Heaven Meets Hell On The River Kwai
Bar car on the Eastern Oriental Express.
Kanchanaburi, Thailand: The 22 gleaming carriages of the Eastern Oriental Express, a super luxury train, glide slowly over the Bridge over the River Kwai. This is the spot where this rail journey from heaven, meets up with the railway from hell.
The railway from hell is the World War II grim link that stretched 415 kilometers from Myanmar or Burma, as it was then, to Ratchaburi province in Thailand. Work started in October 1942 and was completed in December 1943. In that short space of time more than 13,000 Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war lost their lives. At least 150,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labor brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Burma and Thailand.
Historians say that each sleeper along the track represents one death. Or 38 prisoners of war died for every kilometer of construction.
Today the city of Kanchanaburi is a lively, picturesque spot best known as the home of the Bridge over the River Kwai and a pleasant 150 kilometer drive from Bangkok on a good scenic highway. The province, with the same name, is full of wonderful scenery, probably the best waterfalls in Thailand, endless lakes, jungles along its fair share of temples and golf courses.
The infamous bridge is disappointing but the history that has been amassed here and the meticulously maintained cemeteries make a visit here a moving and memorable experience. As you stroll among the graves, still and serene, it is hard to imagine the barbaric and cruel scenes of the 1940s.
You have to realize that Pierre Boulle’s nest selling book, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, was a novel about the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway not an historical document. When David Lean’s blockbuster movie was released in 1957 further changes were made to make the film more entertaining than factual. The film was made not here in Thailand but in Sri Lanka.
And most surprising is the fact that there never was a bridge over the River Kwai. Boulle, who also wrote Planet of the Apes, made the assumption that the railway crossed the Kwai since it followed its path for so long. The railway actually crossed the Mae Klong River. It really did not matter until the tourists started coming in their droves after the movie’s release in search of a bridge over the River Kwai. The sleepy town of Kanchanaburi was transformed almost overnight. And the Thais quickly solved the problem. The Mae Klong, where it passes under the bridge was renamed the Kwai Yai (the big Kwai) which then flows into the Kwai Noi (the original little Kwai).
The prisoners actually built two bridges. Neither of them are anything like the massive bamboo and wood structure shown in the movie. The one you see today, a rather squat unimpressive bridge with concrete piers and steel spans, is much like it was in the 1940s. The steel spans were brought from Java by the Japanese and some of those were destroyed by allied bombing and replaced after the war. Records show that the prisoners completed a wooden bridge in February1943 but the Japanese, concerned about its strength, replaced it with the steel bridge a few months later.
You can’t get this close to the bridge without making a crossing. Despite warnings of its dangers, tourists do it every day most of them whistling Colonel Bogey, the war time song the film made famous. If you do make the crossing, watch out for the trains. They do cross slowly and there are several escape spots on the bridge where you can step aside as the train passes.
And Colonel Bogey? That part is authentic and the march was probably sung, rather than whistled, a great deal during those horrific days. It was composed by Lieutenant F. J. Ricketts (1881-1945) who was director of music for the Royal Marines at Plymouth in southwest England. The music was first published in 1914 when the military frowned upon its officers having any outside professional pursuits so he used the pseudonym Kenneth Alford.
There are three museums in the town dedicated to the death railway. The most interesting is the latest, opened in 2003, the Thailand Burma Railway Center which is alongside the main cemetery. Here you learn why the railway was so important to the Japanese and get a grim insight into how the prisoners lived and died. The story is completed with what happened after the war and what is happening today to remember those who died. The center is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission 60 Baht. Curators of the center Hugh Cope and Rod Beattie admit to having an ironic problem. They have an incredible amount of information on those who died building the Thailand-Burma railway but very little on those who survived.
There maybe lots of things about the book and the film that are not historically accurate. But that is not so important. What is important is that without them the world’s attention would not have been focused on the death railway. The tale of a small bridge opened the world’s eyes to a very sad saga. The bridge here at Kanchanaburi was one of 688 constructed along the railway. Do you know the names of any of the others?
Other museums are the JEATH Museum which is three kilometers south of the main railway station and open daily from 8.30am to 4.30pm, admission 30 Baht, and the World War II Museum which is close to the bridge and opens daily from 8am to 6pm, admission 30 Baht. The JEATH museum (the letters JEATH represent the first letter of Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland, the countries who lost soldiers during the railway construction) is filled with World War II memorabilia including frightening sketches some of the prisoners made of the various forms of torture they endured. The World War II museum is more like a department store with such a wide range of items on view. Although there are numerous exhibits about the death railway you can also view pictures of Miss Thailand from the 1930s as well as portraits of the museum founders. Probably one of the most important items is a glass tomb containing the remains of some of the Asian laborers who are often not as well remembered as the allied POWs.
For some scenic and somewhat scary stuff the train ride beyond the River Kwai Bridge station to the end of the line at Nam Tok is a must see journey. It takes about two hours and will take you down the Kwai Noi valley over the impressive Wampo Viaduct, the scary trestle bridge that clings to the rock face. Your thoughts here have to be that it has stood like this for sixty years and surely can handle a couple more crossings. Few of the POWs that helped construct this bridge lived to tell the tale.
The rest of the journey is very scenic without the scary bits and the tiny stations on the route are bedecked with flowers. The journey can be done there and back in a day or you can organize a taxi out and ride the train back or vice versa. Train times are not always adhered to and a telephone call to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office 03451 1200 is advisable. Their office is located south of the bus station which is on the south side of the town.
The Eastern Oriental Express, the railway from heaven, makes several stops here in Kanchanaburi during the year on its services between Bangkok and Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, and Singapore, to the south. There is also a special 57-hour trip from Bangkok, the Thai Explorer, that includes a stop here as well as in Chiang Mai, and Ayutthaya the former Thai capital. This is one of those luxury adventures you take once in a lifetime. This express oozes decadent living that is almost indecent. This is a journey that demands to be enjoyed and even the world’s most fastidious traveler must be stunned by the train’s exquisite interior. The food is fabulous. Chef Kevin Cape and his culinary crew provide five extraordinary meals. That alone is a great accomplishment. But to do it while the train shudders along Thailand’s narrow gauge railway in two cramped kitchens is more the work of a master magician than that of an award-winning chef.
Departure is from Bangkok’s main railway station, Hualampong, a brute of a building on Rama IV Road a particularly busy part of a busy city. Fortunately there is a side entrance and special VIP lounge for Oriental Express travelers which avoids the crowds, many of them sitting or laying on the floor waiting for trains or waiting to buy tickets for future journeys.
At the appointed hour the passengers are escorted across the station to the gleaming 22 carriages that are to be their home for the next two nights and three days. The carriages are painted in British racing green and adorned with golden emblems and brass fittings. Their numbers didn’t make any sense until it was explained that, thanks to Chinese beliefs, only combinations of the lucky numbers 2, 3, 6, 8 and 9 had been used.
Compartments are in their daytime trim with beds stowed away to provide space for a comfortable sitting area. As the trains slips gently away from the platform several of the passengers went to bar car to sip on champagne as the lengthy express gathered a little speed as it left the nation’s capital. The train moved out from under the halo of pollution that is as much a symbol of Bangkok as are its magnificent temple spires. Sadly the train passes through the slums of northern Bangkok, its inhabitants eking out a living alongside polluted canals or streets strewn with garbage. Such a stark contrast for those aboard the train geared up for hours of luxury living. The poverty-stricken Thais smiled as the train passed and they prepared for another night of intense heat with only a sheet of corrugated tin to keep off the predicted tropical rain.
Soon the vistas changed to green and lush and the first meal aboard served. This one, like all of those to follow, was excellent and would have been greatly acclaimed in a restaurant which was firmly fixed to the ground and not swaying around.
The meal started with Asian style fish and vegetable croquettes in a fragrant turmeric sauce. It was followed by pan fried medallions of halibut served with mushrooms and black bean puree in a red wine and star aniseed jus. To finish were tartlets of tropical fruits. When coffee was served the train waited patiently on a spur.
One of the problems with traveling on Thai trains is that most of the system is single track. So there is continual stopping and starting while other trains pass. Everyone waits their turn be it the Orient Express or the third class diesel cars with their hard wooden seats crammed with passengers carrying boxes, many of them bigger than the traveler.
There is no rush to finish coffee in the restaurant car and nobody is asked to vacate the table and have coffee elsewhere on the train. There is an elegant aura of a Victorian London club as the diners chat. At each meal travelers are assigned a different table giving everyone the opportunity to meet new people knowing that should one fail to enjoy someone’s company it is only for a limited time.
First station stop is at Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam, and the first sightseeing excursion. Like all the excursions that were to follow the emphasis is placed on quality things to see rather than quantity. After a temple visit - Wat Phananchoeng the most revered and oldest of the city’s shrines – everyone boards a converted rice barge for a trip down the Chao Phraya River with musical accompaniment. A Thai lady from the train’s entertainment team obliges at a Thai instrument that looks like a sawn off xylophone and produces a continual bonging of inconsequential chords. The instrument is a khim, something that appears with great regularity at fancy hotel lobbies and top notch restaurants.
The music was quiet and fitted in well as the group headed downstream following the paths the Thais made when they moved their capital from here to an area across from Bangkok hundreds of years earlier.
Moored alongside one temple, the group is driven to yet another temple, this one the Wat Phar Si Sanphet set amid a vast park where elephants toted Japanese tourists from one side to the other. Tour over it was back to the train where afternoon tea is served in the compartment, all very English, with fine china and fruit cake. While sipping a cup of Boh tea from the Cameron Highlands there is time to take a more detailed look at the compartment which is paneled with cherry wood and elm burr with marquetry friezes and intricate design inlays. The delicate embroidery work on the pelmets was hand crafted in Malaysia and the carpet was hand-tufted in Thailand.
Getting dressed for dinner is a breeze. For those who have enjoyed the splendors of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (this train travels between London and Venice) will know that getting dressed in those cramped quarters is a challenge. One has to wait in the corridor while the other dresses. On this train there is ample space for two to change at the same time and have the added luxury an en suite bathroom, equipped with designer soaps and scents, something that did not exist on the other train.
The diners aboard are elegantly dressed for dinner. Men had donned suits and ties and several of the ladies had long gowns and the occasional string of pearls looked very much at home in the bar car while cocktails are enjoyed before the meal. There is a choice of main course at dinner - tonight’s decision was between medallions of beef or penang kai, a Thai chicken curry. The wine cellar on board is elaborate considering you are on a train. Prices are high. A basic Burgundy costs $37 a bottle and a bottle of Dom Perignon a heady $240.
And so to bed. It not surprising that you will not have the best night’s sleep ever. The strange surroundings and the shuddering of the train with its stopping and starting made it a night of naps rather than continuous sleep.
The steaming jug of coffee, Colombia’s finest and a pot of tea on the breakfast tray are a welcome sight as the trains closes in on Chiang Mai, Thailand’s most northerly train station. Within seconds the compartment becomes a sitting room and dressed in Eastern Oriental Express robes (for sale at the train’s boutique) the travelers munch on freshly baked croissants and admire the mountain and jungle scenery that whirls past outside.
In Chiang Mai the group boards a tour bus and everyone is handed a small bouquet which contains flowers, incense candles and an envelope with money inside. This is going to be the gift to the monks of the temple about to be visited. This is one the most interesting of any temple visit since everything that happens is explained in English and it gives everyone a brief understanding of Buddhism and its place in Thai life. The temple, Wat Buak Krok Luang is east of Chiang Mai town. The monks and their abbot await the group’s arrival. The gifts are collected and the group sits on the floor before the holy men. The group is told that is has earned merit by bringing gifts to the temple and to the monks. The monks began their almost hypnotic chanting in Pali, the Indian dialect of all Buddhism and according to the guide the group is given blessings and each presented with a hand made woven amulet to bring good fortune. The whole ceremony probably didn’t take 20 minutes but it was a very enlightening experience.
Why did we the group get such special treatment? The temple has some wall murals from the early 19th century and they are in need of restoration and involving farangs (the Thai’s word for westerners) will hopefully bring the additional funds.
Next stop is to meet a princess, not in a castle, but in a very attractive award winning northern Thai home set in splendid grounds. This is not a show piece tourist attraction but her actual home. The princess, Chao Surai Sukrachan is a descendant of the Lanna kingdom royal family although not connected to the present Thai royal family she obviously keeps in contact with them as she was pleased to show us with numerous photographs of herself and her family with members of the Chakri Dynasty.
She is the most amiable of hostesses and chatted easily with members of our group asking about where they came from and what they had seen in Thailand. After touring her home the group is confronted with tables laden with Thai tid bits, all beautifully hand crafted. As the group enjoys the tropical delicacies several local women give displays of handicrafts including fruit carving, wood sculpting and intricate work with cloth and leather.
Why did the princess open her home in this way? It certainly wasn’t for money. Her husband is an important member of the Thai military and her two sons, both educated in England, are successful businessmen in Bangkok operating several restaurants.
On the ride back to the railway station the guide said it was her way of showing tourists something of true country life in Thailand. He said that too many people only saw the nightlife and tawdry side of the country had to offer. It was her way of showing that there was a more normal way of living and she hoped that it would also promote the work of the local artisans. She only allowed a few small groups to visit and we were one of the first to be invited.
Several people had been wondering if the train’s chef would attempt serving soup on a moving train. At lunch today he did just that. Somehow the creamy Thai pumpkin and yellow pepper soup stayed in the bowls as we headed south. It didn’t remain in the bowls long - it was too tasty. As was the crispy duck that followed. To insure we got an ample intake of calories in the middle of the day there was a passion fruit mouse with coconut cream in lime and lemongrass sauce to finish with.
As a lunch is served in the dining cars, finely adorned with rosewood and decorative lacquered panels hand-painted with delicate flowers, small country stations speed past. Each of them is tended by a uniformed station master who proudly waves his green flag as the lengthy express flashes through his domain. The stations are ablaze with colorful gardens. Blue painted barrels overflow with jasmine. Jungle plants brighten up a concrete platform. Each is worth a prize for transforming a drab railway stop into a small oasis for passengers and passers by to enjoy. The Eastern Oriental Express makes a brief stop at Lampang, time for the train to take on water and time to briefly explore the town 559 kilometers north of Bangkok. Lampang is not high on Thailand’s top tourist destinations. It does have two items to boast of – it claims to be the only Thai town which still uses colorful horse drawn carriages for everyday transport and there is a school for training baby elephants. The stop is too brief to sample either. There is time to cross the narrow gauge tracks and venture out from the railway station. As you step across the meager width you wonder how the mighty carriages balance on such a slender base.
The carriages themselves have a little history. They were first built in Japan in 1972 by Nippon Sharyo and Hitachi and operated as the Silver Train in New Zealand. They were shipped to the Orient Express workshops in Singapore where the same crew that transformed the magnificent rolling stock for the Venice-Simplon Orient Express began the laborious task of converting them into the exquisite carriages they are today. It wasn’t just the luxury interiors that were created. Air conditioning systems had to be developed to cope with the tropical heat and humidity. Panoramic windows installed to allow passengers better views of the countryside. And they had to fit abeam the narrow rails of Southeast Asia.
It was time for tea. Today an assortment of dainty cakes adorns the silver tea service tray as the journey continues south. The vistas switch from dense jungle and break out into wide fields where scarecrows, attired in those Thai lampshade hats scare away seed seeking birds. A golf course is under construction and then a clump of new homes. And always there is light reflecting from the colorful spires of temples as the sun descends reminding travelers it is time to prepare for cocktails and a pre-dinner display of Siamese dancing in the bar car.
Again there is a choice of the main entrée for dinner. It is either medallions of lamb served with a spicy sauce or a Nasi Goreng Istimewa, traditional Malaysian fried rice served with grilled satay. A very rich chocolate and banana delice with sesame seeds completes the meal.
The next day is when the train makes its visit to Kanchanaburi and travels over the River Kwai Bridge. The pianist offers numerous renditions of Colonel Bogey as the luxury express moves gently on a train bed that cost so many thousand lives. The group tours the cemeteries and listens to the horrific stories at the museums. It is a quieter group now that returns to Bangkok, having experienced the wonders of an extraordinary train journey that linked up with one of the world’s great atrocities.
Eastern Oriental Express operates a seven-night, eight-day trip. Prices for the Pullman compartments are $2,860, state compartments are $4,240 and the suite compartments $5,790. These prices are per person and include all meals and sightseeing but not drinks aboard the train. It is possible to buy sections of the trip. More information www.orient-express.com.
The Eastern Oriental Express crosses the River Kwai.
The author and his wife dine abord the Eastern Oriental Express.
The well-maintained cemetery at Kanchanaburi.
The Eastern Oriental Express crosses the River Kwai.
Gleanubg carruages await departure from Bangkok.
The bridge over the River Kwai.
on 6 June 2007.
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