Kanchanaburi, 130 kilometres to the west of Bangkok on the Myanmar border, is Thailand’s third largest province, covering 19,473 square kilometres. It is a region of breathtaking beauty, with dense mountainous jungles, calm, slow-flowing rivers, hidden caves, and waterfalls. Pristine national parks offer all kinds of jungle adventures from elephant treks to white-water rafting.
Today, it seems unbelievable that this beautiful peaceful province, with its friendly gentle people, should have been the scene of one of the worst chapters of World War Two.
In the War Cemetery at Kanachanaburi, row after row of simple white headstones tell of tragic, cruel and needless deaths of 6,982 British, Australian, Canadian, Dutch and New Zealand men, some as young as 16 years and some as old 56. Across the road, the War Museum tells how those lives were lost in the construction of the Burma Railway.
Also known as the Death Railway or the Thailand-Burma Railway, this 415 kilometre line runs between Bangkok in Thailand and Rangoon in Myanmar. Its route was first surveyed by the British at the beginning of the 20th century but plans were abandoned as the mountainous jungle terrain made construction almost impossible.
On June 22, 1942, however, the Empire of Japan, seeking a route to supply their forces in the Burma Campaign, began work on the railway, starting at both the Thai and the Burma ends simultaneously. Most construction materials were carted overland from the dismantled rail system of the Federated States of Malaysia. About 200,000 Asian “slaves” and 60,000 Allied prisoners laboured on the railway, living and working under appalling conditions. By the time construction was completed on October 17, 1943, 100, 000 Asian and 16,000 Allied POW workers had died from exhaustion, malnutrition, cholera, malaria and dysentery.
Today, only 130 kilometres of the railway are still in use. Tourists can ride, in rattling wooden carriages with open windows, along steep jungle cliffs which fall away to a slow yellow river below. Through the treetops on the far banks, the temples of Myanmar flash in and out of view. It’s beautiful, picturesque and tranquil but haunted with ghosts of those men who gave their lives to build it.
The most famous section of the Thai-Burma Railway is Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, probably because it was immortalized by the David Niven movie classic The Bridge on the River Kwai and its unforgettable theme tune the Colonel Bogey march. Ghosts linger at Bridge 277, too, but they’re the ghosts of Niven et al and the phantom voices in the river below are the whistling chorus of the Colonel Bogey march.
The construction of the Burma Railway was a major event in the “Asian Holocaust” in which millions of civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war lost their lives.