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Thailand: Hotel on the River Kwai

And I mean ON the river. I spent the weekend in the town and province of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. This is the site of the infamous Thailand-Burma Railway, better known as the Death Railway. Bridge 277 on the line is the Bridge on the River Kwai. Various little backpacker/budget hotels are also on the river (actually the Kwae Yai River, the “Big Tributary” and known as the Mae Khlong during the Death Railway days). Our hotel was a whopping 400 baht/night ($13) for a room with a/c, hot water, a fan, flimsy beds more akin to hammocks, and a small balcony just a couple feet above the water. The whole block of rooms floated on a barge attached by a gangplank to the rest of the hotel on the riverbank. The floating discos can get loud at night, but the hum of a/c was enough to block it out.

The Death Railway was a Japanese social program for improving the lives of locals via slave labor and beatings during WWII. (A current conservative writer in Japan apparently writes revisionist stuff like this in one of the newspapers there.) To supply troops in Burma, the Japanese wanted a line from Bangkok, about 274 miles altogether. Museums here show the horrors of nonstop work to complete a 5-year project in 16 months. 60,000 POWs were sent to endure dysentery and cholera, jungle conditions, hard pick axe and shovel type labor, and often vicious torture and punishment at the hands of the Japanese and Korean keepers. 13,000 died. The JEATH Museum, a bamboo prison/worker camp shows photos, drawings and articles about this. Another WWII/JEATH Museum has a disorganized, dusty collection of artifacts from the war. Two cemeteries house the dead. But what is incredibly overlooked is the massive deaths of conscripted Asian workers. Japan lured poor, starving villagers to Thailand with the promise of work and rice. 240,000 or so came from all over Southeast Asia and when they didn’t come willingly, the Japanese offered free movies in their hometowns, locked the doors, rounded up the men, and sent them. Perhaps 100,000 of them perished. Some brought their families to die with them. No good records were kept since Geneva Convention rules only insisted that movements and fates of actual prisoners of war were recorded.

I walked across the famous bridge (with a couple replaced sections by the Japanese after the bombings of the war) and I rode the Death Railway over the high Wampho Viaduct. I predict it will once again be known as the Death Railway. After the scenic portions, the train, which still provides local service from here to Bangkok, HURTLES along the warping tracks. There were moments that I was actually airborne. (This would have been mildly amusing had it not been for my pulled muscles from the motorbike accident which sent rather rotten pains through my chest and shoulder every time I landed hard on the wooden train seat. The healing process was returned to Start and I felt worse than in the days after the accident.) Some of the wooden seats leapt up from the seatbacks and onto the floor. The locals and tourists laughed but I could imagine that old trains on very old tracks laid by disgruntled and beaten slave labor who wanted nothing more than to see it all fail and then poorly maintained for decades was just one big recipe for derailment. I’m not kidding, our asses came completely off the seats at some points just like when you drive a car Dukes of Hazard-like over a quick drop on a country highway or perhaps a San Francisco hill in a Dirty Harry movie. Bags were falling from the luggage racks and people were tumbling over each other if they were caught standing. The ride ended as we rolled over the Bridge on the River Kwai/Kwae Yai/Mae Khlong and then locked brakes at the local station in Kanchanaburi for one last jarring. Best three bucks I’ve ever spent.

The room with a view at VN Guesthouse in Kanchanaburi. Two stars: one star clean, one star price. (Just kidding, it was clean, just really basic. But lovely view!)

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

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