A couple hours outside of Bangkok in the town of Kanchanaburi, you can find the infamous death bridge over the Kwai River. Fun fact: the river name is actually pronounced “Quare.” The “kwhy” pronunciation means buffalo and not the river. Thanks, Hollywood. That’s the only fun fact about this place – mostly it’s very sad, but like many battlefields, it’s an eerily calm and beautiful place today.
During World War II, the Japanese essentially invaded Thailand and needed a direct train route that connected the rail lines built by the British in Malaysia and Burma (Myanmar). But they needed it fast, so they used Prisoners of War (POWs) and local forced labor. The schedule and conditions were so gruelling that thousands of these men died, either of dysentery, malaria, exhaustion or malnutrition. The movie that made the bridge famous in the West has been criticized for not showing the extent of the brutality and horrible conditions these men faced.
The 16,000 Allied POWs who died and the thousands more who lived, but suffered life-long illnesses from their time there, have gotten a lot of attention. Their sacrifice in service to their countries (Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and USA) is commendable. In addition to those losses, it’s important to remember that the Romusha labourers died in at least quadruple the numbers of the POWs. Romusha is a Japanese word meaning “labourer” and these men were Malayan, Burmese, Tamil, Chinese, Karen, Javanese, and Singaporean Chinese. Estimates of these losses are guesses, but anywhere from 80,000 to 150,000 of these men lost their lives working on the railway.
The railroad continues across the bridge and beyond nearly to the border with Myanmar, but you can only ride it to Nong Pladuk in Thailand today. Check back tomorrow for my visit to the Allied Cemetery in Kanchanaburi.
Title quote: Colonel Nicholson, The Bridge on the River Kwai film. Nicholson was fictional and created by Pierre Boulle who wrote the book on which the film was based.