Bangkok: Katchanaburi Province, Memories of the Thai/Burma Railway, Elephants and Bamboo Rafting

We escaped the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and drove for 2 hours towards the countryside town of Katchanaburi, which is famous not only for its fantastic waterfalls but also for the forcibly constructed Thai/Burma Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai.

Most people are aware of the 1957 David Lean movie “The Bridge over the River Kwai”, but this represents a sanitised version of the true events. The screen play was adapted from a novel by Pierre Boulle and was actually shot in Sri Lanka at Kitulgala on the river Kelani between Kandy and Colombo. In 2005 I stayed at the Government Rest-house which is now a hotel that housed the actors during its filming. It was an atmospheric location and signed portraits of the actors adorned the dining room walls. During our stay we tool rafts along the whitewaters of the Kelani before gently gliding (in our life jackets) back to the hotel jetty.

Stopping at the cemetery which contains the remains of 6,982 allied war prisoners who lost their lives we spent some time recollecting the history of this place at the small adjacent museum. The Japanese, following their invasion of Thailand during World War II, brought British, Dutch, Australian and American prisoners to Thailand by the Southern route. Impressed local labour was also used to complete the rushed construction of the railroad, which was an alternative to the sea route to Rangoon via Singapore and the Strait of Malacca; the sea route having being closed by allied submarines and aircraft. Boulle describes the Japanese as “savage” and “sadistic executioners” and the exhibits in the museum seem to support this.  Recorded punishments included after being beaten, men were forced to kneel on sharp sticks whilst holding a boulder for up to three hours. Another was being tied to a tree with barbed wire and then left for 2/3 days without food or water. Almost every photo in the museum showed men’s rib cages protruding due to malnutrition. It’s a sad reminder of inappropriate conduct during times of war and very moving.

The railway ran for 250 miles (415km) from Nong Pladuk, Ban Pong, Ratchaburi in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma; it’s now known as the Death Railway for the reasons stated above. The railway line was meant to transport cargo daily to India, to back up their (the Japanese) planned attack on India. The construction was completed using POWs and Asian slave laborers who were subjected to cruelty and intolerable conditions resulting in many deaths. The work started in October 1942 was completed in a year. Thousands of labourers lost their lives (over 16,000), some 38 for each km of track. The deaths were due to a combination of poor treatment, sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion. They received virtually no medical treatment and were forced to work up to 16 hours per day in spite of their condition, they were tortured for the smallest offences and many suffered intolerably before they died.

By 1943 the workforce was so depleted because of starvation, disease and overwork that the Japanese hired up to 200,000 Asian unskilled manual labourers to finish the railway off. These predominantly Chinese, Malay, Tamil and Burmese workers also were treated harshly and estimates vary that between 80,000 and maybe up to 150,000 met their deaths but no records were kept.

On reaching the bridge (not the original wooden bridge) the scene is a little underwhelming with an over-saturation of tourist tat on sale. We walked to the centre of the modern bridge before paying an extra 50 baht each to be assured of our seat on the train that would  carry us for 2 hours along the railway to lunch.

We climbed aboard our tourist carriage to take our “reserved seats” and our complimentary bottle of water. Once the train moved off we had our photos snapped, why? Well of course we could purchase a certificate saying we’d travelled on the “Death Railway”, this would be embellished with our photo!

Ignoring the disrespectful commercialisation we settled back in our seats to observe the countryside. Katchanaburi province itself is an agricultural area with sugar cane, rice paddies and pineapple plantations all forming significant portions of the stunning Thai rural landscape. The final destination is Nam-Tok station, the last existing train station and reached after passing over the impressive Wang Pho viaduct. With the river on one side and cliffs on the other side of the track, the railway curves around the viaduct which consists of a series of wooden trestles originally built by POWs. The views of the river and the Kanchanaburi countryside are stunning, but it is very poignant to look out of the train window and think about the hardship endured by the men who were forced to construct the railway. It seems almost every man who worked on this particular section of track died. Recently the news from Myanmar is that they are hoping to refurbish the Burmese section of the track to open up the whole length.

We re-traced the train tracks walking on the top of the viaduct and reached a very overcrowded cave containing a large gold Buddha and shrine. The cave was awash with Russians, not particularly smiley happy tourists but we later discovered that they had a disco bus! We took some snaps atop the viaduct before taking lunch.

It was in fact a very salty buffet lunch; the actual food was generally good but the spag-bol inedible for any other than dolphins and stingrays. My mind briefly wandered back to SK as I overloaded on the excellent fried chicken! The Russians arrived and demolished mountainous plates of food, none seems hindered by the sodium levels. From here we had a short drive to the elephant sanctuary.

Before we took our “elephant safari” at the Saiyok Elephant Camp we were lucky enough to be the only two who seemed to have opted for the bamboo rafting on the Kwai Noi River. The river seemed to have a strong current but was serene. As we boarded the rafts the elephants, Asian but of a variety of sizes and ages, carried tourists into the river and sprayed them with water. The Mahout’s had them well marshalled and they all appeared to be loving the experience (both tourists and elephants). The rafting is a relaxing diversion, a long-tailed boat captained by a bloke and his young kid towed us for 20 minutes or so along the river before releasing us to float back with the current. He sped back past us and left us in silence. As we drifted along the air was still and the atmosphere relaxing; punctuated by the odd screech of a parrot or splosh as some creature hit the water.  We were piloted by his wife who eventually effortlessly steered the craft back to its moorings.

As we gingerly disembarked one of the larger elephants, plus passengers, lolloped towards us so we quickened our step to avoid a miserable end. It was now our turn to imitate the Mahout and so  we climbed the hill past the by now sleeping long-tailed boat rider and his offspring.

Mounting the elephant was easy aided by well-constructed platform, FOBY took the left birth and I the right whilst her Mahout (In Thailand the profession is known as kwan-chang) straddled her neck there was no sign his takaw (hooked tool). I had read all the stories about the cruel nature of elephant training, there are many activists quite rightly campaigning on the Internet. It’s suggested we check the animals ears and head; if they are maltreated there are likely to be tears in the ears and scars on the head, ours had none. Our girl ambled along constantly picking up and chomping the plentiful sugar cane. We descended towards the river, the mahout alighted from his charge gesturing us to take turns riding across the elephants neck. After this the great beast descended into the river and seemed a little reluctant to leave but eventually ambled back to the area were we embarked. The mahout asked for a 300 baht tipped which we pretended to ignore before we got aboard our transport back to Bangok.

Since I arrived home I’ve read so much more about the industry and how it treats these great beasts. The animals we saw appeared well-fed and healthy and it seems that the “Save the Elephant Foundation” are now working closely with the camp we visited and others to educate positive ways that humans can interact with the animals without the old fashioned “breaking in” methodologies. the Sai Yok camp has in fact allowed animals over 45 to “retire” to the Erawan Elephants Paradise were they spend their retirement roaming free. I feel sadly guilty that I engaged in this activity without a full understanding of the industry and at some point in the future this hopefully will manifest itself by me doing some voluntary work for the Save the Elephant Foundation.

That evening we had a fantastic dinner at the Arun Residence , FOBY was returning to SK the following evening and I had one further night.

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