August 19, 2016

A Train Ride on the Death Railway Line

72222A few days ago, I took a train ride along a section of the Death Railway Line, which lies inside Thailand. In 1997, I had an opportunity to visit the Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time. After nearly eighteen years, when I came to learn about the plans for the establishments of the East-west corridor and the Southern corridor in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, I was intrigued to write an article. The article was titled “Let’s Revive the Death Railway”, which was published in the GNLM about a year ago.
It was the news of the opening of the Death Railway Museum in Thanbyuzayat, on the Independence Day that prompted me to visit that bridge again. The first visit was just a sight-seeing trip, but this time it was more purposeful than just sight-seeing.
For quite sometimes, before the news of that museum at Thanbyuzayat, I had been contemplating on writing a more comprehensive article about the Death Railway to get the attention and interest of the departments concerned. I have a strong belief that if the rail link between Thailand and Myanmar could be reestablished, it would benefit the Greater Mekong Sub-region and our country too. Thus I had suggested, in my first article, that we should revive the Death Railway and also to cash in on the lucrative tourist trade that Thailand had been enjoying for a long time by exploiting on the fame of the River Kwai Bridge and the notorious Death Railway. As part of my suggestions is a step closer to become a reality by the latest developments in Thanbyuzayat, my desire to advocate for the total revival of that train link is rekindled.
On my first trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai, I was disappointed, instead of being overwhelmed or excited by the sight of the bridge. The Bridge I was expecting to see was a timber trestle bridge, like the one in the famous movie. However, the bridge I saw was an iron bridge. I totally lost interest in that bridge until I became familiar with the use of the Internet.
According to what I learned from the Internet, the bridge the Japanese first built  was a wooden one. A few months later, they built an iron bridge not far upstream of that wooden bridge, with the materials they dismantled from an existing bridge in Java, which was under their occupation by then. During the war, both the bridges were used. Thus the present bridge is also the original Bridge on the River Kwai that had played an important role in the history of the Second World War (WWII).
Unlike the first visit, I’m more knowledgable about the background history of the bridge this time around, so the second visit was more interesting. I devoted two full days to study the Death Railway. On the first day I visited the notorious Hellfire Pass. That would be another story but in this present article, I would be writing about the train ride along the railway line built with the sweats, bloods and the lives of many people.
Before writing about the train ride, I would like to recall briefly the background history for the benefits of those who are not familiar with the Death Railway. The railway line was built by the Japanese during the WWII, to supply their advancing troops inside Burma, to mount an invasion into India. The construction was done by 60,000 allied PoWs and some 180,000 Asian civilians forced labourers. The construction period was about 20 months, which started in 1942 and competed in 1943. The total length was 415 kilometers (258 miles) starting from near Bangkok to link up with the Burma Railway’s railhead at Thanbyuzayat. There were 680 bridges along its whole length, most of which were timber trestle bridges and only 8 were of iron structure, 7 of those were in Myanmar.
The railway line passed through rough terrains over the rugged mountains that straddle the border between the two countries. It was built, literally barehanded, using basic hand-tools without any equipment or machineries. The working conditions were very harsh, with meager rations,  extreme weather conditions, deadly diseases such as malaria, typhoid, cholera, skin diseases and malnutritions and above all the brutality of the Japanese soldiers. The death tolls stood at 123,621 POWs and over 90,000 Asian civilians. Among the Asian deaths, the Malays were highest in number at 45,000 and the Burmese in second place with 40,000 deaths The others included some Chinese, Indochinese, Indians and Javanese. Thus there is no wonder that the railway line, officially called the Siam-Burma Railways or the Burma Railways, was dubbed the “Death Railway”.
From the above description, it is quite evitable how difficult the construction would have been. It became more evident when I visited the Hellfire Pass and took a train ride to the Tham Kra Sae or the Kra Sae cave,  just over an hour’s journey from Kanchanarburi, home of the River Kwai Bridge.
The State Railways of Thailand (SRT) provides three round trips daily, between Bangkok and Nam Tok, a small town with a population of roughly 4000. It is the furthest point along the Death Railway line, a few kilometers short of the Hellfire Pass.
I boarded the train, which came from Bangkok, at Kanchanarburi. As soon as the train started to roll, it was already crossing the River Kwai bridge. The train travelled through an open country side, where large tracts of sugar cane plantations, corn fields, strawberry patches, vegetable farms and different types of perennial plantations are abundant, as far as the eyes could see. The terrain is quite plain and level almost all the way until we neared the Wang Pho viaduct.
There the mountain range closed in towards the rail line and the train started to climb a slight slope. Then just before reaching the Tham Kra Sae station, the train slowed down as it cautiously crossed the old timber viaduct built during the war and properly maintained by the SRT. As the steep mountain range reaches right to the water’s edge in the Kkwai Noi River, the viaduct was built hugging hugging along the steep cliff edge.
The majority of the tourists, including me, disembarked there, though we had paid the full fare of 100 Bhats, which entitled us to travel up to Nam Tok station. The reason is: the main attractions for the tourists are the wooden viaduct at Wang Pho and the nearby Kra Sae Cave. Most of the deaths during the construction of the railway were caused at Wang Pho and the cave was used as the storage place by the Japanese.
As I walked along the viaduct, as every other tourist did, I came to realize the engineering feat with which the timber trestle structure was constructed. I praised the Japanese engineers who designed and supervised its construction and the PoWs and the forced labourers who undertook  the construction work under harsh conditions.
My praise for the Japanese engineers was a bit pre-mature, which I found out when I visited the Death Railway  Museum and Research Centre in Kanchanarburi the next day. There, I learned that the timber bridges built were of the standard design illustrated in the American Civil Engineers’ handbook and that Japan sent some trainees to attend universities in Britain in the early 19th century to learn the trade of bridge building.
As the viaduct was built during the war, the timber posts were not milled, but the whole tree trunks were utilized. However, the replacements are milled or sliced wooden posts with the old tree trunk posts remaining in many places, which gave us an idea of how the original viaduct might have looked. During the visit, I noticed some workers replacing the old timber posts that have rotted.
Along the route before reaching the viaduct, I noticed at one place where the maintenance parties were replacing the old timber sleepers with concrete ones and also the old rail tracks with new ones. In fact, that rail route is used mainly for the tour trains, which are very popular with the tourists. Thus, judging from the attention given to its maintenance, it must be very useful to the tourism industry of Thailand. If we could reconstruct our end of that rail line up to the nearest place of interest, linked to its history, I believe we could attract more tourists as Thailand is doing. Furthermore, as some countries in the region are interested to establish a Trans-Asian railway system, the departments concerned should collaborate with Thailand to revive that rail link.


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