Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway

Having crossed into Thailand, we were almost at the end of our Dragoman trip; Kanchanaburi was our only stop before reaching our final destination of Bangkok.

The town itself was nice enough, with some reasonable places to eat, but the main reason to go to the Death Railway Museum, and to visit the nearby and infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.

If you've seen the film of the same name, you'll probably know that the bridge was built during World War II under the command of the Japanese, using the labour of the allied forces prisoners of war. You may also know how terribly badly these men were treated, with many dying from such things as malnutrition, exhaustion cholera, malaria and dysentery, as well as those killed directly by the Japanese.

What you may not know, is that in fact the POWs were much fewer, and better treated, compared to the rest of the labourers who had been brought in from nearby countries.

Reported numbers vary a little, but around 61,811 POWs (30,131 British, 13,004 Australian, 17,990 Dutch and 680 US) were forced to work on the Death Railway, and 12,621 of them (6,904 British, 2,802 Australian, 2,782 Dutch and 133 US) died before the war was over. Many of the Dutch were in fact from the Dutch East Indies, and so they - and importantly the medics amongst them - were more used to the tropical diseases encountered here, which helped their survival rate compared to other nationalities.

The number of POWs though was dwarfed though by that of the Romusha. The Japanese brought in Asian workers from Burma, Thailand other areas such as The Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Some of these men volunteered, having been promised good conditions and good wages, but many were coerced or even simply rounded up and taken. Either way, their working conditions were even worse that that of the POWs.

The number of romusha workers used is unknown, but many sources estimates around 150,000, with 90,000 of them having died; however some sources suggest that numbers may have been as high as 300,000, with as many as half of them dying.

The construction of the 285 mile (415km) length railway, stretching from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, went across incredibly difficult terrain. It was built to provide an alternative route to take supplies into Burma, which had recently been taken by the Japanese. Work commenced, using just hand tools and hard labour, in June 1942 and finished ahead of schedule, on 17 October 1943.

We visited the Death Railway Museum, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, and Bridge 277, or the 'Bridge Over the River Kwai', which more accurately spans the Mae Klong river.

The railway was decommissioned after the war, and the bridge itself was partly destroyed by the Allied forces in 1945, but it has been rebuilt, enabling us to walk across it. I like the idea of it being kept as a memorial to the men who died building the railway, so I was pleased that we would be visiting here.

Unfortunately, as with too many places, there is too much focus on tourism, where it should be on memorial. There is a restaurant overlooking the bridge, and countless souvenir shops peddling all sorts of tacky items. Personally, I would have preferred that this be a place of quiet contemplation, with the emphasis on remembrance.

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