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Bridge over the River Kwai


The Queens birthday, one of the biggest national celebrations and most popular public holidays in the whole of Thailand, sounds like a good time to visit one of the countries’ most famous landmarks. Or does it?

My girlfriend and I found ourselves on the Khao San Road in Bangkok.  Our backpacks were heavy and it was getting dark, we found a guesthouse to stay for the night and dumped our bags in the room.  As we headed out of the room, my girlfriend spotted something out of the corner of her eye.   I chased a large, dark coloured insect under the bed and behind the wardrobe, before I heard, “it’s come out the other side” screamed at me.  Our little friend took a glancing look back at me and must have thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this’, as the cockroach scuttled out of the room and under the gap beneath the door.  I opened and looked out of the door, it continued the daring escape along the corridor, before he disappeared under another of the doors in the hotel.

The Khao San road is blocked off to traffic at night, and so the pedestrianised path acts as a palate for dread-locked, vest wearing backpackers and locals to mix for one reason and another.  The crowd walks up and down inspecting street vendor’s wares of vegetable noodles, pancakes, chocolate covered insects and stands selling fake designer T-shirts, trainers and Beckham Real Madrid Shirts.      

The neon lights of Hotels, Travel agents, money exchangers, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, even Boots the Chemist are switched on.  Visitors sit out on the street relax, eat, drink and watch the parade of strange and bizarre people stroll up and down the road.

Thai’s were hanging banners, police were an uncomfortable presence there was a real buzz in the air that night it was the eve of the Queens birthday.  

We strolled past a tourist kiosk and looked at the tours and trips being offered, day tours visiting temples around the capital, boat trips on the canals to see the floating markets, but one in particular caught the eye.  The photos of the bridge over the river Kwai pasted onto a sheet of green sugar paper with comments written around each photo stood out.  Who needs TV adverts? We were sold.  After some of our carefully saved money changed hands, we collected our tickets and told to be waiting outside the kiosk at six thirty the next morning.  We took a seat outside one of the restaurants, ordered some food and relaxed with everyone else taking in the sight of the world’s travelling community.

The next morning as we waited at the kiosk, the familiar cry of “Tuk-Tuk, Tuk-Tuk very cheap” filled the air.  A mini bus picked us up unusually early, only ten minutes after the agreed time!  We drove around other Bangkok hotels picking up the rest of the passengers, an American guy and three Malaysian students.  The driver, Jai, eased through the early morning traffic and we soon joined the expressway out of the city.

Bangkok had been left well behind by the time behind the Jai handed over the day’s schedule.   We would be driven to the town nearest the bridge on the river Kwai, Kanchanaburi, visit one of the war cemeteries, spend some time studying the JEATH war museum, walk to a local waterfall and finish the day by having a train trip along part of the death railway and over the famous bridge.

On the outskirts of Kanchanaburi, we stopped at one of the towns’ Allied War cemeteries, The town is the final resting-place for thousands of World War Two allied soldiers.  The beautifully kept peaceful grounds’ were a sombre reminder of the real reason we were visiting the place.  We took time to walk amongst row upon row of the well-tendered head stones, on either side of each was a plant to remind us that life carries on.  We paid our respects to the thousands of people who had lost their lives in this area.  The head stones told us the nationality and age of the person there, many were only in there twenties some even younger, I could not help but think it was such a waste of young lives.  

We left the cemetery and entered the JEATH War Museum, which seemed was being renovated or still being built.  It was dedicated to the estimated 16,000 Western POW’s and the many more thousands from Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia who died during the construction of the railway.  The Museum told the story of how during 1942 and 1943, under Japanese control, the allied prisoners and forced labourers constructed the 415 Km railway track in just an astonishing 14 months.  The Museum gave detailed accounts of the working and living conditions and the eventual, now famous, demise of the Bridge on the River Kwai.  

The bridge that now lays over the river is not the one which was built during the war, as I’m sure you know the original was bombed and destroyed in 1945 by Allied air raids.  The new bridge is just a few hundred yards along the riverbank from where the original had stood. 

We walked from the Museum, through Kanchanaburi town centre passing lots of shops and stalls selling ‘Bridge On the River Kwai’ T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs, to the new bridge.  There were hundreds of people swarming around the railway and the bridge, it is a popular destination for Thai people to visit as well foreigners like us, and so on a public holiday the place was heaving.  It was slightly un-easing to see so many smiling people running along the bridge.  We walked onto the bridge and across to the other side of the river.

We met back up with our group, and Jai took us a short distance from the town to see the Sai Yok falls, a tranquil quit reflective place, and popular with locals so we were led to believe.  When our bus approached the falls, Jai struggled for a space on the roadside to park.  The lack of parking space was due to the road side stalls, coaches, cars and other mini buses all gathered together, we wondered about the tranquillity and quietness of the place but fully believed they were popular!  As we fought our way past fruit and ice cream stalls, we made it to the waterfall to see loads of happy Thai’s enjoying picnics at the edge of the waterfall.  Parents and their kids were laughing and playing in the waterfall, it looked like everyone was really enjoying their public holiday and celebrating the Queens birthday in style.   

We moved along, returned to the mini bus, and ended up at a train station, where we boarded a train, which was to take us along part of the Death Railway, and across the famous bridge. 

The railways’ winding track hugged the hillside, it looked out over the lush green countryside and followed the Khwae Yai River.  Every time the train manoeuvred around a bend tourists dangled camera’s out of windows trying to capture a snap of the train with the river, track and mountain views in the background. The train trip lasted for an hour as we took in the amazing scenery, we passed villages crop fields and marvelled at the natural beauty of the surroundings.  I could only sit and imagine the terrible events that this area had been witness to in the past, such beauty hid a horrific past.

My thoughts were broken and I was brought back to the present as a vendor made his way along the train’s isle selling beer, sweets and soft drinks.  Everyone shuffled in their seats and again reached for the camera as we approached Kanchaburi, we crossed over the famous bridge and came to a halt at Kanchanaburi station. 

After visiting the cemetery and the museum, it seemed uncomfortable to ride on along death railway.  I suppose that life goes on, this place and the tourism, which I am a part of, is essential to the survival of the people of Kanchanaburi.  Without the influx of tourists and their currency, the area would find it hard to survive. 

We clambered back into the mini bus to be taken back into Bangkok.  It had taken 3 hours to driver to Kanchanaburi in the morning.  But it took considerably longer to get back into the Capital in the evening as, of course, everybody was trying to get to near the Royal Palace to join in with the evening celebrations of the Queens Birthday.  The expressways were jammed, us tourists slept until eventually returning to the Khao San. 

We arrived back in time to join in with the Queens Birthday celebrations.  We watched the Queen’s speech in a Tailors shop, went outside into the road to watch fireworks and hold candles given to out and lit by Thai Firemen.  A great way to end a day full of thought, education and culture.  

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