The Bridge over the River Kwai

22 12 2010

It might have been because of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, that I have held a long fascination with bridges, having many doses of it throughout my early childhood. It was a fascination that was also fed by my regular encounters with the two railway bridges from my childhood journeys through the Bukit Timah area, and of those with the magnificent Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges that sets our Civic District apart from much of the rest of Singapore, and maybe by the picture of the red oxide coated Forth Rail Bridge on the back of a postcard that my mother had for much of my childhood displayed on her dresser. There were of course bridges of significance that I encountered in my diet of war inspired movies and novels that might also have fed that fascination: one being “A Bridge Too Far” over Arnhem that was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s novel which was adapted by William Goldman for the movie of the same name; and the so-called “Bridge on the River Kwai”, part of the infamous Death Railway, that was made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie based on a novel entitled “Bridge Over the River Kwai” by French writer Pierre Boulle, which I had watched many times on TV.

Poster for the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai".

The bridge over the River Kwai in Dec 1984.

The bridge in 2006.

That I guess was what compelled me to visit the bridge that stands over the River Kwai today, or the River Mae Khlung as it should rightly have been (the river has since been renamed as the “Kwai Yai” for the tourists). The bridge that stands today isn’t the wooden bridge built in 1943 that was the subject of the movie, but a second more sturdy bridge of concrete and steel built by the Prisoners of War (POW) also in 1943. It stands as a powerful symbol of the pain, suffering and death that was inflicted on the POWs who were put to work on the infamous Siam to Burma rail supply line that the Japanese intended to use on their push towards India. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 POWs and labourers died in the construction of the railway due to the harsh conditions, starvation and malaria.

A view of the bridge from the far bank. The two straight-sided spans were transported from Japan after the end of the war as part of Japanese war reparations, to replace the two original arched spans which were brought over from Java by the Japanese which were destroyed.

Another view of the bridge.

Information plate on one of the replacement spans.

One of the original arched spans which the Japanese brought over from Java.

My first visit to the bridge which is about 5 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi , which is located 130 kilometres west of Bangkok was in December 1984 – back then I was struck by the surreal calm that taking a walk on the bridge provided despite the presence of the tourists (not the hordes that one encounters these days) and the vendors trying to hawk a few souvenirs. I did return some twenty years later – dismayed to find that the bridge had been overrun by hordes of tourists and the area now dominated by the tourist shops that have somehow destroyed the peace that I had first encountered in 1984. Still, taking a walk on the bridge provides a wonderful experience, and certainly once across the bridge, the far back does provide that sense of calm absent on the near side.

Taking a photograph of the bridge in 1984.

On the bridge in 2006.

Around the bridge, there is the River Kwae Bridge railway station which is certainly worth a visit. The station in fact provides an gateway for rail passengers coming from the south who can make a connection at Nakhon Pathom, and also directly from Bangkok. The line itself runs over part of the original Death Railway route to Nam Tok. The line which was assessed to be too poorly constructed to support commercial use was sold by the British in 1946 to Siam for a sum of ₤1.5M which included 65 locomotives, 1125 wagons and other stock, and revived in 1948. The train also runs through and stops at the town of Kanchanaburi.

Ticket counter at the River Kwai Bridge Station.

River Kwai Bridge Station.

An old steam locomotive (#719) on display at River Kwai Bridge Station.

Beyond the area where the bridge is, it makes sense to also pay a visit to one of the war museums to have a sense of what went on, as well as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The museum I visited was the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia Thailand, England) War Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of the Wat Chai Chumphon temple and is built around huts meant to replicate those that the POWs had been housed in and contains graphic images showing the conditions the prisoners had lived in.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1984.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Plaque at the entrance of the War Cemetery.

Plaque at the War Cemetery.

The JEATH War Museum.

Exhibit at the JEATH War Museum in 1984 with photographs of the bridge destroyed in 1945 by allied bombings.