Chennai Journal
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Bridge on the River Kwai
I am dating myself, but the first movie I remember seeing was the 1950s re-release of Bambi. I was four years old and we almost had to leave midway through because my cousin Doug (then called Dougie) who was three, got scared by the forest fire and started crying. The second movie I remember, however--and it is an equally vivid memory-- was The Bridge On the River Kwai. I was about 6, and the movie had just been released in Detroit. My dad, who worked in the family dry goods' store, went to Detroit a few times a year for apparel shows, and he desperately wanted to see the movie. It's funny how our memories work---I remember clearly that my parents were worried that I'd be bored, so they got me a coloring book beforehand---and also that we got to the theatre 20 minutes before the end, so we saw the blowing up of the bridge, and then watched the movie from the beginning (they let you do that in those days).

Once I got older and put the movie in the context of World War II history, I always assumed that the bridge was in Burma--until I read The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, I hadn't clued into the fact that it was so close to Bangkok. So, having all these vivid memories from childhood, I really wanted to visit the area. After leaving Laos, I returned to Bangkok and got a public bus to Kanchanaburi, about a 3 hour ride.

Kanchanaburi is a major tourist area in Thailand, and so there are lots of travel companies and guest houses to stay. I took a one day trip to Erawan National Park, which has a series of waterfalls, and the trip also included a stop at an elephant camp (you can see me on an elephant on Flickr, with Orit, a co-tourist from Israel) and travel on the Death Railway (this can definitely be missed, but seems to be a part of every tour). Perhaps most impressive was the Thailand/Burma Railway museum, which depicts the sad history of the building of the railway to connect the two countries.

The concept for the railway dated many years before its building. In addition to being a difficult task through harsh climatic conditions, for strategic reasons the British hesitated to connect the two countries for reasons of imperial control. Ensuring supply lines in SE Asia for the eventual conquest of India assumed critical importance to the Japanese, who brought tens of thousands of British, Australian and Dutch prisoners of war to the area after the fall of Singapore (some North Americans too, though the numbers were small in comparison). The POWs were were packed into railway cars--you can stand in one in the museum to get a feel of the conditions--not unlike the transport of Jews to the concentration camps---and transported nearly 2000 kilometers north. Of course, even more Southeast Asians--Thais, Malays, and others--were also conscripted, many through false pretenses, and forced to work on the railway as well. A total workforce of more than 250,000 men was used to build the over 400 kilometer railway in a record 16 months, and due to disease, and harsh conditions---very little food was provided to the men but they were forced to work sometimes 16-20 hours per day--- the death rates were staggering. Approximately one quarter of the western, and more than a third, of the Asian workforce, perished. The blowing up of the bridge, however, is entirely fictional, as is much else about the movie. In the documentary shown in the museum, a Japanese officer also scoffs at the depiction of British "expertise" needed to realize the engineering and technical aspects of the railway---this, he says, was entirely Japanese. Perhaps, in focusing on Japanese cruelty to the workforce, their engineering prowess was underestimated---that awareness surfaced only decades later.

While in Kanchanaburi, I also took a cooking class from Apple and Noi's guesthouse, which also has an excellent restaurant. We visited a local market and then went to an open air teaching kitchen on the river, where we made everyone's favorite Thai dish, Phad Thai, as well as Penang curry and a stir fry. Nice way to end the trip. Notice the yellow shirt on the market lady below---yellow is the color of the King of Thailand, who will be celebrating his 80th birthday soon, and it's considered patriotic to wear it.

Helpful information about Thailand.Thanks for sharing.
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