I’ve had the privilege of being to Thailand on three separate occasions. The first time I was on a business trip to Singapore and, for the only time in my work life, I took a week of vacation in the middle of a business trip. I flew to Bangkok where I had made plans to visit my exchange student daughter, Noon, and her family. Noon and her father, Mr. Tabtimdaeng, met me at the airport and took me to their home. We did some sightseeing each day, driving to see many of the sights in the area.
One evening Mr. Tabtimdaeng said, “Tomorrow we’re going to see the bridge.” I had no idea what he meant by that, and when he qualified it by saying that we were going to Kanchanaburi, that didn’t help much. But I dutifully got myself ready the next morning after breakfast, sitting in the living room with my hat and camera – having learned by then that when he came into the living room and said, “we’re going now” that “now” meant, “the car is running and is right outside the door, get in ASAP, as we’re leaving.”
I could tell by the sun that we were heading to the west – having taken trips the prior two days to the north and southeast. But this was a much longer drive – nearly 3 hours. The road signs are often in both Thai and English, so I finally saw the name Kanchanaburi as we neared our destination, still having no idea what we were going to see, except the cryptic announcement of the previous evening of “the bridge.”
Coming into town and still not seeing any sign of a river or a bridge, we turned onto the main street through town. Kanchanaburi is a small city of about 30,000 people, not terribly large. Mr. Tabtimdaeng announced that we were first going to stop at the cemetery. Now I was even more confused – why was it so important that he was taking me to a cemetery? Was this where his ancestors were buried? There was a high wall around the cemetery, so we needed to walk down the street to the entrance a short distance away. It seemed that it was about two city blocks in size with the entrance in the middle of one of the long sides. But as we turned in through the elaborate gate, there was a plaque in English – now it made sense!
The plaque read, “1939-1945 – The land on which this cemetery stands is the gift of the Thai people for the perpetual resting place of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who are honoured here.” Just beyond the gates stretched rows and rows of gravestones – all in English, and all marking the final resting place of those who had given their lives in sacrifice during WWII. But, unlike Normandy, where the American Normandy Cemetery holds the graves of over 9000 Americans, all these graves, nearly 7000 of them, were of British and Dutch individuals. These were all of those who died as Japanese prisoners during the building of the infamous Burmese railway.
For those who not familiar with this story of WWII, the Japanese had conquered much of SE Asia early in the war, including Burma. But Burma was on the far side of the Malay Peninsula and the Japanese wanted to avoid the sea journey around the southern end of the peninsula where British submarines lay in wait, so they decided in 1942 to build a railway from Thailand to Burma (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Railway). This also became known as the Death Railway, because 90,000 civilians and 12,000 Allied prisoners died during the roughly one year of building it. The Australian dead had been removed to Australia for burial, but those from Britain and the Netherlands were all buried here.
I was in the presence of greatness! For nearly an hour I wandered among the rows and rows of gravestones, each carrying the name of one of these prisoners, his age, his unit, and a Christian Cross or Star of David as appropriate. It was a sobering experience and I shed many tears as I viewed the final resting place of so many brave men. You can see many pictures of the cemetery by doing a Google search, but pictures do not do this place justice.
It was now nearly lunchtime as we drove the remaining few blocks to “the bridge,” which I immediately recognized – The Bridge Over the River Kwai! The river alongside of which the town lies is the Khwae Yai (with several alternate anglicized spellings such as Kwai). This bridge was immortalized in a book of that name in 1952 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridge_over_the_River_Kwai), just 10 years after the bridge was constructed, and then the book became a movie a few years later – a movie which I had seen while growing up. I was face-to-face with history!
While the bridge was bombed on multiple occasions during the war and was eventually put out of commission, it has subsequently been restored (I was told that they used reparations from the Japanese to fund the restoration) and is today a tourist attraction. However, the somewhat remote location to the far west of Thailand and the lengthy drive to get there means that it will never get the volume of clientele that the Thai beaches elsewhere get.
After eating lunch in a small restaurant overlooking the bridge, I was able to walk the length of it. This is done by stepping on metal plates laid across the ties between the two rails. Every so often the excursion train would traverse the bridge (it leaves from the bridge approach, crosses the bridge, goes a few kilometers along the far side, then reverses and comes back). When the train is approaching the bridge, the engineer blows the whistle. This is a signal to those walking across to hurry to the next bridge support (the bridge has nine different sections) and step onto the support along side the track while the train passes by literally a foot or so from where you are standing.
Following our time at the bridge, we traveled further up the river and into a mountainous area to a large hydroelectric dam, the Sinakharin Dam, before backtracking down along the river and taking the long drive back east to the Tabtimdaeng home.
I am grateful to my hosts for taking the time to show me so many aspects of Thailand. During those few days we visited historic sites (Ayutthaya and Lop Buri) and beaches (Pattaya). Those greatly increased my knowledge of the country and its people. But those did not affect me as emotionally as this trip to “the bridge” and nearby cemetery.
I was fortunate enough to return to this lovely country twice more and to experience the rich culture and lovely people of Thailand. It remains one of my favorite places to have visited.