Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Burma Railway

High prowed "long-tail" boats buzzed up and down the River Kwai, carrying villagers, livestock and other goods and adding to the exotic surroundings I found myself in on a day trip to Kanchanaburi, Thailand. My purpose was to see the famous World War II bridge over this river that served as part of the "Burma Railway" supply route for the Japanese but I had also never seen a long-tail either. In this case it was little more than a wooden canoe with a car engine and drive shaft and a propeller stuck on the end. Strange, yes, loud, definitely but it works.

After leaving the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery I pressed on to the north towards my goal of "Bridge #277" as the Japanese called it during the war. Over 240,000 indigenous laborers and allied prisoners of war constructed a 260-mile railroad supply line between Bangkok and Rangoon when the Japanese believed this route to be easier to protect in their campaign to control Burma. Disease, starvation and brutality killed many of these workers, including more than 350 Americans.

At the end of the war Japan was ordered to rebuild the bridge in reparations to Thailand after allied bombing raids had destroyed the middle portion of the structure. Before I got to the bridge however there was a simple, square park next to the road known as the War Reparations Memorial, built by the Japanese where an annual ceremony is held in atonement for the atrocities committed over the length of the project. Right around the corner from here sits a museum as chilling as any commemorative exhibit associated with the war anywhere in the world.

The Thai-Burma Railway Museum displays artifacts of clothing, weapons, tools, supplies, mess kits and other items discovered, left behind or donated by survivors of the construction project. Guard towers, a push-car and examples of living quarters for both overlord and laborer are also on display including a brooding hulk of a rail engine, rusting but still imposing as the unforgiving and unfeeling monster the laborers were pressed to serve. Then there were the models, life-sized recreations of gaunt, unkempt and malnourished men engaged in various stages of work, exhaustion and death. Wearing hardly so much as a loin cloth it required very little imagining of the sweltering heat, festering wounds and biting insects every day of every week these lost souls endured.

Only 80 miles of this rail line are usable today. Access to "Hellfire Pass," so named because much of the work in cutting this pass through the mountain was done under torch light at night, farther along but still well within Thai territory is possible via walking trails from nearby camp grounds and river hotels. When the properties themselves say that getting to them is "well worth the effort" it becomes clear that heat, bugs and bad memories keep all but the most intrepid tourists out of this part of the country.

If there were a way to expand the museum and de-commercialize what the bridge has become today the entire experience would have a stronger emotional impact. Today's bridge looks like any rail trestle one might find in the Southern United States with arched and squared supports over concrete stands holding an iron and steel rail bed. The exhibits around the eastern shore are placed for maximum information, aesthetics and commercial dining and shopping including ticket sales for a tourist train to trundle across the bridge, ride about 15 miles of rail on the other side and return. Spoon-fed tourists with cameras and misbehaving children gleefully riding the rails with little sense of place? I wasn't about to "honor" horrible suffering in such a Disney-fied fashion and abstained.

It was time to go home.

Gotta go.

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