In this journal:
- the “lost army” of China in Burmese jungles;
- a railway measured by human lives cost;
- sceneries of pure green and gold.
Hitler has only got one ball~whistled tunes of Bridge on the River Kwai
Göring has two but very small~♪
Himmler is rather sim’lar~
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all!
It was November in Shanghai. The late fall winds had onminously died down, heralding the beginning of the harsh Eastern China winter. No, it is not minus 30 degrees like in Antarctica, but for the lucky humans who never had to experience it, this kind of cold shivers straight into your bone marrow. The humidity aids the low freezing-point temperature, bypassing the entire set of wool I wear every year, and penetrates straight through my fleshy innards. We are talking about a kind of cold that gives me frostbites every year, while I never got it anywhere else except on the summit of Kilimanjaro. Trust me, you do not want to subject yourself to this. I bewailed this predicament one day to Chacha, who joined me for the New Zealand trips just half a year prior, and she simply said: “Why not go somewhere warm?”
Huh, did not think about that.
So this is how we ended up meeting in Bangkok for a nice getaway. I have been to Thailand once before with my parents during ThaiMar, so this time I proposed us go somewhere different, a place few managed to explore, gorgeous but carries a dark history. No, I do not mean Modor, but the small province of Kanchanaburi. And now, writing this journal, I can tell you that this is the real gem of Thailand. Forget those scammy resorts and crowded elephant torture chambers, let me show you the absolute acme of southeast Asia, down the notorious Death Railway, over that bridge on the River Kwai.
My flight landed later during the day, so I met Chacha at the lodging on the notorious Khao San Road. Almost every tourist who comes to Thailand visits this famous thoroughfare, which is completely lit up with trappy restaurants, cheap clothing shops, massage parlors, exchange offices, tour agencies, and populated by touts, trolleys selling virtually every kind of food, sales ladies, and more. In fact, it has gotten so saturated with tourists that many massage parlors have to write large “NO SEX” on the front in order to deter the hoards of sexual vacationers popular here in Southeast Asia.
Now you know why I did not take my parents here last time 3 years ago. For dinner, we would never stoop so low as to eat in touristy restaurants on Khao San Road, instead, we joined a bunch of locals across Chao Phraya River, the major river of Thailand, in a Thai waterfront buffet establishment called ริมน้ำหมูกระทะ สาขาปิ่นเกล้า. With a relative hefty price tag of 299THB/13USD per person, we feasted our eyes and stomachs on a full array of items, set up in a large open area next to the crashing waves of this busy waterway. The seafood is fresh, maybe too fresh, as we had to compete with other local diners on who could fish out those shrimps from the pond the fastest, and a full selection of meats and vegetables were lined up, ready to be charcoal barbequed or boiled in hot pot.
After dinner, I found out that Johnny, an American dude who was living his life that I met just a month ago in Sofia, was also around Bangkok at the time. I sat down with him in his hostel and had some drinks. He was just chilling and enjoying his life, not gonna think about what was gonna happen for tomorrow. Man, I really should learn to be less tense like him! For the next day, I woke up to a large cup of coffee, made to order not by a machine but by a friendly local pushing a cart. Filtered by a net of cloth, the coffee tasted especially strong and sweet, a tradition here in the region.
And in Thailand, food is almost never a question, but a statement. Yes, food. One will never have an opportunity to lose weight here in this country practically made of delicious food items. In fact, I reached the heaviest I had ever been on this trip. While having noodles and porridge may not sound particularly appetizing as breakfast to pancake-munching, bacon-crisping, bean-slurping, toast-inhaling westerners, they are right up my Chinese alley.
The main focus of this trip is Kanchanaburi, yet the train departing for this province only leaves at 3pm, so we went for a visit of Wat Arun in the morning. This is the last of the major sites that I have not visited in Bangkok, and it turned out to be the most magnificent one. Arun stands for the Hindu god Aruna, represented by the radiating rising sun. This icon is blasted by the first rays that shine upon Bangkok, and reflects its white aura to the rest of the city, hence its relationship with the deity.
Completely different from any other temple that I have seen, Wat Arun does not have many great halls or worshipping houses; this temple solely relies on the prang itself as a powerful tool of prayers. Its white cover are mostly made from porcelein carried from China, not that far away. Thus, a series of Chinese stone figures, normally guardians of adobes, can be seen at the bottom of the compound, mixed in with Hindu and Buddhist statues. Nobody knew exactly when this temple came into existence, but when Ayutthaya Kingdom fell in 18th century, the new king established his capital in this district called Thonburi, giving the temple a major boost in status and funding.
Due to its location on the other side of the river, this temple got a significantly lower number of visitors than the Royal Palace or the Reclining Buddha Temple. However, that only made the site looked even holier. Yeah, there are no groups of monks chiming the bells or reciting prayers, but it looks solemn and just, so, pure. As if this temple has rid itself of all impurities and desires of the mortal world, it has ditched all those virbant gold, red and yellow, and ascended over the corporeal dimension, overlooking the plane of the living like us looking at ants. We could, and shall, do nothing but worship.
We arrived at the station of Thonburi for our afternoon train ride to the city of Kanchanaburi. Even though this terminus only handles a handful of departures a day, it was still a good opportunity to grab some nice snacks, such as peeled jackfruits, papaya, some fried pork, skewered beef, etc. Told ya, in Thailand, the last thing I would worry about is food! Bangkok is the heart of the broken Thai railway system, and boy oh boy, is it a broken one. There are 4 major train stations in the city, and none of them are connected in town. Each handles about a few destinations at most, so it is important to get to the right station at the right time. We hopped onto the train that seemed to come straight from the 80’s, and waited for our adventure to begin.
Even though this train was heading to places that most vacationer would not even remember even I drill it into their heads, there were still a handful of old white sex-tourists and backpackers on board. However, on the sofa bench carriage, we were surrounded by locals. These folks are extremely curious of our existence and our purpose on that very train, so we communicated using sign language. A vegetable grocer, carrying all her vegetables, even let us take pictures using her produce as props! What kind of strange occurance is that? It completely reminded me of that chaotic train ride in Myanmar. A month ago I was hiking in the Bulgarian ski mountains, 3 years ago I was sailing among the Antarctic icebergs, and today, I was holding a leafy green in a Thai train heading nowhere! Life is strange. Life is strange, indeed.
We passed by the city suburbs full of makeshift houses, grassy fields of children kicking balls, roaring river of slow-flows, and 2-meter tall sugarcane fields. This is definitely the kind of train journey I want. Fully open, no air conditioning but full of breezes and laughter, and a ton of food, not to mention the outrageously local pricetag. This entire line, from Bangkok to Nam Tok, costs 100THB/3USD for any length, and the entire journey is over 5 hours long! To top it all off, I will tell you the reason why I selected this location. This rail line is not just a random existence: what I was riding on is the famous Death Railway constructed by the prisoners of war captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in WWII. After 2 hours of posing with the vegetables, we alighted at the station known all over the world for its location: River Kwai Bridge.
The station sits at the outer edge of Kanchanaburi city center, by the banks of River Kwai. This may not be the commercial activity stronghold, but is rife with loads of entertainment options. The bridge gained its international acclaim from the wildly successful movie Bridge on the River Kwai, which holds more than 5 dozen awards ranging from Academy to Oscar. A night market thrives daily at the edge of the river, meandering all the way west to a gigantic fair ground that can easily rival the one I saw in Chiang Mai 3 years ago.
Seriously, I cannot begin to describe how you can fathom the size of this place. The market meanders from the riverbank all the way towards the main highway almost 2 kilometers away, and branches out into a huge square full of blocks of stalls. You have your thousands of food vendors, but also toy salespeople, clothing options, and even car dealerships and governmental departments were represented. The local hospital has a large tent not only for first aid, but also a normal doctor conselling side. Insurance pitchers were competing with each other yelling out their policies, while the charities had students roaming around collecting donations. There was even a makeshift temple in the area, just in case one needs to do some emergency praying. It was a chaotic mess of activities, but I love it.
If you were wondering “how the heck does one city with 30000 people afford such grandiose showing”, then we were in the same boat. I asked around and it turned out that the very week was the Historical Bridge on the River Kwai Week, when an entire series of events and performances were scheduled to take place. That was why the bridge itself was decorated with sandbags and turrets as if it was during the Second World War, and a mammoth market sprang up every night, attracting crowds probably triple the city population.
It was utter madness. My legs gave in even before my stomach did. The food was incredibly cheap and unbelievably tasty. The typical noodles, fried rice, quail egg pancakes, grilled skewers, mango with 5-colored sticky rice, stick bugs with stink bugs, fish fried with pad thai, roasted chestnuts, melon sugar candies, steamed bao, unknown salads made with jungle herbs, deep fried everything, hot dogs, Burmese vegetable stew, takoyaki, coconut cakes, dark coffee with heavy cream, barbequed meats, imitation crab stick in chicken soup, porridge in an assortment of savory veggies, do I need to go on? Because I am pretty sure this list can go on for literally thousands of words. On another day, we rode the motorcycle around the area during the morning when it was deserted, and just crossing it in full speed with nothing but empty storefronts took us nearly 10 minutes!
Chacha and I each exchanged 5000THB in Bangkok, and we felt like we were royalties. The worry quickly shifted from whether we had enough money to the unnerving realization that we would never be able to spend all that much money in the week. It was shocking to discover how much everything costs, so we had to stop converting everything into western currencies, as our minds were not ready to embrace the sheer affordability of Thailand. And what made the problem even worse was that since we were one of the very few foreign visitors there, lots of shopowners would intentionally offer more food or sometimes discounts for us. No! Stop it! I do not want to gain this much weight! Yet, resistence is futile, as you can see I have reached a historical high on my calorie counter, and a historical low on my weight watch confidence. Honestly, next time, I would have to think twice before heading to this country again, because it took me 2 months to lose all the weight I gained during 6 days in Thailand.
We had two nights in this area, and each day ended with an unholy amount of calories ingested through the process of inhaling 30 kinds of food from 100 different shops. It is virtually impossible to take the guilt of being scammed by Santa Claus in northern Finland when I could buy literally 100 portions of noodles for the same amount of money here in Kanchanaburi. And according to my experiences, these price tags are already a little bit on the high side since it was a crowded festival that takes place only once a year. When I saw the market spilled onto the train tracks, I realized it would never be possible for me to finish seeing all of it. It is just way too massive and sprawling that I doubt anyone has seen it in entirety. When the only night train passed by, a special policeman had to whistle for the shops to be temporarily dislodged from their positions for the safe passage of the carriages, yet the shopowners did not waste their golden opportunities, and completed a few transactions with passengers onboard, as the train crawled across the fairground. Crazy! Just, crazy!
Eventually, after hours of walking among bursting colors that seem to break saturation on my camera, we somehow circled back to where we started, so it was only natural to take a walk on the bridge, covered with emperial Japanese flag appropriate for the historical reenactment. Engineered as Thailand-Burma Railway Bridge No.277, this historical monument was built by thousands of prisoners of war (POW) in a mere month in early 1943. Just a few weeks later, an RAF bombing damaged the structure, and it had to be repaired. A few rounds of reparation-bombing cycles later, the bridge was finally critically damaged after 2 years by Americans, putting the entire Thailand-Burma railway out of commission for the rest of the war. So the original 7 curved spans are the undamaged parts you see today, while the 2 angular truss spans are provided by Japanese government as postwar reparations. This is why the bridge looks this way today, combining two kinds of structures. (I have omitted a lot of very gruesome details of the bombings, which you can find at the end of the journal.)
However, this river is not actually the Kwai River, or as the locals call it, Khwae. This is the Mae Klong River, but the French novelist simply got his rivers mixed up in his hit piece Bridge on the River Kwai, and the Hollywood producers did not bother doublechecking it. As a result, the Thai government had to change the name of this river into Kwae Yai in 1960, after the movie garnered significant fame in 1957. Most of the plot of the novel was pure fiction, but its premise were right, so the Thai folks did not bother correcting every mistake westerners made on their history, otherwise we would be here all day.
We were promptly chased out of the bridge area as the historical reenactment was about to begin. At the riverbank, the show was actually much better, but the dedicated seating areas require tickets that were sold out months before. As a result, we sat a bit further downstream, and watched the show afar. It was surprisingly high production value, as there were numerous sound effects, laser lights, explosions imitating bombs, and drones pretending to be Allied air forces. At the end, a large steam trainhead even ran across the bridge at full speed, spewing out thick smoke just like in the 1940s! The performance ended with a firework show, and a 3-hour-long concert of numerous famous Thai bands. It was not only a festival, but an actual carnival, with people rejoicing in the rhythm way past 2am.
The next day, it was sunny as usual during the season, and we decided to explore deeper in this province of dreamscape colors. However, due to the lack of public transportation and large distances between each point of interest, we had to rent a motorcycle. I have never ridden one before, so I was quite anxious when I walked into a local shop.
“Hi, I would love to rent a motorcycle, but I never tried before, is that okay?” I sheepishly inquired.
“No problem,” the owner laughed aloud, “come with me.”
After depositing 200THB/6USD of rent and leaving my driver’s lisence as guarantee, I was brought to his backyard, and learned everything about riding safety, ignition, braking, balancing, weight distribution, Thai traffic laws, priority of human lives, usage of helmets… Just kidding! I literally was told to hop on and try, and within 3 minutes, we were speeding down the crowded streets in Kanchanaburi. Safety? What is that? Can you grill it?
The first stop after learning to ride the bike was Wat Tham Suea, Tiger Cave Temple, situated about 20 kilometers from the city center. This complex sits atop a large hill surrounded by irrigated rice patties, which were exuding an eye-watering green at this time of the year. One can pay a meager fee to travel up the hill with a scary funicular that has no safety mechanics whatsoever, skipping the need to climb a hundred steps. Once at the top, the view out to the floodplains and the largest buddha in Kanchanaburi province would easily tuck any visitor’s heartstrings. Did I mention it is also completely free?
I was truly speechless when I walked in the plaza. Just, beyond words. Normally an extremely annoying person, constantly bubbling over the most intricate detail and useless facts, I had my vocal cord torn out of this mortal realm at that moment. I simply sat underneath the bodhi trees, and listened to the ancient bells hung on the sacred figs chimed to the breezes’ undulating waves, accompanied by distant chanting of monks in the hallowed halls. I did not lose my tongue; it simply ascendend.
Locals flock to this holy place to pray. A large row of worshipping chairs and tables are placed in front of this 18-meter-tall golden buddha, which was completed in 1973. A bucket of fresh lotus buds are offered as tributes to the deity, and every devout believer can take one as a sign of good faith and pure heart. If this is what religion does to this world all the time, then I truly hope everyone is as religious and respectful as the Thai.
While I was busy gawking at the marvelous creation of these pious folks, Chacha was given a blessing by a monk. After paying a meager 20THB/0.6USD, the monk performed a ritual for her, bestowing her a wristband made of strings. Upon bowing for appreciation, we continued up to the 7-tiered pagoda situated across from the buddha.
What else can I possibly say? This is the closest I have ever got to heavens. Spiritual ascension, soul divination, body rejuvination, were all achieved at the top of the building, as I overlooked the unworldly religious buildings, into the fields of verdant rice fields, shining under the rolling hills at the horizons. I felt, no, I sensed that, at that moment, I brushed shoulder against divinity, licked the corner of paradise, and dipped my toes in celestial existence. It was like I was going crazy, but at the same time, never been so calm before. All of the universe converged, collapsed, consolidated into one singular point, in my very essence…
Yet even a god needs to eat, so we rode our bike down the unpaved road along the rice fields, and settled down in a small cafe by a pond full of lotus and koi fish. This just cannot get better. In the distant hills, the large buddha and pagodas stood, while a bit closer, I had tom yum soup and stir fried shrimps. I do sincerely warn you: if you go to Thailand, when this kind of astonishment becomes a norm, it may be difficult to adjust to life back home.
The cafe also seems to provide a lot of props for people to take photographs. However, since we were the only customers, we blatantly disregarded the “one prop per person” policy, as we do not read Thai anyways. The lake-center pavillion also featured a swing and a balcony, providing stunning views over the fields around. Lotus blooms, koi fish, delicious Thai food, a large ancient-style fan, distant buddhas, rolling hills, circada chorus, what else can possibly be desired?
We fooled around for nearly hours, before finishing up our meal and bidding farewell to the friendly owners of the cafe. They even moved my motorcycle according to the movement of the sun in order to make sure it is not too hot when I sat on it. However, just after a few minutes from this cafe, we found another cafe that we had to stop for another round of food. Damn it! Why is everywhere so beautiful? This place, apparently mainly focusing on noodles, is called Pakkanaa Noodle, and it is a damn fine place to take a seat.
Remember I said it could not get any better? Well, scratch that, this indeed got better than what was before. Way better. Noodles are very good, topped with a myriad of local spices and garnishes, and an ice coffee in the shade definitely helped trememdously as well. You do not sit on a chair in this otherworldly establishment. You find the edge of the wooden floor of this suspended hut, and sit down, dangling your feet right above the rice plants, letting their crystal clear leaves brush against your toes. Take a sip of the ice coffee, and slurp down some noodles made to order, you have found the definition of joy. Yeah, this is where I belong. After ingesting the delicious calories, I lied down on one of the many hammocks, and dozed off to a nap as the warm wind blew across the paddies, creating ripples of leaves like the surface of a disturbed lake. Nobody knew how long I slept, with the lack of audio clues to tell time, except the countless times I heard the soothing sound of fresh-smelling green blades rustling against each other…
Not too far from the cafe, we encountered the other unusual temple here in Kanchanaburi, Wat Ban Tham. It means Dragon’s Heavens Temple, and it really makes sure you get the point. A long dragon slithers from the cave from half way up a mountain, and extends its front towards the foothills. Its gaping mouth forms the half-way point of your climb from the bottom to the cave, and inside the caves, hundreds of buddhas are hidden in nooks and crevices, resonating with an obscure energy, beckoning each visitor to take the daunting challenge. Of course, I would never miss a chance to hike.
The straight path up to the dragon is divided by a row of bells. Each has a different tune, so I had to hit each one on my way up. As there were nobody else except us, the entire valley echoed with our laughter and sporadic bell jingle. We had the luck to enjoy their nice tunes again on our way down, thanks to the monk closing down the bottom sections of the temple also seemed to do it religiously on a daily basis. Once at the top, the view was amazing, as the mountain faces River Kwai, but we had to proceed even deeper into the cave.
The cave is populated with stalactites, some as long as 2 meters, extending all the way from corners of the cave where light does not shine. One has to take off his or her shoes before entering, and the damp, tiled floor did not feel super inviting for me. We continued up from the cave, where a small series of metal revolving stiarcases brought us higher, and higher. Within 20 minutes, we were at the peak of the mountain, where a small shrine stands, overlooking the entire river plain.
The last destination of this wonderful day is the giant raintree. It is the largest pink silk tree in the world. Just look at how big it is! We hopped off our bike, purchased a coconut per my daily ritual in anywhere tropical, and admired this ancient giant quietly busking under the setting rays of gold. One end of the branch to the other side is as big as a junior football field, and this big umbrella almost morphed the ground beneath it. I have never seen such a widespan tree ever in my life, made especially obvious when everything around this magnificent creation is cleared.
After feeding a cute stray dog, he followed me all the way around like a loyal companion, while I circled this herald of bygone times looking for inspirations of my next travel. Just a simple act of kindness prompted the good boi to whimper when we left; wow, we humans definitely do not deserve dogs. The motorcycle carried me back towards the bustling crowds in Kanchanaburi center, as the sun slowly sank beneath the forested horizons. Truly unforgettable days, unforgettable indeed.
We had dinner at a local farmhouse, which produces almost all food used in their dishes. They even make a coconut smoothie from just coconut flesh and coconut water-made ice, topped with an Asian pigeonwings flower, the only natural blue color found in the wild. Look how it is dying the smoothie into a dream-like blue!
The next day, we woke up to a few more solemn sights. In the city center, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the place where most of the ally soldiers imprisoned by the Japanese were buried. Almost all of them died while constructing the Death Railway, as the harsh conditions of low calorie malnourishment, long hours of intense physical work, ill treatment from Japanese guards, as well as tropical diseases mowed them down like fresh grass on a spring lawn. We found out more in the museum across the street. The situation was absolutely horrendous. Cholera, dysentery, malaria, and beriberi were the most common forms of diseases circulating the camps, and that led to nearly 20% death rate across the board. Of the 61000 allied POWs, 12000 died during construction. Of those, 6000 are buried here in the cemetery. May they rest in peace.
Across from the river next to the bridge, we found a Chinese temple. It worships 觀音/Guanyin, a guardian very typical of Chinese buddhism, but the grounds were eerily quiet at that time. However, my focus was a silent grave sitting right behind the temple. This is a memorial dedicated to the 200th Regiment in Myanmar. In early 1942, the defending British troops were losing control of Myanmar to the invading Japanese, and implored the allies to send more troops. China was the only nation in the region that could help at the time, even though the capital, Nanjing was brutally massacred and her eastern front was falling apart as well. The Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek said he did not join the allies just to do nothing, and decided to form an expedition force 100000 strong to aid the struggling Brits. This was, and still is, the only expedition force China has ever amassed. The leading group of this force, 200th Regiment, arrived in Taungoo, about 250km north of Yangon. Unbeknownst to them, the Brits had already abandoned Myanmar, and were falling back at near light speed. Meanwhile, all their fellow Chinese groups were supposed to arrive a few weeks later.
On March 17th, just 9 days after the 200th Regiment arrived, over 25000 Japanese troops, supported by heavy artillery and numerous bombers, showed up on the horizon. They had to take this city quick in order to capture the rest of the fleeing British army, and cut off the last remaining lifeline to China, the Burma-Yunnan highway. 18th, the Japanese began advancing, and the 1st Battalion of the British troops, originally supposed to defend Taungoo, retreated at the same time, leaving the 11000-men 200th Regiment against double amount of enemy with a magnitude of better equipment. To make matters even worse, numerous other Japanese squads in the vincinity as well as local brainwashed Burmese forces joined in. No rescue, no air support, vastly outnumbered, the 200th Battalion miraculously fought off the enemy for 12 solid days, completely stumped the fast pace Japanese invasion. Nearly half of all men died before the group fought a way out of the layers of surrounding enemies. Eventually, the expedition force fell back due Japanese army’s incredible replenishment efficiency thanks to Death Railroad, scattering in many directions during the chaos of evacuation. Of the 100000 troops, only 40000 made it out alive back to motherland, while some evacuated to India. A regiment made of 1500 injured soldiers did not want to slow down the others, nor wanted to be captured, so they committed suicide by setting themselves on fire. The worst fate met a group of the 5th Army, they ran towards the Kachin mountains in the most remote corner of Myanmar, and found themselves completely lost. Numerous bugs and diseases plagued these 40000 men, and only 8000 made it out alive thanks to an American spy plane seeing them among hundreds of kilometers of 2-meter tall underbush. The expedition was a complete disaster, and it cut off the Burmese highway link to China, forcing the country to utilize the “Hump” route. If you wish to know more about WWII in western China, and the Hump route, please refer to my journal about Chongqing.
In 2008, the nephew of an old soldier from Wuhan but stranded in Thailand, 梁山橋/Shanqiao Liang, built this memorial using his Thai wife’s house as guarantee to the bank. Built with their bare hands, this Chinese soldier’s melancholic eyes are dedicated to those unlucky souls still wandering the dense jungles of Myanmar, may they rest in peace. Liang’s wife had since died of exhaustion, and he had been blaming himself for his wife’s passing. I knew his story before visiting this site, yet when I was there, I saw him sleeping on a broken bedframe, in the dilapidated house next to the lone grave, and said to myself:
“You know what? He deserves to rest now. Like all the others.”
I put down some donation, and left.
In 50 years, nobody will even remember these brave men, as Communist China had been suppressing all information about Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party China. Soon, our children will forget about those who made lives today possible, and those who fell in the dense underbush of the most inhospitable area in the world. We Chinese do not get the same treatment as the westerners, with an individually marked grave, and that is what that will lead to: being forgotten. We say we shall never forget; and yet, we forget.
Next to the grave, the old soldier scribbled down a poem, I took a look of it, and began weeping…
Back to the real world, we left the old soldiers’ souls be, and continued to a fancy restaurant next to Kwai River for lunch. Chacha and I discussed about the sad fate of these nameless soldiers, who never got an untarnished reputation from their motherland despite their sacrifice to the country. We also examined our next stop, and the ensuing plan to get to such a secluded place. Of course, to distract ourselves from the grim past, we raved about the great things we had seen here in the past few days, as well as in Chengdu and New Zealand. Good times, good times!
It is finally time to hop back onto the Death Railway. From Kanchanaburi, the railroad finally goes into the dense mountains, navigating its way along the Kwai River, into the sheer cliffs and treacherous slopes, until the forbidding Hellfire Pass and cross into Myanmar at Three Pagodas Pass. In its most intense areas, more than 1 person died for every 10 meters of track during the construction of viaducts and bridges. No dynamite, no modern technology, these 勞務者/romusha and POWs had to carve everything out by hand, in scorching heat, while usually infected with numerous diseases.
Yet so few people mention these romusha, literally meaning “laborers” in Japanese, but actually were forced workers that got paid very little. Most of them are from Java, and other parts of Indonesia, transported here for the construction projects. 250,000 worked on this railway, and nearly 90000 died.
We got onto the last train heading even further west towards the border, and passed by the most famous Wang Pho Viaduct. It is the most dangerous part of the railroad, built completely on the cliffside of the Kwai River, hanging precariously over 20 meters of abyss. The train speed had to be kept at walking pace in order to prevent damage against the pure-wooden structure built half a century ago. This is a ride of pure madness! On a railroad of pure madness!
After 2 more hours of slow train swings, fewer and fewer locals remained. As the chugging noise came to a halt at the terminus of Nam Tok, Chacha and I were among the only 5 passengers. It is like so because after the devastating war, the railway began deteriorating, and the Brits dismantled the entire Myanmar section of the Death Railway, while the section from Bangkok to Nam Tok was re-paved with higher grade railings since those old wartime constructions were made for speed, not quality. As a result, Nam Tok became the last stop of the once dreaded route. Further stations still exist, but they are so poorly maintained that only cars can take you there to admire the memorials at Hellfire Pass and Three Pagoda Pass. We alighted in complete darkness, at a village of barely 3000 people. There were no fanfare, no taxi, not even a single light. It was just us, and a sleepy village.
We walked the kilometer to the center by a highway, which at least featured a few roadside restaurants. After an incredibly spicy meal, we were supposed to walk 2 more kilometers with all the snacks we bought in Kanchanaburi down a dark road to the banks of River Kwai for the hotel, yet a kind local carried us in the bed of his pickup. He did not speak any English, and we did not speak any Thai, but the moment he bowed to us with his hands held together, a typical Buddhist gesture, I realized he was truly a kind-hearted soul. He simply stopped by us, took a glance, and gestured us in. No communication needed! Thank you, random stranger! For your genorisity and assistance! Thai people are one of the greatest people ever!
The hotel was chosen speciically to be a regional specialty, floating above the rapid current of Kwai River. Here, many locals choose to live on the river for the ease of access and cheap costs. However, the waterspeed has picked up significantly here upstream, compered to Kanchanaburi. The floating rooms are supported by large wooden barrels and bamboo rafts, so it is easy to sit by the edge of the rooms and dip one’s feet into the gushing streams, which is much cooler than the scorching, humid air. However, in my room, there is quite a lot of panel gaps between the floorboards, which is normally not that big of a problem if I were on solid ground, but here on a large river, that means anything dropped down onto the floor had a 20% chance of plunging into the dark, watery abyss! We explored the grounds of our hotel much more thoroughly the next day, after devouring some congee and toast as breakfast. The lush green grounds have a few swings dangling from bearded banyan trees, and a lot of flowers growing naturally at the waterfront. In the river, they also had a large, porous cage that served as a swimming pool, if you are into strong currents! There also seemed to have a suspension bridge many years ago, but its wood had completely rotten away, rendering it impassable.
For the morning, we explored the Sai Yok waterfall not too far from the train station. To get there, one has to walk along the train tracks down to the last functional station at Sai Yok Noi, which lies 1.4 kilometers away. It was a pleasant hike as this section was still maintained, since very infrequently on weekends, a special tourist train would run directly from Bangkok to this final stop beyond terminus to bring the cityfolks next to the waterfall. An old train head sits at the end of the road, and it was the last generation of propulsion, which ran all the way from the Japanese imperial times until late 80s.
Another 5 minutes of walk brought us to the final stop of our trip, Sai Yok Noi waterfall. A large 15 meter limestone cascade, this attraction is the crown jewel of the district, and one can get as close as he or she wants. Yes, you can swim in it if you want, just be careful that the stones can be extremely slippery. After a quick dip in the stony platform right underneath the waterfall, we returned back to the train station for a quick lunch at a small cart.
Now this is a proper local lunch! Costing merely 40THB/1.3USD, I got everything the lady had on offer in her small noodle cart. After stocking up on supplies, and coconuts, from a small local shop for the long ride home, we boarded the Death Railway one last time, heading all the way back to Thonburi station in Bangkok. The ride was as thrilling as the way out, and the echoes of those lost souls in the tortured jungles were just as clear and loud. 6 hours later, we arrived back at Bangkok city center, where it all began a few days ago.
Back to Bangkok
For our final dinner in Thailand, we picked the Go-Ang Kaomunkai chicken with rice. This has been a local favorite for 50 years, and recently had just been awarded with a large star on the Michelin Guide. Yes, this hole in the wall has a Michelin star! Its 40THB/1.3USD chicken with rice is probably the best in the world, with its aromatic grains cooked in chicken oil, and the seemingly-boiled chicken bursting with juice and flavor. Wow, it is possibly the best thing to ever go with their signature double-boiled soup! We downed our meal with a hearty kick, shelling out less than 10 dollars for both of us. What a fitting end to the trip!
background music for PC here.
In the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Clipton, standing in front of a collapsed rail bridge and a dozen dead bodies, far from the frontlines, shook his head while muttering:” Madness! Madness!” Indeed, this is madness. The unseen light irradiating from the temple of Wat Arun was a stroke of mad genius; the insanity going on in the Kanchanaburi night market still goes unparalleled; and colors were bursting out of seams in Wat Tham Suea, driving me crazy each time I see the photos. The Death Railway, however, is the true connection of all these lunacy, a connection that was never supposed to exist. Without the invasion of the Japanese, the bridge would never take place; the battles would never commence; and these stories would never be told. For the Japanese engineers, this is simply the mundane 泰緬連接鉄道/Thailand-Burma Connection Railway, and the bridge was simply Bridge No.277, but for the thousands of poor souls that paid their ultimate price: this is the road to heaven, and a bridge of the netherworld. This railway of madness is the true protagonist of this show, not the war, nor the people. May this show never perform again, and may all those lost in the dense shrubberies find their peace.
Thank you, dear reader, for coming onto this train ride with me, and hope I can see you on another journey towards the unknown past. Thank you, Chacha, for suggesting and accompanying me on this trip that I otherwise would never even think about. Thank you, all those who fought for the bright tomorrow I get to enjoy today. I will cherish your sacrifice, and remember you all, by riding on the railway of madness…
The poem written by an anonymous soldier on the grave of the lost Chinese army reads (with my personal translation):
桂河水，清也渾/River Kwai, clear yet muddy,
恰如亂世假拌真/Just like the chaotic world, real yet fake,
大戰已定敗與勝/The battles already decided victory,
誰真英雄且不明/But who knows the real heroes, nobody.
唯我中華遠徵軍/Alas, our Chinese expedition army,
十萬將士變孤魂/Hundred thousand valiant lost souls,
死無葬身地/No place to be buried upon death,
白骨化泥塵/Bones disintegrated into morsels,
功高如天無人問/Pity! Sky-high talents yet never known!
桂河水，清也渾/River Kwai, clear yet muddy,桂河怨/The Sorrow of River Kwai
人間恩怨訴不清/The unfinishable tales of mortal grudges,
青天白日暗垂淚/Under the blue sky and white sun*, we are only teary,
愧對炎黃子和孫/O mother China and your people, our remorse and sorry!
*Republic of China flag is usually referred to as being 青天白日滿地紅/Clear Blue Sky and Bright White Sun above Bloody Red Fields, symbolizing the Chinese belief of giving up your life for heavenly justice. The flag is now still the national flag of Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan.
Next to it, a broken information board tells the story of the Japanese trying to prevent ally bombings of the bridge. In order to stop the incoming bombs, the Japanese lined up Chinese POW’s on the bridge as meat shields against incomings, unbeknownst to the bombers busy aiming for the stumps. On the most devastating attack, just one explosion killed 300 Chinese soldiers chained to the bridge, and the river was instantaneously dyed a dark red. The water of River Kwai was impotable for days after the tragedy.
Next to the poem, someone added:
Some things, even though we know is wrong, we still persisted, because we are unwilling to stop;
Some people, even though we truly love, we still gave up, because there will never be a happy ending;
Some times, even though we see no road ahead, we still march forward, because we are used to it.