Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 15 February 2018 • Abroad
I looked away from the screen as the British POW (prisoner of war) was being tortured by the Japanese officials. I imagined the pain and it felt even more painful because the movie was based on a true story. It happened 73 years before I watched this “The Railway Man” movie at a Europian film festival. Thousands of people were killed in the building of a railway that connected Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar), which started late in 1942. They were Australian, British, American and Dutch POW, and Asian laborers. They were forced to build the railway, that was supposed to be a 6-year work crammed in only 1,5 years. About 90,000 civilian laborers and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died. Hence the name, Death Railway.
Triggered by the movie and the history, last year on our family holiday to Bangkok, Diyan and I decided to detour to Kanchanaburi. There, the Death Railway becomes the main theme of tourism. On the contrary to the name, so much life happens around the railway because of it.
“The Bridge on The River Kwai” is an old Oscar movie which story is set around the building of this traumatizing railway. The title describes one of the parts of the 415 km railway – an iron bridge that lies on the Khwae Yai River in Kanchanaburi town. It was then bombed and destroyed by the Royal Air Force in 1945.
The bridge today is a rebuild with a few shape differences in the railing. The Thai government decided to cut off the connection to Burma for national security reasons. Until now the bridge is used for daily transportation that connects Ban Pong, near Bangkok, with Namtok and a few towns between them.
The area around the bridge was full of food vendors and tourists upon our visit. Though interested to try some snack, I didn’t end up trying any ‘cos we had prepared some snack from the road. The railway bridge, rebuilt with platforms on each side where people can stand safely while train passes by, was also full of tourists, including us. If you want to take that lonely and symmetrical Instagram shot of the bridge, you’d need a lot of patience to wait for that right moment. With that many happy people in sight, I kinda forgot how depressing the history of the railway was.
We took the tourist train, which goes at 10.46 am for Namtok, 300baht/pax. This includes a numbered seat, snacks in a box, water, a pop and a certificate stating you’ve ridden the Death Railway. While the regular train costs 100baht/pax for foreigners, and might’ve been crowded. We enjoyed and took pictures of the scenery comfortably and got use of the snacks along the 2-2,5 hour ride.
The ride goes through beautiful landscape of villages, cliffs, rivers, mountains, and cut rocks. It stops at several towns before Namtok, where passengers can hop on and off. At one of the points, I think it was Tham Krasae, there are platforms on the side of the track, and some tourists would stand there to take photos of the train on a bend. We waved to them like celebrities to photographers and they waved back! My niece Mika especially loved this as if she was living her princess dream.
80 km away from Kanchanaburi town is the Hellfire Pass. It is a small part of the railway route that laborers and POWs were forced to cut from 25 meter tall rock. The 18 hours work per day is done with inadequate tools, a lot of starvation, diseases and beating from the Japanese guards. This was one of the harshest part of the forced labor.
In the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, remnants of the railway construction and torture are displayed. There is no entrance fee, the museum is funded by a foundation founded by the families of Death Railway victims. The walk through the railway route that passes the Hellfire Pass starts from behind the museum and goes along 1,75 km.
The museum provided audio guide in English (not sure about other languages). The narration is informative but a lot of the parts are redundant. Some of the display captions are also said in the audio guide, so it wasn’t very efficient. The cool thing, because it’s something new to me, is that the audio guide also provides info for the spots at the railway route outdoor.
We only went halfway of the route because we didn’t have enough time to go all the way and then back again. Even so, it was overwhelming to imagine the excruciating torment that took place right where I was standing.
Overall, it was a great trip because I got to see the real spots of the things from the movie and the history articles. As dark as the history was, they managed to keep the places well-maintained and groomed. Because as much as you need to learn from history, you also need to move on and make the best out of what you’ve got. Innit?
– Getting to Kanchanaburi:
My family and I chartered a minivan that seats up to 12 pax for 12 hours including a driver. We hired it from the hotel where we stayed, Maitria. It cost about 800baht if I’m not mistaken.
You could opt for a public minivan from and to Bangkok, 120baht/pax one way. The last schedule from Kanchanaburi is at 7 pm.
– Getting around in Kanchanaburi:
After my family went back to Bangkok, Diyan and I extended our stay in an Airbnb in Kanchanaburi. We hired a scooter for the next day, 300baht/day (you could opt for cheaper ones, we just wanted a nice looking scooter), plus 90baht for gas.
A tuktuk-like vehicle is also available, taking us from downtown to the bus station for 30baht.
There’s a bunch of restaurants, cafes and bars along the Maenamkwai road in Kanchanaburi town. Thai food, wester food, you name it. And it was near our Airbnb, the Frosty Homestay.