well maintained, but we sat on wooden benches and the air-conditioning system was open windows. The Thai travel in family groups, sports teams or groups of school classmates, so no one is lonely or ignored.

Almost immediately after departure a procession of vendors passed through the cars selling cold drinks (even Singha beer and Beer Chang), hot tea, shrimp chips, skewered meats, meatballs on a stick, cooked rice in banana leaves and candy.

With all the food and drinks brought onto the train or bought from the vendors, the cars could fill with trash, but every 15 minutes a sweeper came through collecting the trash and tidying the car.

Very few of the Thai people were actually headed for Kanchanaburi. At each station passengers, often family groups, would alight and be replaced by others–a real milk run.

Rural scenery

Before long we left the jungle-like branch line and timidly joined the double track mainline from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station. These tracks eventually lead through Malaysia to Singapore and are employed by the posh Eastern & Oriental Express and the first-class International Express.

We soon were reminded of our third-class status because at many stations we waited for more important trains to pass us.

The stations there and all through Thailand are well landscaped and lovingly tended. The clickity-clack of the branch-line rails gave way to the smooth bliss of welded rail. The vistas went as far as the eye could see.

Most of the area farming was the cultivation of rice. Farmers were seeding their flooded paddies, but, alas, the power tiller has replaced the loyal, tame water buffalo. Some of the paddies “grow” tall apartment blocks as Bangkok expands.

We passed a small compound of old airplanes, a number of the C-123 Vietnam War workhorses. Before we entered Nakhon Pathom, we passed a Christian cemetery.

Nakhon Pathom has Thailand’s largest chedi, or stupa. I remember flying over it during my service as a Marine Corps pilot way back in 1962. I was determined to visit it and did on the return trip. It’s only a few blocks from the station.

Kanchanaburi

Too soon we left the mare line–and the welded rail–at Nong Pla Duk Junction and turned northwest on a single-track line. We could reach out the train’s windows and touch the vegetation closing in on the track. Along the way were coconut and banana plantations.

Hills and mountains, many topped by temples, guarded the valley we were penetrating.

Without much warning we arrived at Kanchanaburi Station, our train’s terminus. We alighted and mingled with the travelers on package tours who’d come by bus.

Soon we all boarded a much longer train for Nam Tok. It crawled its way up to the Kwai River and stopped before crossing. Here the souvenir and T-shirt shop’s lining the tracks on both sides made it a zoo.

We were flanked by two well-painted but long-retired State Railways of Thailand wood-burning steam locomotives.

With a blast from our train’s diesel locomotive, we inched across the bridge on the River Kwai. Pedestrians on the bridge scurried into the alcoves and greeted us as we passed. Below on the river were garishly painted floating restaurants and hotels.

On the other side

After leaving the river we began a gentle climb through a narrowing valley dotted with orchards and stations lined with magnolias. In about an hour we reached the the so-called Death Railway at Wang Sing.

To those British, Dutch, Australian, American and other men unlucky enough to have been captured by the Imperial Japanese Army, as well as the much larger recruited Southeast Asian workforce, this line will be forever known as the Death Railway. Kanchanaburi has the cemeteries to prove it.

Here the train squeezes through deep, solid-rock cuts and then slows to cross the Wang Po viaduct where the 900-foot trestle bridge clings to the cliff face as it curves with the Kwai Noi. Most of the POWs who built this section perished.

Below, on the river, a number of floating hotels accommodate vacationers. As we passed, a bunch of kids with lilt vests floated with the current down to their hotels. I wished that I could have joined them.

A few minutes later we pulled into Nam Tok. The “package” travelers were met by their buses and I by a representative from my hotel, Pung-Waan Resort Kwai Yai (72/1 Moo 2 Turnbol Thamakham Ampur Muang; phone [66-2] 6776240, fax [66-2] 6776246 or visit www.pungwaanriverkwai.com/yai. Current rates are 1,600 to 2,200 baht [$38.50-$53]), in Kanchanaburi. It is a lovely hotel surrounded by well-kept gardens with a courtyard featuring a canal from the River Kwai Yai. It’s perfect for a honeymoon.

The next day engaged the hotel’s longtail boat to take me out to the bridge and I walked across to the other side of the river. We passed dozens of floating hotels and restaurants.

We visited one of the well-tended WWII cemeteries. Most of the headstones bore touching messages.

The most moving experience of all was visiting the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland) War Museum. It tells the story of the gruesome conditions, even torture, of the Death Railway workers through photos, paintings, newspaper articles, reminiscences and artifacts. Some of the forbidden sketches were drawn on scraps of toilet paper.

After spending hours in this museum, I believe the filmmakers of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” gave us a sanitized version of the inhumane treatment of the bridge builders. The truth was too horrible.

Visiting Thailand

For information on Thailand, contact Tourism Authority of Thailand, 611 North Larchmont Blvd., First Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004; phone 323/461-9814, fax 323/ 461-9834 or visit www. tourismthailand.org.

Dennis Cavagnaro

Oakland, CA

COPYRIGHT 2004 Martin Publications, Inc.

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