Behind the Scenes: Bridge on the River Kwai

Before my journey aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express ended in Bangkok, we stopped on the real bridge on the “Kwai” river in Thailand.

If you’ve seen the famous British movie, you have a general idea of what went on there. But the movie is only loosely based on fact.

What’s true is that during World War II, the Japanese wanted to build a railroad to link Bangkok to their troops in what was then Burma. They made Allied POWs and forced Asian laborers do it.

Basically, the prisoners had surrendered to two vicious captors: the Japanese and nature. They were brutally forced to hack their way through rock and tropical jungle in a steam bath that never turned off. If disease and starvation didn’t kill them, torture did. Hence the 257-mile track — of which the bridge was but one part — was called the “Death Railway.”

But there the similarity ends.

As brutal as the situation was depicted in the movie, it was apparently much worse in real life. There was no breaking into song in real life — most simply didn’t have the strength to try to p.o. their captors.

And the movie was filmed in what’s now Sri Lanka, because the real river in Thailand — a mere tributary — wasn’t considered majestic enough. (The real river, by the way was named something else. But after the book and movie came out,  the locals changed the name to keep things simple.)

Being at the real bridge 70 years later was well-worth the trip, even though it’s now overrun by tourists instead of soldiers.

After parts of it were blown up by the Allies, it was rebuilt. Apparently the curved parts are originals. Some of the railroad is still intact and still in use — that’s how we got there.Stripping away all the garish tourism (there’s a sound and light show that we thankfully missed), I could picture the young men, many barely adults, the same age as my dad, who served in the same war, toiling on the rails.

I had an appreciation for the heat and humidity because I couldn’t walk just a few steps without downing a bottle of water. Just imagine. I was almost glad we didn’t have time to walk across the bridge, as many do.

And imagine trying to cut away this thick carpet in all that heat and humidity. This shot of the jungle, I guess, elsewhere in Thailand, was taken by me from the train’s observation deck. It had a life of its own and was so close at times, it almost took an eye out.

The bloke leading our tour was an Aussie whose father battled the Japanese and survived.

My dad, who thankfully was on watch in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, also made it home.

But thousands of others who died along the tracks are buried here, in a cemetery near the bridge. Their lives cut short before they ever really began.


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