Bridge Over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi Province Thailand-- Travel Thailand Series
The Bridge Over the River Kwai is located in Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand a few kilometers north of the town Kanchanaburi. The dark steel bridge with its trestles is a stark contrast to the beautiful River Kwai over which it spans. The bridge can elicit human emotions that stem from tragedy while the bridge itself seems aloof and cold to its own history.
Bridge is Part of the Death Railroad
The bridge is a reminder of the events connected to the Death Railroad or Burma Railway that was constructed in 1942–43 during World War II by Japan. The railway was built between Bangkok in Siam (Thailand) and Yangon in Burma (Mynamar) during the war with the intention that it would improve the communication that was needed to support the large Japanese army in Burma.
Built with Forced Labor of POW's and Civilians
The bridge was built by forced labor and the conditions during construction were terrible. Malnutrition, disease and death became worse when the rainy season came. Many of these Prisoner’s of War, that were used in the construction had been told by the Japanese that they would be moved to camps in Thailand with better living conditions. Forced labor was also imposed on civilians from Dutch East Indies and Malaya (now Malaysia) and persons from Siam and Burma who were compelled to be a part of the military for Japan. It is estimated that 15,000 or more prisoners of war died along with 80,000 to 100,000 civilians. The bodies were buried along the 415 km railway. There were two labor forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma and each worked from their end to the center of the railway.
Two Bridges Were Constructed
It took 16 months to complete the railroad in the mountainous jungle terrain. Because Japan needed a way to cross the River Kwai earlier than the bridge could be completed a wooden bridge was also built about 100 km down stream.
Damages During the War
Both bridges were damaged in air raids. The steel bridge had three steel spans, numbers 4,5, and 6, damaged and subsequently replaced with 2 steel spans when the State Railway of Thailand took over the line. The timber spans at the far end were replaced with six steel spans. The wooden bridge is no longer standing but some of the original section can be viewed in the basement of the War Museum located on the grounds near the beginning of the bridge.
Triangular Trestles and Curved spans
The steel bridge is an impressive show with its triangular trestle supports and curved arches making the truss spans. The curved truss spans are the originals and the angular replacements needed to repair the damaged bridge were supplied by the Japanese as a war reparation or payment to cover the damage and injury during the war.
Walkway and Platforms on Bridge
The center of the track has been turned into a steel walkway and you can walk across the bridge to the other side of the river. There are little side platforms between the spans that you can stand on for sightseeing or taking pictures of the river and surrounding area.
A small tourist train operated by the State Railway of Thailand that goes back and forth on the bridge. You will also use the platform to stay out of its way. The train ride is about a 15 minute round trip and costs about 20 baht (US $ .65).
Locomotives, Art Gallery,War Museum and Markets
There are some locomotive engines from the World War II era on display near the beginning of the bridge along with an Art Gallery and War Museum.
There are a variety of markets in the area. There are individual stalls in a tent-like area that has mostly clothing and some souvenirs. Near the parking area there is a large open pavilion that has many different vendors of gems, onyx, pearls, packaged food and other items of the Thai culture.
One of the streets that leads away from the bridge also has open store front businesses selling food, jewelry, wooden items and other crafts and souvenirs of Thailand and its culture.
On some mornings an open market near the beginning of the bridge also sells some of the same products along with booklets that tell the history of the bridge and railway. Similar markets and commercialism can be found on the other end of the bridge along with elephant rides.
There is Memorial Cemetery opposite the Death Railway Museum. There are two cemeteries, one with 1,500 graves and one with 168 graves. The Australians that were buried in these two cemeteries were exhumed and reburied in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery towards the end of 1945. The The Chungkai War Cemetery is at the same site of the POW burials between 1943 and 1945.
Bridge Over the River Kwai Movie
Any account of the Bridge Over the River Kwai will mention the 1957 British World War II movie with the same title by David Lean. The movie was based on the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai by French writer Pierre Boulle. The movie is based on the construction of the bridge but the story is mostly fictional. The conditions depicted in the movie were much worse than what was portrayed. The movie influenced the renaming of part of the river. The river that the true bridge is on is the Mae Klong but that particular section was changed to Khwae Yai in 1960.
The bridge has been somewhat sensationalized by the movie but apart from that it has most likely brought an awareness of the unimaginable human suffering that occurred under the duress of war and captivity.
Bridge May Leave Lasting Impression of Sacrifices
If nothing else, a visit to the Bridge Over the River Kwai can leave a lasting impression of the sacrifices made in World War II. The price that was paid for our freedom including the freedom to visit The Bridge Over the River Kwai cannot be repaid.
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