7. Death Railway

People say there's a lot not to like about trains - they often lack comfort, convenience, timeliness and decent food, but as a rule I don't expect to ever find a train that I can't like, at least in retrospect. Meet the possible exception.

I had eagerly anticipated this line, the very name of which should generate positive locemotions: the Death Railway. It's of the Bridge on the River Kwai fame, a Japanese engineering project built on the deaths of 16,000 POWs and 100,000 conscripted Asian laborers. That's probably more associated deaths than for any other construction project in history (e.g., the Pyramids). It is hard to imagine that so many men died over such a short period (16 months in 1942-3) just so that the Nipon war machine could have its 415 km link between Burma and Thailand. Certainly not one of the species most praiseworthy accomplishments.

Just a few weeks ago I'd watched again the David Lean 1957 classic on cable in Bangkok. It holds up well in this era dominated by SFX. Still it errs on two counts. There was no such successful saboteur mission (dramatic license: I'm not bothered on this count), but more importantly, it underplays the inhumanity of the Japanese and the hellish conditions under which half the workforce perished. Half! I guess malaria, cholera, dysentery, starvation, body sores and the like don't play well on the silver screen. None of this dampened my enthusiasm for riding the Death Railway; it merely whetted my appetite. In fact, this rail trip is billed as one of Thailand's premier attractions. European and Japanese day tours out of Bangkok take it in; backpackers squeeze it in between elephants and bamboo rafts. The tourist literature praises it.

In anticipation and preparation I visited the War Cemetery with its 6,982 graves (one reads simply: "a soldier of the 1939-45 war. Known to God") and the Jeath (sic) War Museum, both in Kanchanaburi. Someone apparently didn't think "Death Rail Museum" a suitable name, so instead concocted an acronym for the Japanese, English, American, Australian, Thai and Dutch involvement, ignoring the thousands of Chinese, Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Burmese and Indians who were also sacrificed.

After the psychological buildup generated by these visits, riding what remains of the railroad - 50 kms from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok - has become an initial disappointment. This 2 hour trip passes across sugar can fields, tapioca farms and orchards, nothing exceptional in this part of the world. The tour busses unload their flocks for a small segment that includes a few meters of cliff hanging track and a trestle. Not in the same league with the Canadian Rockies or Vietnam's Hai Van Pass. Sadly, the most dramatic length of the line no longer exists. Part of it would parallel Highway 232, which heads toward the Three Pagodas Pass on the Burmese border. These vistas I saw by minibus - the road would make a spectacular bike ride, but not at this time of year when brush burn-off curtails visibility.

In a few days I expect my immediate disappointment with the Death Railway to give way to fond memories. That's what always seems to happen when it comes to trains.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

9-3-2545 BE (Buddhist Era)