Friday 28 August 2009

Thailand 2: Rails Into History

Over the past few days I've been travelling with a group of travel writers through Thailand's Kanchanaburi province, northwest of the capital Bangkok, then to the resort town of Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand.

As trains and railways have formed a big part of the experience, I thought I'd share some images with you here.

First up is the famous bridge on the River Kwai, constructed by Allied PoWs and Asian labourers under appalling slave labour conditions as part of the Death Railway in World War II.

It was later made famous by the 1957 movie of the same name. Only it turns out that a) the film's plot was a load of inaccurate hearsay, and b) the river was actually called the Mae Klong, though the Thais obligingly renamed this section the Kwae Yai later on when tourists showed up to take photos.

The bridge is sturdily attractive. Note the squarish sections in the middle, which later replaced the sections bombed by Allied planes during World War II.

As you can see from the above image, you can wander across the bridge, even though it's still part of a working railway. There are only two trains a day, so there's plenty of time to get off the tracks. There's also a small tourist train that shunts visitors back and forth across the bridge at regular intervals for 20 baht (A$0.70).

At one end of the bridge there's quite a big tourism operation, with stalls and restaurants ranged around a large circular plaza. The above sculpture is part of a piece indicating the nearby 'war wall', which bears details of the bridge's back story.

The next day we visited Hellfire Pass, one of the most backbreaking sections of the railway for those who worked on it. The above image shows the rail bed as it appears today. This is beyond the railway's current terminus at Nam Tok, so there are no rails here; they were ripped up some decades ago.

This is approaching the heart of Hellfire Pass. The workers had to excavate a huge cutting from the rock here, using handheld tools aided by explosives. The Japanese overseers had the men working around the clock at this point, so the worksite was lit by kerosene lamps.

The lamp light on the exposed red rock, and the hellish working conditions, led the PoWs to name it Hellfire Pass. The short section of track you can see above has been laid as a reminder of the past.

What's notable is how peaceful the pass is today, green and shaded. The serenity provides some quiet mental space to reflect on the horror of the conditions under which the men lived and died. Some 13,000 Allied PoWs died in the course of the railway's construction, and some 90,000 Asian labourers.

On the following day we examined this viaduct, originally built as part of the Death Railway and still a going concern. It was a hard object to bomb from the air, as the rock wall afforded a certain amount of protection.

This is the view across the river from the viaduct. Apparently the river once flooded almost to the height of the viaduct itself; bye bye buildings on the opposite bank!

Finally, an image unconnected with the Death Railway but still related to the theme of historic Thai railways. This is the former royal waiting room at the beautiful timber train station at the coastal resort of Hua Hin. Thai monarchs would relax here while waiting (reluctantly, I imagine) to leave their seaside summer residence behind for the hustle and bustle of Bangkok...

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

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