#5: Bicycling to thee Bridge over the River Kwai
Ahhh, Thailand feels like an old friend already. I check into the Top Inn on Kao San Road in Bangkok and they greet me by my name. And I have not been here in two years. I go outside and within 2 minutes I have all the bicycle touring maps I need. Five minutes later and I have the 2011 LONELY PLANET guide to Thailand. That afternoon I buy a bike. And the next day at sunrise, I am pedaling on the road, trying to figure out how to get out of Bangkok without becoming roadkill. The route to Kanchanaburi is fairly clear. But the traffic isn’t. It is left-hand driving here, so I don’t dare make one mental lapse and do a right-hand move…
I dislike entering and leaving large cities by bicycle. If I know the city, like Chicago, I can do it. But to experiment with international cities where I cannot read the signs is challenging. So it took me over 50 kms. before the traffic thinned enough. I especially did not like climbing high, long bridges where the shoulder suddenly becomes one foot wide and I have trucks passing me. I am very willing to toss my bike on a train or bus to get out of cities, and I would recommend that to others.
Look at what I found on the road near Bangkok.
This had just been hit and was laying on the side of the road in a BIG city. It was over 1.5 meters long and must have weighed 17 kilos. I had never seen anything in the wild close to this in size.
I tried to rescue it, but it was mortally injured. I waved a few Thais over, but they wondered what the big deal was. If I ever found a lizard like this, I would catch it, build a BIG cage for it, and live trap rats and feed it. And find it a boy or girlfriend too. (I might even live-trap a few yippie-yappie chihuahuas too ) Solve two problems. But lizard was simply beautiful. What a shame.
So I am pedaling the same route of the ‘Railway of Death’. I made 110 kms the first day, but fell 20 km short of my destination. I was just too tired.
This is the 425 km long railway that the Japanese carved thru Thailand and Burma in sixteen months. All the engineering experts at the time thought that it would take 5 years. So how did the Japanese beat the schedule? With around ¼ million slave laborers. At least 100,000 died. But that figure might be double, because there were no records kept of the Malays, Tamils, and Indians impressed into slave labor. Many died of cholera before they even got to camp. By my calcs, there could have been a death for every meter of track laid. And using the higher estimates of the total deaths, the figure could well be one death for every railway tie.
The ‘Death Railway Museum’ is a true historical jewel. One senses the sheer research into putting this museum together. Maps, artifacts, dioramas, exhibits, sculptures, and a complete replica of the entire 425 km railroad with 50 buttons to press for specific illumination. British survivors funded this museum. These were men who promised their dying mates that they would never forget. They spared nothing in getting the documentation right. Before I knew it, I had spent almost 3 hours in this small museum.
The historical documentation I read confirmed what I had suspected: That the 1957 academy-award-winning movie The Bridge over the River Kwai is much more fiction than truth. The book it is based upon is better. But this is a case of the truth being much, much more horrifying than the movie.
The Japanese ‘liberated’ the Dutch and British colonies under the banner of ‘throwing the imperialists out’. A number of former colonies responded affirmatively to the Japanese. But within months, they discovered too late that the Japanese were far worse than the Dutch or Brits had ever been. No matter, for now the railway had to go thru. Massive numbers of young men were rounded up at schools, theaters, religious gatherings, and given signed 3-month ‘work contracts’ with a promise of high pay. One of the techniques the Japanese used was to announce free movies at the local cinemas. After the theater was filled, they would lock it up and literally take all the young men as slaves. Most never returned.
I wondered why more Brits and Aussies did not try to escape. They could see their mates dying right in front of them. I would have tried. At night one could have jumped in the river, swam downstream to the other side, and then fled into the jungle. Sounds easy, right? But it wasn’t. The Japanese had a bribe system with all the local tribes where they got rewarded well for catching escapees. The escapees were then publicly executed. The ugly part of this story that the people here do not like to talk about is just how much the Thai government cooperated with their Japanese occupiers. Evidence shows that the Thai government actively helped the Japanese until the very end. And what did Thailand get in return? Well, for one, not one Thai had to work on the Death Railway.
Coming up next: A day-long visit to the Allied War Cemeteries in Kanchanaburi.